A selection of GP posts from 2011 (part 1)

Certainly not a “Best Of” list (because they’re ALL awesome, of course), just some posts throughout the year that I think got at the root of why we’re doing this and/or had some entertainment value with a message buried within. I’ve included some comments from our astute readers. And I’m not sure if I should refer to myself in first or third person.


Post: Holly’s “Er, too much coverage?” – using screen grabs of an AT&T commercial featuring some kind of weird vine overtaking a city – dubbed Clematis broadbandii (I hate to lead off with my own stuff, but feel this was some of my most inspired work).

Best associated comment: “I laughed so hard I cried.” – Jeff Gilman


Lots of great arboriculture posts in February; tree torture, girdling roots, planting tips, sewer issues, etc.   But my fave post was Linda’s “Blog survey results, Part 1”  She had set up an excellent survey asking what you, our readers, thought of and found most useful regarding our GP blog.  The results were very helpful, and ended up in Journal of Extension manuscript (a.k.a. a refereed journal article, which keeps our administrators happy) with Jeff as the lead author.

Unfortunately, the only comment was from an apparently dissatisfied customer (thpppbbt).


March was the Month of Debunking. I think the post that summed it up was “Keep calm and carry on” by Bert.  A nice overview of what we’re all about, as he shares his thoughts on planting hole size and amending backfill, noting in a conversation with Jeff “how frantically worked up some people about following the various landscaping ‘rules’, especially for tree planting.” 

Best associated comment: “Your post confirms my experience planting thousands of trees over three decades, and dozens of trees in my own garden. However, my clients don’t believe a word of it, so it’s easier to plant with a little compost and dig a bigger (not deeper) hole than to have a client suspect you are cutting corners. Too often educating clients is perceived as just another marketing ploy.” – Dave

Honorable mention comment: “My response to that info was ‘oh thank goodness’. It was like the dentist telling you that flossing doesn’t really make a difference after all.” – plantingoaks


Ha! You can tell we get busier in April.  Length of posts were about  ½ that of winter. My choice is a great thought-provoking post from Linda, simply titled “Rain barrels.”  It was basically a response to a blog post from one of our readers, where he discusses the impracticalities of rain barrels. Linda simply posted the link, added a pic of her personal rain barrel, how she uses it, and then opens the floor for discussion.  Garnered 35 comments, most really thoughtful, including one from the post-in-question author.  

Most asking-for-it comment: “Well now I have a new reason not to clean my gutters. With all the leaves, I am creating a great batch of compost tea!!”  – jake   (Jake, dear, have you not read the umpteen compost tea posts on this blog? )


Seemed to be the “hot issues” month. Exploding watermelons, Bt in the bloodstream, heavy metals in urban soils, invasive species.   I related an exchange with a plant sale customer in the post “I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.”  One of my pet peeves is the confusion as to what a named cultivar implies; and I tried to address the question as well as that of “native-ness.”

Best comment: “purity is overrated.” – robert hart

Linda kept the discussion going by posting a guest column by fellow faculty Charlie Rowher – one of the clearest explanations that “plant breeding/crop improvement does not equal GMO”


Bert was in overdrive, with a slew of fabulous posts on root research,  herbicide damage, native vs. exotic, etc.  I gave y’all WAY too much information about my on-vacation brush with food poisoning. But Jeff had two I’d like to point out:

1) “Vinegar: a garden miracle!”

Snort!  Jeff does in all the silly vinegar claims at once. Neat, tidy, and to the point. 

The only retort possible w
ins: “But it does wonderful things for cucumbers… after they’re sliced and put in a bowl! ;-)” – SandyG

2)  “What happens to the horticulturist?”

I believe part of what we do here at GP is explain a bit about the weird wild world of academia, especially how it relates to our discipline of Horticulture.  Jeff brings a great rant on how training generalists is becoming a lost art, and the plight of horticulture departments everywhere.

Best comment, though almost as long as the post: “Great post! my two cents: Do we need more generalists? YES!! why? Because the problems/challenges/research questions we face do not respect the traditional boundaries of academic disciplines. Horticulturalists often operate at the human scale what we can see, taste, touch and feel. While research dollars are pouring in for projects that are at a molecular scale. This means lost plant id courses, and students with no idea about what they are seeing in the field. This ultimately leads to a shortage of people who can make observations about what is happening on the ground (as opposed to the lab). Big mistake! Critical thinkers need to be able to put it all together, soils, plants, insects, ecology and on and on.” – jonas

 Next week – July through December!

Last minute items for gardeners

I am a last minute shopper.  There, I admitted it, and I’m proud of it.  By waiting until the last minute I get to hear about everyone else’s great gifts — and then buy those same gifts for someone else!  that said, here’s a short list of gifts for gardeners — including a few that I wouldn’t mind having myself.

#1  Books — they’re great, especially in the off-season when the gardener in your life needs some inspiration.  Naturally books by a garden professor is preferred, but I also love anything by Lee Reich.  Another one of my new favorites is the book Taming the Truffle.  For something different try The Foragers Harvest by Samuel Thayer.

#2 Pruners — You can NEVER have enough pruners.  There are many nice pruners out there, but the standard by which all others are measured are the Felco #2s.

#3 Gloves — you can never have too many gloves!  I prefer leather — most gardeners have their personal preferences.

#4 Weird seeds.  OK, it’s a little late to be searching high and low — but most gardeners really love to try new things — so go and get ’em something totally off the wall.  Something beyond tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and watermelons (peanuts maybe).  See if you can find Pawpaw!

#5  A renewable organic fertilizer — not guano or rock phosphate.  Something like cotton seed meal.  Manure is probably a no-no though.  Who wants poo in their stockings?

#6  Moisture sensors of all different types can be fun to play with.

#7  Some fun houseplants — Amaryllis is always a winner – even for non-gardeners!  For the more adventurous look to carnivorous plants like butterwort or even a venus flytrap.

Happy Holidays Everyone!

Keeping cozy with the latest podcast

Gardeners are spending more time indoors than out this time of year, so this week’s podcast features an interview with Dr. Rita Hummel. Dr. Hummel teaches a course on interior plantscaping and is also an expert on plant cold hardiness.  Here she combines both areas to explain chilling injury on tropical houseplants.

The greenhouse that this plant lives in lost its heating system and is now showing signs of chilling injury.

Comparison of three leaves on the same plant.  In the back is a healthy leaf; in the middle is one with initial signs of damage (bronzed areas on leaf), and in front is a severely injured leaf that has already begun to turn yellow.

The podcast also has a couple of interesting news items on compost safety and treating disease with thermotherapy, and finally a discussion about the wisdom of wound sealants.

Enjoy!  And keep warm!

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas

One thing I’ve always enjoyed about living in Michigan is that we are virtually guaranteed to have a white Christmas each year.  This is in stark contrast to western Washington where I grew up where a white Christmas was a relatively rare event.  In fact, to make the locals feel better, one of the popular songs on the radio play lists during the holidays is “Christmas in the Northwest is a gift God wrapped in green.”  Actually, He usually wraps it in grey fog or drizzle but hey, it’s a nice sentiment.

And for the Great Lakes region and much of the eastern US, a white Christmas may not turn out to be such a sure thing after all.  Snowfall in the East is way off compared to last year.  According to data from National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center http://www.nohrsc.noaa.gov/nsa/index.html?region=Northern_Great_Lakes&year=2011&month=12&day=14&units=e , only about one-third (33.7%) of the Great Lakes region had snow cover as of last week and the average depth was only 0.9”.

This is quite a difference from a year ago in mid-December when 99.7% of the Great Lakes region was covered with an average of 9” of snow.

Of course, this is Michigan and things can change in hurry.  But right now the forecast for the next couple days is for temps in the upper-30’s and low 40’s.  There’s a chance of snow showers on Saturday so we’ll keep our fingers crossed and hang our hats on a Christmas eve snow for our White Christmas.

May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white!

Last minute advice about Christmas trees and other fun stuff

The next podcast is up and running for your listening pleasure.  I’ve got an interview with Dr. Gary Chastagner, WSU’s Christmas tree expert.  He’ll tell you about his latest research and share some tips for keeping your tree happy and your carpet needle-free.

Here are some photos from Gary’s “dungeon” where he’s been comparing needle retention with some new promising conifer species from other parts of the world:

In the dungeon with Gary Chastagner

What dungeon would be complete without a rack or two?

I know which one I’d choose…

If you are really hard core, here’s a link to some of Dr. Chastagner’s research.  Just look for the Christmas tree heading and click on it.

The sorry state of whole plant physiology

Okay, I’m biased:  I’m a whole plant physiologist, meaning that I like to study entire plants in their environment, not just their cells or DNA in a lab.  I got hooked on plants as an undergraduate in marine biology when I took plant physiology for “fun” (translated: I couldn’t find another biology elective to fill the time slot).  Discovering why vines curl around fenceposts (thigmotropism) or how plants sense gravity (statoliths) or why bilaterally symmetrical flowers evolved (to accomodate pollinators) was fascinating, and I finally succumbed to the green side when I entered my PhD program.

The book I used as a student was Salisbury & Ross’s Plant Physiology.  There were other texts out there, but this was my bible and I used newer editions when I began to teach Plant Physiology.  Recently (as some of you know) I’ve begun to write a garden book on how plants work.  Plant physiology, of course, is the underlying science, and I needed a new text for fact checking.

Salisbury and Ross, sadly, has not been updated since 1991, so I went with Taiz and Zeiger (which has also been around a long time).  It was a shock for me to discover that plant physiology has somehow morphed into plant molecular biology.  The books is full of gene acronyms and regulatory pathways…but very little of what fascinated me as a student.

Science has been on the reductionist pathway for a long time, and there’s no denying that understanding how genes are regulated is important.  But except for the fields of human and veterinary medicine, we’re losing our understanding of how organisms work.  Faculty experts who specialized in studying algae or mosses or grasses or trees for the sole purpose of increasing our understanding of these species have been replaced with those whose research programs can generate big dollars for cash-strapped universities.  The void left by academia’s abandonment of practical plant science is quickly filled with pseudoscience and mysticism, particularly in alternative agriculture.

All I can say is that if I had been confronted with the 2010 Taiz and Zeiger text as an undergraduate I would have a PhD in marine biology instead.

Another victory for the politics of destruction

Last Christmas tree post for me this year and, sadly, it’s not a pleasant one.  As reported by that beacon of journalistic integrity, FOX news, right-wing bloggers killed a marketing check-off program that US Christmas tree producers had worked years to enact.



For those that are not familiar, a check-off program or agriculture marketing order is an assessment that a commodity group levies against itself to raise money for marketing and research.  Common examples of marketing campaigns associated with check-off programs are “Pork – the other white meat”, “Beef – it’s what’s for dinner”, “the incredible edible egg”, and “Got milk?”  In the case of the Christmas tree check-off, growers voted to assess themselves a 15-cent fee for each tree harvested to go into fund to support a marketing campaign and research.  A majority of US growers felt the program was a good idea in order to promote their product against foreign-produced artificial trees.  The USDA gets involved in these programs essentially as a neutral third party to help collect the fees and oversee the operation of the marketing board, which is made up of growers and grower-elected representatives.  If the growers didn’t like how the program was working out, they had the option to kill the check-off after three years.


All sounds pretty reasonable and rational, right?  It did until right-wing blogger David Addington stumbled up the marketing order in the Federal Register and dubbed it “Obama’s Christmas tree tax”.  http://blog.heritage.org/2011/11/08/obama-couldnt-wait-his-new-christmas-tree-tax/   Once ‘Obama’ and ‘tax’ hit the blogosphere you might as well cue up Don Meredith signing ‘Turn out the lights, the party’s over.’  Just in time for the holiday news cycle, media outlets all over the country pounced on the story.


The ironies are to numerous to mention all of them, but here are just a few.  I attended a regional meeting of growers when the check-off was being debated.  Except for the university scientists and extension observers on-hand, the number of people in the room that voted for Obama in the last election was roughly zero.  Moreover, it was the US growers themselves, not Obama or the USDA that pushed for the check-off.  To the best my knowledge, both the President and the USDA have enough on their plates already without sitting around thinking “You know, announcing a tax on Christmas trees right before Christmas would be a good idea”.


While ironies abound, so do disappointments.  The administration, with little to gain except a lot of negative and misinformed press, quickly washed its hands of the proposal.  This means the US producers; many of whom had invested years developing and championing the marketing program to stave off competition from China, are left back at square one.  In fact, after the traction given to the right-wing portrayal of their self-assessment as ‘Obama’s tax’, US growers are now a couple steps behind square one.  And it’s doubtful they’ll be able to get back to the start line any time soon.

More Compost Tea Stuff

If you’re getting sick of the compost tea debate then you can skip this post.  If not, then read on! 

This past week I received my copy of Arboriculture and Urban Forestry 37(6).  And in it, page 269, I discovered an article titled “Laboratory Assays on the Effects of Aerated Compost Tea and Fertilization on Biochemical Properties and Denitrification in a Silt Loam and Bt Clay Loam Soils” by Bryant Scharenbroch, William Treaurer, Michelle Catania and Vincent Brand.  Basically what the authors did was to add dilute compost tea, concentrated compost tea, and a fertilizer to a couple of different types of soil in a laboratory setting to establish how they changed the soil.  To be honest the article was a little tough to read for a non-soil scientist and I found myself looking up terms quite often.  Still, I found their conclusions fascinating.  There were actually a number of conclusions, I’m just going to cover what I think are the most interesting:

  1. “Aerated Compost tea appears INFERIOR  [you read that right – inferior] compared to fertilizer in its ability to increase microbial biomass, microbial activity” and a few other things.   Hmmm…I’d been told that microbes hated synthetic fertilizer.  I guess not all microbes agree.  In terms of the fertilizer used, it was a 30-10-7.  I didn’t see it explicitly stated in the article, but I’d bet it was a synthetic fertilizer called Arbor Green Pro.  It was applied at what I would consider a heavy dose.
  2. Aerated compost tea, or at least the compost tea tested in this article, did contain a significant amount of nutrients.
  3. On the up side for compost tea it was pointed out that compost tea treatments might help a poor soil retain more nitrogen.  Maybe…but the authors also pointed out that “only the fertilizer treatment appeared to deliver enough available nitrogen to potentially meet tree needs in the Bt horizon soils” (in other words poorer soils).  Interesting – but if we just added compost we’d have a better soil anyway, which brings us to the next point….
  4. The compost tea tested contained only a small portion of the microorganisms that compost does.

So what’s the take home message from this article?  This wasn’t explicitly stated in the article — in fact I’m not even sure the authors would agree with me — but to me the important message is 1) ADD COMPOST and 2) IF YOU NEED TO ADD NUTRIENTS ADD FERTILIZER NOT COMPOST TEA (though I’d go with a nice renewable organic rather than a synthetic).   

Winter winners podcast

I got so excited about our live tree hunt (posted yesterday) that I forgot to put up the podcast!  So here it is…Winter Winners.

The interview of the week is at the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle, with Director Dr. Sarah Reichard.  We visited the Winter Garden, where she (wearing her taxonomy hat) picked out her favorite plants.  They include paperbark maple (Acer griseum)…

(the sun shining through the bark is incredible)

…and contorted hazelnut (Corylus contorta)…

(hard to see, but love the bare twigs)

…and Garrya x issaquahensis

Sierra Exif JPEG
(these most amazing catkins get longer and longer)

…and Rhododendron strigillosum with the coolest bristly petioles:

(a very tidy rhododendron)

As always, I would love questions and suggestions for future podcasts!

How NOT to run a Christmas Tree Business

Some of you know we have a you-pick blueberry farm; we work very hard on it and have been successful thus far.  It also happened to come with 6 acres of Fraser firs.  Most were already in the 10′ to 18′ range when we bought the place in 2007.  There is limited value in an over-grown Christmas tree; right up there with a poinsettia still on the store shelf on December 26th. 

They look MUCH better covered in snow.  That’s Bebe the Wonder Dog’s fanny, BTW.

Thankfully, our livelihood does not depend on selling trees.  I don’t know how folks can make money in this business.  I can’t tell you how fun it is to drag a big ladder around a steeply-sloped field and hand-prune trees in August.  It’s so fun, we decided to skip it this year.   Naturally grown? You bet. Haven’t put one thing on them, fertilizer or otherwise.  I did mow around them once this year, and was eye-to-eye with the most amazing number of praying mantises (manti?) you’ve ever seen.  They seemed…content. 

There’s a huge tree farm 2 miles from us, and that IS how they make their living.  We have no interest in taking any of their business, and don’t think we could if we tried. They’ve got all the pro stuff – power pruners, tree wrapper/sleever, wreath-making machines. Their trees are very dense and uniformly cone-shaped from twice-annual pruning.  Ours look like something from Dr. Seuss (lots of room to hang ornaments, though!).  They do the full on Agritainment thing: hay rides, hot cider, petting zoo. Open dawn to dusk, every day of the week.  Our customers, who also happen to be our friends and co-workers, are only allowed to come out on the weekend (it’s dark when we get home from work), ideally before noon/football or basketball comes on. Our customers get to drive down a bad road, hunt for a tree, and lash it to the roof or shove it into the boot sans tree-stocking.  They may get a complimentary beer and/or squirrel. However, they keep calling every year because they get a ridiculously cheap (but fresh! and very natural!) tree, and the transaction partially alleviates our guilt over doing a lousy job of maintaining and selling this overgrown field of firs.  

Final sales pitch: if you find yourself in the greater New River Valley this weekend, particularly on Saturday before noon, and can pay in cash, and have your own rope, and your kids aren’t  too annoying, come on by!
Trees less than 12′ are $25; over 12′ = FREE. Can’t beat that with a stick.