Do plants heal?

I’ve been teaching plant physiology or related courses for a long, long time, and one of the tenets is that woody plants don’t heal.  In contrast to animal tissues, when trees and shrubs are wounded the damaged tissues are permanently destroyed.  Wounds are compartmentalized and covered with wound wood.  Arborists are fond of saying "plants seal, not heal."

That’s all fine and good for woody plant parts, but what about grafts?  Since grafting reconnects cambial and phloem tissues, is this "healing?" And what about nonwoody plants, like annual flowers and vegetables? 

Oddly, this type of information is sadly lacking in physiology textbooks, but it’s a question that I get routinely from gardeners.  And it’s not just an exercise in semantics.  People make some poor choices in treating tree wounds, for example, laboring under the false impression that such wounds should be treated with wound paint or bandages so they can "heal."

Yet another fine podcast

We’re popping out the podcasts like crazy!  This week the theme is “Gifts that keep on giving.” Along with the news tidbits and myth busting, I had a lot of fun interviewing shoppers at some Seattle nurseries.  I started out with two relatively simple questions about gardening gifts, and you’ll enjoy hearing the responses.  There are some great ideas out there! 

As always, feel free to let me know if you’ve got suggestions for future topics.  We’re halfway through Season 2, and I’m collecting spring ideas for Season 3.

I’m burnin’, I’m burnin’, I’m burnin’ for you

(with apologies to Blue Oyster Cult)

‘Tis the season for all things Christmas, including the annual hysterical reports of the dangers of real Christmas trees.  Along with heartwarming reports of Thanksgiving feasts at the local homeless shelter and live remotes of frenzied Black Friday shoppers, footage of Christmas trees going up in flames seems to be a staple of every network affiliate in the country.  In fact, in some cases the intrepid reporter will go to great lengths to insure that the Tannenbaum ignites the obligatory conflagration

What the talking head doesn’t want to tell you is that a fresh, well-maintained Christmas tree is very difficult to ignite.  Numerous fire agencies and others have documented that a fresh tree that is kept watered will self-extinguish even if exposed to direct flame.  And faulty wiring is even less likely to ignite a fresh tree.  The story changes completely, however, if trees are allowed to dry.

Of course, dry trees drop needles as well. So the key to keeping your Christmas safe (and tidy) is to get a fresh tree and keep it watered.  For many trees this means checking and re-filling the water daily, especially during the first week when the tree is brought in the home.  It’s not a real Christmas without a real tree – make sure it’s a safe one as well.  

Another podcast to chew on along with Thanksgiving leftovers

While our US readers enjoy the Thanksgiving holidays, you can all enjoy this week’s podcast, entitled “Leftovers.”  We discuss good leftovers (transforming orange peels into useful chemicals) and bad leftovers (fertilizer runoff), and then take a trip to an innovative company (Recovery 1) that recycles building demolition materials:

Huge piles of wood, wallboard, and other materials left over from demolition.

The initial sorting process – metals like nails are pulled out, wallboard is separated into components, and wood continues…

…to the end, where it’s chipped into different sizes to create a recycled mulch product.

Discarded carpet awaits separation into components that might eventually be used to help mop up marine oil spills.

All surface water from the site ends up in this detention pond, where it’s filtered and tested before it’s released to the environment.

Be sure to let me know if you have questions about the podcast, or even better if you have ideas for future topics and/or interviewees.

Just a nice photo…

…of late fall in our meadow at the Hahn Horticulture Garden, Virginia Tech.  

To our U.S. readers, happy Thanksgiving!  Pleasant weather here in Virginia means I’ll get to putter in the ol’ home garden (only to find some squishy brown things I probably should have dug up last month and now will need to replace. Oh well, that’s what great nurseries and garden centers are for). 

People let me tell you ’bout my best friend…

So far a mild fall has lingered here in mid-Michigan.  With temps in the mid-50’s I was able make much more headway on my fall clean-up than usual.  Typically we get enough early snows or cold-damp November gales that I don’t get to the last of the leaves and frosted hostas until spring.  Leaves are especially challenging here at Daisy Hill farm.  We have about dozen hardwood trees, mainly oaks and hickories, that drop a sizable load of leaves each fall.  For the leaves that fall in the lawn I follow Jeff’s practice and work them into the grass with the mower.  But that still leaves the leaves in the beds and every other nook and cranny they can find their way into.  Then it’s time to pull out the rake and my Craftsman 7.5 hp chipper/shredder; aka ‘My best friend’ (cue Harry Nilsson singing the ‘Courtship of Eddie’s Father’ theme).  I bought the shedder 8 year’s ago and it’s worked like a champ.  The manufacturer claims a 16:1 volume reduction and I’d say that’s a reasonable estimate.  My usual M.O. is to rake leaves, dead perennials, even small twigs into a series of piles and then work my way around the yard.  The main things to avoid are rocks (of course) and plants with long fibrous stems such as tomatoes, which can wrap around the impeller.  In a bit of serendipity, the original bag that came with unit finally wore to tatters so I ordered a new one from Sears on-line.  The new bag actually goes to a newer model and is almost three times the size of the original.  Having to continually empty the bag had been my biggest complaint about the system, so I’m in leaf shredding heaven now.  Since the oak leaves predominate I use the shredded leaves as mulch, putting down about a 1” layer each fall on tree and shrub beds.  It has a nice, natural appearance.  Plus it’s about 1% nitrogen.  Not a huge number, but a good way to recycle what nature have given us.  And certainly better than burning (or attempting to burn) leaves, which is still the most popular disposal method in rural Michigan.

You say horticulturalist, I say horticulturist

Keith Hansen, an Extension agent in Texas, has proposed a fun discussion topic:  horticulturist or horticulturalist?  We both prefer the former, though he points out that the introduction to my podcast uses the term "horticulturalist" instead.  Both terms recognized as real words and seem to be more or less interchangeable.

But I don’t really think they are interchangeable, and I don’t think Keith does, either.  Horticulture is a noun and horticultural is an adjective.  Specialty titles, like economist, botanist, or chemist, are based on nouns, not adjectives.  Otherwise we’d have economicalist, botanicalist, and chemicalist.

What do you think?  Is there a legitimate use for the word "horticulturalist?"

A Thanksgiving Podcast

Round two of Season 2 is up and running!  In keeping with the season, this episode is called “Real Turkeys.”  I talk about some of my least favorite garden products and why they’re on my “turkey” list.

We’ve also brought back Riz Reyes, who’s wearing his horticultural consultant hat in advising my podcasting engineer Shelli at Sky Nursery.  Riz has some great ideas for container gardens that look great during the winter and keep performing the rest of the year, too.

If you haven’t seen it before, be sure to check out Riz’s web page.  There’s a link to some great container gardens that he’s put together.

Please let me know if you’ve got comments or suggestions for future topics and/or interviews.  I can even do Skype interviews, so living in Seattle is not a requirement!

Jeff Ball

Back in 2006, when I first started garden writing, I was invited to give a talk in Michigan.  It was really exciting to get this kind of invitation so early in my writing career and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to an audience that wasn’t composed primarily of students or academics. 

Looking back at those talks…well…they weren’t particularly good.  Sure, there was good information, but I wasn’t particularly comfortable giving talks at that stage and so I’m not sure I got my information across nearly as well as I should have. 

After my talks there really wasn’t much to do besides listening to other speakers, and so that’s what I did.  That’s where I got to listen to Jeff Ball, a garden writer and self-proclaimed yardener.  I was amazed at how this guy filled the room with people who wanted to hear him speak and further amazed at how well he spoke.   Being in academia I’m always surprised when someone speaks without visual aids – I had always idolized Michael Dirr, my former advisor and one of the greatest speakers I know, who always played off of his magnificent slides of plants.  I really had never seen anyone give a talk without slides, or overheads, or powerpoint, or a chalkboard, before.  But Jeff Ball did a talk right off the top of his head with nothing else, and he was magnificent.  I remember not agreeing with everything he said (can’t remember what specifically), but more importantly, I remember how the tone of his voice and his wonderful sense of timing and rhythm kept the audience interested and engaged.   After that day there were two speakers who I idolized, Mike Dirr and Jeff Ball. 

Jeff Ball passed away this past week.  It’s always sad when someone who you know and admire passes, but their passing also provides a time for you to think back on the good things which they did.  I didn’t know Jeff well at all.  Indeed, I never saw him speak again after that day.  But his talk was inspirational and led me to really think about how I give a presentation, and for that I can’t thank Jeff enough.

So we’ll just guess from now on…

First, the news:


NASS Reduces Agricultural Estimation Programs

Issued October 17, 2011 by the Agricultural Statistics Board of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). For more information, contact Sue duPont, 202-690-8122.

In light of funding reductions in fiscal year (FY) 2011 and the likelihood of additional reductions in FY 2012, NASS conducted deliberate reviews of all programs against mission- and user-based criteria, aimed at finding cost savings and forward-thinking business efficiencies so that key timely, accurate and useful data remains available in service to agriculture. As a result, the agency is discontinuing or reducing a wide range of agricultural survey programs. The decision to eliminate or reduce these reports was not made lightly, but it was nevertheless necessary, given the funding situation. Because of the timing of the agency’s survey work during the coming year, these decisions are necessary now. These programs are:

             Annual Reports on Farm Numbers, Land in Farms and Livestock Operations – Eliminate

             Catfish and Trout Reports – Eliminate all

             Annual Floriculture Report – Eliminate

             January Sheep and Goat Report – Eliminate

             Chemical Use Reports – Reduce frequency of commodity coverage

             July Cattle Report – Eliminate

             Distiller Co-Products for Feed Survey – Cancel

             Annual Bee and Honey Report – Eliminate

             Annual Hops Production Report – Eliminate

             Monthly Potato Stocks Report – Reduce from monthly to quarterly

             Annual Mink Report – Eliminate

             Fruit and Vegetable in-season forecast and estimates– Reduce from monthly and quarterly to annual report

             Nursery Report – Eliminate

             Rice Stocks June and September reports – Eliminate but continue January, March and August reports

Recognizing the importance of NASS’s data products and services to U.S. agriculture, NASS will make available similar data either less frequently or within the every 5-year Census of Agriculture. The next census will be conducted beginning January 2013 to reflect activities in the 2012 calendar year. A Federal Register notice announcing the program changes will be forthcoming.


And now the why-I-care part:

 In the land of specialty agriculture (including production horticulture), there has not been a single applied research or extension grant proposal written that does not utilize the above reports.  The first thing ANY granting agency (or anyone else one might lobby for funding or policy change) wants to know is the economic value of the commodity. But even beyond that, the value of these reports is immeasurable (though I can’t speak to the mink report). How many farms and acres are impacted by suburban sprawl? How does the U.S. stack up against the world in producing hops/trout/poinsettias?  In-season forecasts for fruit and vegetables are kind of useless if they only come at the end of the year.  Trends in bee numbers and honey production are critical in this era of colony collapse. The price of beer is tied to hops production (and inversely, prices). If we need to make a point about the number of workers employed by the nursery and greenhouse industry, where do we turn?  The report I utilize most in teaching, research, and outreach is the Floriculture report.  The 2010 report is 72 pages long and presents data on cut flowers, potted flowering plants, foliage plants, potted herbaceous perennials, annual bedding/garden plants, cut cultivated greens, propagative material and special Hawaiian crops; also quantity sold, percent of sales at wholesale, wholesale price and value of sales at wholesale for 15 program states (cut back once already from 36) and growers having $100,000 or more in sales; and finally the number of growers, growing area and operations with hired workers for growers with $10,000 or more in sales.

Yes, I know budgets are being slashed in one department after another, the USDA included.  But the tiny NASS office (one field officer in each state with a handful of folks in D.C.) may be one of the most important – it’s hard to make a case if you can’t state the economic impact.