Finding agreeable things not sought for

As a graduate student at the University of Georgia many years ago I took a course in research methods.  One of the discussions that stuck in my mind all these years centered on the word ‘Serendipity’.  The classic definition of the word is “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”  As scientists we rely heavily on the scientific method as a systematic method of inquiry to make new discoveries.  But we also need to need to keep our eyes and minds open to serendipitous discoveries along the way as well.  

So what got me thinking about serendipity?  A few weeks back I visited a Christmas tree grower in northern Michigan with Jill O’Donnell our state-wide Christmas tree educator.  The grower called us in because he had some questions about some unusual trees in one of his Fraser fir plantations.  And, not only were the trees unusual, they were gorgeous.  The only question was; what were they?  The plantation originated from seed the grower had collected himself from some older Fraser fir trees he kept as a seed orchard.  He sent the seed to a large forest nursery in the Northwest, which grew the seedlings and sent them back to him.  The grower wondered if seed of another species could have been introduced in the process.  Possible, I told him, but not very likely.  Nurseries that are serious about contract growing are meticulous in keeping seed lots separate – few things are worse in that business than sending the wrong seedlings.  Plus, I’ve worked with many species of fir and this was one I didn’t recognize. The trees had many characteristics of Fraser fir but also had attributes of concolor fir; long bluish needles and a slight hint of citrus scent when the needles were crushed.  Many fir species can hybridize and all I could think was these trees had to be hybrids.  “Are there any mature concolor firs near the seed orchard?” I asked.  The grower brightened, “Actually there’s a group of older concolors about a half mile up the hill from the Fraser fir orchard.”  We jumped in his pick-up and visited the concolor firs.  Many of the trees had cone stalks indicating they were reproductively mature and could produce pollen.  Conifer pollen can travel for miles so it’s reasonable to expect that some of the concolor pollen could reach the Fraser firs, which were downhill and downwind based on the prevailing winds in the area.

Excellent tree form of the mysterious hybrids

So what’s next? There are several reasons to follow up on this serendipitous discovery and try to make some additional crosses.  First, as evidenced by the photos, the trees look fantastic.  Second, Fraser fir and concolor fir are each great trees but they also have some liabilities.  A downside of concolor is that they break bud early and often suffer late frost damage – Fraser’s break bud late.  Fraser fir need acidic, well drained soils – concolor fir can grower on a broader range of sites. It’s possible that the hybrids will have intermediate characteristics that would make them ‘the best of both worlds’. 

Foliage close up

The only thing left is to decide what to call the hybrids.  Nurseries like to combine common names. So, Craser fir?  Froncolor?

A different kind of storm chaser

As an Extensional Specialist working on urban and community forestry issues, I am frequently asked to respond to questions about tree damage after storms.  One standard bit of advice I give is to be wary of ‘door knockers’ or ‘storm chasers’; individuals that descend like locusts upon storm-ravaged areas with pick-up trucks and chainsaws offering to clean up storm damage.  Sometimes these are just honest folks trying make a buck but there are also less scrupulous folks in the mix that are clearly exploiting the misfortune of others.  In either event, they usually lack the training, not to mention insurance, to tackle the dangerous chore of removing downed trees around homes, cars, and people.

In trolling the internet the other day for photos for Monday’s post, I ran across a different kind of storm chaser.  It seems the internet has gone viral with photos of Brazilian glamour model, Nana Gouvea, who was photographed by her boyfriend in various settings among the devastation of Superstorm Sandy.  The photos were posted on (and subsequently removed from) from FaceBook.  Needless to say, many people were offended and have taken the model and her boyfriend to task for the photos and a FaceBook site has popped up with Photoshopped images of the comely model amidst other disasters from the killing of Bambi’s mother to Noah’s flood.

Personally, I think the public needs to cut Ms. Gouvea some slack.  This intrepid beauty has captured a teachable moment and performed a great public service for extension personnel everywhere.  I can see future hazard tree assessments talks and bulletins enlivened with her images.  Well, here, let me show some examples.

Note the upturned in roots in the upper left.  Poor root anchorage is a common cause of tree failures during storms.

Trees breaking at ground-line (far left) during high winds is often the result of girdling roots.

Trees snapping at mid-stem is often the result of a subtle defect.  Note the evidence of frost cracking below this breakpoint.

Archived webinar available

We had a decent turnout on the webinar yesterday – saw a few names from our blog readers there.  I hope everyone was able to see and hear the presentation and didn’t have any technical difficulties?  If you did, please let me know so we can fix them for next time. For those of you who weren’t able to attend, it’s been archived for viewing at your leisure.

I used suggestions that readers suggested on the blog to demonstrate how to search academic databases for science-based information on products and practices related to gardening.  So if you’re curious to know whether wireworms can be controlled naturally using bait traps, or whether hydrogen peroxide as a soil drench will prevent damping off off seedlings, or whether mowing leaves into the lawn is a good practice…you’ll have to watch!

Possum 1, Garden Professor 0

It was a dark and stormy Wednesday night.

Joel opened the porch door and whispered “you’ve got to come see this.” He’d taken the dogs out for their 9:00 p.m. constitutional, and there was apparently some excitement under the old apple tree.

“There’s a possum, and I think she’s playing dead.”

I grabbed the flashlight and hustled out.  Got around the corner to the tree, and sure enough, there was a rather large blob of silver and white mammal.

But as I got closer, my heart sank.

She was curled up, head askew, front leg sticking out at an odd angle.  Lips (?) pulled back , teeth and gums bared in a terrible grimace, tongue hanging out the side.  I shined the flashlight right into her eyes. No movement, no pupil dilation.  Being from a farm in Georgia, I claim the most possum and raccoon experience. Thus, my verdict. Deader than a doornail. Which made me sad.

“Aargh. Thanks. Now I’m upset.  Guess she got hit by a car and made it this far before expiring.  Could you put her out at the end of the garden? The soil’s pretty soft there.”

Joel apologized and went to get the shovel.  I scuffed back inside to finish the dishes, feeling awful for the little critter.  Thanks to our impenetrable hen stockade, we live in pretty good harmony with our country cousins, and hate to see harm come to them.

Ten minutes later, Joel was back at the door, shovel in hand.

“Um, I think it was faking.”

“No way. That possum was graveyard dead.”

“Well…it seemed to be o.k. enough to be sitting up and eating an apple.”

We hiked back out to the tree – no possum to be found.  My wildlife cred was blown.

“Looks like she was playing possum” I offered, helpfully.

Joel muttered “But I just dug a three-foot-deep hole.”

Vacation in Colorado and Washington

Wow, election week.  Maybe your candidate(s) won, maybe not.  To be perfectly honest I’m not really sure that we know whether we’ve won or not until they actually take office and start doing things.  Along with the candidates, you probably also had the opportunity to vote for other things, like whether your state constitution should include an amendment saying that a marriage should be between a man and a woman or whether IDs should be required for voters to vote (those were the two on the Minnesota ballots).

For us horticulture types there was one vote that really made us happy.  In Colorado and Washington they voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use.  OK, I should come clean – I’ve never smoked marijuana.  Been around it, sure, but I have never actually partaken.  At this point in my life I don’t think I’d bother with it regardless of whether it was legal or not.  So why am I, and other horticulturists, so excited about it?  If things work out this is a new crop to work on, and new crops are fun.  Breeding, growing techniques, maximizing productivity, etc.  Shoot, maybe there will even be new grants for this stuff to fund the work.  And imagine the fun that we extension types will have writing about it!  I can’t wait.  

Up in smoke

If you read my postings the last few weeks, you know that I’m doing a webinar on Wednesday on searching academic databases for information of interest and use to gardeners.  While researching one of the suggested topics (should we mow leaves into the lawn or bag and dump them?) I found a 2012 article* entitled “Biomass yield from an urban landscape” in the journal Biomass and Bioenergy.  My blood ran cold when I read this part of the abstract:

“It was estimated that the City of Woodward could generate about 3750 Mg of biomass dry matter in a normal rainfall year and about 6100 Mg in a high rainfall year if every homeowner collected their lawn thatch and clippings, and tree leaves, twigs, and limbs for bioenergy production.”

My first thought was that is a botanical version of The Matrix.  My second thought was how misguided such a proposal would be.  Rather than using the organic material in our landscapes and gardens to replenish soil nutrients naturally, or greencycle it, we’d gather every shred and give it away to be burnt for energy production. Then we’d spend money on fertilizers (organic or otherwise, it doesn’t matter), many if not all of which require energy to manufacture, package, and/or distribute.

Does anyone else see something wrong with this picture?

I can tell you who wins with this approach, and it sure isn’t us or our gardens.

(*Springer, T.L. 2012. Biomass yield from an urban landscape. Biomass and Bioenergy 37: 82-87.)

Superstorm Sandy aftermath: A modest proposal

Initial estimates from insurers indicate that Superstorm Sandy may be the second costliest storm in US history.  A large portion of the damage attributable to Sandy and several of the deaths associated with the storm were due to falling trees.   In many cases the winds were severe enough to topple healthy trees, but I’m sure many GP blog readers share my frustration in looking at storm-related tree damage photos and seeing obvious defects that a professional arborist would have readily spotted.

This brings me to a modest proposal: I propose insurance companies provide discounts for homeowners to have a hazard evaluation of trees on their property.  I did a quick search on the major insurance companies and they currently offer homeowners discounts of up to 15% for, among other things:

Smoke alarms

Burglar alarms

Fire extinguishers

            Security systems

Roofing materials

Sprinkler systems

The rational is self-evident; the cost of the discounts is more than off-set by damage and subsequent claims that are prevented.  How much of a discount should homeowners get for a hazard assessment?  I dunno, but I’m sure there are actuaries somewhere that could figure out cost-benefit breakdown of identifying hazards and removing them on a calm, clear day versus waiting until they come down in a major storm and destroy a car or a house or worse.

Webinar update – yes, YOU can attend!

A few days ago I posted about a webinar I’m doing on using academic databases for gardening myth-busting.  At the time I wasn’t sure what the rules were for viewing the webinar, but happily I’ve found out we can have outside viewers!  So here’s the information about when and how to log on to Adobe Connect (keep in mind this is Pacific Standard Time here).

Speaker: Linda Chalker-Scott

Date: Wednesday, November 7

Time: 10:30-11:30 a.m.


We have 99 slots for people, so there should be plenty of room.  And if you can’t make it, no worries.  The presentation will be archived so you can watch it over and over and over…

I’ve gotten some great ideas from you – thanks!  Hope to see some of you there. 

Aphids Marching

Was out enjoying the last of the SW Virginia fall color from our deck, the day before we got our dose of Sandy…the wind was picking up and the barometer and temperature were dropping

Twenty-four hours later, we had an inch of snow and 40 mph winds. No more fall color.
Looked down at the railing and the ENTIRE length of it – 45′ – had aphids streaming back and forth.  They were absolutely pouring off a Clematis terniflora vine (the same species that attracted all the blister beetles this summer – what a prize) that had clambered up over the deck. It was like two lanes of traffic, going in each direction, and at a (relatively) high rate of speed.  I’ve never seen aphids move so fast. But to where??

I believe it’s time to re-stain the deck.

We also had the interesting phenomenon of congregating swarms of lady beetles (the Asian species – Harmonia axyridis) a couple of weeks ago. The south side of the house and my Jeep were covered.  At least there’s an upside to that infestation – I’ve noticed lots of larvae around.

As you know, lady beetle larvae are very effective predators of aphids, and were out in full force amongst the aphids…I counted 30. But they couldn’t make a dent in the thousands of aphids streaming along the rail. Upon closer inspection, they were actually trying to avoid the aphids.  They had obviously had their fill and could barely move. I swear they looked nauseous.

“No thanks, we’re full.”
So – any thoughts on why the aphids were so active?