Dandelions and clover

It was fun to read all of your comments last week about your opinions on lawn care.  To follow up on it I’m going to talk a little bit about why I’m not fond of companies which apply herbicides multiple times throughout the year.  But first I think I’ll mention why I apply herbicides at all — aesthetics.  That’s it — the whole reason. Could I go the no-lawn route?  Yes, but I like having a yard to run in.  Not a huge yard, but a little yard to play tag with the kids.

What I long for though is the yard from the house that I grew up in.  Our house in southeastern PA (About an hour west of Philly and an hour east of Lancaster) was set back about 800 feet from the road and was on old agricultural land.  The area around the house was planted in grass in the mid 70s and then it was left alone.  Fertilized once the first year I think, but that’s it.  Dandelions invaded quickly as did clover.  Over the years the clover began to dominate the grass, but not to the point that the grass disappeared, and the lawn actually appeared relatively homogeneous.  Dandelions never left, but their numbers declined.  The clover grew low and the grass never shot up like it does in a heavily fertilized lawn and so mowings only happened once every two weeks or so (well, OK, sometimes more often depending on the weather and where on the lawn you were — the spot over the septic tank needed mowing every 48 hours or so).  The grass did go dormant most summers, but 800 feet from the road there wasn’t anyone to complain, and besides, the clover kept the lawn from appearing completely scorched.  The lawn looked good for well over 30 years (until my parents remodeled the house and the yard was torn up).

The typical suburbanite might not have liked this lawn, but to me this lawn looked great, and, besides, it was low maintenance.  The reason I’m bothering to tell you about this lawn though is because it illustrates so well what lawn care companies make impossible.  They say (and by “they” I mean professors like myself) that pesticides beget pesticides and fertilizers beget fertilizers, and nowhere is that as true as in a well manicured lawn.  The herbicide of choice is 2,4 D (though there are many others that are used) which lawn care companies apply multiple times over the the course of a year.  This pesticide does a great job of killing dandelions, but it also kills clover.  It rarely hurts grass unless it’s grossly over-applied.  The problem with killing clover is that this clover is the stuff that fed the grass in the house where I grew up.  Clover takes nitrogen out of the air and makes it available to grass every time the lawn is mowed (the clipped off pieces of clover degrade and the nitrogen in them feeds whatever plants are around).  Without the clover you need to add fertilizers.  So, because the lawn care company is keeping the lawn free of weeds they also need to fertilize because they’re killing all of the natural fertilizer.  Here’s the thing, the weed that most people in the suburbs like least, dandelions, is actually very sensitive to low potassium.  The lower the potassium in the soil the worse it does.  In fact, dandelions can easily be out-competed by grass and clover if potassium is low — just as happened in the yard of the house where I grew up.  But do lawn care companies pay attention to this (by using high nitrogen, low potassium fertilizers?)  What do you think?

My guess is that many of you thought that I’d cite all kinds of scary side effects of the pesticides used on lawns.  Nope.  In general I think that, if used properly, they’re pretty safe for humans (with a few notable exceptions).  I’ve spent a lot of time reviewing epidemiological and toxicology studies and I can think of many worse things.  I am somewhat fearful of what 2,4 D may do to dogs in particular — they can’t excrete this poison like we can.  Don’t think for a minute that I’m calling these poisons perfectly safe — I just think there are plenty of other better established reasons to avoid lawn care company pesticide schedules.

Going for the Gold

What do you get when you combine 900 wildly enthusiastic undergraduate students from 70 colleges and universities with 29 horticultural competitive events in a landscaping Olympics?  The marvelous mayhem of the PLANET (Professional Landcare Network) Student Career Days.  Last week, three of my colleagues; Brad Rowe, Tom Fernandez, Marcus Duck, and I traveled to Atlanta with 15 Michigan State University Horticulture students to compete at the 34th annual PLANET student Career Days hosted by Chattahoochee Technical College.  The Student Career Days incorporates an array of activities including tours, workshops, speaker presentations and a career fair.  But the unquestioned highlight of the event is the student competition. Students compete in 29 landscape horticulture events ranging from arboriculture to computer aided landscape design.  Some events require physical skills such as paver construction and landscape installation; while other such as plant identification and sale presentation test the student’s plant knowledge or interpersonal communication skills.  The logistics for the host school and event sponsors is truly staggering.  For example, in the Landscape Installation event, 50 three-person teams are given a 12’ x 20’ plot of ground, identical landscape plans, and identical sets of plant materials (a 15 gallon tree, shrubs, annuals, sod) and given 2 hours to complete the installation.  Likewise, in paver construction and wood construction, 50 two-person teams are given identical supplies, tools and a design and must complete the project in less than two hours.  Awards are presented to the top three students in each event and the top ten teams overall.  Beyond the awards, however, the program offers tremendous opportunities for student to network with industry leaders, meet and compete with students across the country, and challenge themselves and build confidence. We Garden Professors are sometimes given to being a bit curmudgeonly but spending a few days at this event will definitely restore ones faith and enthusiasm in the next generation.
For the record; Chattahoochee Technical College was this year’s SCD Champion followed by perennial powers BYU-Provo and BYU-Idaho.  Michigan State was 10th.

Mitch Zost tackles tree climbing in the Arboriculture event

The Lanscape Installation event is the final and culminating event of the Student Career days.  Think of the 4 x 400 relay with shrubs and annuals…

Zeke Kadish negotiates the treacherous Truck and Trailer course.

MSU Horticulture faculty members Brad Rowe, Tom Fernandez, and Marcus Duck capture the action for posterity.

Joel Franken found out that accidents can happen during irrigation assembly.


Yesterday evening I took my older daughter to dance class while my wife stayed home.  While she was entertaining our younger daughter, the TruGreen guy came to the door to tell us that we had weeds in the yard (Damn, I had no idea!).  He went on to tell my wife that we really needed to use his company to get rid of them.  I was so disappointed that I missed him because I wanted to know all about what he had planned for our yard.  Many of our neighbors use TruGreen and I have to say that I’m not particularly impressed.  It’s not that they’re not professional — they certainly are.  It’s not that they don’t do things by the book — they certainly do.  It’s just that the book that we use is getting a bit outdated.   When I read TruGreens online FAQ it looked like they actually plan six applications of chemicals per year.  I’m assuming (I don’t know this for sure), that at least four of those include herbicides to one extent or another.  It looks like people who have no tolerance for weeds should love TruGreen.   But really, how many weeds should people allow in their yards?  Is it one per square foot? Two? Five dozen?  And what are weeds?  Is clover a weed?  At what point do we say enough is enough and that we’d rather just cope with a few weeds than hose down our whole yard with herbicides.

After reading my own words I feel like some kind of radical.  In my job I tend to see two types of people, those who can’t stand pesticides and those who can’t stand weeds.  One group is happy to spray five times a year if it means that their lawn will be weed free, and one won’t touch an herbicide.  I’m not sure that either group is correct.  I tend to handle weeds in my yard the same way I handle haircuts – I hate having my hair cut so I don’t go to the barber that often, but I do go to the barber eventually because my hair looks pretty ridiculous if it grows too long.  I feel the same way about weeds (specifically dandelions) which infest  the grass in my yard.  I prefer not to add herbicides, but there’s a big weed bank in the area and so I end up needing to apply once every two years or so because otherwise it looks pretty bad.  Rather than making either the making the weed-free lawn or the no-chemical group happy though I think that it just pisses them both off.  They see my unwillingness to commit to one way or the other as a cop-out rather than reasonable moderation. What do you think?

Getting Loaded

Spring is off to a warm and fast start here in Michigan.  March was unseasonably warm and the past week or so has seen temperature 20 degrees above average or more.  Needless to say this is pushing all of our landscape trees and shrubs.  Forsythia and saucer magnolia are in full bloom, at least two weeks ahead of schedule.  The warm weather also has us scrambling to get some research projects in the ground as well.  Today I was working with members of my lab to install a trial to look at the relationship between fertilization in the nursery and subsequent of shade trees in the landscape.  For the past two years we’ve grown Acer miyabei (‘State street’ maple) and ‘Harvest gold’ Linden trees in 25 gallon containers as part of a trial on controlled release fertilizer.  Interestingly, in the nursery we saw a significant increase in chlorophyll index and foliar nitrogen with fertilization (no surprise) but no difference in caliper or height growth (somewhat of a surprise).  This indicates that in the nursery, fertilization induced ‘luxury consumption’ or an uptake of nutrients beyond what the trees need to meet their growth requirement.  This observation provided the opportunity for our current, follow-up study.  In the forest nurseries there is a growing interest in the practice of ‘nutrient loading’ seedling trees before they are lifted.  Forest nursery managers deliberately induce luxury consumption by fertilizing late in the season.  At this time seedlings have set a hard bud and won’t grow but can take up additional nutrients.  Numerous studies, particularly by Dr, Vic Timmer and his associates at the University of Toronto have shown that nutrient loaded seedlings will outgrow standard seedlings when out-planted on reforestation sites; even though the seedlings are the same size when transplanted.  How does this apply to large-caliper shade trees?  We don’t know.  There are certainly some underlying commonalities that are intriguing.  Nutrient loaded forest seedlings have an advantage when planted on tough sites where follow-up culture is minimal – basically the seedling has to get by initially with its own energy reserves and resources.  Shade trees planted as street trees often face the same hardship; once planted they may receive little or no after-care beyond an initial watering.  Could nutrient loading provide a better internal nutrient reserve and jump start the re-establishment process for street trees like it does for the smaller forest cousins?  We should gain some insights this summer and next.

Haber and Bosch

There are people who are fascinated by plants and people who are fascinated by the science of growing plants.  While I love plants I must confess that I consider myself to reside more firmly in the latter group that the former.  I do love to see the beautiful flowers on an apple tree in the spring, but I’m more fascinated by the nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other elements that the tree obtains from the soil.  I like to contemplate the complex ecosystem that surrounds the tree, including the tree’s pests and the possible things that we can do to protect the tree from pests.  I love to learn about insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, and I especially love to learn about alternatives like beneficial insects that may be used to control pests.  Histories that cover fertilizers and pesticides are pleasure reading.

One of the most important things to ever happen to the world as we know it was the discovery of a process to take nitrogen from the air so that we could use it as a fertilizer.  During the 1800s we discovered that applying nitrogen to our soils made plants grow really fast.  Though this nitrogen could be supplied with manure we quickly learned that Peruvian Guano and Chilean nitrates had more concentrated nitrogen and so less needed to be added to fields to get bigger responses.  Incidentally we could also use the nitrogen from these sources for bullets and bombs.  Nitrogen is a cornerstone of most conventional explosives.  Unfortunately these sources of nitrogen did have a drawback, they are not renewable resources.  You may say — Hey, Guano’s renewable! — But you’d be stretching the truth.  You see, guano is aged manure where the nitrogen has had a chance to become concentrated.

Anyway, by the time the 20th century rolled around we had used up much of the nitrogen available from South America and so we (and by we I mean the world in general) were hurting for nitrogen — particularly Germany.  Germany had a feeling there was going to be a war and she needed a way to get nitrogen other than sailing all the way to Peru or Chile.  So she put money into research.  Pretty soon two researcher, Haber and Bosch, came up with a method to take nitrogen directly out of the air and make it into ammonia.  Once present in ammonia it could then be used to make any number of other nitrogen based compounds, from fertilizers to bombs.

Coincidentally, Haber is also known as the father of chemical weapons.  He led the German poison gas program and had a hand in developing such things as mustard gas.  He was considered to be a patriot, but, born a Jew, the rise of Hitler wasn’t good for him and he was forced to leave in the early 1930s.

The story of Haber and Bosch is absolutely fascinating, not only because of the colorful characters, but because their discovery is, arguably, the most important factor in the increase of the worlds population over the last century.  The best book that I know of on this topic is Enriching the Earth by Vacliv Smil.  It’s a great book, but it does get a little technical.  But  my dad (he’s a chemist) showed me another book yesterday that is much more entertaining and readable than Smil’s book while retaining most of the pertinent science.  It’s called The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager and, if your interested in fertilizers and the people who first developed them, then this is a must read.



This time of year is very exciting for the students in my plant propagation class because now is when they all get to try grafting.  In particular, they get to place buds from an apple tree onto a rootstock.  There is nothing like placing a bud from one tree onto another to make a person feel as though they’re a horticulturist (NOT HorticulturALIST — that’s not a real word).  Especially if that bud successfully grows on the plant where it was placed and produces a happy new tree — What a warm fuzzy feeling!

There are all kinds of things that a rootstock can offer to the bud placed on it.  The rootstock can make the tree a dwarf, it can be resistant to certain diseases which the bud isn’t, it can even add some degree of cold hardiness.  In return, the bud produces a cultivar that the grower wants such as ‘Honeycrisp’ apple.  Additionally, the bud also offers an older tree.  This probably doesn’t make sense at first, so think about it for a second or two.  The bud that was grafted onto the rootstock came from a mature tree and so it may be more mature than the rootstock (which may have come from a seed — if the rootstock came from something besides a seed — like cuttings — then the rootstock may also be quite mature).  Because the bud from which the top of the tree will grow is more mature than the base the tree will usually come into bearing sooner than if it were grown from seed.

Tree age is a funny thing.  Though you wouldn’t expect it, the base of a tree is actually the youngest part of the tree physiologically while the older portion of the tree is at the top from which most new growth comes.  The reason for this is that the bottom of the tree was laid down first as the tree first emerged from the soil and so the bud from which that growth came hadn’t had the chance to age much yet.  After a few years of growing up the terminal bud developed more and more “age” and so the top of the tree is more mature.  Confusing?  It confuses me too — and I’m oversimplifying things quite a bit here.  Making it even worse, no two tree species seem to age in exactly the same way.

Organic or local?

I grew up on a small farm (30 or so acres) near Tacoma, Washington. We raised our own Herefords, I gathered eggs from my frizzle chickens, and we all enjoyed apples, plums and cherries from our fruit trees.  Neither of my parents were farmers by profession, though my grandfather owned a dairy farm in Oregon.  Eventually, my husband and I hope to move back to the family farm, if for no other reason than preserve it from the surrounding encroachment of houses.

I’ve been thinking about things I might do for fun or profit on the farm.  Home grown beef for sure.  A veggie garden – finally – on some of the only native soil left in the area.  We’ve got lots of options and the space to try them out.

Now back to the question in the title: organic or local?  Our family property has been managed gently since we moved there in the late 1960’s.  Nothing’s been added to the pasture soil other than what the animals deposited themselves.  We’ve had the apple trees sprayed yearly (a requirement because of apple maggot), but this is a targeted application with little affect outside the trees.  The cattle were never treated with hormones or other additives – they were about as free range as you can get.

I’ve heard from others that organic certification standards have become increasingly difficult to meet and some growers think they have become increasingly meaningless.  On the other hand, locally-grown products are becoming more available.

Is it time for a new standard – locally grown, with some requirements (e.g. soil tests) to demonstrate safety?

Love in Broom

Recently, Rebecca Finneran, an MSU Extension Educator from the Grand Rapids area sent me a cool photo.  The tree is a large Norway spruce near the Kent country Extension office.

This is a great example of witch’s broom.  Witch’s brooms are growth anomalies that occur on various trees, most commonly conifers,   Brooms can be caused be a variety of factors including diseases, aphids, environmental stress and random mutations.  In some cases the growth defect is only present when the casual agent, say, a pathogen is present.  In others, however, the growth mutation can be propagated by grafting scion wood from the witch’s broom onto a regular rootstock.  In fact, this is the origin of many forms of dwarf and unusual ornamental conifers.  Because of this, brooms are often a prized commodity and ‘Broom hunting’ is an active past-time for conifer enthusiasts such as members of the American Conifer Society.  ACS members that find their first brooms are sometimes referred to as ‘Baby broomers’.  Broom hunters are a focused lot and have been known to screech to a halt on major interstate in their relentless pursuit of conifer conversation pieces.  So keep an eye out for brooms – and broom hunters!

With the late Chub Harper and the ‘Merrill broom’ tree at Hidden Lake Gardens, Tipton, MI

An evolving view of plant nutrition

One of the hallmarks of science is that our view of the world evolves and changes as new evidence comes to light.  When I was a grade-schooler following the Apollo missions, for example, I knew all the planets in order from Mercury to Pluto and how many moons each one had; Jupiter was the champ with 12.  Today, Jupiter has as many as 63 moons depending on who’s counting.  And Pluto, let’s not even go there.   Likewise, our view of plant science has changed over the years.  As I’ve mentioned before, when I took introductory Botany as an undergrad thirty-some years ago we learned that there were 16 essential plant nutrient elements.  Since then we’ve learned that nickel is also essential at least for some plants.


If you took your plant science more than 10 years ago, you also learned that nitrogen is taken up from the soil as either ammonium or nitrate.  This view is now being revised due largely to evidence from the ecological literature.  Ecologists have found that in northern boreal regions where soil temperatures are cold and mineralization and nitrification rates are low, plants will take up intact amino acids from the soil (Nashholm and Persson, 2001; Kielland et al., 2006).  Recent studies have extended these observations to temperate forests (Gallet-Budynek et al., 2009) and horticultural crops. (Ge et al., 2009), indicating that a range of plants may be able to derive a portion of their N requirements directly from organic sources.


So what does this have to do with the Garden Professors and the science of landscape horticulture?  First off, this is pretty cool stuff and certainly will cause a lot of re-evaluation of some established paradigms.  From an applied perspective, fertilizing with amino acids and related organic source has some potential benefits.  In warm, well-aerated soils, nitrate-N predominates.  When plants take up nitrate, it must be reduced via nitrate reductase and nitrite reductase before it can be assimilated into amino acids.  These steps require metabolic energy.  In theory, amino acids could bypass the reduction and assimilation processes and provide a more efficient means of fertilization.  At this point, most of the scientific focus is on quantifying how much organic N can be directly taken up from the soil.  Evaluating efficiency of uptake and utilization is a couple steps down the road.  Amino acid fertilization could potentially provide another benefit over nitrate fertilization by reducing nitrate leaching.


Of course there’s a potential downside as well.  A quick Google search of ‘amino acid fertilizer’ reveals sites shilling all manner of concoctions for fertilizing plants; many of dubious value.  One of the first sites I hit proclaims that, unlike inorganic fertilizers, their product provides the 70 elements needed for plant growth.  Seventy?!  Well that’s close to seventeen.   Point is be prepared for an ever increasing barrage of claims about organic fertilizers.  There is no doubt that compost and similar organic sources can provide essential plant nutrients and effective fertilizer sources.  As always, however, be skeptical of spectacular claims and secret, proprietary ingredients and pay close attention to the cost of amino acids compared to conventional fertilizers.  There is some science here; clearly many plants have the capacity to take up amino acids directly.  Beyond that we’ve still got a lot to learn.


Gallet-Budynek, A., E. Brzostek, V.L. Rodgers, J.M. Talbot, S. Hyzy, and A.C. Finzi. 2009. Intact amino acid uptake by northern hardwood and conifer trees. Oecologia 160:129–138.


Ge, T., S. Song, P. Roberts, D.L. Jones, D. Huang, and K. Iwasaki. 2009. Amino acids as a nitrogen source for tomato seedlings: The use of dual-labeled (13C, 15N) glycine to test for direct uptake by tomato seedlings. Environmental and Experimental Botany. Volume 66: 357-361.


Kielland K, J. McFarland, and K. Olson. 2006. Amino acid uptake in deciduous and coniferous taiga ecosystems. Plant Soil 288:297–307.


T. Näsholm and J. Persson.  2001. Plant acquisition of organic nitrogen in boreal forests, Physiol. Plant 111: 419–426.

Atrazine, The news, And the reality

A paper was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which discussed the dangers of one of the most commonly used weed killers in the United States, atrazine.  This paper was written by Tyrone Hayes and colleagues and was immediately embraced by the media because it showed something scary (which the media loves — in case you were wondering).  In a nutshell this study showed that frogs were changed from males to females when they were exposed to relatively small amounts of the herbicide atrazine.  The next day in class I had a student come up to me and ask me about it and what I thought.  I gave him my short answer (class was about to start).  Here’s the longer one, but first I want to present you with some notes which will be important as we proceed.

Science does not provide values, instead it is a tool to use with your own personal value system.  Some people may put a high value on cheaper production of important food crops such as corn, while others may put a high value the absence of potentially dangerous chemicals.  That doesn’t matter to science.  Remember that — science doesn’t give a poop what you care about.  Furthermore, science doesn’t care what past experiments have found — what one researcher finds another may not find.  Who knows why?  That’s just the way things happen.  On with the story.

Atrazine has been around since 1959.  It’s a preemergent herbicide (which means that it kills weed seeds as they germinate) used on a variety of crops, but most frequently on corn.  One of the advantages of atrazine is that it works extremely well in no-till growing systems which are used to reduce erosion.  Another advantage of atrazine is that it’s cheap.  Generally atrazine is considered to have a low toxicity (lower than caffeine for example).  Additionally, though there is some data out there showing that it may cause cancer, this is grossly outweighed by data demonstrating that it isn’t carcinogenic.  But there is data showing that atrazine is a hormone disruptor potentially affecting such hormones as estrogen and testosterone — and this effect is generally considered real — in other words not many scientists dispute it.

Over the years this hormone effect has been seen as a Bad Thing, but not bad enough to warrant banning this useful herbicide.  Then along came Tyrone Hayes — and he started looking at how atrazine affected frogs — despite the recent news surge he has been doing this work for a long time (about 10 years) and has published much of that work.  In a nutshell he is showing that atrazine, and to some extent other chemicals, cause hormone problems in frogs, particularly male frogs.  Sex change and/or hermaphroditic frogs ensue!  Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it) other researchers have not been able to show the same things — at least not it the dramatic way that Dr. Hayes has (I’m not implying that they haven’t found problems with atrazine — they have — Dr. Hayes findings just tend to be more dramatic.  Speaking of which, if you ever have the opportunity to see Dr. Hayes give a talk GO!  He is an amazing public speaker and his slides and words make his findings even more dramatic).  There is little to no direct evidence that hormone disruption caused by atrazine is currently affecting humans though many news sources are trying to draw that link.  Indirect evidence is pretty weak too — but not nonexistent.  The European Union banned atrazine in 2001.  Should we follow?

My value judgement follows — yours might be — in fact it probably should be — different.

Here’s what I think.  Ban atrazine, or at least regulate it more tightly.  Why?  Because there are many weeds resistant to it (that’s what happens to old herbicides…). Because there are options which are safer for our ecology (though they are somewhat more expensive). Because this stuff is showing up in groundwater at rates higher than what we’d like to see, and these concentrations will probably continue to rise — a direct result of using the stuff for so many years.  Look, we don’t need to cut farmers off from this stuff right now, lets start a phase-out program and get rid of it over the next five years.  Why not?  If we NEEDED it to produce crops I’d probably be on the other side of the issue, but we don’t, so I reside firmly on the “let’s be cautious about this” side.