Cute plant alert!

When my day/week/month is going to heck in a handbasket, when faced with yet another impending-doom deadline, when the pile of folders on my desk grows so tall I can barely see over it… when the going gets tough, a little bit of cute can go a loooong way. 

So here ’tis:

Thalictrum thalictroides ‘Pink Pearl’

Not many plants fall into the "cute as a kitten/puppy/baby duck OMG" category, but this is one of them.

Used to be Anemonella thalictroides, but recent molecular "fingerprinting" puts it into the (rather redundant) genus Thalictrum.  This April-blooming woodland native (eastern North America) usually has bright white flowers. ‘Pink Pearl’ is a marvelous pinky-lavender selection made by Dr. Jeanne Frett and the gang at the Mt. Cuba Center, Greenville, Delaware.

I took this photo at Mt. Cuba in 2008 and have waited impatiently for ‘Pink Pearl’  to appear in the trade ever since. If anyone has any info as to where to get one, do fill me in.

Why I Don’t Worry Too Much about Trees Dying after Late Frosts

I like to say that my taste in music is eclectic, but it’s not really true.  I like music that is known as classic rock (60s – 80s rock once known as pop) and I like music known as "alternative" (really a meaningless term — but I don’t invent the labels).  The one band that I love who might be considered completely out of the mainstream is Rasputina — a cello based group who sing about many things, including history.  1816 in particular.  Listen, it’s a history (and meteorology) lesson in a song.

So, that said, In 1816 there were freezes in every month of the year across much of the Northern part of the US.  Leaves were frozen off trees almost as they formed — and yet, unless trees were small and/or weak, they lived to see 1817 (also a tough year), and beyond.  Sure, fruit production was way down, but trees are prepared for tough conditions — they store plenty of carbohydrates to protect themselves against that very thing occurring.  So, if anyone asks what’s going to happen to our trees if they flush out early (which they are doing) and then there are some late frosts, just point to 1816.  Or, better yet, let them listen to the song.  

Bokashi composting and Effective Microorganisms® – a quick analysis

A few weeks ago an attendee at one of my seminars asked me about bokashi composting.  It’s a term I hadn’t heard before, so I promised to look into it (and the science behind it, of course).  I haven’t had a chance to do much more than a cursory analysis, but even that has proven interesting.

For those of you who, like me, had never heard of bokashi, it’s a composting technique that utilizes Effective Microorganisms® as a way of creating a “positive” compost product using “positive” microorganisms.  Unlike those found in aerated compost tea, these microbes are primarily anaerobic.  They have been packaged and marketed for a number of applications, including water and sewage treatment.  Since this is a gardening blog, I limited my search to journal articles on whole plant experiments.

I found almost 50 articles in my initial sweep through the literature – I pulled out articles that included the word “bokashi.”  (There are many more [over 300] that mention “effective microorganisms” but it will take some time to winnow through those.)  Without reading the abstracts of my collected articles, I separated them into three categories:  top tier journals, lower tier journals, and meeting proceedings.  Top tier journals are generally those that have been around for a long time, have an international distribution, and are considered to be rigorous in their peer review process.  Lower tier journals may include those limited to a university or a single country, written in a language other than English, or relatively new; in many cases, this means that the peer-review may not be as rigorous as for top tier journals.  This may be unfair, but it’s one of the ways that scientists consider the impact of published research.  And finally, published meeting proceedings are almost always unreviewed.

(For those of you interested in how academics stress over journal ranking, you’ll be amused, depressed, and/or in total disbelief after reading this and this in the Chronicle of Higher Education.)

So here’s what I found when I read the abstracts of the articles in all three categories.  Briefly, I noted whether or not the bokashi treatment (which generally included Effective Microorganisms®) was effective in disease control, improving crop yield, etc.  I only read the abstracts, as many of the articles are not available as electronic resources.

Proceedings – no peer review (16)
Bokashi treatment better than whatever it’s compared to: 15
Bokashi treatment no different or worse than whatever it’s compared to: 1

Journal articles – lower tier resources (25)
Bokashi treatment better than whatever it’s compared to: 15
Bokashi treatment no different or worse than whatever it’s compared to: 7
Mixed results: 3

Journal articles – top tier resources (5)
Bokashi treatment no different or worse than whatever it’s compared to: 5

Quotes from abstracts of these last five articles:
“…did not improve yields and soil quality during 4 years of application in this field experiment.”
“We consider EM products to be ineffective.”
“…the chard treated with [EM products] lost considerable water and weight…the organic methods tested produce a vegetable that can not sustain its quality when commercialized through the conventional supply chain.”
“The treatments did not notably modify the physical and chemical quality of the chard when compared with control plants.”
“Overall, the results confirmed the…effect of compost application on plant growth. However, under the conditions of this study, EM showed no special effects in this.”


An update on the APLD’s soils guide

A few weeks ago I posted on the disappointing inclusion of compost tea in the APLD’s Guide to Sustainable Soils.  Included in my discussion of the issue was the suggestion that people involved in writing the guide also benefited financially from compost tea applications.  This led to some very honest and constructive emails between me and the APLD’s national leadership, which resulted in educating both parties.

Here’s what I found from the APLD’s President Susan Olinger and Sustainability Chair Toni Bailey:  As members of the Board of Directors of APLD, we can verify that there was no financial motive behind the inclusion of compost tea by the volunteers that wrote the soils guide.”  This is heartening and makes me feel less cynical about the motives behind including compost tea in the publication.

And here’s what I was able to impart to the leadership of APLD:  that while landscape designers may like to include compost tea as a soil amendment, the belief in its efficacy in improving soil tilth or biology is not supported by legitimate science.  It’s not a matter of sides, or opinions, but a matter of scientific evidence.

If the APLD doesn’t intend its guide to be a scientifically supported document, that’s certainly fine; landscape designers aren’t scientists, after all.  But since good soil science-based information is found throughout most of the guide, the inclusion of compost tea and mycorrhizal inoculants could easily be interpreted by others as science-based as well.

What’s the matter with kids these days?

Photos by Tom Fernandez

Ok, admit it.  If you’re over 40 or so, at some point in your life you’ve muttered that phase, likely more than once.  There is no doubt the younger generation can do things to get under your skin and raise your blood pressure.  But then they can turn around and do some pretty cool things, too.  The cool side was on ample display this weekend as over 750 college Horticulture students from 62 college and universities competed this weekend at the annual PLANET Student Career Days (SCD).  For the initiated, SCD is the landscaping Olympics for undergraduate students across the US (and a few from Canada to boot). The competition is organized by the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) and sponsored by companies such as Stihl, Gravely, and Husqvarna.   Students competed in 28 events including arboricultural techniques, plant identification, skid-steer operation, sales presentation, paver construction and landscape installation.  The event moves around the country each year, and Kansas State hosted this year’s event in Manhattan. 

The logistics of the event are astounding.  For example, in the paver construction, wood construction, and landscape installation events, 40 teams are given the exact same set of materials and tools.  When the starting horn sounds the teams are given their plan and then allowed two hours to complete the job.  Watching 40 two or three person teams racing against each other and the clock to complete their project is truly inspiring; as is the camaraderie and sportsmanship.  At PLANET SCD everything is on the up and up. No performance enhancing substances, no under the table payments; just college kids working their hardest to do their best for themselves and their team.  And everyone can contribute.  The plant geek who can nail plant ID or the persuasive saleswoman-to-be who gets their customer to sign on the line can score as many points for their team as the athletic tree climber or skilled equipment operator.  So, what’s the matter with kids these days?  When you watch them compete in SCD: not a darn thing.

For more on PLANET student career days, including a pretty cool video clip  on last year’s event go to:

For the record: BYU-Idaho was the overall winner this year.  MSU finished 4th and Virginia Tech was 9th

Students compete in Landscape CAD at PLANET SCD

Team MSU is all smiles after the Landscape Installation event in the mud-pit

MSU Horticulture club President Jackie Grow (left) closes the deal en route to a 3rd place finish in Sales Presentation

Why I Love Bachman’s

Back in February I had the opportunity to give a talk on a new book that I put together with a friend of mine, Meleah Maynard, who is a Master Gardener and garden writer here in Minnesota (you can see our promotional video here  — this is the video our administration let us run — you should have seen the one they didn’t!).  We conducted this talk at Bachman’s — a very well known garden center here in Minnesota.  For this talk we took products off the shelves and talked about them — some we trashed, like high phosphorus fertilizers.  Some we raved about, like cotton seed meal.

Anyway, Bachman’s got word of what we’d done.  How could they not?  some of their employees were there –and they loved it.  In fact, they brought me, as well as some internal people and John Lloyd — a well known and well respected tree guy in the area — back to talk to their sales force about the good and bad products they carry.  No holds barred.

This is the kind of thing I love, and here’s why.  I’m pretty difficult to pin down politically.  On some topics there’s no doubt I’m a liberal, on some a right winger.  Sometimes to the point of being a libertarian.  When it comes to garden centers I’m a libertarian.  Companies needs to make money, so they should have a diverse inventory, if that’s what brings consumers in, and let the buyer beware.  Part of Bachman’s success comes from the huge variety of products it carries, and I think it would be a shame for them to reduce this variety in any way — it could hurt business.  HOWEVER, Bachman’s knows that this freedom doesn’t mean that Bachman’s employees should be ignorant of the environmental consequences of some of the products they carry, or that they should recommend these products to their customers when asked.  So they have the best of both worlds — If you want some nutty product, hey, Bachman’s has it, and if you really want to know which products are good or bad?  Hey, just ask their knowledgeable sales force.  Nice!

Rules, guidelines, and to-do lists

Elizabeth: You have to take me to shore! According to the Code of the Order of the Brethren…

Captain Barbossa: First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement, so I ‘must’ do nothing.

And secondly, you must be a pirate for the Pirate’s Code to apply, and you’re not.

And thirdly, the code is more what you call "guidelines" than actual rules.

Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner!

—  Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl

There are ways, and then there are ways.

I’m always torn on this topic when it comes to pirate…I mean, gardening. How much I consider “rules” is minimal.  There are few absolutes.  Guidelines? Yes. Lots.

I know, absolutes and rules make decision-making easier and life simpler. Do this, now. Don’t do that, you’ll kill it.

Novices (at anything) especially appreciate rules.

As a not-so-seasoned beekeeper, the wildly diverse range of opinions and conflicting information on any one point is making me nuts.  Plus, all direction seem to come with the unspoken sentiment “…or they’ll DIE”.  March comes…”feed a 1:1 syrup to ensure a strong brood before nectar flow." Just as popular: “do NOT feed syrup in the spring, the bees have to exert too much effort to evaporate the water out and the hive will be too humid (and then you-know-what happens).  Aargh

To-do lists: great suggestions or fun-crushing obstacles to gardening enjoyment?

As the seasons change, you can’t pick up a gardening magazine or read a local paper column without some mention of Things You Would Be Doing In Your Garden Right Now If You Were Worth A Damn. Some lists even use the term "chores."  Chores are splitting wood and cleaning the toilet. Gardening, though requiring physical activity, is not a chore. Back to lists: a very fine regional gardening newsletter I just received had no fewer than 32 items on their March-April "To-Do List".  Thirty-two.

Three to-do directives I’ve seen in the last month and my judgement thereof:

“Browse plant and seed catalogs and get your orders in.”  Duh. Rule.

"Don’t prune Buddleia and other sub-shrubs until the buds are breaking. If you prune it in the fall, it will DIE."  Guideline.  I’ve done both, with no fatalities (has anyone actually killed a  butterfly bush by accident?).

“Wait until after last frost to set out tender annuals and warm-season vegetables.” I think our last frost was sometime back in February. Every man for himself on this one. I’m shooting for tomatoes in May.

Some lists skew more towards hard labor while others are not so time-consuming – such as “cut some daffodils and bring them inside to enjoy!” Marvelous! I may actually get around to that!  But wait – there’s a caveat – “because daffodil sap is ‘toxic’, don’t mix any other species of cut flowers in with them."

[or they’ll DIE]

The Living Desert

I had to laugh at Bert’s post about how warm it is in Michigan. Two days ago I drove to Vancouver BC from Seattle through a snow storm. Sigh. I’m already wishing I was back in Palm Desert…so today I’ll introduce you to The Living Desert, one of my favorite plant places to visit. It’s got stellar display gardens featuring the vegetation of the southwest desert ecosystems, all labeled, with tidbits of information on natural history, medicinal uses, etc. (American desert purists will need to grit their teeth and endure the exotic animal exhibits, the miniature railroad display, and Village WaTuTu.)

One of these things just doesn’t belong…

But back to the desert display gardens:

Note the sprinkler spray in the background against the sky.  It takes a lot of extra irrigation to maintain this planting density in a desert environment.

And here’s one of my favorite desert natives from last week’s postNolina parryi – on sale in their nursery:

I’m always a sucker for Bad Staking Examples and The Living Desert did not disappoint:

The Living Desert is a mecca for local wildlife, given the plentiful food and water available.  We had company for lunch:

Until next week, I’m in a warm, happy place…at least in my mind.

The winter of our discontent

I was in the field today at our Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center (SWMREC) so just a quick post and a couple of pictures.  Today is the last official day of winter but you’d never know to look outside. Our current temperature in East Lansing is 78 deg. F.  Our late winter warm up has officially reached historic proportions as we have blown by 1945 as the warmest winter in record in lower Michigan.  To give you an idea of how messed up things are the current temperature in Minneapolis, MN (77 deg.) is 21 deg. warmer than Los Angeles (56 deg.). 

While I hate the be the messenger of doom as Chicagoans enjoy fun and frolic at the beach, for many segments of horticulture what we’re watching unfold is a slow motion disaster.  Phenological development (bud-break, flowering etc.) is currently running almost a full month ahead.  Many important fruit crops such as plums and peaches have started to flower and the rest aren’t far behind.  Based on long-term records it is virtually certain that we will have several hard freezes before the weather warms up for good, meaning that many of these crops will be severely damaged if not destroyed entirely. So, if you’re in the Midwest or East, make the best of the good weather but recognize all good things must come to an end…

Plum crazy.  Plum blossoms at MSU SMREC, March 19, 2012

Just peachy.  Peach tree in bloom. MSU SWMREC, March 19, 2012.

A Good Potting Soil

On this blog we get mad at lots of things.  Sure, anger is fun, but sometimes you’ve got to suck it up and say something nice for a change.  So today I thought I’d point out a product that, while it comes from a company that I’ve had issues with in the past, is, itself, a good product.  I like Miracle-Gro Moisture Control potting mix.  The reason is that it utilizes coconut coir, a waste product from coconuts which holds lots of water and which can still maintain good aeration.  That means a reduced amount of peat.  I also like that the fertility present in this product (so you don’t need to fertilize right after you plant) is 3-1-2 which is appropriate for most situations.  Now, could you mix up you own coir potting mix more cheaply?  Sure, if you can find it.  You could also fertilize with a renewable organic fertilizer.  Still, I think Miracle-Gro got this one right.