A scary Halloween story

Those of you that have followed the blog for a while know that poor tree planting is one of my pet peeves. It drives me crazy to watch tree installers use backhoes to gouge out gigantic holes and then drop in the intact root ball, clay, burlap, twine and all. But this dig-and-dump method (or “cost effective practice” according to installers) of installing trees often dooms them (the trees, not the installers) to a slow and ugly death. So in honor of Halloween, let me share my latest horror story.

Twice a day I drive down this street in NE Seattle. I’ve long admired the row of dead street trees left to remind us all of our own mortality. A few of these Liriodendron have somehow survived though “survival” seems a generous term. They’re more like zombies, slowly losing body parts but somehow still functioning until someone puts them out of their misery.

Dead #1 Dead #2 Dead #3

One lone tree seemed to defy all odds. Until our latest windstorm, which revealed the cause of all this arboricultural agony.

Downed tree Rootball side Rootball

That’s right, there’s the clay-covered rootball, still intact. Only one root has managed to escape into the native soil. There may be others on the opposite side, but by now (several years after installation) there should have been sufficient root establishment to prevent failure.

Several of us have written about bare-rooting trees before, and while there’s still not consensus on the practice I think we would all agree that the tree planting in this case was not acceptable. There are better ways, and yes they take more time (or “not cost effective” according to installers), but planting trees right mean fewer replacements later.

Scenes From A Zoo

The other day I went to a local zoo with my family. I’m not a big zoo lover. I hate to see animals in cages and kept from their natural wanderings and habits, but this zoo serves as a rescue, so I didn’t complain too much. As we were walking around I couldn’t help but notice the following container which I can only suppose once served as a food or water bin for one group of animals or another.

zoo 1

I really liked that quote. I wish I knew where it came from. Then, just a few minutes later, I saw this.

sad zoo tree

Hmmmm….now don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather see trees bound up and tortured than animals. But really, the natural world includes many different living organisms that interact with each other, and with us. Each is deserving of our care and respect. The way this poor tree is planted shows a complete disrespect for its life. Too deep — and it looks like more soil will be applied to fill the bed! This is just sad. Look, if we’re going to have zoos then let’s try to make them into places that celebrate the natural world.

The great urban potato experiment

I don’t grow vegetables at home, mostly because I don’t have the space and partially because I don’t have the time. But I did want to try the potatoes-in-a-barrel method, which I also tried last year. But this year I planted about 6 weeks earlier (end of April) than I did the previous year (mid-June).  Here’s my mid-October harvests from both years:

October harvest  IMG_7560

Next year I’ll try planting even earlier. It’s not a huge harvest, but it’s fun to do, especially with kids. A richer media (like a green compost along with soil) might give you a better harvest.

If you want to try this yourself, here’s how to do it:

1) Use a plastic trash bin with holes drilled into the sides. Be sure to locate the barrel in full sun.

2) Put a layer of soil on the bottom, and add potatoes. (You can cut them into smaller portions, each with an eye, if you don’t have as many sprouted ones as I did.)

April planting 20143) Cover with soil and water well.

June 0554) As shoots and leaves emerge, continue to add soil or other media to the barrel, leaving the tops of the shoots and a few leaves exposed. I used a mixture of soil and composted wood chips. Water well.

June 0565) Continue to add media as needed, and continue to water through the season.

June 0106) When leaves begin to die back, you can dump the barrel onto a tarp and pick out your potatoes. Save the media for next year’s barrel.

What’s wrong with my pine tree…? Nothing!

Every once in a while in this line of work we’re actually able to give a homeowner some good news about their trees. A case in point is a call that we frequently get this time of year that starts like this: “My pine tree looks like it’s dying! It’s dropping all of its needles!” If the caller has access to the internet and a digital camera I usually request that the send me a couple of photos; if not, I ask them whether the tree is shedding needles along the outermost part of the limbs or on the interior.

White pine trees often grab homeowners attention as they begin to drop their needles in the fall.
White pine trees often grab homeowners attention as they begin to drop their needles in the fall.

In the vast majority of cases the tree is an eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) and the homeowner is observing is normal needle shed. White pine needles often persist for only two growing seasons. So in the fall they begin to shed their previous-years needles, which often turn an eye-grabbing bright yellow in the process. Actually all pines and evergreen conifers shed their needles; it’s just more noticeable in white pines because they are common in the landscape and their needles are short-lived.
White pine needles often turn bright yellow as they senesce.
White pine needles often turn bright yellow as they senesce.

What's wrong with my pine tree?  As long as the tree is dropping older (interior) needles, it's probably normal needle shed.
What’s wrong with my pine tree? As long as the tree is dropping older (interior) needles, it’s probably normal needle shed.

The lifespan of pine needles varies widely among species. In some species, such as white pine and loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), needles may only persist for two growing seasons. On the other end of the spectrum is bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva), which can retain needles for up to 40 years. For the most part, needle retention is correlated with shoot growth rate; trees with fast growth rates have fast needle turnover, while slower growing trees have long needle longevity. Of course there are lots of exceptions to this trend and environmental conditions can impact needle life-span as well. For example, needles may shed prematurely during a drought.

Needles on this Austrian pine (Pinus nigra) persist for three growing seasons.  The tree is currently shedding needles formed in 2012.
Needles on this Austrian pine (Pinus nigra) persist for three growing seasons. The tree is currently shedding needles formed in 2012.

Bottom-line: If it’s fall and your pine is starting to drop interior needles, chances are it’s normal needlefall and nothing to worry about.
Pine needles accumulating on the ground.
Pine needles accumulating on the ground.

References
Ewers, F.W. and R. Schmid. 1981. Longevity of Needle Fascicles of Pinus longaeva (Bristlecone Pine) and Other North American Pines. Oecologia 51:107-115
Hennessey,T.C. , P.M. Dougherty, B.M. Cregg, and R.F. Wittwer. 1992. Annual variation in needle-fall of a loblolly pine stand in relation to climate and stand density. Forest Ecology and Management. 51:329-338.
Schoettle, A.W. 1990. The interaction between leaf longevity and shoot growth and foliar biomass per shoot in Pinus contorta at two elevations Tree Physiology 7:209-214.

Cool plant of the day: Canary Bellflower

I’m such a plant nerd that a few years ago I actually decided to get Canarina canariensis, the Canary Bellflower, for no other reason than that it is one of the very few members of  the campanula family that has red-orange flowers instead of the usual purple-blue ones.

canarina 2
Canarina canariensis
A Platycodon showing much more typical coloration for this family
A Platycodon showing much more typical coloration for this family

Okay. Maybe that isn’t the most normal reason to add a plant to one’s garden, but I am VERY happy I did.

Canarina canariensis
Canarina canariensis

That color!

I’ll admit, it isn’t a plant that is particularly well adapted to life here in Michigan… as the latin name suggests (twice!) it is native to the Canary Islands off the West coast of Africa, where the climate is consistently dry, fairly cool, but never freezes. The summers are extremely dry, with a short rainy season in the winter. And the Canary bellflower has adapted to that by dying back to the thick fleshy roots in the summer, and then sending up the long trailing stems and flowers in the winter when the rains come.

That isn’t ideal for growing here in Michigan, but I’ve found I can get it to grow here pretty easily, actually. It is growing and blooming like crazy right now, and once it gets cold, I’ll move it inside, and let it dry out. As the soil dries, the plant goes dormant, so it can sit there patiently until spring and more settled weather when I can water and set it off into growth again. It works, and though it is a bit more work than most of the other plants I grow, it is worth it. I like looking at the lovely flowers, and speculating about the unique evolutionary path that caused this one genus to develop orange flowers while the rest of the family largely stuck with the tried-and-true purple.

Walnut warfare

Recently, a question about using black walnut chips for mulch was posted on our Garden Professors Facebook group page. As gardeners know, black walnut has a reputation as a chemical warfare species that will kill anything growing underneath it – a phenomenon called allelopathy. So it’s logical to wonder about the lethality of walnut chip mulches.

To get a good feel for the science behind black walnut’s allelopathic abilities, I was fortunate to find a relatively recent review on the topic (Willis, R.J. 2000. Juglans spp., juglone and allelopathy. Allelopathy Journal 7(1):1-55.). This well-written review includes a fascinating section on the historical background of walnut allelopathy, which was first mentioned in 36 BC by the Roman author Varro. But the science of allelopathy really started less than 100 years ago, when a Virginia researcher noticed the injury caused to tomato plants growing near black walnut (Juglans nigra) in his home garden. Subsequent experiments by him and others suggested that the orangish hydroquinone juglone leaching primarily from leaf litter and hulls.

SONY DSCSource: Wikipedia.

The research results on walnut, juglone, and allelopathy have been nothing if not inconsistent. For every report of toxicity in an exposed species, another report found no effect. In fact, much of the supposed allelopathy might instead be due to walnut’s highly competitive root systems, which could suck up available water and nutrients over a vast expanse of soil.

Black walnut tree Source: Flickr user davidburn

There are a number of other factors that help account for ambiguous results:

1) Juglone is not the only secondary metabolite produced by walnut species. They are loaded with a number of untested phenolics, flavonoids, alkaloids, terpenes and other quinones which could have allelopathic activity.
2) Juglone concentrations vary greatly among walnut species. They also have seasonal variability in the same individual.
3) Light conditions, rainfall, soil chemistry, and many other abiotic factors can influence juglone levels.
4) Organic matter and clay particles in soils can bind juglone, reducing its movement within the soil.
5) Microbial activity breaks down juglone.

Carefully controlled laboratory experiments can demonstrate juglone allelopathy to a number of plant species, especially at the seedling stage. However, there is little evidence from landscape level research to suggest that allelopathy is the reason that plants are damaged by being in proximity to walnut trees. In fact, the author of the review study concludes that even though Juglans species provides the best known and most widely accepted example of allelopathy, there is “still is no unambiguous demonstration of its effect” as “no one has as yet demonstrated that juglone is actually taken up by plant roots.”

walnut tree Source: Wikipedia

Where does this lead us in our discussion of walnut mulch toxicity? Fresh hulls and leaves appear to be the primary source of allelopathy, but not the wood. And even these sources may be quickly neutralized by soil conditions. Therefore, a walnut chip wood mulch should pose no danger at all to landscape plantings.

Digging these wasps!

After writing about the unusually bad scourge of Japanese Beetles earlier in the month, I thought I’d continue on down the “garden bugs” path. The Japanese Beetles have died down, but now we have oodles of these pretty black and yellow-spotted waspy things around. They’re everywhere, and in large numbers. I planted some buckwheat over our potato garden bed, and it is covered up with them. The point of the buckwheat was as a primo late-season nectar source for our honeybee hives as they prepare for winter. Blooming for the last week or two, I kept checking it expecting to see happy bees, feasting away. Nada. Just the wasps.

Intriguing. A brief googling revealed the wasp to be Scolia dubia, one of the “digger wasps.” They rarely sting, and better yet -their larvae are parasites of Japanese Beetles! All that swooping around over our so-called lawn is apparently the mating dance, then the female digs into the soil to find the grubs. After stinging the grub, she lays an egg…and you see where this is going. Cozy winter grub cocoon for the pupating larvae!

Blue Wing Digging Wasp on buckwheat.
Blue Wing Digging Wasp on buckwheat.

Back to the bed of gourmet buckwheat. I’m thrilled to see all those wasps feeding on the nectar. Eat, dig, and be merry, ladies! But what about the honeybees – seemingly ignoring this glorious patch of buckwheat planted just for them? I don’t need any more picky eaters…aren’t our two dinner-snubbing dogs enough? So I asked Dr. Richard Fell, legendary Apiculture faculty here at Virginia Tech, about this mystery. “Honeybees only work buckwheat in the morning” sayeth Rick. Went out this morning and observed that buckwheat is indeed the breakfast of champions. The entire patch was literally humming with multiple species, including loads of honeybees. I’d only been checking in the evening.

Addendum:
So my post apparently isn’t breaking news. Just came across this as I checked my Scolia spelling. Sounds like they had beetles galore in Maryland as well this summer.
If you’re not familiar with Dr. Michael Raupp, Entomologist and Extension Specialist at University of Maryland, he’s awesome, and his “Bug of the Week” blog is a must. His September 1 post reviews the digger wasp/japanese beetle relationship as well, with more factoids and a lovely video featuring writhing grubs. http://bugoftheweek.com/blog/2014/9/1/white-grubs-beware-the-blue-winged-digger-wasp-iscolia-dubiai-has-arrived

What about fall fertilization?

Posted by Bert Cregg
We had a question on the Facebook site regarding fall fertilization of landscape plants. Fertilization in general, and fall fertilization in particular, is a complex topic and needs a little more room for explanation than the Facebook discussion allows.

Source: Forestry Images
Source: Forestry Images

As a general rule, most landscape trees and shrubs can maintain acceptable growth and appearance without fertilization. There are a couple of reasons for this. As Linda noted in the Facebook discussion, woody plants are fairly efficient at internal nutrient recycling. I’ve done a couple of studies where we sampled leaves of hardwood trees during the season and then re-sampled right after senescence and about 50% of leaf nitrogen is re-absorbed by trees before they fall. Conifers are even more efficient at conserving nutrients than hardwoods since they typically only lose 1/4th of their needles (or less) each year. In addition, many landscape trees are able to utilize fertilizer that is applied to surrounding turf. On the flip-side, nutrients that occur in litterfall are removed from the nutrient cycle in many suburban landscapes and this may eventually contribute to deficiencies.
pin oak close-up

Bottomline, landscape fertilization should be based on need; which can be assessed based on soil sampling, foliar sampling, or visible symptoms. At least two of the three methods should be employed to make a diagnosis. Each method has drawbacks and visible symptoms are usually the least useful since many nutrient deficiencies have similar symptoms or the symptoms may not be nutrient-related at all. In our area the only nutrient problems I am comfortable diagnosing based on visible symptoms are iron chlorosis in pin oaks and manganese deficiencies in red maples, both of which are induced by alkaline soils, not a lack of those particular elements.

So assuming we’ve established that fertilization is needed, what about fall fertilization? There are a couple of arguments that are usually brought forth for fall fertilization. One is that trees can absorb nutrients during the fall and then use them for spring growth. This is generally true provided that soils are warm enough to allow continued root growth and absorption. Another argument is that fall-applied fertilizer that is not taken up by roots in the fall be will available for uptake when soils warm again in the spring. A third, and less scientific reason, is that fall is often a slow time for arborists and landscape companies and fall fertilization is an easy service to add to their sales program.

There are a couple of objections that are usually raised to fall fertilization. One is that nutrients will leach through the soil over winter before they can be absorbed. This is one of those ‘it depends’ scenarios. If a nitrate-based fertilizer source is used, this is possible since negatively-charged nitrate anions won’t bind to negatively-charged cation exchange sites in the soil. If the nutrient source is urea or ammonium-based, the amount lost will be dependent on temperature since this will drive the conversion from ammonium, which can bind to cation exchange sites, to leachable nitrate.

The other usual objection to fertilizing trees in the fall is that it will reduce cold hardiness. There is no clear evidence to support this, however. Harold Pellett and John Carter at the University of Minnesota compiled dozens of studies on the effects fertilizer on plant cold hardiness (Horticultural Reviews 3:144-171). For conifers and temperature hardwoods they found no clear trend across studies, except that fertilizing with potassium improved cold hardiness is most cases (see table). The common perception that fall fertilization, especially with N, will increase cold damage probably stems from studies of fertilization of turf, which had negative impacts in 26 out of 29 studies cited by Pellett and Carter.
pellett and carter

In summary, landscape trees and shrubs should be fertilized only where there is a demonstrated need. Fall is a good time to fertilize provided you avoid nitrate-N sources that will be prone to leaching.

One tree’s leaves… over 400 kinds of bacteria!

Okay… this bit of research just blew my mind.

Researchers took leaf samples from just ONE tree in Panama, and identified over 400 different kinds of bacteria making their home there. Sampling 57 different tree species, the total number of bacteria types ballooned to over 7,000. You can read more about the study here.

trees
A few trees. A nearly inconceivable number of microorgansims

 

That’s a lot. I love this kind of research because it just reinforces how LITTLE we know about this world we live in. Our world is filled with a massively diverse microbiome that we know virtually nothing about. Research is ongoing, and hopefully in the coming years we’ll begin to understand more about how these unseen organisms influence the world we live in. I’ll be fascinated to learn more.

In the mean time, any mention of microorganisms in a gardening context instantly raises questions of the efficacy of products containing (supposedly) beneficial fungi and/or bacteria for our soil. The huge, barely understood diversity of bacteria living in every aspect of our world is a good indication of why the research on adding specific microorganisms to soil generally show no impact, or only an impact in certain specific circumstances. This stuff is complex, and we’re just barely beginning to learn about it. Hopefully in the future we’ll begin to learn how to manipulate the microorganisms that live with our plants, but I wouldn’t expect it to happen over night. Right now, I’m just following the basic rule of adding organic matter to my soil to make a good home for the organisms that live there, and following the research as it opens a window to this unseen world all around us.

 

What’s wrong with this picture?

The  Seattle Times recently had a front page story on what Seattle’s new waterfront might look like. Back in 2009, the city began work on this project, hiring “rock-star landscape architect James Corner, designer of the celebrated High Line in New York City” to develop the big picture. (Note: I’ve been to the High Line and have posted on it before – it’s fantastic.) As you can see from the linked article from the Times, many of Corner’s architectural renditions for the greenway are presented, including this one:

waterfront2
COURTESY OF JAMES CORNER FIELD OPERATIONS AND CITY OF SEATTLE
An architectural rendering shows what a Pioneer Square beach at the foot of Washington Street could look like.

For those of you not familiar with Seattle’s waterfront, it’s built right next to Puget Sound, a huge inland sea connected at its mouth to the Pacific Ocean. So it was with much surprise that I saw what appear to be Douglas firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) along the cobbled beach. Douglas firs are not particularly salt tolerant, nor would they be very happy with the tidal action or seasonal storms that will flood the beach on a regular basis. Even if these were not Douglas firs (native to Seattle) but some other salt-tolerant species (mangroves?), it’s doubtful they would look as picturesque as the drawing shows. Neither would the rest of the trees in the area, whose root zones would normally extend far into saline soils under the beach and sound.

Am I being picky? No, I don’t think so. Landscape architects should know better than to use plantings as decorations for their designs, like candy sprinkles on cupcakes. Plants aren’t just design elements. Choosing plants that are appropriate to a site is a science as well as an art.

I can’t believe that in the five years that Seattle’s been working on this project that horticultural science hasn’t been a major component of landscape planning.