Being Lazy Has Its Advantages

I am just about the laziest gardener you’d ever want to meet.  Around my field plots at the school things tend to look good –but that’s part of my job.  Around my home, well, I probably water my plants once or twice a year, I fertilize every few years.  I almost never use herbicides or any other weed control methods besides pulling – again, that happens once or twice a year.  And I only mulch about once every two years or so (sorry Linda!).  My yard does end up being a great place for my experiments on slugs, weeds, and odd methods of insect control, but it’s far from the pride of the neighborhood.  Generally I plant things and let them either live or fail and just don’t worry about it that much if they can’t make it.  That said, I think that I would fare better if I just accepted weeds as an integral part of my yard.  It has already happened in my lawn.  This year the clover has finally started to take hold.  I’m happy about this because it will mean less fertilizer.  In the back yard I’ve knocked out most of the thistle (hand pulling and a little bit of Round-Up), and now daisies are popping up.  Sometimes they’re in spots where I’d prefer to have a lilac or rose – but hey, they’re not bad.  It almost looks like I planted them on purpose.

My laziness recently however, reached a new level (my wife isn’t particularly pleased about it, but so far the summer has been busy enough that I’ve been able to find lots of excuses).  On our back porch we usually grow some tomatoes or cabbage, or something in a container.  This year we didn’t bother and so the container started to grow weeds.  Specifically purslane.  At first this seemed like a bad thing, but then it started looking … good.  It filled out the container.  It didn’t need any watering, and, by golly, it actually tasted good!  Now tasting random weeds from your backyard (or uncared for container) is not something that I encourage.  And even if you want to taste purslane have an expert (such as a botanist) confirm that it’s purslane before you go chomping on it.  But that said, I tasted this stuff after I found out it was edible and now we have a new leafy veggie for our salads.  Then I started figuring out all of the weeds in the yard, both front and back, that are edible.  I already love clover flowers and I’m OK with young dandelion leaves.  Shoot.  I’m starting to think that if I could take my laziness to yet another level my family and I could eat salad all year without ever buying lettuce at the supermarket.

Weird Plant Wednesday!

Greetings, all!  Things seem to be pretty slow in the blog-reading world…middle of summer, vacations, etc. Plus we’re all out there gardening, unlike the dead of winter when we’re deprived of this joy, so the next best thing seems to be reading about it.  Thanks to all who check in with us, even if just occasionally!

I’m taking over the Wednesday slot for a little while – I have a backlog of cool/weird/new/unusual plants to share, and  Weird Plant Tuesday just doesn’t bring the alliteration.

Our first subject: Aristolochia gigantea – Brazilian Pipestem (or Brazilian Dutchman’s Pipe – bit of a culture-clash ). The genus Aristolochia is chock-full of unusual-looking flowers, but I think this one takes the cake.

This flower is actually upside-down, hanging off a trellis. The lobes are at the base of the flower.

The big, blorpy bud starts out vaguely rude-looking, then opens to a maroon and white-netted beefsteak of a flower.  I do like the National Tropical Botanic Garden’s description that “The back view of the flower superficially resembles a pair of lungs with a canal leading into a stomach-like pouch.”  The perianth/base of the flower is inflated, and the purported pollination strategy is to get flies to enter the “maw” and then hang out in the pouch (“Get in mah belleh, fly!”). Pollen is exchanged in the interim.  Scent is a big part of attracting flies, but I don’t find the fragrance offensive, it’s just a little sweet/off.

Aristolochia gigantea – an open flower from the side (left) and a bud. At Saul’s Nursery re-wholesale yard in Atlanta, Georgia

The vine itself is really vigorous; even with our cooler summer nights here in the Blue Ridge, mine is running amok along the deck railing. The older/larger the vine, the bigger the flowers – I’ve seen some conservatory specimens with two-foot-long flowers. This is, by the way, very tropical. It won’t overwinter in the landscape north of USDA Zone 9. Mine will enjoy a chilly winter in a barely-heated greenhouse; we’ll see how that works out.

How’s that for a start to Weird Plant Wednesday?

Podcasts are here!

Today marks a grand experiment…I’ve made the leap into podcasting. Each episode is less than 30 minutes and contains (among other things) an outdoor interview with someone who does something interesting with gardens and landscapes. This week’s podcast features Seattle landscape designer Richard Greenberg, who took me on a tour of a garden he’s been working on for 20 years:

Linda with Richard Greenberg

The nice thing about having the blog host the podcasts is that I can include some photos from my interview sites.  Here are some shots of this lovely (but tiny) urban landscape, which features a huge sequoia right in the middle.

Yes, a sequoia in the middle of the garden

Fritillaria, I assume? (Please don’t mock my taxonomic ignorance)

Very cool iris

Please let me know what you think of the podcast; you can email me directly or post a comment on the blog.  Suggestions for future podcasts are most welcome!

This Bud’s for you…

Ask the risk of honing in on Jeff’s turf, I thought I’d pass along this article by former University of Maine associate dean (and apparent Garden Professor wannabe) Katheryn Olmstead.   It seems that Dr. Olmstead’s painstaking research has documented a preference among slugs for domestic beers, particularly Budweiser.  Like most undergraduate students, it seems slugs prefer domestic swill to more refined imported brews; confirming many suspicions about both slugs and undergrads.  Although we’ll have to wait for the full peer-reviewed article, her scientific method seems sound, including use of replicated plots.  That said, her admitted qualms about being seen purchasing two six-packs in the same week raises doubts about Dr. Olmstead’s eventual rise to the rank of full Garden Professor

Cool achlorophyllous plant

Can’t get anything past our blog readers!  Yes, from the highly cropped photo on Friday two readers quickly recognized emerging Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora):

These plants have no chlorophyll, instead relying on fungal partners who colonize both their roots and the roots of nearby photosynthetic plants.  So ultimately this is a parasitic species, as it takes resources from the photosynthesizers in its root network without reciprocal benefit.

These are not commonly found plants, so I think it’s really cool that they appeared in such profusion in a home landscape.

Helium Makes Kudzu Float Away

As promised — some happy news:  There’s this kid in Valdosta, GA (close to Tifton where I spent a few years as a graduate assistant), who has been experimenting with ways to kill kudzu.  Here’s the video.

To see this kid work on something like this at such a young age is fantastic and gives me hope for the future.  I wish the kid were here so he could come to the University of Minnesota – I think he has a lot to offer and he makes me slightly more optimistic about where horticulture ends up.

For those of you who choose not to view the video, what this kid does is to inject helium into the soil around the root system of a kudzu plant.  After the injection the plant apparently dies.  The exact reason why isn’t known, but one person who was interviewed said he suspected that the helium smothers the plants roots thus killing it.

I’m a little bit suspicious about that explanation, and I’m also a little bit skeptical about how much more economically feasible it would be to use the helium instead of more standard herbicides.  I’m also very interested in any other gasses that he might have tried to kill the kudzu – I wonder, for example, if he tried propane?  It might work, but I’d say it was too dangerous to try.

I’m suspicious about the helium smothering the root system of kudzu because kudzu has such an extensive root system and because the helium should dissipate pretty quickly, especially in sandy soils like they have in Southern Georgia.   It’s also very unlikely that the helium itself is acting as a poison because helium is an inert gas.  It just doesn’t react with anything.  What I think is more likely is that, by finding the site where the kudzu’s stem enters the ground, this kid has found a “weak spot” on the kudzu which is susceptible to damage.  Then I think that the helium acts a refrigerant when it is released and actually freezes the stem of the kudzu.  However it works though, it’s a neat trick!

A Garden Professor is most severely vexed

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jeff’s recent post on “What happens to the horticulturist.” It’s true – universities rely more and more on faculty-generated grants for funding, so new hires tend to be in “hot” areas of research.  Fewer horticultural generalists are hired in teaching/research positions, and the same is true for Extension – the educational outreach arm of land-grant universities.

Many of you might not even know what Extension really is.  In my opinion, that’s because Extension as a whole has done a pretty poor job of evolving with the times.  When small farms were the mainstay of life for many people, farmers relied on practical, science-based information provided by university Extension services.  We’ve become an increasingly urbanized society, but Extension just hasn’t kept up.  The bulk of the research and information coming from plant and soil science departments is still geared towards production agriculture.  It’s of little immediate use for the majority of us living in urban areas.

So we have an imbalance:  there are increasing numbers of people living in urban areas who want good information on home gardens and landscaping, and decreasing university resources to fill those gaps.  Nature hates a vacuum, and this information gap is quickly filled with all kinds of stuff: some good, some bad, some dangerous, some illegal.  The very worst offenders, in my opinion, are the fear mongererss with most definite agendas but no solid evidence to support their claims.  For instance: I’m always skeptical when I hear about an article in an “obscure journal” being the only source of new information. If there was something new out there on an important topic, the researchers would not be publishing in an “obscure” journal. It would be in a highly visible and highly regarded scientific journal.  In any case, the information would be easy to find and discuss, not hidden away in a secret location.

I don’t have a good way to end this post, because I don’t have an easy answer to the problems that both Jeff and I see in horticulture departments and in Extension.  Do you?

Spin Cycle

The issue of potential damage to conifers by the turf herbicide Imprelis continues to get a lot of air play in this neck of the woods.  One of the interesting things about watching an emerging story such as this is watching some of the sideshows that go on around it and how people spin the issue to match their needs and agenda.


Example 1:

Heritage Lawn Care Company put out flyers in neighborhoods in southeast Michigan with affected trees to promote their service.  The flyer incldued the heading “ALERT:DYING PINE AND SPURCE [sic] TREES”  The flyer claimed that issues related to Imprelis damage to trees are “99.9% applicator and mixing errors”.  Surprisingly, there was no mention of where they got the data for this assertion.  But fortunately Heritage stands ready to save the day by using “only organic based fertilizers giving the same or better results”.   Again, no mention of how organic fertilizer controls tough weeds like ground ivy and wild violet.  Thankfully, “If you prepaid (your lawn care provider) for 2011, and want to switch companies, Hertitage is willing to extend you credit until your current company refunds your money.”  Call it a hunch, but I don’t think the folks at Heritage will be receiving an invitation to the local landscaper’s group picnic this year…


Example 2:

Mother Earth News trumpeted the news on Imprelis with the headline “Imprelis: Another Deadly Herbicide, This Time From DuPont”  First of all, isn’t ‘Deadly Herbicide’ redundant?  Every ‘icide’ is designed to kill something so I think they’re supposed to be deadly, at least on their target.  While the unintended damage to spruces and pines is certainly unsettling, especially for a newly released product, this group of herbicides has low toxicity to mammals and in many regards is comparatively safe.  I don’t consider myself a nozzlehead but I’m sure most GP readers recognize I have little aversion to judicious use of chemicals around Daisy Hill farm.  So I was a little taken aback to find my “Fasten your seatbelt folks, this could be a bumpy ride” (GP Blog 6/27/11) quoted in Mother Earth news.  My reference was to applicators having to deal with customer complaints and potential litigation – but that’s the nature of putting things into the blogosphere…


Example 3:

On July 14 I received an e-mail advertisement from Growth Products, Inc. breathlessly announcing “An Essential Cure For Trees Damaged By Imprelis Or Sahara Herbicides.”  Pretty impressive stuff: We’ve only known about the issue for three weeks and these guys have already found the cure.  I had to read on.  The cure consists of an “Essential Cocktail” of three Growth Products liquids including Essential Plus (a rich concentration of organic ingredients including humic acid), Micrel Total (“Eight chelated minors to help the tree through stress”) and Companion (a biological fungicide).  Alas, once again eye of newt and wing of bat were apparently out of stock.  But, “The magic mix can be used as a soil drench and/or a soil injection.”  The e-mail also included a link to an article I wrote for our extension news that included a photo of some maple trees that had largely recovered from herbicide injury by Sahara in 2009.  I also documented the case here on the GP blog I wasn’t aware, but apparently a landscaper treated the trees with some of these concoctions.  No word in the e-mail from Growth Products on how the untreated control trees did.


Voodoo and the evil eye

Friday’s “evil frog eye” was actually part of a voodoo lily (Dracunculus vulgaris), found growing in a drainage ditch in California (I’ve seen one in a drainage ditch in Seattle as well):

Obviously this introduced garden ornamental has escaped cultivation and is now “going rogue.”  Will it become a nuisance weed? Will it displace native species? Should it be banned from sale by nurseries?