Landscape Fabric Strikes Again–Oh the Horror!

I have a very interesting research project on the effects of urban pressure on Coast Live Oak (CLO). CLO is a California native oak and I am interested in seeing if urban cultural conditions prevent the development of mycorrhizal fungi on their roots.  My study is blocked, that means that all the treatments occur in a block and the blocks are repeated for replication.  Blocking allows the statistics to account for variability in field locations.  Its a good thing too, since one of the blocks has never done well.  One tree died, two are severely chlorotic etc.  This was not just the effect of the urban pressure treatments, but way more severe than any other trees growing in other blocks.  It turns out there was a reason…  I had unwittingly planted my sapling oaks in an area of our research farm where  buried landscape fabric was installed.

Landscape fabric in my test plots prevented rooting of coast live oak in the undersoil

So most trees that were covered by the landscape fabric were chlorotic. One died and one grew normally. The one growing normally had extended roots over the top of the fabric and then grown into soil beyond the fabric. Note in the picture above a lack of roots despite adequate moisture.

One of the oaks in the fabric affected block. Even coarse arborists chips can’t help this tree when landscape fabric is in the way. The yellow coloration of the leaves is chlorosis. Likely because the roots do not have enough oxygen to acidify their rhizosphere.

How does landscape fabric hurt trees? Let me describe the mechanisms… First and foremost soil coverings reduce the ability of soil to diffuse gases, both into and out of soil. As we know from other blogs on this subject in the archive Dr. Linda Chalker Scott and colleagues conducted research on gas diffusion rates under different kinds of landscape or soil coverings. It is important to understand that gases go both ways. For roots to remain healthy, they must convert sugar to energy through the process of respiration. During chemical respiration oxygen is combined with glucose and converted into energy (for cell growth) and carbon dioxide is produced. Carbon dioxide must diffuse out of soil and oxygen diffuse into soil for this reaction to occur.

Image from Shahzad et al., 2019. The chart indicates how fabrics and plastic are impermeable to carbon dioxide.

Many of our blogs have touted the benefits of coarse, fresh, arborist chips for woody plants. One of the supreme benefits is the increase in rooting under these mulches. Unlike landscape fabrics, wood chip mulches eventually modify soil actually promoting gas exchange into deeper levels. Also, landscape fabrics prevent soil arthropods and other organisms from transporting organic matter to lower levels. Think of plastics and fabrics as a suffocating blanket over root systems, they deprive roots of moisture and gas exchange and prevent soil modification and organic matter movement.

While thick, coarse organic mulches actually enhance establishment and rooting of landscape plants without limiting gas exchange they can not overcome the impact of landscape fabrics. A common practice is to lay down fabrics and then apply mulch over the fabric. This often results in a “tatty” look years later when the mulch decomposes and the fabric shows through. Landscape fabrics and weed barriers are landscape pollutants. We should be limiting the use of petroleum products in landscapes because they do not break down easily and they have a bad impact on all forms of life.

As mulches break down “tatty” landscape fabric shows through giving a trash-like look to any landscape they are used in

References

Cahill, A., L. Chalker-Scott and K. Ewing. 2005. Wood-chip mulch improves plant survival and establishment at no-maintenance restoration site (Washington). Ecological Restoration 23:212-213. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/303445066_Wood-chip_mulch_improves_plant_survival_and_establishment_at_no-maintenance_restoration_site

Chalker-Scott, L. and A. Downer. 2022. Garden Myth-Busting for Extension Educators: The Science Behind the Use of Arborist Wood Chips as Landscape Mulches. Journal of the NACAA 15(2). https://www.nacaa.com/file.ashx?id=6c7d4542-7481-4f0a-9508-d8263a437348

Shahzad, K., A.I.Bary, D.P. Collins, L. Chalker-Scott, M. Abid, H.Y. Sintim and M. Flury. 2019. Carbon dioxide and oxygen exchange at the soil-atmosphere boundary as affected by various mulch materials. Soil & Tillage Research 194. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.still.2019.104335

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow?

If you follow current weather news, you have likely read the astounding story of the recent lake effect snowfall in Buffalo, New York, and other areas downwind of the Great Lakes, where over 6 feet of snow fell in just a day or two in some locations. My mom, who still lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I grew up, reported that in her city some areas got up to 30 inches during the same time frame. So this month I want to discuss lake effect snows and how heavy snows can affect your trees and gardens.

Source: photochem_PA, Commons Wikimedia

What is lake effect snow?

Lake effect snow is snow that is caused or enhanced by differences in the temperature of warm water in the lakes and the cold Arctic air that blows over it. Calling it “lake effect” is a bit of a misnomer, since cold, dry air blowing over a warmer ocean can cause the same effect. In the United States, it most often occurs downwind of the Great Lakes, especially in fall when the lakes are still warm and the air blowing in from the north is much colder and drier than the lake surface. It can even sometimes occur downwind of smaller lakes or reservoirs if the conditions are just right.

Diagram

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As the cold dry air crosses the warm water, copious amounts of water vapor evaporate into the air mass and once that warmer, moister air blows onshore again clouds drop huge amounts of snow in the areas downwind of the lakes. The snow usually falls in heavy bands that drop snow in areas that are highly dependent on the direction of the wind. Often the bands are just a few miles wide but if you drive through one your visibility can drop to near zero in just a short distance. When I lived in Valparaiso, IN, near the south end of Lake Michigan, winds blew straight from the north for much of the month of December 2000 dropping 32.0 inches of snow when Decembers there usually get just a few inches, thanks to the lake effect snow that occurred. (I moved to Georgia the next month, although it was not because of the snow—mostly.) As winter progresses and the lakes get colder with more ice cover, lake effect snow is reduced because of the decrease in available water vapor so fall and early winter are the prime times of year for the heaviest lake effect snow.

In this case, weather forecasters were well aware of the potential for record-breaking snow because of their knowledge of the lake temperatures plus the computer-generated forecasts of wind direction and persistence over time. Winter storm warnings and maps of predicted snowfall were produced well ahead of time. Even so, the amount of snow that was produced from this historic event is still amazing.

Source: Carolyn Thompson / AP Photo

Why did Buffalo experience such extreme snowfall amounts?

Buffalo is known for its incredible snowfalls due to its position downwind of Lake Erie, a long and shallow lake that is usually warm well into fall. The long distance of the wind blowing over the lake (called the “fetch”) allows the air to pick up tremendous amounts of water that becomes snow as it hits the land NE of the lake; the exact location of heaviest snow depends on the direction of the wind over the lake (see my poorly drawn map annotated on a screen capture of the Earth Nullschool streamline map for the day of the heaviest snowfall below). In this month’s case, the lake had temperatures well above the long-term average, and the wind across the lake was very consistent over a few days, allowing the snow to pile up dramatically. In some locations snow was falling at the rate of several inches an hour and the extended period of snowfall allowed it to build up to over six feet in some locations in just a day or two, while other areas not along the direct path of the wind received much less. The area of heaviest snowfall shifted as the winds changed direction over time.

The result of this weather event was the nearly complete shutdown of Buffalo and other areas affected by the heavy snow. Even a city that experiences as much annual snow as Buffalo does can be stopped in its tracks for a while by the sheer volume of snow that has to be removed. The weight of the snow also caused problems for a number of building roofs and caused some power outages as well. Even the professional football game between the Buffalo Bills and the Detroit Lions had to be moved from Buffalo to Detroit because of the impossibility of clearing out the open-air stadium and the roads around it for fans to get there safely (or at all).

Does climate change affect lake effect snow?

A warming climate does have some impact on the conditions that make lake effect snowfalls most likely. The lakes are generally staying warmer later into the fall, so when cold continental air does develop over Canada and move across the lakes there is more potential for large amounts of water vapor to be evaporated, increasing the chance of heavy snow. It is likely that there may be some reduction in the production of the coldest, driest air in polar regions, but it will still occur often enough for lake effect snow to continue to be a climate factor downwind of the lakes. It is more difficult to say how or if the weather patterns that determine the direction of wind flow will change as the climate gets warmer.

A tree with pink flowers

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Source: Dan Taylor-Watt, Commons Wikimedia

How does heavy snow affect trees and gardens?

Lake effect snow is often very wet and heavy which makes damage to trees and power lines more likely. An average snowfall may have about one inch of water equivalent in ten inches of snow, but in a lake effect snow it is often more like six inches of snow to one inch of water equivalent which means it is very dense stuff to shovel. Wet snow may weigh up to four times as much as newly fallen regular snow per square foot. No wonder most heart attacks from clearing snow occur when this very wet and heavy snow has fallen.

The weight of this much snow can easily collapse the roofs of buildings. It can also do a lot of damage to tree limbs and shrubs, especially when the wet snow sticks and freezes to either needles or leaves adding to the weight on the limbs. Trees and bush varieties that are brittle or have poor branching structure are especially vulnerable to damage from heavy snow. Snow on the ground can help insulate the plants from very cold weather, but the moisture that is left after the snow melts can cause saturated soils that can negatively impact roots. Salt added to help melt the snow from paved surfaces can also harm plants and the deep snow cover in some lake effect storms can also provide cover for voles and other critters that like to nibble on bark.

For me, lake effect snow in my Michigan winter when I was growing up was the ultimate fluffy Christmas snow, with big fat flakes drifting down like a picture postcard. But when the flakes come down fast and heavy the holiday snow becomes a problem that can affect travelers, home owners, and gardeners too. I hope that as you travel over the holidays this winter, the snow that you see, whether you stay or go, is a delight and not an obstacle to spending time with your friends and family.

“This one secret hack will save you time and money!”

I’m resorting to clickbait tactics to get your attention. Here’s another – “Warning! Graphic photos follow!”

Uncorrected roots in containers or landscapes will create chronic water stress problems for trees.

If you have failing trees on your own property or on property you manage, you need to do one simple thing before you assume that pests or disease are responsible: you need to determine whether the root system is healthy and functional.

Now, I know you can’t see underground, but you can draw some informed conclusions based on whether you can see the root flare. To find the root flare, pull away any mulch or groundcover that’s obstructing your view. Once you can see soil, you should be able to see the root flare. If your tree looks like a utility pole (meaning you can’t see the flare), then it’s been planted incorrectly. This single mistake will have myriad consequences:

No flare = no chance

  1. It’s buried too deeply – the flare needs to be at the surface.
  2. If it’s buried too deeply, it’s likely the tree was planted without removing the materials surrounding the roots. Bare–rooting woody plants before planting is crucial to their survival.
  3. Roots that are buried too deeply will not have sufficient oxygen to establish a fine root system for water and nutrient uptake, much less develop any structural roots.
  4. Moreover, without removing the materials around the root, the roots are less likely to establish into the surrounding native soil. Neither are you able to remove poor structural roots. Check out this post for more information.
  5. A structurally flawed root system, stressed for oxygen and encased in layers of clay (or potting media) and various combinations of burlap, twine, and wire baskets, is not going to establish quickly or well. Increasingly, it’s not able to supply sufficient water to the growing crown.
  6. Oxygen-stressed roots will die, compounding the reduced water uptake problem.
  7. As the crown experiences chronic water stress, it will experience dieback while opportunistic pests and disease take advantage of a tree unable to chemically defend itself.
  8. Opportunistic pests and diseases are not the cause of tree failure – they are simply indicators of an environmental problem. Proper diagnosis is discussed here and here.

Bare-rooting plants allows you to correct defective structural roots before planting.

You should be able to confirm lack of root establishment by performing the wiggle test (that’s the secret hack). This will allow you to see whether the soil around the roots moves. If it does, that means the roots are not established. If the tree has been in the ground for more than 6 months, it’s probably not going to establish. The sooner you can dig up and correctly replant a relatively newly planted tree the better your chances that will recover and establish.

The wiggle test!

Big Blog on the Block

There’s a new1 blog on the social media block—The Big Blog of Gardening (BBoG). Already it’s a heavy hitter in the gardening social media world. The question is: How may foul balls are hit?

My wife came to me recently saying “Hey! Did you know that your friend Linda Chalker-Scott changed her institution?”
“What?” I said.
“Yeah, she moved to University of Washington. It says right here on this MSNBC article.”
“It’s from the Big Blog of Gardening? What’s that?”
Turns out that the BBoG is hooked into national media and gets consistent play on the home pages of those who go to MSNBC. This is because the BBoG is “now part of the Microsoft Start Program” that places content on the MSN homepage whenever a user logs in.

The originator of the BBoG is not a scientist and in the “About” section of his web page states that he started gardening as a child (like many other of us that had school gardening programs around the country). I also started gardening as a child, volunteered at Descanso Gardens in La Canada, but in my own case I followed up my childhood experiences with a dual major in Botany and Horticulture, an MS in plant pathology, a PhD in plant pathology, and a 30-year career with Cooperative Extension advising and researching in landscape horticulture. These are the typical qualifications for the blog writers at the Garden Professors web pages. Unlike writers for the BBoG, we are the folks who actually conduct research on horticulture and gardening subjects that other people quote and cite.

For us scientists, one of the pitfalls of the BBoG is it’s not a science-based blog. In a blog on pruning, the title proposes to inform how to prune any landscape plant. When you read that article, it just directs you to a link to Amazon.com to purchase a publication of the American Horticultural Society (which is not a science-based organization even though it sounds very much like the American Society for Horticultural Science – the oldest horticultural science society in the US). Rather than cite current research or address the blog title’s topic, the article leads to a product you have to buy to get your information. BBoG posts are full of of links to products available online or to “paid for links” for non-scientific and misleading garden books or other resources.

Broad strokes are used in titles of the blog. For example: “Staking a tree is almost never the right thing to do”. In some ideal world where nurseries grow trees w/o stakes and landscapes don’t require protection from damaging elements this may be true, but this is not the world we live in. Trees grown in nurseries are often staked to facilitate production and shipping. Staking can be used as a protection process on trees that may suffer impact from moving vehicles (these stakes have no attachment to the tree but serve as protective bollards). Titles in some other posts are merely attention getting or serve to promote products – not to reflect accurate horticultural science.

The BBoG often cites Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, quotes her published work, provides links to her white papers, but doesn’t actually email or otherwise contact the original author. The problem is that often there are peer-reviewed sources by the same author containing this newer information (e.g., WSU Extension publications). BBoG often seems to miss the actual scientific or peer reviewed work but focuses on popular sources such as Fine Gardening or, even worse, Consumer Reports. Consumer Reports is not a legitimate resource for science-based information. (link to Jeff Gilman’s blog post)

Beware the comments at the end of articles on the BBoG as there can be pseudo-scientific information there (using gypsum to create drainage in soils) that goes unrefuted by the article authors. It is important that site administrators approve comments before they are listed, or at least address the misconceptions in a response.

When BBoG stories hit the mainstream media (like MSN) the blog owner does not always mention the original sources of their stories, or the scientists who developed the information: they take credit and reap the rewards of increased eyeballs on their posts and clicks on their advertising links. Wouldn’t it be nice if members of the media could dig a little deeper and find the science-based gardening sites and give them some well-deserved publicity?

Frosts and freezes: As cold as ice…

Here in the Southeast we were surprised last week by a much earlier than usual freeze, putting an end to many gardens full of tender plants, although the cold was not deep enough to kill more cold-hardy species. In many parts of the region the frost came earlier than the 10% probability of frost indicating that early freezing conditions like this will come in fewer than one in ten years. Of course many of you in more northern interior parts of the United States have already seen your first frost this year, but here we never seem to be ready for it. In fact in parts of southwest Georgia last year’s first fall frost did not turn out to be until well into January, which caused a lot of problems for gardeners and farmers who had to deal with pests and diseases that easily overwintered the mild conditions.

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Median date of first 32 F fall frost, from https://www.weather.gov/iwx/fallfrostinfo.

Frost versus freeze

One of the questions I often get this time of year is what is the difference between frost and freeze? The National Weather Service (NWS) puts out both frost and freeze warnings but has different criteria for each. For a frost warning, the predicted temperature may not even get down to 32 F (0 C), but may hover in the mid 30’s. For a freeze warning the predicted temperature is expected to get down to 32 F or below and for a hard or killing freeze it usually gets down to 28 F or lower. Once the area has gotten down to 28 F or lower, the NWS usually stops issuing additional freeze warnings since at that point all but the most cold-hardy plants have completed their growing season and are either dead or dormant.

A close up of a spider web

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Hoar frost on Indian rice grass. Source: NPS Photo by Neal Herbert at Arches National Park via Commons Wikimedia.

How does frost form if the temperature does not get down to freezing?

To understand frost formation and when warnings are issued it helps to know both how frost forms and how temperatures vary near the ground. Frost crystals form on surfaces that get down to freezing and have something on the surface that is conducive to seeding crystal formation. This can happen even when the air temperature is above freezing in conditions of light wind and clear skies that allow surfaces to cool to freezing temperatures by emitting heat radiation out to space at night when there is no incoming solar radiation. Conditions for this can occur with temperatures anywhere in the 30s with a reasonable amount of water vapor in the air and as long as the surface (a metal car body, an asphalt roof, or a blade of grass) can cool to the freezing point. At that point, anywhere on that surface that has an appropriate scratch, particle, or other imperfection can serve as a place for ice crystals to form and start to grow. These are called nucleation sites and allow the initial formation of an ice crystal upon which more ice can grow into delicate but visible frost.

Frost will not form if the humidity is too low because there is not enough moisture to produce visible crystals. Often frost does not damage the plants a lot because most of the frozen water is confined to the surface of the plant and does not affect the interior cell walls, although there may certainly be some damage where the ice forms. Large formations of ice crystals can sometimes form on trees or fences if the conditions are right; this is called hoar frost.

Hoar frost on ”Burgbühl” (also Hexenbühl) near Obernheim (Swabian Jura). Source: Olga Ernst, Commons Wikimedia.

Frost forecasts are also provided with the understanding that the NWS is forecasting temperature values for their thermometer heights of about 2 meters or 6 feet high, since that is how they verify the accuracy of their forecasts. In light winds and clear skies the temperature at the ground level is often colder than the temperature at the thermometer height due to cold air sinking so the ground in your garden may be colder than the forecast would predict. Frost is also more likely to form on elevated surfaces that don’t have contact with the ground, since soil temperature keeps the ground surface warmer in Fall than later in the year due to residual heat from the summer warmth. Blueberry farmers that I work with tell me that you can sometimes see quite a difference in frost damage to their bushes from top to bottom due to the different temperatures that the plant may experience at different heights above the ground. Bridges often have signs that they freeze first for the same reason.

A close up of a flower

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Saucer magnolia with freeze damage. Source: Famartin, Commons Wikimedia.

Freeze damage to garden plants

The NWS issues freeze forecasts when the temperature is expected to get down to or below 32 F. The damage that the freeze does to plants depends on how long the temperature drops below freezing and how susceptible the plant is to cold temperatures. If the temperature barely gets down to 32 F for a short period damage is likely to be minimal since the water inside the plant cells did not have sufficient time to freeze. But if it lasts longer the water in the cells freezes and, as you undoubtedly know, ice expands and breaks the cell walls causing irreversible damage to plant leaves and stems that leads to their death. John Porter provided a useful table of how different garden vegetables respond to cold temperatures in his 2020 blog on spring frosts, which underlines why some vegetables like spinach and cauliflower do better as late-season vegetables than tomatoes and melons.

The discerning reader who looks at John’s article will also note some differences between the first frost map he published in his blog and the map above, because they cover different time periods. John used the map for 1980-81 to 2009-2010, since that was the current one at the time of his post. The map here uses the 1990-91 to 2019-2020 period since the normal temperatures have been updated since John’s blog was published. Average frost dates change over time as you can see especially in some areas like eastern Oregon and northern New York State and generally, as the earth gets warmer, the first frost of fall is occurring later in the year than it did in the past (although there are a few exceptions such as parts of northern Georgia).

Frosted Kale. Source: Tracy from North Brookfield, Massachusetts, USA, Commons Wikimedia

With winter on the way, we are sure to see many more examples of frosts and freezes in the coming weeks for almost everyone other than those who live in tropical areas. For those of us who enjoy chilly weather, the magic of frosts and freezes is something we look forward to as it paints our dying gardens in icy white.

Understanding how weird weather affects our plants

Nutrient deficiency? Or something else?

I’d intended to write the column earlier in the year, but it’s as relevant now as it was in the spring. This post will familiarize you with how unseasonable weather can affect your plants. Though I’ll be focusing on my own location in Tacoma, the phenomena are global. You just have to pay attention to what happened last week, last month, last year in your own location.

Our two potted Japanese maples

Our spring started out wet and cool, which is nothing new. But it was REALLY wet and REALLY cool compared to normal. This meant that our trees and shrubs had plenty of water to fill their expanding leaves and blossoms – but the lower than normal temperatures affected leaf growth. These dwarf Japanese maples had lots of leaves, but they were tiny! And they stayed that way, because once the leaves begin to lay down cuticle, they don’t expand any longer, even when it gets warmer. These maples put on a second flush of growth in the summer. Look at the difference in leaf size, determined solely by ambient temperature.

We had an abundance of flowers on our fruit trees – so dense that I put off pruning some of our heritage apple trees so we could get an even bigger crop (our black Angus love apples). But summer rolled around and…virtually no apples on ANY of the trees. What happened?

Normally, our apple blossoms are opening when there is lots of insect activity

Well, that cool spring ensured that most of our pollinators were late to emerge from overwintering. I had wondered about them in the spring, as I could only see a few pollinating flies and no bees. But sure enough, we had almost zero pollination. No apples this year. Next year if the weather is similar I’m going to try using my battery-powered leaf blower to pollinate these trees. I’ll take pictures.

This chart only goes through August 28. We had no rain until October 20th.

Fast forward to summer – for us, a record-breaking drought (again). Our temperatures weren’t as high as last year, but we still had very hot weather and no rain. For our landscape it’s not a problem, as we have well water for irrigation. But those gardeners who have little or no supplemental irrigation may very well find that their woody plants and perennials don’t perform very well next year: perhaps fewer flowers or branch dieback will appear. This is due to root dieback that happened all summer in unirrigated conditions. The damage is only seen in the following spring, when there aren’t enough roots to supply water to emerging buds.

Crown dieback from water-stressed roots.

Being able to predict the impact of specific weather events on your landscape plants is key to avoiding misdiagnosis and subsequent misuse pesticides or fertilizer in a futile attempt to rescue them.

Oh, and if you are wondering about the photo at the top, you’ll have to look at a post from 2009 to see what’s going on.

Tulips for the desert?

Spring bulb planting time is on across North America!  Many types of bulbs do well in desert and xeric gardens: hyacinths, ranunculus, iris, narcissus, crocus, alliums can all be happy. One bulb that’s often left off the list are tulips. Why is that?

The tall flashy hybrid or Darwinian tulips that fill the catalog photos are usually considered an annual in most desert gardens. They require more chilling than the our desert winters can usually provide and can be a little fussy about soil and water.
But tulips can be very happy in xeriscapes. In fact they can get so happy they’ll set seed and naturalize in the right conditions. And which tulips are those you ask? (Yes you did, I heard you.)
They’re species tulips and are non-hybridized. They’re more of “wild” type of plant. What’s so special about them?
They’re tough, amazingly tough.

Tulips are originally from mountainous areas of the Mediterranean, Middle East and Asia. Some are also native to Southern Europe, North Africa, and several Mediterranean islands. They’re frequently found clinging to barren mountain ledges, rocky areas exposed to wind and cold, and drought ridden slopes.

Map by Tulips in the Wild
For an interactive format with species information go here:
https://www.tulipsinthewild.com/map_table/tulip_origin_map.html

Species tulips are shorter and smaller than hybrids but what they lack in stature they more than make up for in resilience and showy display. They’re an early bloomer in the desert southwest which is wonderful for the pollinators that are often active on warm winter and early spring days.

Their foliage is usually more varied than hybrids; some have broad, curled edged leaves, some are tall and narrow. The color varies too, from a bluish tint to shades of green. Some varieties even have multiple blooms per stem.

Many species are attractive whether the blooms are closed or opened. They often have very different coloration inside and out.

Closed…
…and open

Some have contrasting pollen color which adds great visual interest.

These have a deep purple pollen.

Species tulips are usually perennial in warm winter climates. They increase via bulb offsets while many will set seed. They aren’t fussy about soil as long as it’s well drained. But like all plants they do require water during bloom and while the leaves are green but still, not as much as other bulbs. They’re perfect for xeriscaped or low water landscapes since they require less overall water than other bulbs. Plus, they prefer to be dry during their dormant season, which is summer to fall.

These tough little beauties can occasionally be found in garden centers but for the best selection shop online, search for “species tulips.” Do some homework first, and become familiar with the the available varieties.

Plant these tulips from fall to early winter. Provide full sun and good drainage, rocky or lean sandy soils are ideal and most closely approximate their native conditions.

Don’t overplant with species that require a lot of summer water. Mix these bulbs with other plants that prefer hot dry conditions. Tuck them into those corners that get spring – early summer sunshine, spots that don’t get much summer water, or put in containers that you can enjoy and then ignore during the summer. Pot them in cactus mix combined with a small amount of regular potting soil and top with an organic mulch. Remember, drainage is a must and overly rich or high organic matter conditions aren’t to their liking.

If you live in a dry or desert region and have never tried species tulips, why not give them chance. You might just discover a new favorite.

Predicting hurricane tracks and what they leave behind

In my last blog post in late August, the Atlantic tropical season was just beginning to wake from a long nap, with several areas of interest appearing on the National Hurricane Center’s (NHC) map. Since that time, the season has become incredibly active, with Hurricanes Fiona and Ian causing tremendous damage in North America. Other parts of the world have also seen damaging storms, including Hurricane Kay in the Eastern Pacific, post-typhoon Merbok in Alaska, and Typhoons Hinnamnor in South Korea, Nanmadol in Japan, and Noru in the Philippines. So, with apologies to those who live far from hurricane parts of the world, I want to talk one more time about tropical systems.

Heavy rain. Source: Faldrian, Commons Wikimedia

Where do we stand with the tropical season now?

As I am writing this on Thursday morning, September 29, I hear the sound of Ian’s wind in the tulip poplar trees outside my house in Athens, GA. Ian is still in central Florida, just about to come off the coast into the Atlantic Ocean, so that gives you an idea of how far the influence of a tropical storm can spread, especially with a strong high-pressure center to our north that is increasing the pressure gradient driving the winds. Ian made landfall yesterday afternoon near Fort Myers, Florida, as an almost-category 5 storm, with winds of 150 mph (some reports say 155 mph). The videos I saw yesterday showed the power of the storm, with tremendous wind gusts and a storm surge that surpassed 10 feet in some places. I know the damage is horrific, and some of those areas will never recover completely from the storm, as buildings have been washed away and even shorelines may have changed due to the force of the wind and water. Since Ian is expected to curve back toward the East Coast on Friday and may strengthen again, its effects are not over yet. Fortunately, a weaker storm has lower impacts, but folks along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts will be feeling those impacts in the next few days before Ian moves out of the area and dissipates.

Hurricane Ian, September 27, 2002.

Hurricane Fiona lashed Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic with rain of up to two feet in some places around September 18-19 before moving rapidly to the north and slamming into Nova Scotia as a post-tropical cyclone on September 24. It caused tremendous damage in both places from storm surge, wind, and rains. The floods in Puerto Rico destroyed a lot of local farms and gardens in the southern half of the islands where the rain was heaviest and in doing so, eliminated an important source of locally produced food as well as disabling a fragile power grid that had not yet recovered from Hurricane Maria in 2017. The storms in other parts of the world have had similarly bad effects on the lands over which they moved, with loss of trees and buildings and high storm surges wiping out coastal infrastructure. Not all hurricane impacts are bad, however, since the rain from Hurricane Kay in southern California helped reduce drought conditions there in a time when not much rain usually falls in that part of the world.

Predicting the tracks of hurricanes

One of the questions that have arisen with Hurricane Ian has been the prediction of where the hurricane would go. Predicting the track of a hurricane is an art that includes the use of multiple computer models that simulate conditions over the life of the storm. That includes sea surface temperature, vertical atmospheric structure, and the surrounding wind field which will push the storm around. On the news you will often see maps that show all the individual model results on one map, which ends up looking like a mass of spaghetti noodles, hence the term “spaghetti models”.

Ensemble of Hurricane Ian forecasts from the GEFS model issued on September 26, 2022. Source: WeatherNerds.org

Forecasters look at all the individual model tracks together to see how consistent they are with each other and where the differences lie. Then the human forecasters use their knowledge of how well those models behave under different weather conditions to create a “forecast cone” that shows the region where the center of the storm is likely to go.

No one model is right all the time because they weigh different weather factors differently. In the case of Ian, the models run by European weather services did better, but that is not always the case. Generally, they say that 2/3rd of the time, the central low pressure will stay within the predicted cone, although the storm itself is usually much larger than the cone and hazards like high wind, heavy rain, tornadoes, and storm surge can and do occur far outside the cone. If there is a lot of spread in the models, then the forecast cone is wider, indicating that they are less certain about where the storm will go.

The models are run every six hours or so, and each time the cone is updated to include model results that include new weather data observed since the last forecast was issued. As this happens, people that are in or near the cone must respond to the forecast by deciding whether to evacuate or stay in place and where to go if they do leave, since they don’t want to evacuate to a location that could be hit by the storm if the cone shifts. When the forecast is especially tricky, as it was with Ian, the movement of the cone over time can become overwhelming to people who just want to find a place they will be safe. The forecasts of where the storm is likely to travel are improving over time, but the tracks will never be 100% accurate because the atmosphere is a complicated place that we can’t simulate perfectly using even the best computers, so confusion is likely to continue to occur in future storms.

Downed trees and powerlines in Bartow, FL, following Hurricane Ian. Source: State Farm, Commons Wikimedia.

Dealing with flooded gardens

Since this is a blog about gardening, I want to end up mentioning what impacts these storms have on gardens. Coastal areas where there is a storm surge will see inches to feet of seawater flow over their land. The water contains salt but can also contain toxic chemicals from boats and tanks that are damaged by floating debris or strong waves. The salt and chemicals can kill garden plants but also may get deposited in the soil as the water sinks in, leaving toxic residue behind. The physical motion of the water on and off the land can also scour the topsoil and change the soil structure or deposit sand on top. Saturated soils can drown the plants by keeping oxygen from reaching the roots of plants. And of course, the howling winds can snap the plants, bushes, and trees above the ground, leading to damage that can be taken advantage of by pests and diseases. In areas where there is heavy rain and freshwater flooding, salt is not usually a problem, but all the other problems with too much water can occur there, too. For those who live where storm damage is heaviest, helping their gardens to recover will be a long process even if their houses survive the storm.

Hurricane Ian clouds at sunset. Source: Jason Mallard.

The Atlantic tropical season is not over yet for us in the Southeast, but I know that in other parts of the United States and the world, the seasons march on, so in the next months I will move on to talk about fall frosts and the upcoming winter. Thanks for bearing with me as I explore tropical storm systems. Please keep all of those affected by our storms this year in your thoughts and prayers as they work to recover from damage and disaster.

Irrigation bags: the good (rarely), the bad (frequently) and the ugly (all of them)

Irrigation bags, often called “tree gators,” are durable plastic bags used for irrigating newly planted trees. These projects have been discussed here and here and I still don’t like them as they don’t consistently benefit trees and often create conditions conducive to pests and disease. Plus, as the blog title suggests, their aesthetic attributes are nonexistent.

Surprisingly, camoflauge green doesn’t actually camoflauge anything.

Newly installed trees and shrubs generally need to have supplemental water, period. It doesn’t matter if they are “drought tolerant” species – any plant needs sufficient water to establish roots. And where automated irrigation systems aren’t possible, there are many products that promise to deliver water to the establishing root system. Unfortunately, they often deliver other things as well, including pests, disease, and early death.

To be fair, many time these trees die because they were poorly planted: we know that improperly amended soils, structurally compromised root systems, inadequate root preparation, and/or poor installation are the leading causes of young tree failure. But anything that covers the trunks of young trees and reduces air flow and light exposure will, over time, create a dark, moist, and reduced oxygen environment that’s damaging to the bark of young trees. Wet, damaged bark allows opportunistic pests and pathogens to invade.

Until a few weeks ago, I had not seen any irrigation bags that I actually thought might work. These bags are installed on stakes away from the tree trunks, and they deliver water to the area where tree roots need to grow, enhancing root establishment. It took a trip to Malmö, Sweden to see this innovative approach and my immediate reaction was “why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?”

There are many types of irrigation bags, from sleeves to donuts, but none of them are as good for tree or soil health as a thick layer of arborist wood chips. When wood chips can’t be used for some reason, irrigation bags set well away from the tree and actually kept full of water might be a good solution.

Arborist wood chips provide a highly absorbant matrix that releases water slowly into the root zone.

What the words on the seed packet or food label mean…

This article was originally published (surprisingly?) by the Mother Earth News Blog.

What do the words on your food (or garden supplies) labels mean? Do you know the difference between organic, natural, and sustainable? Are there rules about who can use which labels? When you are shopping at the farmers market or grocery store, or when you’re buying seeds or plants at the garden center, it is important to know what the words used to describe the product mean. It is also important to understand that some words have different meanings to different people and sometimes are used more for marketing (and sometimes misleading customers) than conveying actual meaning. Let’s take a look at some of the words that have an “official” definition, some where the meaning can be interpreted differently, and some that can be misleading or misinterpreted.

“Official” words for foods and plants

There are a handful of words that you’ll find at the grocery store, farmers market, or garden center that have an official definition because they are either part of a law or code or are part of an official certification process.

USDA Organic | USDA

For example, in the US for a product to bear the term “certified organic” or “organic“, it must be produced in accordance with the National Organic Program organic certification process outlined in federal policy/law and administered by the USDA. While there are many minute details for organic production, the “big picture” definition is that only organic/naturally occurring soil amendments and pesticides can be used – typically from a biological or elemental source. It is important to note that organic does not mean pesticide free. Repeat: ORGANIC DOES NOT MEAN PESTICIDE FREE

The organic certification process can be costly and time consuming, and some producers feel that restrictions do not go far enough, so alternative certifications have been developed such as Certified Naturally Grown and Regenerative Organic Certified. These certifications are not administered by the USDA, but rather by individual organizations that have developed them.

Another term that has emerged is “biodynamic,” which marries some organic principles with the requirement that the farm be a “closed system”, meaning that outside inputs like fertility are not used. Biodynamic production also requires the use of “preparations” that would be described as mystical or homeopathic and must be practices in accordance with “energies” such as the phase of the moon. In order to be labeled “biodynamic” a product must be certified by Demeter USA. Our very own LCS has addresses the “pseudoscience” of biodynamic growing in a previous paper. As a science-based group, we consider biodynamic to mainly be WOO.

A number of other certifications exist, such as Certified Animal Welfare Approved and Salmon Safe that guarantee things like best practices in livestock welfare and proper wild fishing practices.

“Unofficial” words for growing and marketing

While “official” words have certifications that standardize their meaning across industries, other words we use for production and marketing don’t have official meanings and are often up for interpretation. In instances where a relationship exists between a consumer and producer, say a customer buying directly from a farmer at the farmers market, a conversation can take place to share the meaning of what the words mean. In situations like a product at the grocery store, words are often left to the interpretation of the customer.

For example, while the term “organic” or “certified organic” requires official certification, using the term “organically grown” does not. Many small farmers will use this term to reflect their use of organic practices, but their understanding of practices may deviate from the “official” definition. The term natural or naturally grown may also be used to describe produce or products at the grocery store but no officially sanctioned definition exists. When customers and growers/producers can discuss what the terms mean, an understanding can be developed. However, when such a relationship doesn’t exist, it is hard to know what the terms mean. For example, an ad might say that a product is “natural, so you know that it’s good” to which I might joke that poison ivy and rattlesnake venom are both natural, but that doesn’t mean it is good for you.

The term “local” also doesn’t have a specific definition and can vary widely depending on the context. At farmers markets, it is up to the organization operating the farmers market to create vendor rules and decide what makes sense for each individual market, according to the national Farmers Market Coalition. For example, the closest meat producer may be farther outside of the city than the closest produce farmer. Markets in urban areas may need to recruit vendors from a bit farther away than those in the suburbs. If you have questions about the rules of your local market or where a vendor is farming – just ask! At a grocery store, local can mean whatever the chain wants to decide. Sometimes this can mean in the same state or other times it is regional. Often food at the grocery store will have a label saying the town or region it came from for you to learn more about each specific item.

Walmart's locally grown produce | In Oct. 2010, Walmart comm… | Flickr
Is it “local”? Depends on who you ask.

The terms sustainable and regenerative might be used to describe production practices or a farmer’s philosophy on production. While there aren’t official definitions, the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program defines sustainable agriculture as holistic farming practices that balances environmental stewardship, profitability, and personal/social benefit. Though most use of the term sustainable for marketing focuses on the environmental aspect. Regenerative agriculture is a relatively new philosophy of production practices that focus on environmental stewardship to reverse climate change and/or environmental degradation and social fairness and often involves improving soil health. While the terms sustainable and regenerative might seem interchangeable, there are differences (mainly around economic sustainability and around maintaining current environmental conditions vs. improving them). We’ll see how the “regenerative” term plays out – as many consider it to be a “buzzword” in some ag circles.

Words that can confuse or mislead

While there are words that may seem abundantly clear to the person using them, the information or intent may seem totally different to the audience. These words are often used as buzzwords for marketing or may be used to create a sense of fear that is misunderstood. For these words, alternative words or further explanation might reduce confusion.

One such word that is often used is chemical-free. This is often used to describe produce or food that is produced without pesticides. However, use of chemical-free can be misinterpreted and misunderstood. It may be a facetious response, but as a scientist I often cringe when I hear this word used at the farmers market because that I know that everything is made of chemicals – all rocks, plants, animals, humans, and even air and water – are chemicals. Some say that the use of this term is based in fear of pesticides (even organic ones) or is based in anti-science “chemophobia” rhetoric. Using a more precise term, such as pesticide-free conveys the same message without anti-science connotations and reduces the chance of misinterpretation.

Non-GMO is also another term that was created as a fear-based marketing term that has become pervasive at the grocery store, the seed rack, and the farmers market. While there are concerns AND benefits to genetic engineering technology, use of the term non-GMO is often redundant and confusing to consumers because, as it turns out, there are very few opportunities for gardeners, farmers, or consumers to interact with bioengineered crops. Most bioengineered crops are those that are produced as commodities – field corn, soybeans, sugar beets, cotton, canola, etc. Only a handful of crops are those that you’d find at the farmers market or produce section – sweet corn, summer squash, papaya, and one apple cultivar. But these crops are grown in very small amounts, are not available to small-scale farmers or home gardeners, are sold only in larger quantities, and require a contract for purchase. Most produce items grown in the US do not currently have a genetically engineered counterpart – there are no GMO lettuces, radishes, etc. So labeling a tomato as non-GMO is redundant and has unfortunately caused so much confusion and fear amongst consumers that many specifically demand or seek non-GMO tomatoes, even though all tomatoes are non-GMO. There is a third-party certification process through the Non-GMO Project (they’re the ones you see with the butterfly logo on almost every product, even bottled water and salt), however given the confusion and misinformation around the term, the US government recently created a standard “Bioengineered” labeling requirement for all produce and products that consist of or contain genetically engineered crops or ingredients.

A few more words on words…

While words can inform and confuse, being an educated consumer (or producer) can help reduce confusion and help us understand the food that we eat. While we haven’t covered every word you might encounter on a label here, researching words you see can help build your label vocabulary. Building interest in learning about where your food comes from should be a fun way to connect with what is on your plate and who is in your community. Go out there and enjoy the learning process! You can check out some more words related to agriculture and food here.

This article by John Porter was written as part of a partnership in collaboration with staff at the Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) as part of FMC’s partnership with Mother Earth News Fair.



More about seed packet lingo here.