Do These Come In Control Top?

For those color-conscious gardeners who can’t bear to have visible tomato ties (or panty lines):

Only $2.99 for eight pieces?  Whatta deal!

Do you know how many tomato ties you can get from a pair of hose? Especially if you are a “long”? About fifty. Of course they’ll be nude or black, unless you bought into that purple trend last season.


ps:   I do like Lusterleaf’s (company responsible for the above) can o’ twine with the handy cutter-top, though. $4 and it has lasted through several seasons.

Selling dawn redwood

As with last week, this past week and weekend were largely occupied by my role as a faculty advisor for the MSU Horticulture club.  This weekend was our annual Spring Show and Plant Sale.  Each year our undergraduates commandeer the Horticulture department’s conservatory, bring in a boatload of plants, pavers, turf and mulch and design and install a landscape.  It’s actually quite a process to watch.
In addition to the Spring Show the Hort Club puts on a plant sale, which is the group’s principle fund-raiser for the year.  My duty station for this year’s plant sale was working outside in the tree sales yard.  For the record, retail is not my thing but, hey, it’s for a good cause. The star of our tree sale this year was a container-grown 14’ dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostraboides).

For those not familiar with this tree, dawn redwood is an incredible tree.  It’s a deciduous conifer, similar in many respects to bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) but with a finer, more refined character.  Metasequoia is considered by some to be a ‘Living fossil’, similar to Gingko biloba.  The genus Metasequoia was originally described in 1941 from Chinese fossils from the Mesozoic era.  Although local people in China knew the tree and used it as an ornamental, living trees were not formally described by botanists until 1948.

Dawn redwood is well adapted to wetter sites

Seed collected by Arnold Arboretum in the late 1940’s were distributed to universities and arboreta and this attractive, fast-growing tree found its way into the nursery trade.  Ironically, millions of Metasequioa have been planted as ornamental trees but the species is considered critically endangered due to loss of its native habitat in China.  Dawn redwood is extremely fast growing and some trees planted in the U.S. from the original collections in the 1940’s are reportedly 3’ in diameter.

Dawn redwoods on MSU campus

So, how did I fare in nursery sales for a day?  Put it this way, I better hang on to my day job; retail is still not quite my thing – though I did move the dawn redwood and got to spend a good bit of my weekend talking about this awesome tree.

Friday geography answer

As several of our astute readers knew, the photo from Friday was taken on the west coast of the Salton Sea in California.  Specifically, it’s at Salton Sea Beach, a nearly deserted region that I managed to make more picturesque through careful photography.  Here’s another picture of the same beach:

There were few plants at Salton Sea Beach – a palm tree here and there – and only a few waterfowl like these pelicans:

The Salton Sea is really the Salton Sink – it’s a low area that has occasionally and naturally filled with water.  Given the high rate of evaporation in the region, the lakebed became highly saline over the centuries.

So what does this all have to do with a gardening website?  Well, the reason the Sea exists today is because of natural flooding combined with agricultural development.  Initially the Sea was seen as a boon to tourism, so spots like Salton Sea Beach and Salton City (near curiously named Squeaky Springs) became tourist destinations.  But as agricultural runoff began to change the nature of the Sea, fish populations failed and so did the tourism industry.

You can see the algal bloom where runoff meets the sea (check out this Google map here).  These desert valleys have been used for conventional agricultural production for many decades, and the results are seen in a sea full of fertilizers and pesticides.

In any case, a visit to the Salton Sea is both fascinating and depressing.  It’s well worth the effort.

Friday geography quiz!

Like last week’s, today’s quiz is a little different.  (I haven’t forgotten about last week’s question – just haven’t gotten a good answer yet!  Never fear!)  In any case, you know I spent some time in Palm Desert CA last week.  On one of our day trips, I took the following picture (we are looking east):

So here’s the question:  where are we?  (It was a day trip, so not terribly far from Palm Desert.)  You can ask questions that I may or may not answer.  Monday’s answer will tell you lots more about this “accidental” landscape!

Dandelions and clover

It was fun to read all of your comments last week about your opinions on lawn care.  To follow up on it I’m going to talk a little bit about why I’m not fond of companies which apply herbicides multiple times throughout the year.  But first I think I’ll mention why I apply herbicides at all — aesthetics.  That’s it — the whole reason. Could I go the no-lawn route?  Yes, but I like having a yard to run in.  Not a huge yard, but a little yard to play tag with the kids.

What I long for though is the yard from the house that I grew up in.  Our house in southeastern PA (About an hour west of Philly and an hour east of Lancaster) was set back about 800 feet from the road and was on old agricultural land.  The area around the house was planted in grass in the mid 70s and then it was left alone.  Fertilized once the first year I think, but that’s it.  Dandelions invaded quickly as did clover.  Over the years the clover began to dominate the grass, but not to the point that the grass disappeared, and the lawn actually appeared relatively homogeneous.  Dandelions never left, but their numbers declined.  The clover grew low and the grass never shot up like it does in a heavily fertilized lawn and so mowings only happened once every two weeks or so (well, OK, sometimes more often depending on the weather and where on the lawn you were — the spot over the septic tank needed mowing every 48 hours or so).  The grass did go dormant most summers, but 800 feet from the road there wasn’t anyone to complain, and besides, the clover kept the lawn from appearing completely scorched.  The lawn looked good for well over 30 years (until my parents remodeled the house and the yard was torn up).

The typical suburbanite might not have liked this lawn, but to me this lawn looked great, and, besides, it was low maintenance.  The reason I’m bothering to tell you about this lawn though is because it illustrates so well what lawn care companies make impossible.  They say (and by “they” I mean professors like myself) that pesticides beget pesticides and fertilizers beget fertilizers, and nowhere is that as true as in a well manicured lawn.  The herbicide of choice is 2,4 D (though there are many others that are used) which lawn care companies apply multiple times over the the course of a year.  This pesticide does a great job of killing dandelions, but it also kills clover.  It rarely hurts grass unless it’s grossly over-applied.  The problem with killing clover is that this clover is the stuff that fed the grass in the house where I grew up.  Clover takes nitrogen out of the air and makes it available to grass every time the lawn is mowed (the clipped off pieces of clover degrade and the nitrogen in them feeds whatever plants are around).  Without the clover you need to add fertilizers.  So, because the lawn care company is keeping the lawn free of weeds they also need to fertilize because they’re killing all of the natural fertilizer.  Here’s the thing, the weed that most people in the suburbs like least, dandelions, is actually very sensitive to low potassium.  The lower the potassium in the soil the worse it does.  In fact, dandelions can easily be out-competed by grass and clover if potassium is low — just as happened in the yard of the house where I grew up.  But do lawn care companies pay attention to this (by using high nitrogen, low potassium fertilizers?)  What do you think?

My guess is that many of you thought that I’d cite all kinds of scary side effects of the pesticides used on lawns.  Nope.  In general I think that, if used properly, they’re pretty safe for humans (with a few notable exceptions).  I’ve spent a lot of time reviewing epidemiological and toxicology studies and I can think of many worse things.  I am somewhat fearful of what 2,4 D may do to dogs in particular — they can’t excrete this poison like we can.  Don’t think for a minute that I’m calling these poisons perfectly safe — I just think there are plenty of other better established reasons to avoid lawn care company pesticide schedules.

Thieves purr

Today I found a cool website – it’s an anagram generator (  The title of today’s post is the first of the 553 anagrams generated from the word SUPERthrive.

I’ve been getting free samples of SUPERthrive for a long, long time.   For those of you living on a remote desert island, SUPERthrive is a product invented and sold by “Dr. John A. A. Thomson (in 27 different title Who’s Who Directories),” according to one of the promotional flyers.  The same flyer features Nick Federoff (“ ‘Most Listened-to’ Radio Garden Expert”), who says of Dr. Thomson “he has saved far more trees than anyone else in the world.”

Space constraints and my patience limit how many of the product claims I can include.  Here’s one from the package:  “Dozens of the world’s science miracles in each drop!”  Well, what are these science miracles?  The only identified compounds on the label are Vitamin B-1 (which plants make themselves, and which I’ve written about here), and NAA, an artificial auxin used as a rooting hormone.   The rest are mysteriously referred to as “crystalline compounds of C, H, O.”

Since this product has been around since 1940, there should be plenty of documented research on its efficacy.  But thorough searches of the plant science databases turned up only two:  one on growing hydroponic orchids (where SUPERthrive is used as part of the experimental protocol but not as a treatment) and one on rooting stem cuttings of Intsia bijuga, an Indo-Pacific tree in the pea family.  Sadly, SUPERthrive was not as effective in promoting rooting as were traditional rooting hormones (IBA and NAA).  An online research report from TAMU found SUPERthrive to have no effect on cotton.  Even California Science Fair participant Chingiz R. Bigalimov was disappointed that SUPERthrive did not enhance rooting of narcissus bulbs.

Why would Dr. Thomson, who “by 1979 had received a Ph.D in biochemistry and nutrition, and a Doctor of Arts in biochemistry and horticulture,” claim that SUPERthrive is a “billions-proven extra-life-maker” without the science to back this up?   I tried to find more information on Dr. Thomson’s doctoral research at Columbia Pacific University (an unaccredited distance learning school in California), but it had been closed by court order in 2000 for, among other things, failing to employ duly qualified faculty and failing to meet various requirements for issuing PhD degrees.

I think all of us GPs would agree that if you like a product and it causes no harm, more power to you.  But please consider these last few caveats, especially if you are a Master Gardener or garden professional:

  • There is no established science supporting the use of SUPERthrive;
  • NAA is an artificial rooting hormone classified by the EPA as a pesticide, making SUPERthrive an unregistered pesticide.  Some states ban the sale of this product.

Think I’ll go play with the anagram maker some more…

Oh, Deer…

More from our Ornamental Plant Production class tour across the state.  One of our stops was James River Nurseries, Inc.  Owner Mike Hildebrand has a built a unique and diverse business – they not only grow but do landscape design-build-install, all in the huge market of central and northern Virginia and beyond.

Here’s some arborvitae that spent the past few weeks at one of their job sites north of Richmond, waiting to be planting.  They’re now back at the nursery.  I was going to make this a quiz, but it’s unfortunately just too obvious.

deer nibbles

Wow. Poor things never even made it into the ground.

Going for the Gold

What do you get when you combine 900 wildly enthusiastic undergraduate students from 70 colleges and universities with 29 horticultural competitive events in a landscaping Olympics?  The marvelous mayhem of the PLANET (Professional Landcare Network) Student Career Days.  Last week, three of my colleagues; Brad Rowe, Tom Fernandez, Marcus Duck, and I traveled to Atlanta with 15 Michigan State University Horticulture students to compete at the 34th annual PLANET student Career Days hosted by Chattahoochee Technical College.  The Student Career Days incorporates an array of activities including tours, workshops, speaker presentations and a career fair.  But the unquestioned highlight of the event is the student competition. Students compete in 29 landscape horticulture events ranging from arboriculture to computer aided landscape design.  Some events require physical skills such as paver construction and landscape installation; while other such as plant identification and sale presentation test the student’s plant knowledge or interpersonal communication skills.  The logistics for the host school and event sponsors is truly staggering.  For example, in the Landscape Installation event, 50 three-person teams are given a 12’ x 20’ plot of ground, identical landscape plans, and identical sets of plant materials (a 15 gallon tree, shrubs, annuals, sod) and given 2 hours to complete the installation.  Likewise, in paver construction and wood construction, 50 two-person teams are given identical supplies, tools and a design and must complete the project in less than two hours.  Awards are presented to the top three students in each event and the top ten teams overall.  Beyond the awards, however, the program offers tremendous opportunities for student to network with industry leaders, meet and compete with students across the country, and challenge themselves and build confidence. We Garden Professors are sometimes given to being a bit curmudgeonly but spending a few days at this event will definitely restore ones faith and enthusiasm in the next generation.
For the record; Chattahoochee Technical College was this year’s SCD Champion followed by perennial powers BYU-Provo and BYU-Idaho.  Michigan State was 10th.

Mitch Zost tackles tree climbing in the Arboriculture event

The Lanscape Installation event is the final and culminating event of the Student Career days.  Think of the 4 x 400 relay with shrubs and annuals…

Zeke Kadish negotiates the treacherous Truck and Trailer course.

MSU Horticulture faculty members Brad Rowe, Tom Fernandez, and Marcus Duck capture the action for posterity.

Joel Franken found out that accidents can happen during irrigation assembly.

Friday quiz – with a twist!

On our hike to Horse Thief Creek, I found this plant nearly ready to bloom:

But I have no idea what it is!  The area is about 3000 ft. in the Santa Rosa Wilderness.  I’ve checked all the wildflower books I have for these deserts and am not having any luck.  It doesn’t help that I can’t see the flowers, of course.

So take your best shots!  I’ll check out all the guesses and come up with a list of best possibilities.  Let’s see if you can help me learn a new plant.


Yesterday evening I took my older daughter to dance class while my wife stayed home.  While she was entertaining our younger daughter, the TruGreen guy came to the door to tell us that we had weeds in the yard (Damn, I had no idea!).  He went on to tell my wife that we really needed to use his company to get rid of them.  I was so disappointed that I missed him because I wanted to know all about what he had planned for our yard.  Many of our neighbors use TruGreen and I have to say that I’m not particularly impressed.  It’s not that they’re not professional — they certainly are.  It’s not that they don’t do things by the book — they certainly do.  It’s just that the book that we use is getting a bit outdated.   When I read TruGreens online FAQ it looked like they actually plan six applications of chemicals per year.  I’m assuming (I don’t know this for sure), that at least four of those include herbicides to one extent or another.  It looks like people who have no tolerance for weeds should love TruGreen.   But really, how many weeds should people allow in their yards?  Is it one per square foot? Two? Five dozen?  And what are weeds?  Is clover a weed?  At what point do we say enough is enough and that we’d rather just cope with a few weeds than hose down our whole yard with herbicides.

After reading my own words I feel like some kind of radical.  In my job I tend to see two types of people, those who can’t stand pesticides and those who can’t stand weeds.  One group is happy to spray five times a year if it means that their lawn will be weed free, and one won’t touch an herbicide.  I’m not sure that either group is correct.  I tend to handle weeds in my yard the same way I handle haircuts – I hate having my hair cut so I don’t go to the barber that often, but I do go to the barber eventually because my hair looks pretty ridiculous if it grows too long.  I feel the same way about weeds (specifically dandelions) which infest  the grass in my yard.  I prefer not to add herbicides, but there’s a big weed bank in the area and so I end up needing to apply once every two years or so because otherwise it looks pretty bad.  Rather than making either the making the weed-free lawn or the no-chemical group happy though I think that it just pisses them both off.  They see my unwillingness to commit to one way or the other as a cop-out rather than reasonable moderation. What do you think?