Eco Plant Pals?

Last Monday a friend of mine stopped by the office and dropped off a couple of plant "kits" for my kids.  I didn’t spend much time looking at them at first, but I brought them out that night when I got home to show to the family and…they’re really neat!  Called Eco Plant Pals, these little kits include a container, some media, and some seeds for one of 18 different plants.  Each of these plants has their own names, like Chris Catnip for (you guessed it) a catnip plant and Laura Lobelia.  It’s all about the marketing with cute pictures and names.  See all of the cute kits here.

 I’ll tell you right from the start that they cost too much (retail anyway), but they’re cute, and the girls are excited to plant them, so what can I say?  I believe that anything that gets kids excited about planting is a good thing.  Everything in the kit is biodegradable which is nice.  I do have one complaint though.  Not a huge one, but one worth mentioning all the same.  Plant number 18 is Butterfly Beth and it’s a butterfly bush.  As many of you know I absolutely love butterfly bush, but I am also aware that in certain parts of the country this shrub is considered an invasive plant.  While all of the other plants are, as far as I can tell, pretty benign (most are annuals — there is a Robert Redwood though!) I have to question calling Butterfly Beth a good choice ecologically.

Yes, she’s an invasive, but isn’t she cute!

Name This Course

Undergraduate enrollment in the Virginia Tech Horticulture program has fluctuated over the years.  The late 70’s saw huge numbers of students interested in all things green and growing – nearly 300. There was a gentle decline through the 80’s and in the 90’s number held around 150. A sharper decline took place over the past 8 years, with enrollment bottoming out at 85 students in 2009. Things have picked up a bit since – we’re currently at 100 give or take a few.  But we really, really need to bump it back up to 150+ or we risk getting combined/rolled into a broader plant science program.

Fewer than half of our students start out as Hort majors their freshman year; the larger portion are transfer students, either from community college programs or internal transfers from within the university. 

A couple of our lower-level courses are what we refer to as “gateway” classes that lead to these internal transfers to our department.  Indoor Plants is a biggie –  anyone can take it as a free elective, and many students get hooked on hort as they learn some basics of identification, care, and propagation.  Floral Design is wildly popular and fills up instantly; credits earned counts toward a university-wide “core” requirement for “creativity and aesthetics.”  Something these classes have in common is the hands-on aspect, plus the student gets to take something back to the dorm or apartment, be it a terrarium or floral arrangement. 

I am in the process of developing a new course which will hopefully serve as a third “gateway” class – an introduction to gardening.

Food and flowers, digging in the dirt, all that great stuff.  I want it to be fun and exciting, not filled with do’s and don’ts.  The kind of class that will spark an interest or set off a light bulb. Or perhaps inspire them to transfer to Horticulture. This generation of undergrads (mostly young people from 18 to 22) is tough to impress. They’re glued to their smartphones, and if I’m not mistaken, attention spans aren’t quite what they used to be.  But I believe I can frame the fabulously broad and deep topic of gardening into something personal, immediate, and enjoyable. 

What I need to further this mission is a NAME for the course.  It can’t be too obscure; someone flipping through the course listings should be able to decipher class content from the title (best name ever for a university class: Magical Mushrooms and Mysterious Molds taught by plant pathologist/legend Dr. George Hudler at Cornell University). 

My working name for the course has been “Successful Gardening.”  Yawn.  "Sustainable Gardening" is also a possibility, but every department in Agriculture/Life Sciences (and beyond) is slapping "Sustainable [whatever] onto new courses. Though that may be the ticket for the immediate future.

Please, dear reader, put on your creative thinking cap and help me come up with something better!

What I did on my Christmas vacation

The week between Christmas and New Years’ is usually pretty laid back around here.  But not this time!  Along with 22 volunteers, 3 family members, and 1 graduate student, I spent that week putting in 80 trees for a long-term experiment.

My long-suffering family and I installing the last of the 80 trees on the fourth day of hell.

My intrepid graduate student Cindy Riskin obtained 40 B&B Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) and 40 containerized mugo pine (Pinus mugo).  Half of each of the trees were installed conventionally, meaning the root balls were not significantly disturbed, and half were bare-rooted by root-washing methods I’ve discussed on the blog previously. Roots that circled or had other flaws were pruned as needed. Over the next several years, we’ll be assessing tree health and comparing the two root preparation techniques in terms of tree establishment.

Installed maple

Installed pine

Look at some of the surprises we uncovered during root preparation!  I will say unequivocally that these were the WORST quality trees I’ve ever seen coming out of a nursery.  And they weren’t cheap.

Yes, that’s a 4" pot still covering the roots inside this "gallon" mugo pine.

The duct tape is where the top of the burlap was in the original B&B.  Every one of the B&B trees we bare-rooted was buried too deeply in the clay and burlap.

Multiple trees?  Multiple messes!

Stay tuned for more…

The fun and the not so fun

Just a quick post today.  Today is the second Monday in January which means: 1) classes resume here at MSU and 2) it’s the first day of the Great lakes Trade EXPO in Grand Rapids, which is sponsored by the Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association and Michigan Turf Foundation.  I’m on tap for two presentations this afternoon.  

The first one is a bit of post-mortem on the Imprelis issue that dominated some of our lives back in the summer.  My talk, "Imprelis: What went wrong?’ looks back over the development of the Imprelis debacle.  The final verdict on how the EPA allowed the registration on an herbicide with such devastating non-target effects probably won’t be fully known until the dust settles on the legal process. Bottom line: the testing that was done was not adequate and either DuPont or the EPA (or both) dropped the ball.

My second talk, thankfully, is a little more upbeat.  In "Little Big Men" I discuss the use of miniature and dwarf conifers for landscaping.  I even get to talk about one of my new interests: railway gardening.  I haven’t taken the plunge yet – not enough time or nearly enough money – but I think I may have found a hobby for retirement.  For those that have access to the Oregon Association of Nurseries Digger magazine, Elizabeth Peterson wrote a very nice feature on railway gardens in their September issue.
Courtesy: Elizabeth Peterson

Canadian Thistle

It has been a busy few weeks for me — holiday traveling, Green Expo talks (that’s our regional conference), and getting ready for a semester leave this year — I’ll be working on a project investigating how professors transfer information to the public.  But during this time I have, for some unexplainable reason, been thinking about Canadian Thistle.  And do you know what I’ve come up with?  This: 

It’s a colossal waste of time and money to worry about Canadian thistle. 

Despite its name Canadian thistle is not native to North America.  It was introduced in the 1600s — probably by accident.  Most parts of the plant are edible and some people even say that it’s tasty.   Though it can be found across the US it is rarely found in such high concentrations that it displaces native species.  Where it does dominate the landscape conditions are usually bad enough (highly disturbed sites) that other plants won’t fare well anyway.  Canadian thistle is known as an early succession plant which means that it will establish in a disturbed site — perhaps even taking it over — but will slowly, over years, be taken over by other plants.

Canadian thistle is considered a noxious weed across the United States, but it is classified that way mostly because of political pressure rather that for what it does (if nothing else it is a very visible, nasty looking plant).  People may get scratched up, but you won’t hear about anyone dying from Canadian thistle poisoning.  As an agricultural weed it can be significant, but usually pales in comparison to other weeds.  Because it is listed as a noxious weed some states and local governments have tried to rein it in, at least over small areas, but this thistle is very resistant to herbicides, and tough to kill just by pulling, and so efforts are often fruitless. 

Should we redouble our efforts and assail this thistle with more energy?  I just can’t bring myself to say yes.  This weed may be undesirable, but to put much money into a losing battle with a weed that has been here for about 400 years and that mostly affects disturbed sites seems like a silly strategy.  In my mind we should be treating this weed as undesirable, but not nearly at the same level as other invasive or noxious plants.</d

A selection of GP posts from 2011 (part 2)

So much good stuff to read back through. The Garden Professors really bring the straight poop on so many topics!


Post:  Podcasts are here! by Linda.

Complete with a pleasant musical intro and background, Linda’s info-packed and professionally-produced podcast “The Informed Gardener” made the rest of us look under-achieving. Take some time this winter and work back through them, if you haven’t had a chance.


Post: Sunday Bloody Sunday by Jeff.

I’m one of those “let me tell you what stupid thing I did yesterday” people, and I really appreciate it when other folks ‘fess up to messing up in an effort to keep you from doing the same. Jeff used a 20% vinegar solution to kill some garden weeds, and ends up killing a little froggy in the process.  He even posts a photo of the wee corpse.  So is “natural” always better?  This post really makes the point of “apparently not”.  


Lots of great posts – Linda’s post and photos of the Bartlett Tree Expert’s research arboretum was fascinating.  I keep meaning to check it out when passing through Charlotte NC. As happens here on occasion, a commenter took exception, this time to photos and descriptions of the research trials; suggesting she was endorsing Bartlett’s entire corporate philosophy/menu of services etc. Lots of back-and-forth ensued. Drama on the GP!

Bert went to a LOT of trouble to get our reader’s input in selecting an upcoming post-transplant tree experiment – Be a Part of History post. Bert notes “Of course, as with any major research project, the first step in the rigorous scientific process is to come up with catchy acronym for the study.  I propose ‘the SOcial MEdia DEsigneD TRansplant ExpErimental Study’ or SOME-DED-TREES for short.”    I have since stolen this idea for my own research (I KNEW something was missing). Good ideas flowed forth from our commenters. 

Bert then set up a survey in October “Vote Early and Often”, the results of which are posted as “The People Have Spoken.


Also in October was the hilarious “Amazing Water Slices” post by Linda.  This was an easy one for her, because, the hilarity was (unintentionally) supplied by quotes and photos from the actual sales information on this purported “best new garden product of 2011”.


I’ll just file this under “live and learn” in regards to blogging.  I believe I failed in stating the importance (“So we’ll just guess from now on…”) of the decision by the USDA/NASS to eliminate several Agriculture survey programs that provide annual reports on the economic impacts of various crops/commodities/sectors. If you really think a fiscal report that states the importance of a particular crop is just B.S. government interference (though most of eliminated crops/sectors are small-farm related), please re-read the “why I care” part.   However…if you WERE concerned and just didn’t say so in the post comments, you’ll be relieved to know several programs were reinstated within 30 days (a big hubbub was apparently raised) including three dear to my heart, the Floriculture report, the Bee and Honey report, and the annual Hops Production report. Note to self: do not mention The Government ever again in a blog post.


Bert’s “Another victory for the politics of destruction” post was clear, concise, non-partisan, and well done.  Unfortunately, he mentioned The Government. Nutshell: a grower-initiated, Christmas tree marketing check-off effort was framed as “Obama’s Christmas Tree Tax” to the point the program was pulled.  I had thought about posting on this very topic, but Bert beat me to it and as someone who actually works with Christmas Tree Growers, he was much more knowledgeable.  Plus he got to enjoy the anti-you-name-it comments (which he responded to very graciously)

Final thoughts regarding 2011…this blog is an old-fashioned, goodness-of-our-heart effort to bring you topics we think are important, provide some entertainment with factoids buried within, untwist our knickers, and generally try to be thought-provoking and/or helpful. Linda has done a terrific job hosting it and riding herd on the rest of us.

Does every post ooze wisdom and revelation? No. But lots of them do, complete with NO annoying advertising.  I noticed a trend reading back through 2011 – many of our “regular” commenters ceased commenting (though several still do – thank you!). The number of posts in 2011 with one or zero comments was greater than in 2010. It’s a challenge to take the time and effort to post something, and then…*crickets.*  I do understand how interest in a particular blog waxes and wanes. There are about one million gardening blogs (only slightly fewer than foodie blogs) vying for your attention; some of you may just be blogged out.  

Hate "Weird Plant Wednesdays"? Want more arguments on root washing? Can’t get enough mulch, compost tea, or Christmas trees? Need more feedback on your feedback? Please take this opportunity to tell us what you think at Linda’s survey. And thank you for your patronage.


Want healthier babies? Plant trees!

NOTE: Linda and I switched places this week so we could get the Garden Professors survey up on Monday – See Linda’s post for the link – please take a minute to give us your feedback!

I recently received a copy of a newsletter from the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station that included a summary of an article recently co-authored by one of the Station’s scientists on the effect of urban tree cover on pregnancy outcomes of new mothers in Portland, OR

According to the summary, researcher Geoffrey Donovan and his colleagues found that babies born to pregnant mothers who lived in neighborhoods with high amounts of tree cover were more likely to have higher birth weights than babies born to mothers living in areas with less tree cover.  Of course, being a skeptical (cynical?) Garden Professor my first reaction was, “Well, duh…expectant mothers that live in areas with more tree cover are probably living in better neighborhoods, are wealthier, better educated, and have lots of other things going for them that we typically associate with better pregnancy outcomes.” 

The summary put out in the PNW Station newsletter was scant on these details so I went on-line and dug out the original paper (citation below).  As I suspected the authors noted that, “Women with greater access to urban trees were more likely to be non-Hispanic white, younger, have fewer previous births, and live in newer, more expensive houses closer to private open space compared to women with less access to urban trees.”  However, they were able to account for these effects in their statistical analysis and still found that birth weight increased with the amount of tree cover near the mothers’ homes.

As we’ve all heard many times, correlation is not causation and it is unclear exactly how tree cover improves pregnancy outcomes.  One of the most likely explanations for the tree cover effect is that having more trees around reduces stress levels, resulting in better birth outcomes.  Trees can also reduce noise and other forms of pollution as well.  Regardless of the mechanism, this study may provide one more bit of ammunition for urban forestry advocates that go to battle for trees in our cities.

Donovan, G.H.; Michael, Y.L.; Butry, D.T.;Sullivan, A.D.; Chase, J.M. 2011. Urban trees and the risk of poor birth outcomes. Health & Place. 17(1): 390–393.

PS: Don’t forget to take our survey!


Happy New Year…and our request to our readers

It’s that time of the year again…annual reports are due to our respective administrations. One thing all of us need to document is impact on our various audiences. So we’ve created a short (10 question) survey to collect your feedback. The questions are mostly multiple choice and a bare-bones response will take you maybe a minute. Of course we’d love as much detail as you care to provide, so don’t feel obligated to speed through!

We’ll keep the survey open for the month of January, but your responses are more likely to be used if you get them in quickly. (For me, that means next Monday. January 9. One short week.)

Thanks in advance – and we look forward to another year of being your Garden Professors!

(If you didn’t see the hot link to the survey in the text, here it is again: