Compost tea – now part of landscape design?

I spent yesterday at the Washington APLD meeting in Seattle (that’s the Association of Professional Landscape Designers) – a new venue for me.  In my relatively short time frame I focused on one example of an unsustainable practice (overamendment of soils with organic matter) and an unsubstantiated product (compost tea), both of which I knew were of interest to this group.  I came away with a lot of new colleagues and a shared sense of excitement that landscape designers, like other horticulture professionals, also want the best science on which to base their recommendations.

Imagine my frustation, then, when I was sent the national APLD “Guide to Sustainable Soils.”  Most of this document is very good – lots of information and graphics from the USDA and other reliable resources.  But scroll down to page 5, under the section “Soil Additives.”  And yes, there it is, compost tea.  Acccording to the APLD member who sent me this (not a Washington state member, by the way), the advisory committees that write these guidelines include people who make money from selling compost tea.  Surprised, no.  Disappointed, yes.

And it’s not just in landscape design.  Compost tea is ending up in specifications for landscape management contracts.  Reputable companies have to decide whether to hold their noses and apply useless products to secure contracts, or to not compete for the contracts at all.  In this economy, there aren’t many people who can afford to live on principle rather than a paycheck.

Compost tea is marketed, very effectively, through targeting emotional response.  We’ve already got science on our side, so here’s my suggestion to those of you who fight the compost tea battle:  start a little emotional targeting yourself:

  • Refer to compost as “slow food” for the soil system, as opposed to the liquid “fast food” tea that needs frequent application.
  • Suggest that Mother Nature’s been making tea herself for eons, letting rainwater perk through the compost.  Are we smarter than nature?
  • Point out that using compost is a natural, environmentally friendly approach to caring for the soil, rather than the big business, energy- and resource-consuming compost tea industrial complex that’s exploded in that last decade.

Over the top?  Probably.  But accurate?  Absolutely.

Moving from tree planting to tree performance

I ‘like’ American Forests page on Facebook so I receive their periodic updates.  One item that caught my eye recently was a profile article on Dr. Greg McPherson, who is an urban forestry researcher with the USDA Forest Service in Davis, CA.  Even if you don’t recognize the name, if you have even seen any statistics on the economic and environmental benefits of trees in cities (energy conservation, carbon sequestration, etc), they probably cited information for McPhereon’s studies, either directly on indirectly,

What really made me say “Amen, brother!” in the American Forest piece was McPherson’s response to the question, “What’s the biggest issue in urban forestry today?”  His reply, “Moving from the tree-planting paradigm to the tree-performance paradigm.”  Let’s face it, tree planting, for want of a better term, is sexy.  It’s relatively easy to raise money or get politicians to show up for a tree planting event and throw a few scoops of dirt with a ceremonial silver-plated shovel while the local media cameras are clicking.  

Image: Stephen Simpson/London News Pictures

But who is going to get excited about maintenance pruning? Or developing workable tree ordinances?  Or a pest management program?

Image: Susan Lesch

I’ve participated in various tree planting programs and it always gives me mixed emotions to hand out tree seedlings to second graders.  I’m glad they’re excited about getting a tree but also realize most of the seedlings that those 7-year-olds are running with will have the same lifespan as a goldfish that comes home in a plastic bag from the county fair.  Does this mean we should ban tree giveaways or planting events?  Of course not. Even if only a few seedlings survive the grubby hands of second-graders, that’s a plus and building their awareness of trees and their environment is the bigger issue.  But we also need to build public awareness of what it takes to maintain the urban forest and accrue all those benefits on the long term.  And most of those activities don’t make good photo ops or video clips for the local TV news.

In some places, we’re starting to get the message.  Here in Michigan our Department of Natural Resources awards Community Forestry grants.  The program will fund various activities but many grants are for tree planting.  If the application is for tree planting, the applicant must include a description of the maintenance practices that will be used to ensure the long-term success of the planting – forcing applicants to think about what happens after the trees are planted.  In addition the program also requires that applicants plant a diversity of species to help reduce issues with monocultures.  Small steps, but the ones we need to take to move from the tree planting paradigm to the tree performance paradigm. 

Going Overboard with Paul Tukey

According to a post by Paul Tukey on, a recent French study which was published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology shows that corn which has been genetically modified to produce the caterpillar toxin Bt is poisonous to humans.  Furthermore, so is roundup.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re screwed.

The rapture is coming.  The true believers who shun conventionally produced food and eat only organic, non-GMO will be saved.  Those who don’t, well, they’re all as good as dead so don’t even bother worrying about ‘em.  Brothers and Sisters, change your ways now while there’s still time!

The end will come, not in the form of fire or water, but instead kidney failure and it will come as punishment for playing with Nature.  By messing around with that which Nature has wrought we have inadvertently created a subtle beast that now lies quietly in our bloodstream poised to destroy us.  We are the architects of our own doom and can only hope that those who survive the destruction mend their ways to bring this world back to its GMO and pesticide-free ways.  It’s our only hope.  

OK, the above statement is more than a little over the top.  Hopefully you realized that as you were reading it.  Here’s the real story.  Let me start with Paul Tukey.

I’ve read a lot of what Paul Tukey has written.  He’s a guy who’s very concerned about the amount of poison that we spray on our crops and our lawns and, to be honest, I admire his resolve, and I agree that we overuse pesticides – and to go a step further it’s people like him who are going to get people excited about reducing pesticide use and are going to make a difference in the backyards of America.    

BUT (you knew there would be a but didn’t you?) he has a habit of over-interpreting what the studies say and/or passing along information that does the same.  Usually it’s not too bad.  For example, this article about Round-up is a bit over the top and is based more on the beliefs of one scientist who is considered an extremist rather than on our best scientific data, but at least it acknowledges the fact it might be wrong.  It’s the kind of article that I don’t like, but not one I’m going to get up in arms about because then I’d be constantly up in arms and probably end up suffering from chronic migraines – there’s just too many articles like this for me to worry about all of them.

The article that I began this post discussing is different because it says, and I quote “genetically modified corn containing the genes for Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is toxic to humans” and then goes on to say the same thing about Round-up.  The implication is that the study which was conducted shows without the shadow of a doubt that we’re killing ourselves by eating genetically modified crops which have the Bt toxin and/or have Round-up used around them – at least I think that’s the implication.  If any of you think I read it wrong please let me know.

The idea that this study shows that we’re hurting ourselves with genetically modified crops is ridiculous (please be aware that I’m talking about this particular study — there certainly could be others in the future that change my mind).  Why you ask?  Let me count the ways.

  1. We eat Bacillus thuringiensis all the time.  It’s a naturally occurring bacterium which is often present in food and is cultured as an organic pesticide which is likely to be present at some concentration in organically produced crops sprayed with it.  If you think that avoiding genetically modified foods will keep you away from it you’re sadly mistaken.
  2. This study tested the effects of Bt and Round-up on a strain of kidney cells.  Hardly any Bt and Round-up gets to kidney cells even if you eat or drink them – there are just too many barriers to cross before reaching the blood stream (But it is important to note that some certainly does – just very, very little – One article I found showed a level of about 0.2 nanograms Bt/milliliter blood and about 75 nanograms Round-up/milliliter blood in a population in Canada). 
  3. This study artificially placed Bt and Round-up in with kidney cells in a test tube.  Obviously nothing like a natural environment.  Try the same thing with coffee or dish soap at the same concentration and I bet you’ll see worse damage to the cells.         
  4. Just to get picky, kidney cell line 293 was used.  Look it up on Wikipedia (look up HEK 293) this IS NOT an appropriate cell line to be testing poisons on.

Long story short — the article cited really doesn’t reveal much abo
ut how safe or dangerous genetically modified crops are.

Tom Fischer for the WIN!

The answer to last Friday’s plant i.d. quiz is Angelia gigas. Tom guessed it; confirmed (seconded?) by Johannes.

Fairly easy biennial from seed.  Bees and butterflies love it. This one’s a bit spindly due to too much shade (it had reseeded from another spot).  And that most certainly is not a dandelion in the background.

I love the buds – before opening, the flower is encased in bract with and disguised (?) with a wee leaf-like structure at the end.

An uphill battle for evidence-based products

I was idly scrolling through Facebook, thinking about my topic for today, when I saw a link for “federal guidelines for sustainable landscaping.”  Perfect!  I skimmed through the document – some quibbles here and there, but nothing gasket-blowing on my first read – and then checked out the BioPreferred Catalog page.  I looked under “Landscaping and Agriculture” and clicked on “Fertilizers.”

There are 182 listings.  The very first one is “1-2-3 Instant Compost Tea.”  You can follow the link yourself, but here’s what the company says: “Contains macro/micro nutrients for turf, Increases potassium and phosphorous uptake in plants, Stimulates seed germination and root formation and growth, Improves soil porosity, Increases the protein and mineral content of soil, Increases soil microorganism populations, Aids in reducing soil erosion.”

And that’s just the first entry.  How about Bio Plant Wash?  Here’s what it is: “Bio Plant Wash is a BioBased Nano-Colloidal formula, a remarkable blend of processed extracts of coconut, corn, soy, sugarcane, etc. This unique formula improves plant health so much the plant can resist harmful insects and disease which in return helps produce vastly increased yields. Eliminate or greatly reduce expensive toxic chemicals.

“Bio Plant Wash can be used on Flowers, Fruits, Fruit Trees, Vegetables, Sod Fields and Lawns. You will see healthier, bigger, stronger and faster growing plants.”

But wait, there’s more!  Here are the results you will see if you use this product:

“Accelerated Photosynthesis,
Enhances Root Growth,
Better nutritional absorption,
Revives stressed plants,
Plants become more disease resistant,
Reduce expensive pesticides costs,
Cost Effective, Cost pennies per gallon when diluted,
Non-Toxic, Non-Carcinogen,
People, Animal and Earth Safe”

The only standard one needs to meet to have their product listed as BioPreferred is to show that it’s “composed in whole, or in significant part, of biological products, renewable agricultural materials (including plant, animal, and marine materials), or forestry materials.”

No testing is required to show that it actually works.

Another lesson from my (eastcoast) garden

When we lived in Buffalo, we became warriors in the gypsy moth battle. One of the things we quickly learned was to check tree trunks for larvae, especially those trees with thick, rough bark where caterpillars could hide. It went without saying that burlap used to insulate tender plants came off as soon as possible in the spring, because that burlap was a great place for larvae to live as well.

Back in Washington state, we don’t have a gypsy moth infestation (yet), but the lesson was retained: we don’t leave materials wrapped around the trunks or branches of trees. Other pests would find them just as hospitable as gypsy moths, and the dark, moist conditions would be wonderful for disease development.

So imagine my horror this morning when the Sunday paper featured the latest Seattle art – Tree Socks. These knit installations are appearing on trees in public spaces. Don’t get me wrong – I love art – but this just seems like a bad idea waiting to happen.

Why not dress up utility posts and light poles instead? They’re certainly more in need of aesthetic improvement than trees.

Milky Spore

There are a lot of great products out there for controlling insect pests without using pesticides.  Some of the best include insect diseases or predators which will attack the pest and not beneficial.  For example, there are wasps that kill mealybugs and nematodes that attack grubs.  Both of these products are pretty effective.  That said there are also some products that just don’t work that well.  One of them is known as milky spore disease.

Milky spore disease is a bacteria that infects a variety of different scarab beetles – of which the Japanese beetle is one.  It isn’t a disease that we imported from Japan – it’s actually one that was found here.  Because this disease affects the Japanese beetle and it isn’t a pesticide per se people get very excited about it.  The problem is that it just doesn’t work that well.  Sure, it will offer some control, but not much.  Probably somewhere less than 20%.  Furthermore, most people use it in hopes of reducing their adult beetle population, but adult beetles come from all over, perhaps even miles away, so killing the beetles in your soil doesn’t in any way guarantee that you’ll be controlling the adult beetles eating your roses.

Now if you want to encourage your township to try milky spore disease that might work.  Spread over larger areas milky spore will have more of an effect for obvious reasons.  But placed on one yard, it’s just not going to do that much.

Plants aren’t so cooperative after all

One of the underlying tenets of ecology is the principle of competitive exclusion. This principle states that when two species compete for the same vital resource, the better adapted species will ultimately displace its competitor. Simply put, it’s survival of the fittest.

More recently, some ecologists have suggested that nature’s not quite so brutal – that the species composition in an ecosystem is determined more by random fluctuations in population numbers than by direct competition.

But last month, this "neutral theory" was directly challenged by evidence on three continents which compared the abundance of particular tree species, both in the fossil record and in existing forest ecosystems. The similarities were so close among all the comparisons that it’s most likely due to direct competition rather than random fluctuations.

While this information might seem pretty esoteric, it does have direct application to gardens and landscapes. Among your plants, you will have some that compete better for water, nutrients, and other resources. The concept of "companion plantings" as plants actively helping each other survive is a wishful projection on our part.

And this all ties into the discussions we’ve been having about mulch. While living mulches – turf, ground covers, etc. – help protect soil structure and reduce erosion, they also compete with other plants in the landscape. Maintaining landscapes with living mulches will require more water than the same landscape with organic mulches. It doesn’t matter if the plants are native or not – it’s just a question of limiting resources and who’s going to be the most competitive in extracting them.

(Forgot to include the reference the first time I posted this – here it is: Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet Muenchen (LMU). “Jostling for position: Competition at the root of diversity in rainforests.” ScienceDaily, 26 Jan. 2012.)