Smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em…

(As an aside, I wrote this before I read Jeff’s Oct. 13 post so don’t read this as a rebuttal!)


One of the hallmarks of science is that it pays to keep an open mind.  We all tend to have biases so it’s good to get a reminder once in a while that some things that seem ‘out there’ can actually work and provide some useful information.


A case in point.  At the American Society for Horticultural Sciences annual meetings I make a point to wonder through and browse all of the poster presentations – even those that appear to have little relevance to issues I typically deal with.  This year one of the posters that caught my eye was by Orville Baldos and his colleagues at the University of Hawaii and the USDA on the use of liquid smoke flavoring to improve seed germination of piligrass.


So first, what’s piligrass and why would you want to improve its seed germination?  Piligrass is a native bunchgrass in Hawaii.  It’s used for conservation and restoration projects and there is increased interested in its use as an ornamental.  It is drought tolerant and fire adapted but production is limited by poor seed germination.  Where does liquid smoke flavoring come in?  Liquid smoke is produced by passing wood smoke through water (I assume someone somewhere has constructed the world’s largest bong to accomplish this).  The water traps a variety of chemical compounds in solution, many of which are useful in giving a delicious smoky flavor to foods that have never been near a grill.  Some of the compounds in liquid smoke are also useful in improving germination of seeds of fire adapted plants, or at least piligrass.


In their study Baldos et al. found that germination of piligrass seeds soaked in distilled water was a paltry 0.5%.    In other words, you’d have to sow 200 seeds for each plant you hoped to produce.   Soaking seeds in gibberillic acid (a common method to improve seed germination for a variety of plants) bumped the germination rate up to 20% (5 seeds to get one plant).  But soaking seeds in liquid smoke did better still and doubled the germination to 40%.


At the end of the day it’s unlikely that I’ll ever use liquid smoke for anything except adding a little extra zing to my family’s secret barbeque sauce.  But this study is a good example that sometimes things that make you go ‘What the heck?’ can have merit in the end.  Just need to take a scientific approach and keep an open mind.


For those interested in the details here’s a link to the poster

Disagreeing With Colleagues

There are lots of things that people write about that I strongly disagree with.  Mostly I keep my mouth shut because my comments would amount to:

A. Preaching to the choir
B. Supporting the phrase "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still" (I’m not sure who to attribute this saying to — I’ve seen a few different authors named).  My interpretation of this phrase is that you can’t convince someone of something they don’t want to be convinced of.

But I don’t feel that way with most of my colleagues — and I certainly don’t feel that way about any of my fellow bloggers.  We feel, and have always felt (as far as I know) that it’s important for us to disagree openly on things because only through open discussion can we arrive at the truth.  I also think that it’s important that you get to see our disagreements. 

Too often the vision that I think most people have of academic discussions is of a bunch of jerky professor types sitting around a table in a pretty university conference room nodding to each other that, yes, yes, all academics agree and we must now force the public to believe what we do.  If I’m being honest (and I try….) I sometimes feel the same way about topics like global warming.  Sure, many academics agree that global warming has been brought on by humans, but it’s far from unanimous and you need to listen to all of the voices, not just the loudest ones, to get the whole story.  Actually, there are relatively few topics that "all academics" agree on.

I am extremely proud of this website because it allows everyone to see the discussions that professional horticulturists have about various topics.  Sure, often we agree, but sometimes we don’t.  When we don’t agree we hash it out and admit when there isn’t research supporting our ideas.  And we also talk about the research we conduct which is meant to give us answers — and reduce disagreements — such as Bert’s recent post requesting input on which experiment would be most valuable.  All of his proposed experiments would provide answers to questions that we regularly discuss.

Which brings us to Linda’s most recent post.  You can mark me down as being highly skeptical of washing the roots of B&B trees prior to planting.  Linda obviously believes otherwise.  We both have our reasons, and we both agree that more research needs to be conducted.  Until it’s conducted we’ll just agree to disagree and get along with each other fine.  And it’s a nice feeling to work in that kind of environment (Happy post this week — Next week I’m planning on some serious anger!).   

Sugar and Spice and Misnomers

At a lively hobnob with friends and colleagues, the discussion ranged from critique of the Virginia Tech offensive line to the logic/mystery behind commercial carbon offsets.  Someone mentioned Domino Sugar’s efforts in that direction. Apparently their product has been certified “carbon free” by a business carbon offsets program that they pay a fee to. This led to hoots and snorts as to their selection of terminology since it involves a molecule (sucrose) that is 27% carbon.

From the fascinating thus time-eating Serously, don’t click the image unless you’ve got an hour to burn.

I’d forgotten all about it until I saw a post (on of all places) that also brought it up.  The product in question:

Now I can appreciate that the point of this branding/certification is not to advertise a dearth of carbon; rather their good intentions,  as it is Carbonfree, not carbon free.  But the marketing staff perhaps need to be reminded that in addition to the inorganic carbon gases that are of major concern, carbon is a part of all organic life…and essential to both sweet tea and the suffering of Biochem students everywhere.

Opening up a can of roots (or worms as the case may be)

Blog reader Alan Haigh asked if we could start a discussion about tree planting recommendations.  He sent along these guidelines from the Colorado State Master Gardener Program.

While I’m glad to see that the consensus now seems to be that burlap, wire, twine etc. do not belong in the planting hole, there’s still plenty of issues to contest.  Here are just a few that I found on my first read:

1)  Not mulching over the root ball;

2)  Assuming that all B&B trees are “field grown,” which I *know* is incorrect for so very, very many B&B trees;

3)  Not including the root-washing technique for B&B, which is not only research-based but is actively promoted through the International Society for Arboriculture’s workshops (see this posting for instance).  This is the only way to find and correct circling and girdling woody roots, and the easiest way to find the root crown for planting at grade.

Without root washing you’d have to dig through 10″ of clay to find the root crown (the duct tape marks the top of the clay root ball prior to washing)

I’ve written about this topic before.  And many people argue that it would “take too much time” and “be too expensive” to root wash specimens.  But when you read this publication, note that it takes 13 pages to describe how to plant containerized and B&B trees.

It takes 1 page to describe how to plant a bare root tree.

Vote early and often!

In my last post I announced that we would be conducting the first landscape transplant experiment designed by social media.  We have about 100 ‘Bloodgood’ plane trees in 25 gallon containers that are leftover from a recent nursery trial.  The trees will be planted at our Hort station and receive minimal care after planting beyond an initial watering and a kiss for luck.  I asked for some suggestions for potential treatments and got some good suggestions.  Unfortunately, one thing I forgot to point out is that I have essentially no budget for this project. So trying to determine whether or not roots are mycorrhizal, or bringing in B&B trees for comparison, are beyond our capabilities at this juncture.

We did have some interest in determining the effects of manipulating rootballs for container-grown trees.  These trees have been in pots for 2 years and I absolutely guarantee they are pot bound.  Definitely a good opportunity to look at shaving or teasing rootballs.

There are a couple of other items that I am curious about.

One is crown reduction thinning.  In forest nurseries trees are often top-pruned to reduce shoot-root ratio and increase transplant success.  Obviously we would’t top landscape sized trees, but can selective pruning to reduce the ratio of crown area to root area reduce water stress and increase survival?

Along these lines, there is a lot of marketing of plant growth retardants to reduce transplanting stress.  The most common is probably paclabutrazole – sold under various trade names including Cambistat  Does it work?

I’ve also been curious about hydrogels.  I’ve long been a skeptic but have had several arborists tell me they’ve used them successfully – of course they didn’t leave an untreated control.

Then, of course, there’s Bioplex. It might be easier to list what isn’t in Bioplex than what it contains. I suspect whatever effect it has is largely related to small amount of nutrients it contains.

Lastly, I still adhere to the notion that fertilizing trees at planting is not necessarily the source of all evil in the world and may even be a good thing.  Here I get a chance to provide myself wrong and apply a dose of Osmocote in the planting hole.

OK that’s the background – time to vote.  The link below should take you to a Survey Monkey survey.  You can vote for more than one item, but please vote for no more than three.


Wicked Good!

At the tail end of August, we (the Hahn Horticulture Garden at Virginia Tech) hosted our second-ever all-day symposium.  I christened it the Down ‘n’ Dirty Garden Symposium series – no stuffiness allowed! All fun, all useful info.  This year we lured the fab Amy Stewart in as our anchor speaker. Quite the coup for our little town!  My friend from grad school, Paula Gross, of the UNC-Charlotte Botanic Garden and co-author of "Bizarre Botanicals" brought her roadshow of wacky plants and action video.  Karen Rexrode, northern Virginia gardener, photographer and artist, inspired us to explore the Dark Side of gardening.

I love it when a plan comes together…these ladies played off each other perfectly and the topics meshed nicely (though decidedly different than the usual garden symposium).  The best part for me was I just had to M.C., thus got to enjoy each and every talk. Amy hit the nail on the head when she e-mailed after with "That has to be the most entertaining lineup of speakers I’ve ever been a part of — I just want to go on the road with them now!"  Maybe they could use an agent…

Amy, Karen, and Paula relax, post-symposia,at the (botanical) garden of Elissa Steeves.

(photo: Nancy Jurek)
Amy’s "Wicked Plants" talk included a tour of her marvelously creepy garden!

(photo: Nancy Jurek)
Paula’s Bizarre Botanicals roadshow. Did you know the pollen of Lycopodium (clubmoss) is highly flammable (and was, at one time, useful as a condom lubricant?).  

(photo: Nancy Jurek)
Karen Rexrode presented a very different and completely awesome take on terrariums, dish gardens, and planters.

(photo: Nancy Jurek)
Karen explained how to remove the top of the doll head with a Dremel saw. Good pal and frequent GP commenter Paul Westervelt turned to me and whispered "don’t you love how she just says that…so normally, like everyone does it…" 

I’m still smiling. And totally inspired. This symposium is going to be really, really hard to top.

p.s. Pardon the missed post, was in Hawaii.  I’ll probably post about that experience a little later on, when I’ve fully recovered.  I can’t speak for Bert and the mai tais – except they were $14 each at the wildly-overpriced Hilton resort hosting the conference. Doubt he had many…</d

Amazing water slices!

Here it’s already Wednesday and no GP postings!  My excuse is that I had a seminar to give yesterday before catching a late night flight to Pullman.  Bert (who should have posted Monday) must still be lost in a mai-tai fog somewhere in Hawaii.  Or maybe he’s looking for Holly, who’s been AWOL for a week.  They’re supposedly at the ASHS meetings.  Right.

I’m kind of liking the idea of finding fun new products for the busy gardener.  Much to my delight, after Goggling the phrase “best new garden product of 2011” I was introduced to amazing water slices.  Here’s the text of the announcement/sales information:


“A pack of four amazing water slices – so simple to use, they can retain enough water to keep your plants happy for up to 3 weeks.

“Simply soak each slice in water for 3 hours. Use inside or underneath pot plants, hanging baskets, flower pouches, etc.

“Use in layers, too: one slice=one week’s watering. So three slices will give up to 3 weeks watering.

“Cut to shape – one slice can fit two smaller pot plants.

“An extremely efficient and water-saving product – highly recommended.”

And here’s what a “water slice” looks like:

It’s a sponge.