My Soil is Crap

My Soil is Crap! Or is it?

Over several years of teaching basic soil science to arborists, master gardeners and students something started to coalesce into a trend. If I ask my students do they have “good” soil, many say no. I have heard Master Gardeners complain their soil is terrible or that a certain soil is bad in some way. People form opinions about soil based on its color, texture, odor, or even how plants grow in it (perhaps the most diagnostic quality). So how do you know if your soil is “crap”? Soil is a combination of physical, chemical and biological properties not all of which are obvious from a casual examination. Soil is infinitely variable depending on how it was formed and what has happened to it. Many soils are fragile and their growing properties can easily be harmed.

Soil forms from its parent material or rocks that weather over time to form smaller and smaller particles

Soil Formation
To understand soil you need to understand how it forms. Soils are often depositional, forming as particles are deposited in place from wind, or water or other weathering factors. Deep soils form from the alluvium  as water washes particles down from mountains. Terraces along streams also form soil deposits when they overflow the stream bed. Almost all soils form from rocks that are referred to as the parent material. The kind of rocks that form the parent material determine the minerals that will dominate that soil. Exotic soils like serpentine soil contain large amounts of magnesium but lack calcium. Soils can be young (not deep or fine textured) or very old (deep clays). One of first things gardeners should seek to find out is if they have “native” soil or are gardening on fill. Soils are also modified by climate especially rainfall. High rainfall areas have leached soils, are usually forested, and have acid soil reaction (pH). Arid soils usually have excess salts, and tend toward being alkaline. Understanding soil formation helps to understand what kind of soil you have and how to utilize it best for your garden.

Residential landscapes are often on fill soils with various textures and interfaces. Here decomposing granite surface soils cover the actual clay loam textures underneath. Soils can vary significantly on the same property requiring multiple tests and actions for their treatment.

Fill is not Soil
One of first things gardeners should discover is if they have “native” soil or are gardening on fill.  Fill around homes and cities is not soil in the natural sense. Fill soil is not formed in a natural process, it will not have the predictable qualities of soils and may be extremely variable even on a single property. Soil maps are available from your cooperative extension office and on line from the NRCS (https://websoilsurvey.sc.egov.usda.gov/App/HomePage.htm). The web soil survey is a map of naturally occurring soil types. Soils are described in detail and understanding your soil type will inform its ability to grow plants, hold water and minerals, etc.

Soil Physical Properties
No matter which soil you have, gardeners will want to know what to do to make it better for growing their plants. The physical characteristics of soil are important for gardeners to understand. Soil texture is described by analyzing the content of various particle sizes. Sands are composed of large particles silts have intermediate size particles and clays contain the finest particles. Soils texture is the relative content of sand, silt and clay particles and are described by their content of these particles such as a “clay loam” Pure loams are relatively rare because they have equal measures of sand silt and clay and are considered the most arable soil textures. A clay loam has more clay than the other particle sizes but enough to still be considered a loam. Textural classes are described by the soil triangle. You can diagnose your soil texture by using a ribbon test where you feel the soil and analyze its qualities. A laboratory can separate the particles and give an exact analysis. Soil texture affects horticulture directly as it determines drainage characteristics, moisture content and mineral holding capabilities.

Soil Chemical Qualities
One of the most defining chemical qualities of soil for gardeners is nutrient content. Minerals or elements in soils are highly variable based on soil age, their formation processes and the parent material from which they  developed. Fine textured soils have more mineral nutrients and storage capacity than coarse textured soils. Sands tend to be hungry for plant nutrients and clays are usually rich in nutrients. This is because as particle size decreases the electrical properties of soil become more negative in charge and tend to retain positively charged mineral nutrients. You can estimate nutrient content by seeing how plants grow in a given soil without fertilization. If weeds are abundant and happy, the soil may contain adequate amounts of the 18 different elements necessary for plant growth. The only way to accurately know the nutrient content of a soil is to have it analyzed in a soils lab. There are other blogs at this site that tell you how to take a soil sample. Never fertilize a soil that already grows plants well as you will be polluting surface waters and contaminating streams with excess fertilizer elements that can leach or run off.

A well structured soil has water-stable aggregates, pore spaces, roots, hyphae, organic matter etc. This kind of soil is the product of a robust soil food web.

Biological Qualities of Soil
The most elusive quality of soil is the biological quality. Soils are ecosystems of organisms. Much has been written about the soil food web and it is a critical part of how soils and plants interact. While we can see worms and small arthropods; bacteria, fungi and nematodes are not visible. It is difficult to visually assess soil biology. However there are some indicators. “Healthy” soils are often well structured. Soil structure is a physical description of the way soils form aggregates, clumps and clods. Well structured soils have abundant pore spaces, bits of organic matter, and have distinct clods or clumps. Often these clods are water-stable, that is, if you put a soil clod in a jar of water it will not dissolve. This is an easy test you can make of your soil. Place a clod in water and leave it there over night if it dissolves it is not a water-stable aggregate. Water stable aggregates from from the action of soil microorganisms that bind soil particles with polymers as well as the hyphae of fungi which connect particles together.

Soil Carbon Drives Soil Biology
Healthy soils have more carbon in them then soils that are not biologically active. Organic matter is an important part of soil and is added as litter or mulch breaks down and by plants themselves as they deposit carbon through exudates and associations with microorganisms. Plants can add as much as 20% of their carbon captured through photosynthesis into soil through root exudates and microbial association. Carbon is food for microbes and an essential component of a healthy soil. Soil with large amounts of organic matter are dark in color (but so are many low OM clays so don’t be fooled). Again the only way to know exactly how much organic matter is in soil is by a soil test. A detailed soil organism analysis may not help you that much because it is difficult to assign specific roles to groups of organisms living in soil. If we provide organic matter (fresh wood chip mulches in perennial plantings) the food web will grow to utilize it and we do not need to worry about who is using the carbon.

A bio-assay of three soils (2 cups each) planted with radish and carrot. From top left to bottom right: clay loam; silt loam and potting medium

Despite all these factors soils are still a bit magical. Even with soil surveys, and soil analyses you really can’t tell if a soil will grow well until you try to do so. In my University class I am having my students do a simple bio-assay (growing seeds in soils) The assignment was to grow radish and carrots in three different soils, hoping that some would show up signs of damping off disease. I did the experiment as well. My seedlings were grown in a silt loam, a clay loam and a potting medium. The soil-based differences are very visible. The clay loam grew the largest seedlings. Bio assays such as this are helpful to see what the growing qualities of soil are. They don’t tell the entire story but they are very interesting for comparative purposes. Bio assays are great to do before you purchase soil for raised beds or if you are gardening in a new soil that you don’t know much about. In the next blog I will touch on how, when, and why soils should be modified to enhance your garden.

Where to find spring frost dates and the mystery of Southeastern frost trends

Most gardeners this time of year are thinking about the last frost dates for their locations and how soon they can get out into their garden plots. Here in the Southeast, many areas have already passed their last frost or will soon, while in other parts of the country, it may be many weeks before the threat of frost is over. In this week’s column, I want to describe a way to get frost dates for your location and discuss the mystery of why the date of the last spring frost is getting later in the Southeast in spite of temperatures that are rising across the country.

Frosted kale. Source: Tracey from North Brookfield, Massachusetts, USA, Commons Wikimedia.

Resources for finding your frost date

There are many places that you can go to find information on the average date of the last spring frost. Many gardening guides publish them, and John Porter had an excellent discussion of last frost and planting dates a year ago, including a number of sources of information and a map for the continental United States.

You can also look at frost dates for individual locations using xmACIS, an online free database that allows you to list yearly last spring and first fall frost dates and the growing season length. This database contains observations taken by National Weather Service cooperative observers and is incorporated into the NOAA 30-year averages (normals) that John mentioned in his posting. You might find it helpful to see not only the average but also the variability from one year to the next at whatever station is closest to you. (Here is a quick reference sheet for xmACIS.) Of course, there are other places to get this data in a variety of formats, but xmACIS is quick and easy and works for the whole country, which is an advantage for all our readers.

To access data near you,

  1. Go to the top under Single Station and choose “First/Last Dates.”
  2. Under Options Selection choose:
    1. your preferred output, (Graph, table or CSV)
    1. Year range (POR is period of record, which will vary depending on which station you choose)
    1. Under Criteria set minimum temperature at less than or equal to 32 F (or another threshold for a special crop)
    1. Period beginning (for spring frost dates, usually July or August)
    1. Pair results (for spring frost dates, usually by Calendar year)
  3. Under Station Selection, you can find a station by ID if you know it, by choosing from the list or searching by zip code. Or change your CWA (National Weather Service County Warning Area) to your local region and available stations in that area will be listed. A map of the CWAs is shown below. Pick the station that is closest to you to get the best data for your location.
  4.  Hit “Go” and you will get a list of the yearly last and first frosts of the growing season. The average date is at the bottom.

National Weather Service office identifiers.

Climate change and frost dates

With increasing temperatures due to global warming, you might wonder how these frost dates are changing over time. As temperatures get warmer, you might expect that the average date of last spring frost would be getting earlier in the year over time and the average date of first fall frost would be getting later. And this is generally true in most of the US, with the exception I will discuss in a minute.

I did some work with Melissa Griffin of the South Carolina State Climate Office in the past, and we determined that a 1-degree F rise in average temperature over time corresponded roughly to a 1-week increase in the length of the growing season. That is an important statistic for farmers, who plan what to plant depending in part on how long the growing season is. If the temperature in the US goes up 4 F by the year 2100, then we can expect that the growing season would increase by generally four weeks or one month, although that will vary from place to place.

Southeast frost date mystery

In most places in the US, the date of last spring frost is getting earlier in the year, as expected. But there is one regional exception, and that is the Southeast, especially in Georgia and to a lesser extent, Alabama. You can see this in the once-again public EPA climate change page.

It is not clear why this trend towards a later spring frost date is occurring in the Southeast. One theory is that perhaps a local weather phenomenon we call “the wedge” is changing due to alterations in weather patterns across the region as the global temperature increases. “The Wedge” is a thin, dense layer of cold air which moves southeast along the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains, bringing cold air and cloudy conditions to that region.

A group of University of Georgia students and I looked at this “wedge theory” in 2020. We tried to identify where the wedge of cold air was most likely to be occurring in the Spring and correlate those areas with changes in frost date. So far, the results have been inconclusive. More research will be needed to figure out why this odd pattern is occurring now and whether it will continue in the future. 


Air temperature on February 20, 2019, from the University of Georgia Weather Network, showing the cold “wedge” of air in northeastern Georgia.

Implications for home gardeners

Knowing your average spring frost date can be an important brake on most gardeners’ eagerness to get back out in the garden in spring. Who hasn’t wanted to start planting on the first warm and sunny day? But if you know that more frosts are likely based on the local climate, you may be willing to wait to get started until your plants are safe from cold damage. Then the real growing season can begin!

The contrarian rosarian–debunking rose mythology

Roses are perhaps the most frequently cultivated landscape plant across America. Rose gardens are common to parks, landscapes, botanical gardens and for homeowners. Everyone seems to have an opinion about rose culture and there are numerous clubs and societies to support the hobby of rose growing. This week I am in the midst of pruning my rose fertilizer study here in Santa Paula California. I have 240 roses of eight varieties and my thoughts are on roses now, so I offer this blog to dispel some of the myths about rose horticulture.

Myth I–Roses are difficult and require a lot of pesticides

Roses grow well in California soils. A selection of varieties here in Santa Paula CA

Most roses grow easily in most soils in most places. Roses tolerate environmental extremes very well. They grow in many climates and tolerate below freezing temperatures during winter dormancy and high temperatures during summer. Current rose varieties have been developed through breeding of wild rose types. Floribundas, hybrid T roses, grandifloras, shrub or landscape roses, climbing roses and dwarf roses offer the enthusiast a variety of forms and functions in the Rosa genus. In the early 19th century Empress Josephine of France gave rose development a great boost in her own garden at Malmaison. Her patronage of rose research led to the development of thousands of varieties in Europe and later in the United States. The genetics of garden roses is now quite diverse. Because of the diversity of roses some grow better than others, some are highly disease resistant some are very susceptible. Like all plants, roses develop various kinds of diseases and attract pests. Because they are grown commonly in gardens there are many rose pesticides available for use. In my decade of rose research growing hundreds of roses, I have never used pesticides to maintain them. Susceptible varieties could be treated with pesticides or gardeners can chose to avoid varieties that host pests and focus on ones that are not so afflicted. With so many varieties available to gardeners there will be strong varieties and weak ones, pest prone and healthy. The variety you select will determine the necessity for pest control. Many many roses are relatively pest free and grow well without any treatments.

Myth II Roses Require lots of irrigation

The idea that roses need more water than other landscape plants is a horticultural misnomer. In the Central Valley of California roses are grown for production to consumer markets and they typically are furrow irrigated once every eight days in the growing season. Even during triple digit weather, they are held to this schedule without damage.

Can you tell which one got Epsom salts? No. there is no difference between roses grown with applied magnesium sulfate vs those not receiving the treatment.

Myth III Roses require rose specific fertilizers

Roses need the same mineral element as other plants. There is no evidence that increased magnesium (Epsom Salts) benefits roses in any way. Prescriptive fertilization is not appropriate for rose culture or any landscape setting. Fertilizers should be applied on the basis of soils tests that determine the necessity of minerals that may be missing from the soil.

Rose varieties respond widely to field conditions. In the same field some varieties consistently thrive and others grow poorly. Rose varieties have variable vigor, tolerance of soil conditions and pest resistance.

Myth IV Prune rose canes at 45 degrees that is with angled Cuts

There are many pruning strategies for roses. One of the most consistent myths is that roses should be pruned with angled cuts so water is shed away from the cut end. There is no scientific basis for this and therefore it is not recommended. Pruning back to an outward facing bud is a good idea as it maintains a less tangled rose canopy and helps to promote a more organized architecture in the shrub. Various sources recommend more or less severe winter pruning for roses. Our research shows that the less severely you prune major canes the more flowers that will result. Severe pruning did not increase rose flower quality or quantity. The best rose shrubs (most flowers) are pruned to maintain their shape and reduce tangle while maintaining shrub size.  I almost forgot–Don’t seal pruning wounds made to rose canes.  Leave cuts to dry.

Myth V Mounding soil around the base of roses should be done every winter

Some rose experts, especially in places with cold climates have advocated mulching with manure or soil over the crown of the rose before freezing winter temperatures set in. Most rose varieties survive the cold winters without this treatment if snow is present. If temperatures fall rapidly without snow, a covering of leaves or straw may be helpful.

Myth VI Grafted roses are better than non-grafted roses

The recent advent of landscape or shrub roses has proven that this myth is incorrect. Non-grafted roses have the advantage of not producing annoying suckers that need to be removed frequently as on some grafted varieties. Many of the landscape roses growing on their own roots are more disease resistant, more vigorous, and produce more flowers consistently than their grafted counterparts. Not all scions are perfectly compatible with their rootstocks so some grafted roses are less vigorous due to graft incompatibility.

Roses are easy to grow once they are established. In recent years, I have had trouble with roses purchased from garden centers that would not grow when planted out. This may be because the plants were held too long in storage before coming to market. It is also imperative when first planting roses to frequently sprinkle the canes to avoid them drying out. Desiccation is a common killer of freshly harvested roses. Once buds “pop” and shoots emerge, culture can continue as with any garden plant providing appropriate moisture as needed. Fertilization should follow recommendations of your soils analysis.

Reference:

Downer, A.J., A.D. Howell, and J. Karlik. 2015. Effect of pruning on eight landscape rose cultivars grown outdoors. Acta Horticulturae 1064:253-255.

Why Fresh is Best—when it comes to mulch?

Fresh wood chips!

One of the most misunderstood gardening practices is mulching. There is much mulch misinformation in horticulture books, web pages and even extension leaflets. First,what is Mulch? Mulch is any substance the covers the soil surface. Mulch can be inorganic (rock), hydrocarbon (plastic) or carbon based (chips, bark etc.) While any material applied to the soil surface could be considered mulch, the benefits of mulching especially to woody plants are greatest from fresh woody chippings of tree trimmings–so called “arborist chips” applied fresh—not composted. Annual plants such as vegetable plants are often mulched as well but usually with materials that rapidly break down such as straw or some mixtures of shavings and manures. These materials are easily incorporated later when the next crop is planted. For woody plants such as trees and shrubs, mulches that persist for a longer time are desirable. Plastic mulches used in agriculture are not suited to shade trees or other landscape uses nor are landscape fabrics. Each of these deteriorate into landscape trash rapidly and do not benefit soils under the mulch layer. Stone mulches while used extensively in the South west US are not as beneficial to soils as arborist chips.

Why use mulches anyway? Mulches support healthy tree and woody plant growth in landscapes around the world. They increase soil organic matter, the diversity and functionality of the soil food web (particularly saprophytic fungi), support mycorrhizal partners of woody plants, supply nutrients and suppress weeds. Thick mulch layers increase root development, and help to suppress soil borne plant pathogens. The breakdown of woody mulches on the soil surface encourages development of soil structure, increased water infiltration, water holding capacity, and nutrient holding capacity of underlying soil layers. Well mulched trees and shrubs grow healthfully without fertilization.

So why not mulch with compost? Compost is not suited for use as a mulch around trees and shrubs. Compost is often screened and is of fine texture. Fine texture presents a few problems. Fine compost will make hydraulic conductivity with soil and allow for water to evaporate through the compost/soil interface. Thus the moisture savings we see under arborist chips will not be the same under compost. Compost is also able to allow weeds to germinate in it so the weed suppression effects of a mulch will also be lost. Composts applied as mulch can make an interface between the soil surface and the mulch layer which should always be avoided as it will impede water movement through the interface.

Another important reason for not mulching with compost is that compost is poor nutritionally for soil microbes. Composts have most of their active or labile carbon burned away during the composting process by the rapid respiration of microbes. The compost is turned aerated and kept moist until the process stops at this point it has some level of maturity. It won’t reheat when turned. The microbes have consumed most of the available carbon for their own growth and respiration in the compost pile, none of this remains for microbes in the landscape. Fresh arborists chips are full of labile carbon. When laid over the soil surface spores of fungi invade and they begin to uses this carbon for their own growth as an energy sources. Placing fresh wood chips on the soil surface is feeding the soil microbiology at the soil-mulch interface. In time (a few years) these processes go deeper in the soil and begin to feed the soil food web beneath the mulch layer. The diversity of fungi increases, mycorrhizae begin to transfer mulch nutrients to their woody hosts and pathogens are destroyed by enzymes that leach from the fungi infested wood chips. While composts supply minerals (all that is left of the feedstock after composting) they can’t supply the labile carbon as a source for microbes. Fresh arborists chips do all this and are thus the best mulch for woody plants.

Fungi eventually invade fresh mulches releasing nutrients and enzymes to underlying soils

There has been some concern lately for using mulches that are recycled as yardwastes. This concerns me as well because gardeners may be disposing of dead plants in their greenwaste cans. In theory, pathogens could be coming through the greenwaste stream to gardeners. Getting tree chips is best because there is little likelihood for soil borne pathogens since the materials are chipped branches. There is some possibility of wilt diseases (Verticillium spp.) surviving in arborists chips but little research has established that the pathogen can infect especially if the chips are stockpiled for a short time. In my own research we showed that pathogens, weeds an insects had very short survival times in stockpiled (not turned) piles of greenwaste. There is very little chance of pathogens coming to your garden from arborist chips and the benefits to your soil and perennial plants are worth the effort to get a “chip drop” from your local tree care company.

Pathogens buried in fresh yardwaste do not survive for very long

Literature

Chalker-Scott, L. 2007. Impact of Mulches on Landscape Plants and the Environment — A review. J. Environ. Hort. 25(4) 239-249.

Chalker-Scott, L., and A. J. Downer 2020. Soil Myth Busting for Extension Educators: Reviewing the Literature on Soil Nutrition. J. of the NACAA 13(2): https://www.nacaa.com/journal/index.php?jid=1134&fbclid=IwAR0cPfBl3V-3car-RPeEmlqzwW8bPEOPgND07xMTNgCOa5GkuSWtdD5WzF8

Downer, A.J., and B.A. Faber. 2019. Mulches for Landscapes UCANR publication #8672

Downer, A.J., D. Crohn, B. Faber, O. Daugovish, J.O. Becker, J.A. Menge, and M. J. Mochizuki. 2008. Survival of plant pathogens in static piles of ground green waste. Phytopathology 98: 574-554.

Downer, A.J., J.A. Menge, and E Pond. 2001. Association of cellulytic enzyme activities in eucalyptus mulches with biological control of Phytophthora cinnamomi Rands. Phytopathology: 91 847-855

Downer, J. and D. Hodel. 2001. The effect of mulching and turfgrass on growth and establishment of Syagrus romanzoffiana (Cham.) Becc., Washingtonia robusta H.Wendl. and Archontophoenix cunninhamiana (H.Wendl.)H. Wendl. & Drude in the landscape. Scientia Horticulturae: 87:85-92

The weather where you are

Greetings from Athens, GA! I am happy to join the group of contributors to the Garden Professors blog. My name is Pam Knox, and I am an agricultural climatologist in Extension at the University of Georgia as well as the Director of the UGA Weather Network and a former State Climatologist from Wisconsin. While I don’t claim to be an expert in gardening, I do know a thing or two about how weather and climate affect plants and hope to share some of that expertise with you over time. You can learn a little more about me from my bio on the blog page.

Source: Merritt Melancon, University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

If you really like learning more about weather, climate, and agriculture, you are welcome to visit my own blog page, “On the CASE—Climate and Agriculture in the SouthEast” at https://site.extension.uga.edu/climate/, where I post almost daily about stories that have caught my eye as well as climate summaries and outlooks for the southeastern US. I plan to post on the Garden Professors blog here about once a month and am happy to answer questions at any time at pknox@uga.edu.

A simple way to compare temperatures around your yard

For my first post, I thought I would talk a little bit more about the weather in your yard and how you can learn more about it. As gardeners, you probably spend more time in your yards than I usually do, and so you have noticed that the climate of your yard or field can vary quite a bit from one spot to another. We call that “microclimate” and if you search this blog for that term, you will find several articles about microclimates in previous years, so I won’t spend a lot of time on that here.

Source: toby everard / Blaen y Cwm in a frost pocket / CC BY-SA 2.0

One easy and inexpensive way to measure how temperature varies across your domain is to use an infrared thermometer to spot-check the temperature at a variety of locations. These thermometers are used a lot now to check forehead temperatures in the age of COVID, but they are also used by HVAC technicians to check heating and air conditioning, for example. You can find inexpensive ones selling for less than $20 online, and many hardware stores have them, too. You will be amazed how much difference there is in temperature between sunny and shady locations! Don’t forget to try it at night too to see how much tree canopy can affect night-time temperatures. Of course, if you want a more systematic and scientific approach, you can follow Linda Chalker-Scott’s experience using multiple min-max thermometers as described in http://gardenprofessors.com/microclimate-follow-up/.

Infrared thermometer. Source: LuckyLouie, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

CoCoRaHS: Precipitation measurements by citizen scientists

One of the many things I do is to serve as a regional coordinator for CoCoRaHS, short for Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow network. This is a group of dedicated citizen scientists who take daily rainfall measurements and report them online via computer or smartphone as part of a nationwide (and now international) network of precipitation observers. Theses observations are used by the National Weather Service, drought monitors, water supply managers, and others to document local variations in rainfall at a much denser scale than other available observing networks. I am sure that some of the readers of this blog are already contributing! You can learn more about the network and how to sign up at https://www.cocorahs.org/. Please keep in mind that they do require the use of a particular scientific rain gauge, so a hardware store gauge is not likely to have the degree of accuracy that is needed to participate. A list of inexpensive vendors (costs start around $40 plus shipping) can be found on their site in the right column. By measuring precipitation at your house, you are not only monitoring your own conditions but contributing to our knowledge of water availability around the US and beyond.

One version of the standard CoCoRaHS precipitation gauge. Source: Lamartin, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.

I am looking forward to interacting with you all in the months ahead, and please feel free to contact me if you have specific weather or climate questions.

Pruning Paints Debunked

When my turn comes up to blog for the Garden Professor site I like to reflect on the horticulture in my own gardens and orchard. Right now I am focused on pruning my old apple and stone fruit orchard. It has suffered bear attacks, drought, and mismanagement before we arrived in 2018. The previous owners were very aware of the need to treat pruning cuts large and small. The remnants of tree wound dressings are found all through our orchard and range from white latex paint to silicone caulk. Unfortunately there has never been good research evidence to support pruning paint use. Despite the lack of any published evidence, for their usefulness, pruning paints are still available in garden centers and there are no end of do it yourself preparations that gardeners continue to use on pruning wounds.

Wound dressings did not protect this apple branch from decay fungi

So why paint the cuts on your fruit trees after pruning? One idea is to keep the surface protected from infection by pathogens. Plant pathogenic fungi and bacteria can cause disease that may lead to blight, cankers, or wood decay.

Laetiporus gilbersonii (chicken of the woods) is a common brown rot wood decay fungus that destroys cellulose in wood.

Wounds are often implicated in pathogenesis or disease development. Many horticulturists believed that wound dressings provide a barrier to entry of pathogens and insects. Fruit trees are easily decayed by a number of fungi which cause white and brown rots in their wood. Wood decay organisms enter through wounds created when branches break from excessive fruit loads or when pruning wounds expose heartwood or significant amounts of sapwood. So painting cuts became a very common practice advocated by gardening columns and various books over the last century.

Wound dressings used in Ukraine for many years on this shade trees did not stop decay fungi from fruiting under the wound dressing! Photo courtesy Igor Signer, Kiev, Ukraine

Wood contains cells that store starch. Here, parenchyma cells in the wood ray tissues have been stained purple to show their starch content. Fungi that invade wood use this stored energy to grow, invade and degrade wood. Fungi invade both the heartwood (non-living) and the living, water transporting sapwood. Sap-rotters typically lead to the decline in tree vigor and canopy density.

Over one hundred years ago Howe (1915) recognized that pruning paints did not help wounds to close, in fact, they retarded the development of callus wood especially in peaches. Howe called into question the necessity of using wound dressings at all. Still the use of wound dressings has prevailed to this day.

Shigo and Shortle (1981) showed that wound dressings do not prevent decay nor do they promote wound closure. If the poor pruning practices that harm trees are abandoned, then wound dressings are unnecessary (never mind that they don’t work). Shigo often maintained that tree genetics determine the extent of decay forming in a given species. His work conclusively showed that flush cuts would lead to more decay than cuts that were made outside the branch collar or bark ridge.

Expanding foam? As far as I know there is no research on expanding foam but lots of anecdotes and observations of how it is often used to fill tree cavities. Filling cavities with cement to prevent or limit decay is a practice that subsided some decades ago and is generally not recommended as part of modern arboricultural practice. By the time decay has caused a cavity it is usually well entrenched in the wood of a tree and is not controlled by filling in the void. The best way to limit decay in trees is to prune them frequently so cuts are never large and the tree (fruit or shade) develops a strong structure that is unlikely to fail.

Literature:

Chalker-Scott, L., and A.J. Downer 2018. Garden Myth Busting for Extension Educators: Reviewing the Literature on Landscape Tree. Journal of the NACCA 11:(2) https://www.nacaa.com/journal/index.php?jid=885

Howe, G.H. 1915. Effect of various dressings on pruning wounds of fruit trees. New York Agricultural Experiment Station, Geneva, N.Y. Bulletin No 396.

Shigo, A.L and W. C Shortle. 1983. Wound dressings: Results of studies over 13 ykears. J. or Arboriculture 9(10): 317-329.

Shigo, A.L. 1984. Tree Decay and Pruning. Arboricultural J. 8:1-12.

The complicated issue of heavy metals in residential soils. Part 3: How can we garden safely in the presence of heavy metals?

This is the last part of our discussion on gardening in soils that contain heavy metals (you can catch up on part 1 and part 2 if you need to). Today we’ll focus on the strategies you can use in your gardens and landscapes to reduce your exposure to soil-borne heavy metals.

Raised beds can be an easy solution for gardeners with contaminated soils

Test your soil!

First – and this should really go without saying – you must test your soil to determine if it contains heavy metals of concern. The COVID19 pandemic provides the perfect comparison: you can’t assume you don’t have the virus just because you don’t have symptoms, and you can’t assume your soil doesn’t have toxic heavy metals just because you don’t think it does. The only way to know for sure, in either case, is through testing.

This eyesore did more than spoil the view.

Most soil tests routinely report aluminum, lead, zinc, and aluminum. Other metals, such as arsenic, cadmium, and chromium, may not be part of a basic soil test and you will need to request additional tests if these metals are likely to be present. Often, county health offices will provide free soil testing if you live in a region where there are known contaminants. For example, I live in the Tacoma area where large amounts of arsenic were deposited for decades downwind of an aluminum smelter. Residents of Pierce County can get free soil testing because of the potential danger.

The aluminum is higher than we would like to see, though everything else looks fine.

Even if you don’t live in an area where industrial or agricultural activity may have added toxic heavy metals to your soils, your soil may naturally contain high levels of some metal of concern. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, our soils have high levels of aluminum. Because we are not downwind of the smelter site mentioned above, I would not have assumed we had any metals of concern, given the rural location of our land, but knowing this informs my choice of vegetables to plant.

The demolition of the Tacoma smelter. Finally.

Avoid adding more heavy metals

Fortunately, many of the consumer products that contained heavy metals are now gone and no longer will add to existing levels of soil metals. But there are still sources out there that gardeners are well-advised to avoid.

  • Older treated timbers. As mentioned in my first post, landscape timbers were once treated with a chemical preservative containing arsenic and chromium. Even though gardeners love reusing materials (we are a thrifty bunch!), these older timbers should be removed if they are still on your property. New timbers are treated with a copper-based solution, which is a more environmentally friendly preservative.
  • Kelp-based fertilizers and amendments. While these products are wildly popular with gardeners, they aren’t very effective fertilizers. Moreover, some kelp species accumulate heavy metals, like arsenic, in seawater and these metals will become a permanent part of your soils. Take a look at this fact sheet for more information.
  • Recycled rubber mulch. This product should be avoided for many reasons (you can read more about the problems in this fact sheet). As it disintegrates it releases high levels of zinc into the soil. And while zinc is an essential micronutrient in plants (and people!), high levels are toxic.
  • Unregulated composts and organic products. Certified composts and other organic products have been tested for pesticide residues and heavy metals: unregulated products have not. Unless you are making your own compost from materials you know to be free from contamination, your safest bet is to purchase certified products.

If you have materials like old timbers, you should never burn them or throw them away. They need to be disposed of as a hazardous waste, much like old cans of paint, mercury-containing thermometers, etc. Eventually, we may be able to use these hazardous discards for biofuel production through pyrolysis, or extract the heavy metals from them for reuse. For now, just dispose of them in a legal and environmentally responsible way.

Cedar is naturally decay-resistant and can be a good choice for rasied beds

Suggestions for safe gardening

If soil testing reveals high levels of metals of concern, there are work-arounds to allow you to still enjoy growing vegetables safely. If your soil tests reveal that your soil is safe for growing edibles, congratulations! You may still benefit from some of the suggestions below.

  • Cover exposed soil with ground covers and mulches (coarse organic or inorganic materials) to eliminate metal-laden dust.
  • Create raised beds for edibles using untreated wood or other metal-free materials. Line the bottom of the bed with an impermeable membrane to prevent movement of soil-borne metals into the beds.
  • If raised beds are not possible, use large containers to grow edibles.
  • Avoid using galvanized tubs, as they will leach zinc (and sometimes chromium) into the soil.
  • Fill beds and containers with clean (i.e., tested) soils or potting media.
  • Don’t plant vegetables near roadways, which are a source of airborne lead.

The complicated issue of heavy metals in residential soils, part 2: How plant species and environmental variables complicate the issue

Last month we discussed the various heavy metals that might end up in your garden and landscape soils. Today we’ll consider how different factors can alter heavy metal uptake by plants.

Parking strips can contain high levels of lead after decades of car exhaust

First of all, let’s consider plant uptake. Plant roots can either accumulate a particular metal or exclude it. If they exclude it, that’s the end of the story, (though it’s still a soil contaminant). If plants take it up, they can either store it in their roots, or they can transport it to some other part of the plant – stems, leaves, flowers, and fruits are possible destinations for metals in accumulator plants. Accumulation varies with plant species and life stage; in other words, seedlings may have different uptake abilities than later life stages. And of course, whether a plant accumulates or excludes a particular heavy metal does not mean the same uptake pattern holds for other heavy metals.

Clay soil will bind heavy metals tightly

Secondly, soil conditions will influence heavy metal mobility. Heavy metals are positively charged, so anything in the soil that carries a negative charge – like clay particles and organic matter – will tend to hold heavy metals in place. That can either be good or bad, depending on your use of the landscape. If you are growing edibles, metals that are tightly bound to the soil are less likely to be taken up. But this also means that they are pretty much there to stay. Sandy soils don’t hold metals well, since sand particles carry no charge, so heavy metals are free to move elsewhere – into the air, into bodies of water, or into plant roots.

How soil variables affect heavy metal uptake

Additions of fertilizers, like those that contain phosphate or that chelate metals, will also increase the ability of plants to take up heavy metals. Likewise, earthworms ingest metals and bind them to other compounds that can be taken up by plant roots. And microbes associated with the roots (and the roots themselves) can acidify the rhizosphere, solubilizing metals and making them easy to incorporate.

Earthworms make all kinds of things available to plants – including heavy metals

It’s apparent that many factors are at play in determining whether plants will take up heavy metals, thus making it impossible to come up with lists of “safe” plants. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of studies on heavy metal uptake of vegetable and other crop plants worldwide, and the variability among their results is a direct reflection of the complexity of soil environments and plant physiology. Nevertheless, there are some very general observations about accumulator species that can be gleaned from the research:

  1. Roots are the most likely tissue to contain heavy metals, since they are the point of uptake; arsenic can accumulate in carrots and lead has been found in carrots and potatoes;
  2. Stems are much less likely to accumulate heavy metals, as they are basically just a straw connecting roots to leaves and other terminal tissues;
  3. Leaves, including basil, lettuce, and spinach, can accumulate heavy metals. Moreover, it appears that red leafed cultivars may accumulate more than those that are green leafed;
  4. Flowers and fruits, including vegetable tissues that produce seeds, are less likely to accumulate heavy metals. For plants that depend on animals to spread their seeds by ingesting the surrounding fruits and then excreting their seeds, it would be an evolutionary disadvantage to have those tissues carrying toxic heavy metals. That being said, there are vegetables, like beans, broccoli, and zucchini, that can accumulate heavy metals such as lead and arsenic.
Red leaves may contain more heavy metals than green ones.

By this point, I think we can agree there will never be a “one size fits all” approach to gardening safely when heavy metals are part of the soil, water, or air environment. Next month I’ll provide suggestions on how to navigate the confusion and design your own approach to creating gardens and landscapes that work around heavy metal contamination.

The worms crawl in and the worms crawl out but these worms kill your plants

Our first major frost hit my part of Arizona a month ago, killing all tomato vines. I did my thanksgiving cleanup chores–removed all the vines and ground them into mulch. I noticed an ominous symptom on one a few of the heirloom varieties (Prudence Purple) that I removed—galled roots. This symptom when seen on tomato is evidence of Root Knot Nematode (RKN). More about RKN shortly. Nematodes are non-segmented worms, mostly free living in soil and feed on bacteria, fungi, small animals or each other. Nematodes are small, barely perceived without magnification but easily observed under low power microscopy. Most nematodes are principal components of the soil food web and are vital to its health and functioning. A few kinds (>30) are opportunistic plant feeders. Plant pathologists consider nematodes plant pathogens because they evoke complicated responses in plant physiology leading to the development of symptoms.

Root knot nematode (Meloidogyne spp.) forms extensive galls on Prudence Purple tomato by the end of a growing season.

Plant parasitic nematodes have some common features and some rather diverse feeding habits and lifestyles. All plant parasitic nematodes have a stylet or spear at their mouth end that is used to puncture plant tissues and such the sap from their host. Looking under a dissecting microscope you may not be able to identify the genus of a nematode but you can tell if it is bad for plants by seeing the spear just behind its mouth. Plant Parasitic Nematodes (PPN) are either migratory or sedentary. All PPN reproduce by eggs and molt once inside the egg emerging as a second instar juvenile nematode. After a couple more molts the juveniles become adults. Male nematodes are less common than female worms. As adults they can keep feeding from plant to plant if they are ectoparasitic (feeding outside of the root) or they can settle down and make eggs inside a cyst or gall. Some nematodes are endoparasitic and once inside the root never leave it until their eggs hatch and juveniles swim off find another host.

Even though these marigolds are heavily galled by root rot nematode their only above ground symptoms are dwarfing or slowed growth

Gardeners should be on the lookout for PPN by noticing symptoms of infection. The most common symptom caused by nematodes is stunting or reduced growth. There may be no other symptoms observable. When the number of PPN is quite large, yellowing or chlorosis can occur as the worms shut down a plant’s ability to take up water and minerals. RKN is the most common destructive plant parasitic nematodes for many gardeners. The gall symptoms on roots are indicative of an infested host. Galling can be light or complete, occurring on every root the plant has. RKN survives in soil for years even without a host because the eggs enter a dormant stage called cryptobiosis. Hatch is snychronous with susceptible roots that grow nearby. Root knot nematodes can build huge populations in a single growing season. Gardeners get nematodes by introducing contaminated soils that come with plants to their gardens. Since symptoms don’t show on plants with minor infections, people think they are buying healthy stock. Even with RKN, there may be juveniles in the soil that have not formed galls yet and when introduced to your garden they will develop later on susceptible plants.

RKN has a very wide host range. Fruit trees, impatiens, calendulas, and tomatoes are a few of its common hosts. Perennial plants can really develop high populations of RKN because the host is undisturbed and provides many seasons for the pathogen to develop. Once detected as galls on roots the plant should be removed and destroyed. RKN is particularly horrible for tomatoes and other annuals when it combines with fungi that also cause disease. RKN forms disease complexes with Fusarium which causes wilts. When tomatoes are infected with both RKN and Fusarium the symptoms are severe, and the plant will die relatively early in its life cycle often before a crop can develop.

Chipping or grinding and composting will kill most nematodes if you want to reuse your greenwaste. More likely RKN will survive as eggs in the soil. Soil samples that find just one RKN per gram of soil sample are considered hazardous as the worms can rapidly develop from these low populations. You may have heard that Marigolds will control RKN. Switching gardens to a non-host (crop rotation) does help decrease populations. And French marigolds and crucifers if tilled into soil as “green manure” will decrease RKN but these methods will not eliminate them from soil. There is a dose response to tilling in mustards so the more you incorporate the more RKN will be harmed. Some varieties are better than others. Fumigation provides a good level of control but is not feasible outside commercial agriculture. Soil solaraization with plastic tarps also controls nematodes in the upper regions of soil but there are usually many eggs that survive in lower soil profiles. The best control is not to plant susceptible plants.

Some tomato varieties are resistant to RKN. In fact VFN (Verticillium Fusarium and Nematode resistant) varieties should be chosen to avoid recurrent problems. The resistance to RKN in tomato is not complete and under high nematode populations and/or high temperatures the resistance can break down and even resistant varieties can develop galls and symptoms. There are no pesticides that home gardeners can use to kill nematodes. However there are biological controls of nematodes and since they are soil food web opportunists, increasing the diversity of organisms in soil tends to cut down on PPN. As always, fresh arborist chips applied as mulch will build a resilient soil food web and will slow the development of PPN harmful to garden plants.

Fall is for fungal fruit

Summer is done. The last apples are coming off my orchard trees now and persimmons are ripening fast. Some fruit remains to be picked but most is off. As garden productivity subsides we turn our tasks to winter. In Southern California it means planting the winter vegetable garden, in Northern Mn snow has already flown so gardens are shut down now. For fungi that may be pathogens in our gardens, it is a time for reproduction. Fall is the time for fruiting and for gardeners a time to reckon with next year’s disease cycles.

Most fungi are saprophytic, that is they live on dead or decayed organic matter. Fungi are largely responsible for recycling forest nutrients from litterfall (leaves, branches and whole trees) back to soil minerals. Without fungal decay, mulch would never break down and organic matter would pile up. If you use fresh wood chips (often advocated in this group) you may notice that after some time they are full of fungal mycelium or cordons (rhizomorphs). This is normal and healthy—a good sign that your mulch is decomposing and improving the underlying layers of soil.

Furngi survive as fruting bodies in cankered branches, dead wood and leaves

Some plant pathogen fruiting bodies are edible. The mushrooms formed by Armillaria are often collected and considered delectable by many. Most edible fungi are saprophytes or mycorrhizal fungi. Truffles and other edible mushrooms like Chanterelles are plant symbionts often benefiting oaks and other northern temperate trees. Some wood decay fungi are also considered a delicacy such as the Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotis spp.) or the sulfur mushroom (Laetiporus gilbersonii). I don’t recommend harvesting wild mushrooms for food unless you are able to accurately identify what you collect, even then, second opinions of mycologists are a good idea. Also, not everyone reacts the same to fungi when they consume non-commercial mushrooms, so moderation is best or just get your fungus from commercial sources.

The sulfur conk (Laetiporus gilbersonii) is an edible wood decay mushroom

Not all fungi are beneficial. Some have evolved life histories that allow them to gain energy not from organic matter or dead plant materials but from living plants. These are parasites. Fungi have been evolving their lifestyles for about 400 million years and in that time have developed several strategies involving plant hosts to live and reproduce. Sixty five million years ago, after the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that famously destroyed dinosaurs, fungi bloomed on earth and increased in importance. As land plants diversified, so did fungi developing many forms and parternships, many of them becoming essential to plants such as mycorrhizae. A few fungi specialized as plant pathogens.

Fungi use their reproductive structures to survive and ready themselves to attack susceptible plants. The most common fungal fruiting body the mushroom may not seem like a survival structure. But mushrooms can produce millions if not over a billion spores. Massive spore production ensures that some of those spores will find a place for the organism to survive. Also some mushrooms found on trees (sometimes called conks or bracket mushrooms) are perennial, and live for years—each year they add a new spore bearing surface over the last one. Many of the pathogenic tree fungi that produce conks fruit in the fall or winter.

Mushrooms help fungi survive by producing millions of spores. Don’t attempt to eat this kind though as it is an Amanita and is poisonous! Never eat wild or collected mushrooms without proper identification and study.

Many fungi form their fruiting bodies as small melanized structures that contain their spores. These are often formed in dead host tissue, such as dead twigs or branches. The spores are protected until they are splashed by water onto tender or susceptible plant tissues such as shoots. In soil, fungi can form hyphae that are very concentrated and melanized in to long lasting structures called scleortia. They lay dormant in soil for years until a susceptible root grows into them. Crop rotation often helps to limit disease but some fungi can last decades between crops and remain viable by producing thick walled spores called chlamydospores or sclerotia. The wilt fungi (Fusarium and Verticillium) survive in this way.

Another key strategy that fungi use is a kind of timing called phenotypic synchronicity. Fungi often have their spores ready to be dispersed exactly when new growth or susceptible plants are available for infection. The timing also often aligns with weather conditions that favor spore dispersal or arrival at the intended plant growth stage or phenotype.

Fungi evolved with land plants to take advantage of the environmental conditions and phenology of their hosts. We can interrupt the process with a bit of diligence as gardeners. As fall continues and winter approaches, it is a good time to remove dead twigs and branches from perennials that are prone to disease, clean up fallen or dead flowers from plants like Camellia that are attacked by petal blight because the flower mummies contain sclerotia that start the disease in the Winter. Unfortunately removing conks from trees does nothing to stem the progress of wood decay fungi in the tree they formed on, or their further spread, because so many spores are formed that the few mushrooms we remove will not stop those diseases. Some evidence suggests that increasing soil organic matter will over time reduce soil-borne pathogens, but once a pathogen has affected a perennial, there is often little to be done about it as in the case of Verticillium wilt of shade trees. No matter how fungi survive, its always a good idea to apply fresh tree trimming chips around perennials in the garden….