Vote early and often!

In my last post I announced that we would be conducting the first landscape transplant experiment designed by social media.  We have about 100 ‘Bloodgood’ plane trees in 25 gallon containers that are leftover from a recent nursery trial.  The trees will be planted at our Hort station and receive minimal care after planting beyond an initial watering and a kiss for luck.  I asked for some suggestions for potential treatments and got some good suggestions.  Unfortunately, one thing I forgot to point out is that I have essentially no budget for this project. So trying to determine whether or not roots are mycorrhizal, or bringing in B&B trees for comparison, are beyond our capabilities at this juncture.

We did have some interest in determining the effects of manipulating rootballs for container-grown trees.  These trees have been in pots for 2 years and I absolutely guarantee they are pot bound.  Definitely a good opportunity to look at shaving or teasing rootballs.

There are a couple of other items that I am curious about.

One is crown reduction thinning.  In forest nurseries trees are often top-pruned to reduce shoot-root ratio and increase transplant success.  Obviously we would’t top landscape sized trees, but can selective pruning to reduce the ratio of crown area to root area reduce water stress and increase survival?

Along these lines, there is a lot of marketing of plant growth retardants to reduce transplanting stress.  The most common is probably paclabutrazole – sold under various trade names including Cambistat  Does it work?

I’ve also been curious about hydrogels.  I’ve long been a skeptic but have had several arborists tell me they’ve used them successfully – of course they didn’t leave an untreated control.

Then, of course, there’s Bioplex. It might be easier to list what isn’t in Bioplex than what it contains. I suspect whatever effect it has is largely related to small amount of nutrients it contains.

Lastly, I still adhere to the notion that fertilizing trees at planting is not necessarily the source of all evil in the world and may even be a good thing.  Here I get a chance to provide myself wrong and apply a dose of Osmocote in the planting hole.

OK that’s the background – time to vote.  The link below should take you to a Survey Monkey survey.  You can vote for more than one item, but please vote for no more than three.


Amazing water slices!

Here it’s already Wednesday and no GP postings!  My excuse is that I had a seminar to give yesterday before catching a late night flight to Pullman.  Bert (who should have posted Monday) must still be lost in a mai-tai fog somewhere in Hawaii.  Or maybe he’s looking for Holly, who’s been AWOL for a week.  They’re supposedly at the ASHS meetings.  Right.

I’m kind of liking the idea of finding fun new products for the busy gardener.  Much to my delight, after Goggling the phrase “best new garden product of 2011” I was introduced to amazing water slices.  Here’s the text of the announcement/sales information:


“A pack of four amazing water slices – so simple to use, they can retain enough water to keep your plants happy for up to 3 weeks.

“Simply soak each slice in water for 3 hours. Use inside or underneath pot plants, hanging baskets, flower pouches, etc.

“Use in layers, too: one slice=one week’s watering. So three slices will give up to 3 weeks watering.

“Cut to shape – one slice can fit two smaller pot plants.

“An extremely efficient and water-saving product – highly recommended.”

And here’s what a “water slice” looks like:

It’s a sponge.

They said to write about it, so I will…

Please tell me – am I crazy?  Or just not the gardening trend-setter that I should be?  Should I be spending $10 on this? Check out this excerpt from Garden Cuttings Newsletter, with the note “Please feel free to use this information in your stories and columns”:

“Instead of sending dried leaves and other yard waste to the landfill, compost it! DeComp-9 Organic Compost Booster speeds up the composting process with patented microorganisms that quickly break down leaves, grass clippings and other yard waste. When added to compost, the microorganisms in all-natural DeComp-9 will grow on organic material, feed on decaying and dead plant matter and convert this waste to nutrient-rich compost that helps build stronger and healthier plants. Just mix DeComp-9 with water according to the product label and apply on compost piles. Each 20-gram package of DeComp-9 makes 10 gallons of solution – enough to treat 27 cubic feet of compost material. DeComp-9 is available for about $10.”


Does colored glass help root cuttings?

I get a lot of questions about a lot of different products and practices.  New topics send me to the scientific data bases and that’s where I went for today’s posting.  One of my garden writing colleagues asked me about colored glass rooters – glass containers in different colors that can be filled with water and a plant cutting.  The conventional internet wisdom, according to my colleague, is that green and blue glass rooters are the best.

The first mention I could find of such a practice is from an 1801 publication called The Cottage Gardener.  In it, we’re informed that for rooting cuttings “such coloured glass is useless; it has no influence over the production of roots.” Nevertheless, 200 years later web postings like “I have found that cuttings placed in colored blue or green glass root faster than clear glass” are taken as solid evidence that blue or green glass containers are best for rooting cuttings.

There is science behind different colors of light and rooting, but it’s a little more complicated.  Chlorophyll absorbs red and blue light best, so plants whose leaves are exposed to red and blue light grow well and tend to produce a healthy flush of roots.  On the other hand, plants whose roots are exposed to blue light have decreased root growth compared to those under white light conditions.  In this case, the photoreceptor called cryptochrome might be responsible for inhibition, as it is a blue light absorber.  Similarly, plant roots exposed to green light do not grow as well as those exposed to white light.

In my opinion, this is another example of aesthetics trumping science.  Of course colored glass rooters are more attractive that plain old glass jars.  And that’s a perfectly valid reason to use them as part of one’s home decor.  But it’s not science, nor is it necessarily the best way to encourage rooting.

What seems to be most important in rooting cuttings in water is to use indirect lighting (north-facing windows in the northern hemisphere, for example) so that the water doesn’t get too hot.  And keep in mind that not all species root well from cuttings.

Where to Draw The Line on Home Remedies

On Tuesday Holly posted an extremely interesting article about how Bounce could help control fungus gnats.  Then one of our frequent commenters (and all around great guy) Ray Eckhart pointed out that he has a problem with promulgating an off-label use of a product.  And that got me to thinking.  What household products is it OK for us to suggest that a consumer use for a non-labeled purpose, and what products shouldn’t we suggest?  This is a question that has haunted me for a long time, so with this post I want to give you my line of thinking – I’m not trying to tell you what’s right or wrong – just trying to let you know my thoughts on the topic.

First of all, let’s admit that there are off-label uses of products which most of us hardly think about and simply accept as “generally OK.”  For example, I have never been taken to task for suggesting using a plastic bag for protecting fruit from insects or for suggesting that dish washing detergent may be a good insecticide.  Of course both of these pest control techniques have their drawbacks (it can get hot in the bags in the South, injuring fruit, and insecticidal soap can burn the foliage of sensitive leaves) still, using these products outside of their labeling doesn’t seem to bother people too much.  Likewise, the idea of using alcohol to stunt plant growth, eggshells to stop slugs, or milk to control plant disease doesn’t seem to upset people too badly (whether they work or not being beside the point).

But there are some off-label uses of products which could be considered obviously bad.  For example, controlling weeds by dumping gasoline on them and setting them on fire, or perhaps washing your ripe fruit in a cup of paint thinner.

Then there are the off-label uses of products such as mouthwash for plant disease and tobacco juice for insects.  I see these as neither obviously fine nor obviously terrible.  So where is the line to be drawn?

In my opinion, as an extension educator, I feel that it is my job to tell my audience (That’s you guys!) the facts about different gardening/growing techniques including those that are “off-label.”  I don’t feel that it’s my job to tell you what to do and what not to do (well…maybe with the exception of telling you not to pour gasoline on your weeds and light them on fire or not to soak your food in paint thinner!)  It is up to you to make your own decisions.

Let’s go through a “for-instance” here.  And let’s use one that I’ve written about – using hot peppers as an insecticidal spray.  Hot pepper sprays can work to control certain insects.  Just mix up a few hot peppers with some water, add some dish detergent, put it into a spray bottle, and off you go.  I have used sprays like this myself in small experiments to control mites, and they have worked reasonably well.  I have also read a number of articles showing that these sprays have at least some effect on certain pest insects.  But hot peppers certainly aren’t “labeled” for use against insects, and let me tell you, a little hot pepper in the eyes, or even the skin, and you can be in pain for hours.  Long term damage is unlikely – but not impossible.  So what should I, as an extension educator, do?  In my opinion exactly what I just did – give you the facts and let you make your own decisions.  I feel exactly the same way about Holly’s post about Bounce – she gave you the facts – if you want to try using Bounce to control something then that’s up to you.  Do I recommend Bounce for controlling insects?  No.  But I’m the kind of person who encourages careful experimentation, so I wouldn’t tell you not to use Bounce to try to control insects either – though I would tell you to be very careful and that unintended consequences might arise.

Bounce – it’s not just a fabric softening sheet…

…it’s an Integrated Pest Management tool!

[Note added after-the-fact: this was a  tongue-in-cheek bit of  hyperbole – kind of like “it’s not just a Job, it’s an Adventure.” Did not mean to imply that it actually IS an IPM tool. Very badly worded. Hence the beating I took in the comments. Live and learn.]

Fungus gnats (Bradysia spp.) are a pain in the bottom for commercial greenhouse growers. The adults are more of a nuisance than anything else –it just looks bad when a customer picks up your 6” pot of pansies and a bunch of little black gnats take flight.  It’s the larvae that are problematic. Adult females lay the eggs in especially damp growing media, and the newly-hatched larvae feed on the roots. There’s both direct damage and also speculation of easier infection of root-borne pathogens, of which there are plenty. 

Fungus gnat larvae, just making a living…

Standard control measures include insecticide drenches, biological controls including a specific strain of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis – sold as GnatrolTM), nematodes, etc.  One of the easiest control measures is the one I teach my students: to not over-water, i.e. “grow dry”. But that can be difficult in a big greenhouse range with many different-sized containers, all which drain/dry out at different rates. Propagation houses also have high humidity levels and have to stay moist for rooting/germination purposes and are thus favored by fungus gnats.

Entomologist Dr. Raymond Cloyd of Kansas State University and his group were intrigued by Master Gardener anecdotes of dryer sheets repelling mosquitoes, though no research had been done. Could your common Bounce sheet also repel other pests? And, to take it a step further, what, exactly, repels them?  The answers are “yes” and “lots of volatile compounds.”

Their study was published last month in the journal HortScience. Honestly, I’ve never seen descriptors like “controls static cling” and “gives clothes a fresh scent” in a Horticulture journal. Hee! Plus the researchers made it clear this experiment specifically used Bounce Original Outdoor FreshTM. Still kind of humorous, but really good science and the part that’s usually overlooked in the translation to a News Story. Do NOT extrapolate results to include Bounce Spring Fresh, Fresh Linen, and certainly not Downy or Snuggle brands. 

The study had a simple design, releasing lab gnats (ha!) into a  many-chambered container and observing to which chamber the gnats gravitated to (or away from).  There were five different variations on this theme, including an alluringly soggy media sample; when the sample of fabric softener sheet was introduced, they stayed away in droves. All five experiments showed a fairly drastic aversion to the sheet. To determine what was fending off the gnats, they did a steam extraction on sheet samples and ran the condensate through a gas chromatograph – mass spectrometer to measure the volatiles.

Figure from Bounce® Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets Repel Fungus Gnat, Bradysia sp. nr. coprophila (Diptera: Sciaridae), Adults. Raymond A. Cloyd, Karen A. Marley, Richard A. Larson, and Bari Arieli, HortScience Dec 1 2010: 1830–1833

Well, there you have it. Linalool is a monoterpene alcohol found in lavender, basil, and coriander, and is known to be toxic to mites and insects.  Citronello is another monoterpene and lends lemony-freshness to lemon balm, pennyroyal, and rose geranium and has short-term “repellent activity against mosquitoes.”  Benzyl acetate, though not specifically mentioned in the results, is another natural fragrance compound, found in jasmine – and is also an industrial-strength solvent. One man’s solvent is another man’s perfume. Or fabric softener. I bet their lab smelled GREAT, by the way.



A few months ago I was interviewed for an article where they asked me whether I thought that a deer repellant which was taken up into a tree would be a good idea. I said sure, great idea.  It would last a long time — something that most repellants currently don’t.  Well, I just saw the article and I must say that I’m not so sure that it’s a great idea any more.

It seems that the repellant that they’re talking about is basically a combination of hot peppers and DMSO.  The hot peppers have been around for a long time.  The DMSO not so long — just a few decades really (though there is very small quantity of naturally occurring DMSO in fruits) but DMSO has some properties that concern me.  When I was younger I was a competitive runner and I recall certain other runners using DMSO as a treatment for aches and pains.  I also remember a run-down house along one of my regular runs selling the stuff via a cardboard sign on the porch.  Looked kinda shady.  I haven’t seen much DMSO around recently, maybe because it isn’t legal everywhere — at least as far as I can tell.

DMSO is a solvent which crosses membranes, such as skin, very easily.  Apparently, if you use it anywhere on your body, it will make your breath garlicy.  In terms of toxicity — it isn’t considered very toxic. However, it has the ability to dissolve things, such as poisons (the insecticide imidacloprid for example), and anything which it dissolves can then cross the skin barrier very rapidly right along with the DMSO.

So to me this is a little worrying.  I don’t have much experience with DMSO, and I don’t have a problem with professional pesticide applicators who have the proper equipment applying DMSO, but I can’t help but wonder whether this stuff might be just a little too tempermental for the average homeowner to use.  Apparently the EPA has it now.  Here’s hoping that they’ll make the right decision, whatever that is.

Are Fertilizer and Insecticide Spikes a Good Idea?

One of the products that I often hear gardeners raving about are their fertilizer / pesticide combination spikes which are supposed to not only feed your plants, but also kill all of the insects which attack them.  I, personally, have not used these products, but I’m generally the kind of person who says “If it works for you then keep using it”.  Still, these spikes bug me a little.  Here’s why.

First of all I should point out that I’m not opposed to fertilizer spikes by themselves.  I’m a little concerned that fertilizer should be spread out instead of concentrated in one place, but still, I don’t consider them that bad.  The insecticides used for these spikes is where I have the problem.  Once upon a time these spikes were made with a chemical called disulfoton (aka disyston) which is bad news.  It’s a water soluble chemical which is highly toxic to people.  If you have an old package of fertilizer / insecticide spikes around there’s a good chance they were made with this chemical.  Do yourself a favor and get rid of them.  This stuff is really toxic and not to be messed with.  On the other hand, if you’ve purchased fertilizer / insecticide spikes recently, then the active insecticide in those spikes is probably imidacloprid.  Imidacloprid is a mixed bag when it comes to safety.  It’s not nealy as toxic as disulfoton, but it’s not non-toxic.  It has been banned in Europe for a variety of reasons, the most important of which seems to be that it was implicated in the collapse of bee hives (imidacloprid is systemic insecticide so it will get into a plants pollen where honey bees could eat it).  At this point it hasn’t been ruled out as having something to do with hive collapse here in the states — though if it does have a role it does not seem to act alone.  It can also affect other beneficial insects who feed on pollen.  Additionally, it has been known to control some pests while allowing mites to go crazy — in fact, it may even increase the rate of mite egg laying.

But imidacloprid is an effective insecticide which works against a wide range of insects which you that you might find on your plants.  It is much safer than many of the older systemic insecticides, and it isn’t readily translocated to fruits (a problem that many people are concerned about with systemic insecticides is the movement of these insecticides into the fruit itself where it can’t be washed off — Imidacloprid is translocated to fruits –just not that much — it moves in the xylem and fruit takes up mostly phloem).

So these spikes are one of those things that I’m wary of.  Not to say you shouldn’t use them, but be aware of what they are and what they could do before you buy them.

Cornmeal myth busted

As my colleague Fred Hoffman says, the horticultural silly season is upon us. This week I heard from one of our European readers, questioning the use of cornmeal as a fungicide. He referenced an online article entitled “Cornmeal has powerful fungicidal properties in the garden.” He hadn’t been able to find any reliable information and thought it might make a good topic for our blog. So Johannes, this rant’s for you!

If you’ve followed the link to column in question, you’ll see that the original “research” is attributed to one of Texas A&M’s research stations in Stephenville, TX. But it’s not really research – it’s just an observation on what happens when you don’t plant the same crop two years in a row; in this case, rotating corn and peanuts reduces peanut pathogens. This is hardly news – it’s one of the reasons agricultural scientists recommend crop rotation as part of an IPM program. And have for decades.

Then we’re referred to “further research” (at an undisclosed location) where cornmeal was shown to contain “beneficial organisms.” Well, no, cornmeal doesn’t contain organisms, beneficial or otherwise. Microbes can grow on cornmeal, and in fact cornmeal agar is commonly used in labs as a growth medium for many species of fungi. And has been for decades.

Nevertheless, we’re informed that a gardening personality has “continued the study and finds cornmeal effective on most everything from turf grass to black spot on roses.” This is directly refuted by Dr. Jerry Parsons, who by happy coincidence is an extension faculty specialist at Texas A&M. His informative (and hilarious) column on brown spots in lawns states “Lately there have been claims made that corn meal and a garlic extract is effective. This is absolutely false! Everyone trying to do the “environmentally friendly-to-a-fault” thing have been wasting their money. They would have been better off making corn bread and using their garlic for cooking purposes!”

Dr. Parsons continues: “Let me explain how these University tests and recommendations have been misrepresented in a desperate attempt to find an organic fungicide. The corn meal was investigated by a Texas A&M pathologist as a way to produce parasitic fungi used to control a fungus which occurs on peanuts.” (This directly relates to my earlier point that cornmeal agar has a long history of use in fungal culture.)

It boils down to this: if you have a healthy soil, it will probably contain diverse populations of beneficial microbes, including those that control pathogenic fungi. You don’t need to add cornmeal – it’s simply an expensive form of organic material.  So you can ignore the directions in the article on how to incorporate cornmeal into the soil, or make “cornmeal juice” to spray on “susceptible plants.”   Just nurture your soil with (repeat after me) a thick layer of coarse organic mulch.

(As a footnote, let me say how annoying it is when gardening personalities grant themselves advanced degrees or certifications in their titles.  C’mon folks – if your information is so great, do you really need to pretend you’re someone else?)

(Another footnote: I discussed this myth more in 2012. Be sure to check this link out too.)

UPDATE: Since this is a myth that refuses to die, I’ve published a peer-reviewed fact sheet on the topic. Feel free to pass on to others.

Here’s the plant food everyone is talking about!

Apparently I don’t talk to the right people; I’d never heard of this product until newbie gardener and longtime skeptic John emailed me about Eleanor’s VF-11 plant food.

Upon visiting the website, this is what I learned about VF-11 and roses (the rose aficionado market is apparently a lucrative one for snake oil salesmen):

Point: “VF-11 Plant Food is not a ‘push’ like other fertilizers…think of it as a strength and health builder.”

Counterpoint: It certainly is not a fertilizer. It doesn’t contain enough minerals to do anything for a plant. So why not just use water? There’s something that can work miracles on drought-stressed plants!

Point: “VF-11 builds so much strength and health in your roses that plant cells ‘harden’ and ‘seal in the amino acids’.”

Counterpoint: I will kindly label this as nonsense since this is a G-rated blog. It says nothing but sounds sciency.

Point: “When you’re Foliar Feeding your roses, no need to worry if it blows back into your face. It’s gentle, gentle, gentle and safe.”

Counterpoint: Foliar feeding is an ineffective way of fertilizing plants (you can read more about in a column I wrote some time ago). In short, foliar application of specific nutrients is an excellent way of determining whether a deficiency of that nutrient exists, but it does nothing for the plant on a long-term basis.  I won’t beat that dead horse any longer. And thanks, I’d rather not have stuff blown in my face, regardless of what’s in it.

And more amazing facts elsewhere on the site:

Point: “And you do not need a lot of additives in your soil, like compost etc.”

Counterpoint: Wow. Who knew that organic matter was bad?

Point: “It’s an electrolyte balanced solution.”

Counterpoint: So’s urine. And urine has more nitrogen. (I won’t enter the debate about peeing on your plants.)


For evidence, the site offers two tissues analyses of pistachios that were sprayed with VF-11 (the foliar feeding method). The previous year (no VF-11) the leaves had high levels of copper and low levels of boron and magnesium. After treatment, the copper was reduced and boron and magnesium improved. Since boron and magnesium are not in the product, perhaps the copper was somehow transmuted into boron and magnesium? I can’t think of a more rational explanation if VF-11 is the causative agent. But I can think of lots of reasons this variation might happen from year to year, including the use of copper fungicides and the ability of some nutrients to restrict the uptake of others.

There’s also tissue analyses from a “sick vineyard” taken in June, then repeated in October after foliar application of VF-11. Both potassium and magnesium are singled out for note, though the ratings information is strangely missing (in other words, there’s no notation whether the levels are deficient, sufficient, or excessive). The differences between the %K and %Mg are circled for one sample, though a quick statistical analysis of all 4 samples show no significant differences between dates.  And even if there were – does anyone really expect leaf nutrient levels to be the same in June as in October? Keep in mind that the plant is both producing fruit and preparing for dormancy. Nutrients do move around!

Where did this magical recipe come from?

Again, relying on garden forums for my information (since the product website is vague on the topic), Eleanor “got the formula from a “cantankerous” elderly chemist who grew healthy plants, including tomato plants that were 30 ft. long.”

What’s actually in this miracle product?

According to the Washington State’s fertilizer product database (a really helpful resource for anyone, not just Washington residents), it is 0.15% N, 0.85% P, and 0.55% K (yes, these are all less than 1%). It also contains 3.5 ppm zinc and 3.2 ppm molybdenum. Products with such minute levels of minerals really aren’t fertilizer, but they really aren’t plant food either. Once this is diluted, you are left with…water. This is uncomfortably similar to homeopathic “cell salts,” which are highly diluted mineral products used to prevent disease in humans. Coincidentally, fans of Eleanor’s potions report that VF stands for Verticillium/Fusarium, “signifying that it creates disease resistance”. Hmm.

As Dr. Barrett points out on his QuackWatch site about homeopathic cell salts, “many are so diluted that they could not correct a mineral deficiency even if one were present.” I would venture the same would be true in plants. Again, Eleanor’s aficionados report that the “11” in the name “signifies it has eleven ingredients include iron, boron, copper, zinc, and molybdenum.” Hmm. Washington State’s analysis lab couldn’t find either iron or boron. Or whatever the other 4 minerals might be (besides the nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, molybdenum and zinc).

Finally, the most bizarre use of this product must be the one reported by another fan of Eleanor’s: “Eleanor called me this evening and she could hear my parrots in the background…she told me that she, too, has birds. She then went on to explain that a woman told her that her birds looked terrible and that she started to spray them with Eleanor’s VF-11…an amazing improvement in both their plumage and in their attitudes…so, Eleanor did a test with hundreds of birds…and confirmed that spraying your birds often with the same mixture of VF-11 and water…room temperature…would enhance their feathering and make them much happier!

“Eleanor believes that indoor pets miss out on a lot of necessary nutrition due to being indoors….she stated the importance of animals and birds of being exposed to “dew”. I always assumed that dew was just water…but, Eleanor believes it contains nutrients.”

I think I need to stop now.