Podcast #6 – Garden Hocus Pocus

Forgive my tardy posting – I spent yesterday traveling from Indianapolis back to Seattle.  I was in Indianapolis for the Garden Writers Association annual meeting and gave a talk on “evidence based garden information.”  It was encouraging to see how many garden writers DO want reliable sources of good gardening science.  And I got to meet Joseph Tychonievich, a frequent commenter on this blog and a PhD student at Michigan State.

Anyway, on to this week’s podcast. The theme is “Garden Hocus Pocus” which just opens the door for so many topics!  I settled on opening with the ancient Greek Doctrine of Signatures and how it’s being used today.  Then I discuss the function of plant alkaloids a bit, since they have historical use in magic and witchcraft.  And the myth of the week is quite similar to the talk I gave at GWA – specifically, how to separate the science from the snake oil.

My interview this week is with plantsman Riz Reyes, who works at the UW Center for Urban Horticulture and collects plants and has a landscaping business and blogs….and he’s not even 30 yet!  My daughter Charlotte came along and took some great photos of Riz’s garden.  (Thanks, Riz, for identifying all the plants here!)

Riz with Cardiocrinum giganteum var. yunnanense at Kew Gardens

Dahlia ‘Weston Spanish Dancer’

Left to Right: Lilium ‘Miss Lucy’, Petasites x hybridus, and Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’

Lilium ‘Magic Star’

Dahlia ‘Bishop of York’

Linda interviewing Riz out of the rain

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!

Just for ewe: An alternative approach to weed control.

As I mentioned in the last post I was in Austria this past week for the International Christmas Tree Research and Extension conference. We hold these meetings every two years for Christmas tree researchers in Europe and North America to get together and share the latest research on various aspects of Christmas tree production and marketing. In addition to research presentations the programs also include tours of local Christmas tree farms, which is always the most interesting part of the conference.


In Austria one of our tour stops was an organic Christmas tree farm operated by Regina and Michael Spenger.  For the most part, my views on organic systems are in line with those that Jeff Gilman has voiced here on the GP blog.  There are certainly benefits in reducing pesticide use but it’s not a given that an organic approach is always superior to a conventional system.  Nevertheless one hallmark of organic production is that growers must be creative and often develop innovative approaches to production issues.  This is especially true when it comes to weed control; one of the most difficult challenges of organic growing.  Good weed control is essential in Christmas tree production since grasses and broadleaved weeds are aggressive competitors for water, nutrients and light.  To control weeds without herbicides the Spenger’s settled on a novel idea: Sheep.  Each morning they release a herd of 40 Shropshire sheep into a plantation and let them munch away.  The sheep are allowed to graze for a week and then rotated into another field.  Shropshires are well suited to the job since they graze readily on the grass and forbs but leave the trees alone.  The Spenger’s also get some small additional returns by selling a few lambs each spring as well as some wool.  Obviously this approach has limitations but it certainly highlights important aspect of the organic movement that can benefit all production systems: looking at problems in a different way and thinking creatively.

The sheep herd heading out to a plantation to start their day’s work…

To say that sheep grazing in an Austrian plantation creates an idyllic scene is an understatement.

Marketing naturally grown Christmas trees.


Wonderful Plant Wednesday

[So I’ve veered off the “weird” track into “wonderful” already.

“Mint!” is tantamount to the cry of “Bear!” to many gardeners.  Mints tend to run amok, in just about any environment, and are difficult to remove once established. A pot or hanging basket is useful for containment, but not always successful.  It wants out.  The upside to mint in your garden is, of course, cocktails. Essential for the mint julep and the mojito.  Also useful in lots of dishes – I prefer my tzatziki with mint, thank you.

Culinary mint is Mentha, but the subject of this post is mountain mint: Pycnanthemum.  Same family (Lamiaceae), different genus. It’s a fabulous garden plant that I’ve been blathering about in various talks for a few years, yet the mention of “mint” seems to cause audience members to cringe, glare, or worse.  This is yet another example of a common name with negative associations scaring people off (like “Stinking Hellebore” – that’ll sell some plants).

There are 19 North American perennial species in the genus, with lots of naturally-occurring varieties within many of the species. Many look A LOT alike, complicating i.d. Most mountain mints are found from Quebec and Ontario down to Florida and west to the Mississippi; a few species make their way to the Great Plains, with one species in California.



Pycnanthemum muticum (short-toothed mountain mint) is probably the most widely available; usually propagated and grown by nurseries with a native plant emphasis such as North Creek Nurseries (Landenberg, PA) (wholesale propagator).  Hardy from USDA Zone 4 all the way down to 8, it does best in warmer climates in part shade, similar to the edge of meadows where it’s usually found.  In both our campus garden and our home garden (z 6a), it’s in full sun.  It doesn’t need tons of water – the one at home hasn’t seen rain nor sprinkler in 4 weeks and looks just fine.

Factoids out of the way, here’s why it’s wonderful:  the upper bracts are silvery, topping the bright green clump like frosting on a cupcake. It’s not small – 3’ tall where happy. The foliage is plenty “minty” – it would actually work in a mojito emergency. The clump gets bigger over time; great for digging up chunks for your friends.  In the center of the bracts, the flowering stem is compressed into this little disc, with a teeny flower arising at the perimeter  (hard to describe, the photo does it better).   But packed within the miniscule pinkish-white flower is a ton of nectar. Especially attractive to bees, wasps, and some Lepidops, the entire top of the plant is buzzing with action on a warm sunny day.  Nectar flow (essential for honey) is very limited this time of year, especially during drought.

Residents of our home hives are going for it in a big way – will be interested to see if there are any minty notes to the next batch of honey extracted.  So there you have it –  a truly wonderful plant…beautiful, tough, native, pollinator attractor, and minty fresh!



Podcast #5 – Selling Sustainability

Everyone (including me) hates how the word “sustainability” has been overused and misused. Yet there are some good concepts associated with the word that can help gardeners make rational decisions about products and practices. This week’s podcast deconstructs sustainability into specific actions that gardeners can easily follow:

  • Discovering and nurturing the natural processes that keep your gardens and landscapes healthy and functional
  • Choosing plants and products wisely to conserve natural resources
  • Creating gardens and landscapes that don’t require constant inputs of packaged fertilizers and pesticides

The podcast illustrates each of these points.  First, there’s a research article that demonstrates the benefits of polyculture in growing vegetables.  Next, there’s a critical look at a website presenting a “Sustainable Garden Starter Kit: 10 Must-Have Products for the New Green Grower.” Lastly I dispel the myth of “instant landscaping”, which is code for “long term disaster.”

The interview this week is on building your own garden pond. Dr. Jim Scott (PhD in horticulture), turns his talents to the plumbing, electrical work, and aesthetic disguises needed to build a really great garden water feature. Lucky for me, he also happens to be my spouse!

Jim and Linda try to figure out how many years it took to do a week long project


…cleverly disguise pump system…

…and filter system

Seasonal guests

Permanent residents (the little orange guys in water)

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!

If it’s Monday this must be Austria…

Just a quick post from on the road.  My family and I have been traveling through Europe the past week and a half.  A bit of a whorl-wind trip combining some vacation and work travel.  We started off a week and half ago, flying into Frankfurt.  We rented a car and drove to Paris where we spent a couple of days sightseeing. Then it was off to southern France to visit friends that run a bed and breakfast there.  This weekend we drove from France to lower Austria where I am attending our biennial International Christmas tree Research and Extension conference.  I’ll have a few bits to report from the meeting later but for now I’ll just close with a few random acts of Horticulture from France.

Trees shaped like boxes…

Trees in boxes…

Horsechestnuts.  Europe is big on horsechestnuts.  Unfortunately most of them are scorched to a crisp and look like crap.

Pollarding.  Europe is big on pollarding.  Occasionally it’s done well and creates some neat effects.  More often, like here, it’s done poorly and just makes a mess.

A green wall.  Green roofs and green walls can help to reduce urban heat island effect.  This green wall is mainly for show, I think.  It’s made up of ferns and other mesic plants and requires constant mist irrigation.  Not exactly a sustainable system, but it is dramatic and certainly commands attention.


Striking a Balance

About two weeks ago a reader (Julie) e-mailed me about some young gardeners/farmers and how they believed in a natural balance.  The e-mail read: “Would you mind devoting a blog or two to the philosophy that nature is perfectly balanced and will find a solution to whatever ails it and therefore we do not need to use any chemicals or poisons to fight pests and disease?”

I thought this was a good question, and here’s my quick answer (followed, naturally, by a more long and drawn out answer).  Yes, I do believe that nature will strike its own balance.  Unfortunately this balance won’t always be great for humans.

The more in-depth explanation…..Organisms like diseases, plants and animals do what they have evolved to do.  The plants grow, the insects feed on them, the insect poo goes back into the ground.  The insects get eaten by an animal and then that animal’s poo goes back into the ground – the tree uses the poo as fertilizer — it’s all a big cycle and it works.  If any particular plant or insect gets out of hand then invariably something that eats it will eventually show up and go gangbusters — and all of it goes back to the ground.

For humans who “live off the land” this balance works fine.  They’re not looking for huge yields of food per acre, and they’re willing to forgo certain foods if that food happens to be in short stock in a particular forest in a particular year because of an insect or disease or whatever.  And so insect or disease losses will usually leave them plenty of food to eat.  But modern agriculture is based on large yields per unit area.  That means that the whole balance thing goes out the window.  Likewise, because humans prefer non-blemished food, the whole balance thing gets screwed up too.  So, in the end, we usually end up doing something to get rid of pests.

And then there’s fertility to consider — When we grow crops on a piece of land we take whatever is produced and then eat it or sell it – but rarely do we put our waste back on that land.  What that means is that we’re fighting the balance.  By not recycling our waste we’re taking from the land without returning what we took from it back to it.  So, after a few years, we end up having to fertilize because the land just can’t make up for what we’ve taken and not returned.

Balance is great – I just think that it’s tough to strike a balance with modern agriculture and still feed ourselves.

So, there you have it – my two cents on balance.

Podcast #4 – Going Native

Another one in the can! This week the podcast focuses on native plants; I’ve got an interesting research item about using mixtures of native grasses for lawns.  You’ll also hear why sometimes native plants might not be the best choice, whether the goal is attracting fruit-eating birds or creating a sustainable urban landscape.

And you will love this week’s interview with Lacia Bailey – Seattle gardener and urban dairy goat maven. Once again I enlisted my son Jack to capture the moment on film:

“I’ll bet that camera is edible, too!”

Lacia and Dalli (the goat who thinks she’s a lap dog)

The goats make short work of most garden and yard waste

My podcasting producer Tina makes some new friends

Chickens are part of the system, too. They eat bugs from the used goat bedding.

Lacia setting up the milking station

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!

So…How Much Pesticide Is Actually In Our Fruits and Veggies?

We have discussed the dirty dozen here before – those foods which a group called The Environmental Working Group (wow—fancy name – everything they say must be true!) has established contain more residues of different pesticides than other foods.  I’ve already stated my concerns about selecting organic foods instead of conventionally grown ones because of a fear of pesticides so I won’t restate that here.  Instead what I want to call your attention to an article sent to me by our visiting professor, Charlie Rowher.  This article runs down the amounts of pesticides that are actually in the dirty dozen. And the thing is….there just isn’t much pesticide of any sort on most foods and there is no evidence at all that eating these levels of pesticides would be bad for us in any way – even if we ate them in copious amounts day after day.

To be honest I think the authors of this article go a little too far – I do think that there is some potential for damage even from the ultra-small pesticide doses that we find on our foods.  But their points are well taken – the amount of pesticides in food is miniscule and less likely to be damaging to us than a great host of other things.  I’m much more concerned about certain segments of our population suffering malnutrition from avoiding conventionally grown fruits and veggies than I am about the larger portion of our population getting cancer from eating them.

What I did for my summer vacation

[Warning: pointless post/ramblings]

Actually it was a "staycation." We usually scoot to the Caribbean for a week.  I’d like to say this was better.* Though home from our regular jobs for a week, we worked like fiends.  Our primary target was the multitude of Autumn Olive (exotic invasive) and Sycamore (native yet ridiculously prolific) taking over a nice four-acre field.  We we don’t quite know what to do with this creek bottom, except to not let it grow up into a monoculture (biculture?) of 14′ tall Eleagnus and Sycamore.  Our local rental joint delivered a spankin’ new JCB backhoe/frontloader last Monday, and fun was had. I have a thing for heavy equipment, and don’t stink with a Bobcat. But this was bigger than I was expecting.

To familiarize myself with the backhoe, I started out with a planting hole for a 15-gallon tree.  Oh, what Linda would have given for a picture of resulting crevasse."Dig hole 1000 x the width and 6000x the depth of the rootball." Whoops. Could have planted a minivan.  Took a bit of time to fill it back up to the point the entire tree wasn’t below ground. But I got better.  After several days, I was ripping out invasive species with surgical (ha!) precision. Take that!  Very gratifying.

The JCB 3CX with "EcoDig." Advertised as 18% more fuel efficient, so I’m helping the earth while I tear s*** up.

Then Joel surprised me with a truckload of mulch (Squee! Nothing says "I love you" like 4.5 cubic yards of shredded bark).  With Bert’s recent post in mind, I proceeded to "check the mulch for the presence of a foul or pungent odor." My snort-inhalation was perhaps too close to the pile as the fine bits of mulch went up my nose like it was 1985.  I did detect some volatile compounds as my eyes watered and the sneezing commenced. It was still a bit warm, so was careful not to get it too close to the plants. Not that there was much "tender" tissue since it hasn’t rained here in eons.  Will report back if I’ve ruined the bed.

Truckload o’ love. And yes, our "Farm Use" plate is held on by duct tape.

*Nope. Wasn’t.

Podcast #3 – Plants, Drugs and Rock and Roll

I’m starting to have fun with these!  This week the podcast has some fun items about the wide world of plant secondary compounds, which are all those interesting chemicals that aren’t related to the basic building blocks of life (the carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids).  Plus there’s a myth segment on how music affects plants – is “acid rock” as bad for plants as it is for young developing brains?

And the highlight is my interview with Robin Haglund – Seattle gardener and urban beekeeper.  Both she and Corky Luster, owner of Ballard Bees, describe what it takes to open a bee hotel on a small urban lot.  My son Jack took some great photos of Robin’s garden, some of which are below:

Linda, Robin and Corky

Bee fountain

Bee heaven – nectar and lots of water

Corky opens the hive

Bees and honey!

Art and the garden

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!