SoMeDedTrees update

Things have settled down briefly here and I have had a chance to summarize some of the data from the container tree transplanting experiment we installed earlier this year.  For those that aren’t familiar we installed two tests this summer using 96 ‘Bloodgood’ plane trees grown in 25 gallon containers that were leftover when we completed an earlier trial in our Pot-in-Pot nursery.  I decided to use this as an opportunity to look at some tree transplanting recommendations.   With input of our GP blog readers, we installed two tests.  In both tests we applied three treatments to the tree root-balls before planting (‘shaving’ the outer roots to eliminate girdling roots; ‘teasing’ apart the rootball to eliminate girdling roots, and a control or ‘pop and drop’ to use Linda’s nomenclature).  At one site we fertilized half the trees at planting and left the others unfertilized.  At the second site we mulched half the trees with 3” of ground pine bark and left the others unmulched.


On the fertilizer trial we have not seen anything remarkable.  We conducted measurements of leaf chlorophyll content using a SPAD meter (a device that measures light transmittance through leaves) but did not see an effect of either fertilizer or root ball treatments.  This is not completely surprising.  In the nursery trial we fertilized the trees at standard production levels, so their nutrient status was pretty good at the outset.  What will be interesting is to see if either treatment at planting has a longer term impact.


In the mulch study we have seen some more immediate impacts.  We measured soil moisture to 15 cm (6”) and 45 cm (18”) inside the rootball and just outside the rootball periodically during the summer.  Soil moisture levels were consistently higher for the mulched trees that for the trees that were not mulched (Fig. 1), especially at the shallow (15 cm) depth.

Figure 1. Soil moisture of trees with and without mulch in the SoMeDedTrees study, summer 2012. (Sigmaplot wizardry by Dana Ellison)

This was reflected in tree moisture stress levels during August.  We measured predawn water potential with a pressure chamber.  Using a pressure chamber enables us to estimate the level of tension with which water is being held inside a tree.  We remove a leaf from the tree and put it in a chamber with the cut end sticking out.  We gradually increase the pressure in the chamber until we see water appear on the cut end.  The more stress the tree is under the more pressure we have to apply to get water back out. In this case, mulching, by virtue of the fact it increased soil moisture, resulted in lower water potential values, indicating less stress (fig. 2).  The root ball manipulation treatments, on the other hand, did not affect tree stress.


Figure 2. Mean pre-dawn water potential (in -MPa) of plane trees in the SoMeDedTrees study, August 2012.

So where does that leave us?  Well, as we’ve noted all along, this is long-term trial.  The plan is to track the trees over 3-5 years and maybe longer.  But long-term responses are the cumulative results of series of shorter-term effects.  So far, mulching appears to be the only factor that has made a difference but we are still early in the game.

Ecosystem services: Am I going to get a bill?

Spent last Friday in a departmental faculty retreat – you know, the “vision thing”  – S.W.O.T. analysis, where are we going to be in five years, etc.  But we actually got some things accomplished. One of the more interesting aspects was discussing trends in horticulture, both popular and practical, and how we could respond. One of the reoccurring themes throughout the day, especially related to urban agricultural/horticulture, was ecosystems services. I’ve heard the term mostly from environmental science and urban forestry folks.  But also seems fairly appropriate for us horticulturists, who are constantly trying to explain what, exactly, we do.

The definition offered by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (“Bringing biology to informed decision making”) is pretty good:

Ecosystem Services are the processes by which the
environment produces resources that we often take for granted such as
clean water, timber, and habitat for fisheries, and pollination of
native and agricultural plants. Whether we find ourselves in the city or
a rural area, the ecosystems in which humans live provide goods and
services that are very familiar to us. [They include:]

  • moderate weather extremes and their impacts
  • disperse seeds
  • mitigate drought and floods
  • protect people from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays
  • cycle and move nutrients
  • protect stream and river channels and coastal shores from erosion
  • detoxify and decompose wastes
  • control agricultural pests
  • maintain biodiversity
  • generate and preserve soils and renew their fertility
  • contribute to climate stability
  • purify the air and water
  • regulate disease carrying organisms
  • pollinate crops and natural vegetation”

Horticulture, as a discipline, touches on so many of these areas.

My question to our readers: does the term ecosystem services mean much to you? Or do you consider it jargon, best kept to grant proposals and impact reports?

Another WOW (why oh why) – “biodegradable” mesh for plugs

David Hobson, a garden columnist, sent me this great photo of his petunia planted earlier this year. Take a look at the root growth (or lack thereof):

I’m not sure where this particular product came from, but it looks a lot like a FERTISS propagation plug.  Here’s a description from their website of this product.”FERTISS is a ready-to-use, pre-filled propagation tray system. Cuttings are placed in a mixture of peat and perlite wrapped in a non-woven fabric. Roots of young plants will easily penetrate this fabric and enter the airspace between the fabric and the plastic cell wall. Roots are naturally air-pruned, resulting in a faster and better take, increased lateral branching, and improved transplanting performance.”

It sure doesn’t look like roots “easily penetrate” this fabric, at least when gardeners get them potted up at home.  And though I can’t see the top of the plant, I’m guessing it didn’t show “improved transplanting performance,” especially compared to a plug from a traditional liner pot.

Nowhere did I find what this “non-woven fabric” was made of (though there are allusions online to it being biodegradable), but it’s just one more impediment for plants – and gardeners – to deal with.

New study on pesticide use and GMOs

Some environmental extremists discount agricultural research done by universities, because they receive funding from Big Ag and therefore their researchers can’t be trusted. So this news report of a recent study by one of my Washington State University colleagues is doubly important: it dispells this baseless assertion and it provides some significant – and troubling – information about pesticide use and GMO crops.

Briefly, the article links an increased use of herbicides as a result of increased use of GMOs such as Roundup-ready crops. Weeds build up resistance to herbicides over time, meaning that Roundup becomes less useful as a weed killer and farmers have to turn to more toxic substitutes like 2,4-D to control weeds.

Dr. Benbrooks’s results, published in a peer-reviewed journal, are contested by the chemical industry, and other scientists question the seriousness of the problem. But next time you hear someone malign university scientists as being in Monsanto’s back pocket, please refer them to this post.

An unwanted bonus in your urban chickens

Longtime reader Ray Eckhart sent me a NYT story on urban chicken eggs and lead contamination.  As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, urban gardeners should have their soils tested for lead, arsenic, and other commonly found heavy metals before they plant edibles.  Chickens that are allowed to peck and scratch in metal-contaminated soils will pass that unwanted load on to you via their eggs.

So test your soils!  It costs a bit of money, but then you know exactly what’s lurking in there.  If your soils have significantly high levels of lead or other contaminants, you can still raise chickens as long as they don’t roam your garden.

Plant sentience – a slippery slope

I maintain a “Garden Professors blog” group on Facebook, where people can pose questions and make suggestions. Ellyn Shea asked about the trend towards calling plants sentient, especially given the new book by Daniel Chamovitz – What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses

Dr. Chamovitz is a respected scientist, and there is no doubt that plants sense and respond to their environment in ways we are still learning to understand. But couching plant responses in language associated with human sentience is a slippery slope.  Yes, it makes plant physiology more understandable to nonscientists, but it also leads to increased belief in pseudoscientific ideas. For example, here’s a response to an on-air interview with the author (the link is my own insertion):

“Over a hundred years ago Rudolf Steiner wrote about biodynamics and plant growth. Their sensitivities to the seasons, their environments, and humans…”

Here’s another:

“I have been talking to plants for years…our experimental garden overflows, the cellular intelligence, the capacity to communicate is deeply satisfying when you learn how to listen and feel what the plant is saying…they give us much information at a spiritual level as well as physical, i thank my flowers verbally, i sing to them,they respond in healing ways…water has the same living intelligence…talk to a glass of water with love before you drink it and it actually improves the feelings of health and flavor ….”

And another:

“One who understands this far more thoroughly than Chamovitch is Stephen Harrod Buhner, author of The Lost Language of Plants and the Secret Teachings of Plants, in which he details the most cutting edge cardio-neurological science which demonstrates that the heart (more neurons than muscle cells) is the body’s primary resonator and capable of direct energetic communication with the rest of the living community. All indigenous and ancient peoples knew this.”

Plant physiology is drastically different from animal physiology, and what we’ve learned about how plants work comes from centuries of careful scientific study – not from folklore and superstition.  For those of us Garden Professor types who spend time educating the public about plant sciences, anthropomorphizing plants or using imprecise language just makes our jobs more difficult.

Up, up, and away…

First, let me cue the 5th Dimension.


I got a call the other day from the owner of a local hot air balloon company.  They specialize in fall color rides and he wanted to include some info from me about the state of fall color in Michigan this year.  Despite our concerns following this summer’s heat and drought, it turns out this year has been very good for fall color.  I think our color has been a bit more variable than usual with some trees turning early and I’m noticing many maples are dropping pretty leaves quickly once they hit peak.  Nevertheless, nature is giving us a great show. And if you’ve got a little extra spending money, there’s probably no better way to see it than from a beautiful balloon…

Photos: Scott Lorenz, Westwind Balloon Co.




When all else fails…

As someone who has had a foot in Horticulture and a foot in Forestry throughout most of my career, people often ask me to compare the two disciplines.  One of the truisms that applies in both cases is, “When all else fails, blame the nursery.”  I’ve seen this following seedling die-offs in industrial forest plantations and I’ve seen it many, many times after street tree or landscape planting failures.  In fact, if you believe some people, tree nurseries are responsible for every plague and pestilence to ever afflict mankind.  Are some tree failures related to things that happened in the nursery?  Of course.  But there are lots of things that can go wrong between a nursery and a tree’s final destination; and even more things that can go wrong after it’s planted.

I know a lot of people don’t believe this, but nursery growers want their trees to survive and grow well after they leave their care.   Growing trees is like making cars and any other business.  You need satisfied customers if you expect to have repeat business.  The best growers are always looking at their production practices for ways to improve their product.  Last week I visited Korson’s tree farm in central Michigan.  Korson’s grows Christmas trees and B & B landscape conifers.   Rex Korson, the owner, has been concerned over the impact of root loss during transplanting of landscape trees.  So much so, in fact, that he is conducting his own trial on root pruning.

For those that are not familiar, root pruning of B & B trees is usually done a couple years before harvest by using a tree spade to severe tree roots.  The spade used for pruning is slightly smaller than the one used for harvest, so that new roots stimulated by pruning are harvested with the root ball.  Does it work?  I did a root pruning trial a few years back to see if it could improve survival of fall-planted oaks and had mixed results.  For Rex’s trees, however, the initial results were pretty impressive.  In the first photo below are root systems of Norway spruce trees dug with a 30” tree spade.  The second photo shows the root systems of trees dug with the 30” spade that had been root-pruned last October with a 24” tree spade.  The response in one-year’s time was dramatic.  At this point there no out-planting data but, other factors being equal, increasing the amount of roots harvested with the tree should increase transplant success.

I should hasten to point out that Rex is not alone.  I work with many other growers in the state that are constantly tinkering with this or that in their production systems; sometimes on their own, sometimes with university specialists or extension educators.  I’m not so Pollyanna to think that everything is always rosy in the nursery world but most growers, especially the better ones, are aware of the issues out there and are working to build a better tree.

Spruce dug with 30″ spade without root pruning

Norway spruce root-pruned in Oct 2011 with a 24″ spade and dug Oct 2012 with a 30″ spade.

Close up of new fine roots

Tree spade mounted on excavator for root pruning.  With this system an operator can root prune 8 trees in 5 minutes.


Pennsylvania is for…..Snake Oil?

This year at the Philadelphia Flower Show there were a few groups talking about compost tea.  Meadow Brook Farm, a farm owned by the Pennsylvania State Horticultural Society is one, and another is F2, a company that provides “Scientific Soil Management”.   Apparently they do things that are good for the soil, though the “method” section of their website is a little too vague for me.  They also offer pictures of the results they’ve had with compost tea on a few different projects.  The one that was most interesting to me was the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway.  You can see it here.

Look at the boxwood comparison and you tell me why the compost tea didn’t do a darn thing.   Look at the grass comparison while you’re at it.

Throughout the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society’s website there are all kinds of opportunities to find out how to make and use compost tea, including courses at Meadowbrook farm.  Now that Elaine Ingham is at the Rodale Institute (Which is in Emmaus Pennsylvania) they have all kinds of classes on it there too.  Even Longwood Gardens is Getting into the act (scroll down and click on the compost tea link).  So what I want to know is, why have the Compost Tea Gods invaded my home state of Pennsylvania?  What makes the keystone state so attractive to people who want to promote snake oil?  I just don’t get it.  Is it the cheesesteaks?  Maybe the scrapple?

No, I’m pretty sure it’s the Rolling Rock….or maybe the Yuengling – America’s oldest brewery (their Black and Tan is one of the best beers in the US – second only to anything brewed by the Surly company).   Yeah, that’s gotta be it.