Feel the burn…

Winter burn on Douglas-fir

Winter burn on Douglas-fir

One of the most obvious impacts of this winter’s winter is rapidly becoming apparent in Michigan and other parts of the Midwest: winter burn on conifers. The primary symptom of winter burn is needle browning, especially on evergreen conifers in exposed locations. Needles may be damaged by extreme cold or the browning may be associated with winter desiccation as needles lose moisture during brief warm-ups. Winter burn is one of those situations that draws a lot of attention because it can look devastating; yet it often has relatively little long-term impact on plants.
Winter burn on dwarf Alberta spruce in Michigan

Winter burn on dwarf Alberta spruce in Michigan

The key to the lasting effects of winter damage on evergreens is the extent to which buds are damaged.
With a little practice it is relatively easy to determine the state of conifers buds. With your thumb and forefinger pull the bud scales from the top of the bud. With a good hand lens or dissecting scope you will be able to see the bud primordia. On healthy buds this will be bright green; on damaged buds the primordia with be brown or black.
Buds from conifers with severe needle browning may be alive (top) or dead (bottom).

Buds from conifers with severe needle browning may be alive (top) or dead (bottom).

I recently examined buds from Douglas-fir trees on campus that had severe needle browning this winter. In several cases, trees had severe needle browning but the buds were fine. These trees will likely put on a normal growth flush this spring and in a year or two it may be difficult to tell they were ever damaged – assuming we don’t have a repeat of this winter’s severe weather.
A 'snow-line' indicates the depth of snow when needle injury occured

A ‘snow-line’ indicates the depth of snow when needle injury occured

On some other trees, however, the buds had been killed by this winter extreme cold. This doesn’t mean these trees are dead – they may still form adventitious buds along the stems – but it will certainly set them back and will likely impact their form and symmetry.

Bert, I’ll see your SOME-DED-TREES with POOR-DEAD-TREES

Bert’s done some nice posts on his SOcialME DesignED TREE transplant Study (or SOME DED TREES). I’m going to add to the discussion with a new addition to my Preventing Optimization Of Roots DecrEAseD TREE Survival (or POOR DEAD TREES) series.

It took a while, but the prediction I made in 2010 has come true. You’ll have to look at the link to see the whole story, but the bottom line is that this tree lasted only 7 years before succumbing to poor planting practices.

Here is the tree when it was planted in 2007. Note the lack of root flare (planted too deep) but the very obvious presence of orange nylon twine around the roots and the trunk.

Pine%202007.jpg   Orange%20twine.jpg

Here it is again in 2010. Note the dieback at the top and overall chlorosis.


And here it was yesterday.

Bush tree 2014Yes, it’s dead – dead and gone. I’m not sure exactly when it was removed, but it lasted less than 7 years. Conifers have lifespans of decades or centuries. There was no excuse for this poor installation, though I keep getting the argument from landscape installers that it costs too much to do it right (i.e., to remove the twine and burlap, if not the clay itself). Keep in mind that warranties only last for a year, so the property owner gets to eat the replacement cost caused by crappy installation practices.

We GP’s may continue to disagree about how much rootballs should be disturbed when planting, but I know that none of us would agree that planting B&B trees intact is a good idea.

Spring = really?

You've got to be kidding...

Bebe the Wonder Dog says “You’ve got to be kidding…”

I’m sorry I’ve been so quiet, but I am not feeling SPRING. Here in the Blue Ridge of Virginia (Zone 6), March is averaging 10 F below average. Snow and ice is piled up on the north side of buildings. My Herbaceous Landscape Plants class is not impressed by the inch-tall Mertensia and the fact that the only thing we can call a cool-season annual (pansies/violas) is brown mush. All the delightful Zone 7 things I’ve been pushing on people for several years here – er, whoops. This is as far north as I’ve ever lived (please don’t mock me Bert). I’m tired of bales of laundry. Flannel sheets, corduroy, fleece…I am NOT good with winter. I admit I am at my best with only one layer on. And if one more person says “at least we’ll have fewer ticks”…

California here we come…

Linda and I are in Sacramento this week for the National eXtension Conference. I will be presenting later in the week on the work that we have done on the SOME-DED-TREES project. More on that in later posts. In the meantime, here are some photos from the State Capitol Park here in Sacramento. If you are ever in the area, I encourage you to check it out since the Park also doubles as an arboretum. The combination of mild winter temperatures and irrigation allows for as wide an array of trees as you are likely to see on one location. Many, but not all, of the trees have tags with common and scientific names. There are also numbered tags for a “Tree tour”. I have searched several sources for the tour map and came up empty. Judging by the condition of the tags and the number of missing tags, it looks like a forgotten project. If anyone has any insights, let me know. Or if you know an Eagle Scout in the Sacramento area, re-tagging and mapping would make a great project.

Palm tree tagged on the State Capitol Park Tree Tour

Italian stone pine Pinus pinea

Bark pattern (looked to be some type of Cuppressus but tag was missing

Tags need some work…

Lots of nice coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens)

Giant sequoia (Sequioadendron giganteum) as a street tree? These actually looked like they were doing well and then hit the wall. Note the fading top.

The park also includes a small rose garden and cactus garden.

You can hedge almost anything if you’re determined, even azaleas…

DSC_1396Just for Linda: Topiary at the hotel across the street.

Cork oak (Quercus suber)

FreezePruf revisited

I received a comment over the weekend requesting an update on an article I posted back in February of 2010 (Wow, hard to believe we’ve been at it that long!) about FreezePruf, a product that is purported to improve freeze tolerance of garden plants. The ingredients and proposed mode of action of FreezePruf are described in my earlier post, so I won’t repeat them here. Back in 2010, there were no published studies available on the efficacy of FreezePruf; just advertising claims from the manufacturer and data that were included in the patent application.

Since then, there have been two studies published on FreezePruf. One was authored Dr. David Francko at the University of Alabama, who lead the group that developed the product, and the second study was by Dr. Jeff Anderson at Oklahoma State.

Francko et al. (2011) conducted a series of trials, mainly with palms, oranges, and other warm region plants and found that FreezePruf was often highly effective in reducing freeze injury. For example, the figure below suggests that spraying plants with FreezePruf can increase freeze tolerance by 2.3 to 9.4 deg. F. (Note: the authors’ also included two additional palms and two banana cultivars in this portion of the trial; I have simplified their table to show the two extremes and an intermediate response).


Anderson (2012) applied FreezePruf based on label directions and found no change in freezing point depression in peppers, celosia, or tomatoes. Anderson also found that Freezepruf did not improve cold hardiness of Bermudagrass stolons.


So what gives? Is FreezePruf useful or not and why did the studies reach opposite conclusions? Anderson published his paper after Francko et al. but doesn’t offer a clear explanation beyond the use of different plant materials; with the exception of tomatoes, which were included in both trials but still gave different results. One possibility is that the spray may be more effective on perennial plants, especially on older leaves. For instance, in the Francko et al. study they applied FreezePruf to young and old leaves on oranges trees and found a greater and more consistent improvement in cold hardiness on the older leaves than the new leaves. For those of us in the northern U.S., this suggests the product may be of limited use. Typically our greatest concern in protecting plants from freezing is early in season; right after we’ve jumped the gun and planted our annuals and vegetable plugs. Could FreezePruf protect your new petunias from that predicted 25 deg. F night? There is no clear answer in the data so I’ll stick with the tried and true and cover my plants with old bedsheets.

Literature cited:

Anderson, J. 2012. Does FreezePruf Topical Spray Increase Plant Resistance to Freezing Stress? HortTechnology 22(4):542-546.

Francko, D.A., K.G. Wilson, Q.Q.Li, and M.A. Equiza. 2011. Topical Spray to Enhance Plant Resistance to Cold Injury and Mortality. HortTechnology 21(1):109-118.

A DIY Debunking Guide

Debunking myths is at the heart of the Garden Professors blog. The impetus for initiating the blog is rooted in Linda’s ‘Horticultural Myths’ Series and Jeff’s “The Truth About…” books. Unfortunately, I’ve never been especially good at myth-busting or debating. When confronted with someone with deeply held beliefs that are based on misinformation, it usually doesn’t take long for me to lose my cool and my arguments devolve into, “Pull your head out of your a— and face the facts…”

At a holiday dinner not too long ago, a relative suggested “You know, there may be something to the anti-immunization thing…” The words were barely out before I could feel my wife’s hand on my thigh in a futile effort to keep me calm. “Are you fricking nuts?” I shot back automatically. “The only reason Jenny McCarthy or anyone else can even THINK about not vaccinating their kid is because the rest of the herd already took care of business.” Fortunately cooler heads at the table changed the subject before the debate escalated to violence.

the debunking handbook

Now for the myth-busting challenged among us, Australians John Cook and Stephen Lowandowsky have developed the Debunking handbook. The guide looks at some of the psychology of myth-busting (A simple myth is cognitively more appealing than an over-complicated correction) and suggests debate strategies (Adhere to the KISS principle). The guide is linked at the SkepticalScience website and is largely geared toward dealing with climate change deniers, but the principles and tips are useful for dealing with all manner of scientific misinformation

It came from the blog… The return of SOME-DED-TREES

Things have been going fast and furious here since the start of the year. We still have a few days left in February and I’ve already logged 13 talks in five states. Nevertheless, I’ve manage to find a little time to crunch some data on SOME-DED-TREES. For the uninitiated, SOME-DED-TREES is the acronym for the Social Media Designed Tree Transplant Study. The project was an opportunity for Garden Professor blog readers to participate in the design of a landscape horticulture research project. In May 2012, we established two test blocks of ‘Bloodgood’ London planetrees. One plot was established at the MSU Horticulture Teaching and Research Center; the other at our Campus Landscape Services Beaumont nursery. All trees were planted from 25 gallon containers (avg. height 12’, avg. caliper 1.8”). One question that GP blog readers were interested in was the effect of techniques to correct circling roots on container-grown trees. So at each location we divided 48 trees into three groups. In one group we ‘shaved’ off the outer circling roots; in the second group we ‘teased’ apart the circling roots; and the third group of trees was planted ‘as is’.


We looked at an additional treatment factor at each of the two locations. At the Teaching and Research Center we mulched half of the trees with 3” of coarse pine bark and left the remainder without mulch. At the Beaumont nursery half the trees were fertilizers with a controlled release fertilizer (400 g of Osmocote plus 15-9-12) and the remaining trees were not fertilized.


Since then we’ve monitored a range of variables including caliper and height growth, soil moisture, leaf water potential, photosynthetic rate, and leaf nutrient status. Two growing seasons after transplanting here are some key findings.

Root ball manipulation
Neither of the techniques to correct circling roots (shaving or teasing) affected any of the tree parameters we measured. There was no difference among root treatments in caliper growth (Fig. 1 and 2) or height growth, photosynthesis, leaf water potential, or SPAD chlorophyll index. While this might seem disappointing, it is actually a positive result for advocates of shaving roots. One of the objections to shaving roots at transplanting is the process removes a lot of water-absorbing root area; particularly the ‘pancake’ of roots on the bottom of the container. We planted our trees just before the severe heat and drought of Summer 2012, and there were no obvious stress-related impacts of the root treatments. Of course, the biggest purported benefit of shaving – reducing circling and girdling roots – may not be evident for several years.

Fertilization had no effect on caliper growth over the two years after transplanting (Fig.1). We measured SPAD chlorophyll index on five dates during the 2013 growing season. Fertilization increase chlorophyll index from 34.0 for the control trees to 35.5. What does this mean? Probably not much. Proportionately this is a very small increase. Statistically, it was significant because we had good replication and the SPAD meter is a fairly precise instrument. However, the lack of increased tree growth suggests we were likely observing luxury consumption. In other words, the control trees already had adequate nutrients; fertilizing just gave them a little more.

Fig. 1 Two-year mean stem caliper growth of London planetrees subjected to root-ball treatments and fertilization.

Fig. 1 Two-year mean stem caliper growth of London planetrees subjected to root-ball treatments and fertilization.

Here’s where things get interesting. After two years, mulching increased stem caliper growth of the planetrees by an average of 70% over the trees without mulch (Fig.2). For stats junkies scoring at home, that corresponds to a p-value of 0.001. What’s going on? Well, we know that mulch provides many benefits for trees. The biggest in terms of tree growth is conserving soil moisture. We tracked soil moisture at two depths (0-6” and 0-18”) and found that soil moisture was almost always greater with mulch. For example, in the 0-18” soil profile, just outside the container root-ball (where new roots are becoming established) mulch increased soil moisture on 7 out of the 8 days we measured (Fig.3). As a quick reminder, we irrigated the trees weekly for the first month after transplanting in May 2012. After that, they were not irrigated.

Fig. 2 Two-year caliper growth of London planetrees subjected to rootball treatments and mulch. * indicates mean between mulched and non-mulched trees is significant at 0.001.

Fig. 2 Two-year caliper growth of London planetrees subjected to rootball treatments and mulch. * indicates mean between mulched and non-mulched trees is significant at 0.001.

Fig. 3 Mean soil moisture at 0-18" depth for London planetrees with and without mulch. * indicates means for a given date are different at 0.05.

Fig. 3 Mean soil moisture at 0-18″ depth for London planetrees with and without mulch. * indicates means for a given date are different at 0.05.

What’s next?
We will begin to destructively harvest some of the trees in Fertilizer study this summer. We will dig the trees with a backhoe or spade and then use an airspade to excavate the roots. Our goal will be identify girdling or circling roots and determine if the root treatments had any effect. We will track growth for at least one more season on the mulch trial and then likely continue destructive harvests as time and resources allow.

How cold WAS it?

The line ‘How cold WAS it?’ has been a lead-in for stand-up comics for years; as in, “It was so cold politicians had their hands in their own pockets…” or “It was so cold the mice were playing ice hockey in the toilet bowl…” Like everyone, I’ve heard lots of discussion these days about just how cold this winter has been. We certainly know that this winter bucks a recent trend of relatively warm winters in the Midwest over the past two decades.

However a popular notion around these parts, especially among old-timers, is that “this is the way winters used to be…” I’m a relative newcomer to Michigan, currently experiencing my 15th winter here. This is, by far, the coldest winter since I’ve lived here. But could this simply reflect my lack of perspective as a newbie? To gain a little insight, I pulled the long-term weather data for Lansing, which dates back to the 1880’s. I compared the daily minimum temperatures from this winter with the long-term average low temperatures and daily record lows.

low temps 2013-14

The results will come as no surprise to anyone who lives east of the Rockies. It’s been cold. How cold WAS it? Certainly well below average, especially since the Holidays. As of yesterday, 41 of the last 52 daily lows have been below average and we have been below 0 deg. F 19 times. Despite the prolonged cold, we have not broken any daily records although locations near here have.

So, are the old timers right? Are we just getting a glimpse of the way things used to be back in the day? The data suggest they are probably experiencing a bit of selective memory. If you’ve lived here long enough you’ve seen a few winters this cold and even colder. But this January will go down as one of the 10 coldest (at least) on record, so the idea that winter’s weather is like the ‘old normal’ is a bit of a stretch.

University of Florida study: Mulch reduces soil water loss to evaporation by 33%

I was just in Fargo for the North Dakota Urban and Community Forestry Association conference – our pantywaist -12 deg. F wasn’t cold enough – I wanted to experience some real winter. Dr. John Ball from South Dakota State University, whom I enjoy listening to, was also on the program. As an aside, if you are ever invited to speak at the same conference as John, DO NOT allow yourself to be scheduled after him. He is hilarious and you will sound like a boring moron by comparison. John is an excellent and entertaining speaker and I usually agree with 90+ % of what he says. In this case he was talking about mulch – a subject near and dear to my heart – and lead off by mentioning the recent study by Gilman et al. (2012) as a reason why we should be concerned about possible negative impacts of mulch.

Oh boy. Let’s go through this and see what the paper does and doesn’t say about mulch.

The study was done in collaboration with Richard Beeson, who is widely known for his work using weighing lysimeters to estimate water use by container-grown trees and shrubs. In this case lysimeters were used to measure water lost from containers filled with soil or container media (60% pine bark : 30 % peat: 10% sand) and then covered with pine bark mulch or left uncovered. The containers were watered and allowed to drain. Water loss due to evaporation (there were no trees in the containers) was measured for three days. For the first day after watering there was more evaporation from the containers filled with container substrate that were mulched than the containers that were not mulched. However, if you add up the evaporation over the entire 3 days there is no difference between mulched and non-mulched containers. This is not too surprising since the mulch and container media were largely the same thing – pine bark.

Now here’s the important part. If you look at evaporation for the soil-filled containers – which are the ones we really care about from a landscape perspective – total evaporation was 3L for non-mulched containers versus 2L for mulched. In other words, there was much greater water loss from soil when the pots where not mulched. A much better title for the article would have been, “Mulch reduces evaporation from soil by 33%”!

gilman pic

It’s easy to nit-pick articles but this isn’t pit-picking. There is only one table in this article and they got it wrong. For whatever reason people are prone to hysteria when it comes to tree care and I can already see this morphing into “Oh my God! Did you hear? Ed Gilman says if you mulch a tree you’re going to kill it!” A misinterpreted 3-day study has everyone criticizing mulch while ignoring a vast body of long-term studies.