Steward

Steward – July 2019

Contents (Click on a title or scroll)

The WHY of Native Plants

Native Grasses and Flowers…an ecosystem

Uvularia grandiflora, Large flowered bellwort. Photo by Whitney Miller

The WHY of Native Plants

By Cheryl A. Gross, AEMG and Plant It Wild President

There exists a connectivity between the soil, plants, and insects which are the first links in the web of life.  Insects are the creatures who turn the energy from the sun, processed by plants into biomass. This insect biomass is what begins to feed the world. 

Soil, plants and insects evolve together in ecosystems all over the world.  In plant communities, they create habitats. Insects feed on plants, predator insects feed on insects on plants as do birds, amphibians, and mammals.  Everything is fed and kept in check. Control of plants is provided by the soil, moisture and the critters that feed on them.  

Once you begin replacing native plants with alien plants moved within continents and from one continent to another, the ecosystem is disrupted.  The alien plants just don’t fit. Some require extensive and continuous soil amendments and water to succeed (think turf grass). Others, without their own ecosystem controls, escape and become invasive (Bradford Pear, Japanese barberry, and myrtle to name three). The insects who need to be supported cannot live on alien plants. Insects are picky eaters and almost all eat only those plants with whom they have co-evolved. Replace their natural plant communities with non-native plants and there is no insect food. Consider the well-known Monarch butterfly whose larval form lives only on plants in the milkweed family.  We hear about Monarchs everywhere. However, they are but one. All other butterflies and moths have the same habits. When we landscape with non-native plants a food desert is created. 

Food deserts are places that lack access to foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.  Our food desert can be best seen in the decline of our migratory bird population. Some of our birds are in danger of extinction because of the food deserts we have created.  To begin, 98% of all baby birds are fed insects by their parents. (The other 2% are fed fish.) The best food for these baby birds are soft, squishy caterpillars. Caterpillars contain valuable nutrients that baby birds need to grow and fledge.  Research estimates that chickadee parents need to feed 6,000 to 9,000 insects, mostly caterpillars, to their clutch each year. That is ONE family. When enough caterpillars/insects are not available, the nest will fail. 

It is because of this beautiful and complicated food web that we must focus on landscaping with native plants.  Recent research has determined that to create a healthy food-web ecosystem, the plants on any site must be at least 70% native.  This number includes ALL plants…including your turf lawn. To answer the question then, Why Native Plants? To support life. 

Trillium grandiflorum. Photo by Whitney Miller

Native Grasses and Flowers…an ecosystem

By Cheryl A. Gross, AEMG and Plant It Wild President

Prairie means grassland, and comes from the French word for “meadow.”  So even before we begin to think of the space that is comprised of clump forming grasses and flowers (forbs), with few trees and shrubs, we have identified it by three different names…grassland, prairie, and meadow.  We typically think of the prairies of the Midwest. The grasslands crossed by wagon trains and plowed for agriculture. In Michigan, there were once areas of grasslands, mostly in the lower half of the Lower Peninsula.  Those spaces are mostly urban, suburban, and agricultural areas today.

Like each separate plant community, a meadow creates specific habitat and plays an important role in the ecosystem over-all.  We have lost much of that ecosystem, thereby destroying the life supported in a grassland habitat. Restoration of prairie habitat has been on the rise in recent years. For example, Saving Birds Thru Habitat in Omena, Michigan converted a large tract of land into a grassland.  This property has the native grasses and flowers (forbs) which support the shelter and food needed by birds. The Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy rescued old fields in the dry upland area of their Arcadia Dunes property and rehabilitated a grassland ecosystem. Further, the Michigan DNR has grants for property owners to install meadows and are actively working in northern Lower Michigan to restore grassland habitat.  The meadow ecosystem is highly valued and productive as it contains the plants to provide shelter and food for insects, birds, small mammals, and more.

There are three types of grasslands based upon the size of the grasses and the amount of moisture they typically receive.  These are Tall Grass, Mixed Grass, and Short Grass. Large tracts of land are perfect for Tall Grass or Mixed Grass. These plants typically require less moisture.  In suburban areas, a mixed grass or short grass may be more appropriate for scale and esthetic. Shorter grasses thrive with a bit more rainfall than tall grasses. 

Native grasses have deep roots.  Really deep roots. These roots perform a valuable function… they stabilize soil, are able to access more nutrients than short rooted plants, filter water, and provide their own organic matter by dying off a bit each year.  They need no soil amendments and typically need no additional irrigation once established. These are tough plants.  

Some species to consider in a short grass meadow:  Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, June Grass, Koeleria macrantha;  Prairie Dropseed, Sporobolus heterolepis; Sideoats Grama, Bouteloua curtipendula; Northern Sea Oats,  Chasmanthium latifolium; and Bottle Brush Grass, Hystrix patula. A taller grass, Indian Grass, Sorghastrum nutans has gorgeous yellow blossoms, while side oats blossoms are fire engine red.  These grasses provide shelter for birds and small wildlife, habitat for insects and their seeds provide late season food.

Grasslands are far from mono-cultures.  There are many, many forbs that grow in grasslands.  These plants cover the spectrum from early bloomers who find the sun before the grasses shade them, to tall flowering plants which grow supported by the grasses and bloom above it all.

Catherine Zimmerman, author of Urban and Suburban Meadows will be speaking at Trinity Lutheran Church in Frankfort at 7 pm July 17.  She will explain how to make a meadow where you live. On July 18th at 10 am there will be a grassland field trip beginning at the Arcadia Dunes Grassland on Keillor Road.  Come to see the beauty of the prairie. Finally, Zimmerman’s documentary, Hometown Habitat: Stories of Bringing Nature Home will be screened at the Garden Theater in Frankfort at 3 pm on July 18th with filmmaker Q & A.  

Catherine Zimmerman is being hosted by Plant it Wild with support from Four Season Nursery, the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, and Watervale Inn.  All of Plant it Wild programs and field trips are free and open to the public. Memberships and donations fund our work. For more information contact Plant it Wild on Facebook at PIW-Plant It Wild or on the web at plantitwild.net.

 

Resources:  

Michigan DNR, Large Grasslands

https://www.michigan.gov/documents/dnr/14_large_grasslands_500075_7.pdf

 

Grassland Biome

http://www.mbgnet.net/pfg/diverse/biomes/grasslnd/types.htm

 

Urban and Suburban Meadows, Catherine Zimmerman


Steward – May 2019

Contents (Click on a title or scroll)

Rain Gardens: MGANM March Meeting Notes

What’s happening to my Blue Spruce?

The WHY of Native Plants

Photo by Superior Watershed in the U.P.

Rain Gardens: MGANM March Meeting Notes

By Cheryl Gross, AEMG

MGANM hosted another full house at their March monthly meeting.  Carolyn Thayer, with a BLA (Landscape Architecture) from MSU, owner of Designs in Bloom in Frankfort, a Certified Shoreline Professional, and founder of Plant It Wild was the presenter.  Carolyn Thayer discussed the key elements of rain gardens, shoreline buffer strips, and permeable surfaces. The key takeaway: Keep all stormwater from roofs and hard surfaces ON SITE.

Slow it down, Spread it out, Soak it in… is the slogan of the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council.  Slow it down by using rocks around downspouts and gullies, spread it out by creating depressions and spaces for the water to collect, and soak it in by using native plants with deep roots to move the water through the soil.

Carolyn Thayer showed how even small depressions lined with rocks and planted with moisture loving native plants can manage the run off from a foot washing station at a home near the beach.  She detailed a project at Gateway Village in Frankfort where all the stormwater from the roofs and parking lots are directed into rain gardens that offer beautiful year-round interest and keep all stormwater on site and out of Betsie Bay.  Her most recent project is at a Frankfort Beach parking area on Crystal Lake which involved significant excavation and land shaping to accommodate the runoff and the plants. Finally, Carolyn introduced permeable hard surface products that can capture some storm water on the surface for drive ways and walk ways and limiting the runoff from traditionally impenetrable hard surfaces.

It was a very educational presentation.  Carolyn offered handouts and resources as well.

Read:  Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy

Download a resource from Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, “Plant a Rain Garden” a how-to guide for homeowners:  https://www.watershedcouncil.org/uploads/7/2/5/1/7251350/rain_garden_brochure-v7final.pdf

 

What’s happening to my Blue Spruce?

By Michael O’Brien, EMG

It was a really sad day when I realized my forty foot Blue Spruce trees, that are now thirty years old were under attack.  For the past two years I’ve been wondering why my trees were developing brown patches. This past summer I was involved in an advanced diagnostic workshop.  That’s when I became aware of Needle Cast disease.

The Colorado Blue Spruce is not native to Michigan.  There are many trees that aren’t native to this state, unfortunately they are succumbing to disease and insects.  This may be happening as our climate is changing.

Needle Cast disease is a fungus with spores.  It requires the right temperature and humidity to disperse spores.  These spores can travel about a mile with ease especially if the winds are correct.  The fungus that effects Colorado Blue Spruce is called Rhizosphaera kalkhoffii Bubak.  There is also another fungus called Stigmina needle cast. Many times Stigmina needle cast is misdiagnosed for Rhizosphaera kalkhoffii Bubak.

The spores attach to the needles, they drain the nutrients out of the needle, and eventually the needle dies.  In May just when the tree is about to open its new buds the fungus is also getting ready to disperse. Some of these new spores will attach to the new growth, while others travel in the wind.  This fungus can do serious harm to the tree and eventually the tree can die.

To diagnose this disease you need an eye loupe, a microscope or an arborist.  The disease shows up as little tiny black dots that can be too small to see by eye.

The good news is the trees can recover.  It may be necessary to apply around three treatments in early spring to keep the fungus from spreading into new areas of the tree.  It may take a couple of years for the tree to produce new growth to replace what has been lost. Most importantly do not cut out the diseased branches.  April and May is the best time to call a tree specialists to begin treatment.

Trillium grandiflorum and Dicentra canadensis. Photo by Whitney Miller

The WHY of Native Plants

By Cheryl A. Gross, AEMG, Plant it Wild President

There exists a connectivity between the soil, plants, and insects which are the first links in the web of life.  Insects are the creatures who turn the energy from the sun, processed by plants into biomass. This insect biomass is what begins to feed the world.

Soil, plants and insects evolve together in ecosystems all over the world.  In plant communities, they create habitats. Insects feed on plants, predator insects feed on insects on plants as do birds, amphibians, and mammals.  Everything is fed and kept in check. Control of plants is provided by the soil, moisture and the critters that feed on them.

Once you begin replacing native plants with alien plants moved within continents and from one continent to another, the ecosystem is disrupted.  The alien plants just don’t fit. Some require extensive and continuous soil amendments and water to succeed (think turf grass). Others, without their own ecosystem controls, escape and become invasive (Bradford Pear, Japanese barberry, and myrtle to name three). The insects who need to be supported cannot live on alien plants. Insects are picky eaters and almost all eat only those plants with whom they have co-evolved. Replace their natural plant communities with non-native plants and there is no insect food. Consider the well-known Monarch butterfly whose larval form lives only on plants in the milkweed family.  We hear about Monarchs everywhere. However, they are but one. All other butterflies and moths have the same habits. When we landscape with non-native plants a food desert is created.

Food deserts are places that lack access to foods that make up the full range of a healthy diet.  Our food desert can be best seen in the decline of our migratory bird population. Some of our birds are in danger of extinction because of the food deserts we have created.  To begin, 98% of all baby birds are fed insects by their parents. (The other 2% are fed fish.) The best food for these baby birds are soft, squishy caterpillars. Caterpillars contain valuable nutrients that baby birds need to grow and fledge.  Research estimates that chickadee parents need to feed 6,000 to 9,000 insects, mostly caterpillars, to their clutch each year. That is ONE family. When enough caterpillars/insects are not available, the nest will fail.

It is because of this beautiful and complicated food web that we must focus on landscaping with native plants.  Recent research has determined that to create a healthy food-web ecosystem, the plants on any site must be at least 70% native.  This number includes ALL plants…including your turf lawn. To answer the question then, Why Native Plants? To support life.


Steward – March 2019

Contents (Click on a title or scroll)

MGANM February Meeting Notes:Chestnut Hypovirulence

The Battle Against Invasive Plants… and the Rewards

What’s in a name?

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben: A Review

MGANM February Meeting Notes: Chestnut Hypovirulence

by Nancy Denison, AEMG

It was another packed house at the BRNC February 5 for Dr. Carmen Medina Mora speaking on the American Chestnut and Hypo virulence. Dr. Mora is an MSU grad and continues to work in the MSU labs researching and studying Chestnut disease pathology.

The American Chestnut, Castana dentate,  a tall, large canopied tree with edible nuts was once widespread in the eastern US until wooden pallets from China introduced Chestnut blight which spread and began to devastate trees in the early 1900s. Research of European, Japanese and Chinese chestnut trees has offered hope and success in saving/creating a new strain which is much less susceptible to the virus.

MSU is now cloning rather than grafting these crossed trees and allowing the Forest Keeling Nursery in Missouri to grow the rootstock for planting in Michigan exclusively. Nearby Kewadin already has Japanese-European trees in production as does the NW Michigan Horticultural Station. It was interesting to hear that many cherry and apple growers have or are replacing their fruit trees with Chestnuts. Hypo virulence refers to the biological management of disease which researchers have found to be effective in controlling the virus from killing the chestnut tree and actually allowing the tree to heal itself.  

Dr. Mora’s presentation was enlightening and helped this very unaware backyard gardener (me) understand a promising trend for farmers, consumers and tree lovers. Thank you, Dr. Mora!

Garlic Mustard, Alliaria Petiolata
credit: S.Callahan/Photri Images
Photo by Dreamstime, permissions granted for the sole use of MGANM

The Battle Against Invasive Plants… and the Rewards

by Ruth Steele Walker, AEMG

It’s a never-ending story — the battle against invasive species! Each year Scott and I do battle against several plant invasive species on our property.  In spring there is garlic mustard to pull, at any time of the year there is Oriental bittersweet to keep track of (while planning its demise come warmer weather) and in summer there’s the frustration of fighting the Oriental Bittersweet, tree of heaven and autumn olive.   We’re also removing some things that were planted before we got here like periwinkle and lily of the valley, some things our neighbors planted that have spread on to our property and some things that we planted before we knew better.

Given that fighting invasive plants has become an annual ritual, I was excited to attend this month’s Master Gardener Association of Northwest Michigan meeting where Emily Cook of the Northwest Michigan Invasive Species Network (ISN) spoke.

The ISN covers our county, Leelanau, as well as Benzie, Grand Traverse and Manistee counties in Northwest Michigan.  They provide a host of services and work bees to help eradicate invasive plants from our area.  Their website really says it all: HabitatMatters.org.

Why bother with getting rid of invasive plants, especially pretty ones or ones that quickly grow and fill in a bare area?  It’s pretty simple.  Native plants feed wildlife, butterflies and the insects that are necessary for pollinating plants – including those plants that produce our food – and feeding the birds and butterflies.  Plants that grow quickly are likely to be aggressive enough to push out the native plants that are so important for keeping our world healthy and thriving.

Emily divided invasive species into four categories:  plants that were mistakes, like purple loosestrife and phragmites, plants that were prized for beauty before their invasive qualities were discovered such as buckthorn, Japanese barberry and baby’s breath;  plants that were a well-meaning oops, including autumn olive which was heavily promoted as a plant of choice in the 1970s and plants that provide food (and were  brought by our ancestors when they immigrated to this area) such as garlic mustard.

One of the great things I learned at Emily’s talk was that ISN keeps a Top 20 list of plants that qualify as invasive species.  This is important for me to know as a Master Gardener because if I’m giving out advice about planting, I need to know which species are problematic and have been identified as specific problems in our area of the country. 

What was disheartening to hear is that half of the plants on the ISN Top 20 list are still being sold for landscaping.  What was heartening to know is that ISN has a group of landscapers who have agreed not to include invasive species in their projects.  The group is called Go Beyond Beauty and identifies landscapers and nurseries that have committed not to use or sell high-threat invasive plants.  So far ISN has signed up eight nurseries on this list and there are 13 landscapers (two of which have nurseries on the list as well) that are committed to avoiding invasive plants. 

Currently ISN’s focus is on four invasive species: (pictured below)

  1. Japanese knotweed, also referred to as Michigan bamboo.  If you find this on your property, Emily says, call ISN.  Do not move it or mow it!!

    japanese knotweed close-up growing in the UK background and texture. Photo by Dreamstime, permissions granted for the sole use of MGANM

  2. Garlic mustard, the focus of annual pulls each spring.  The nice thing here is it makes a great pesto sauce and you can bag and dumpster any part you don’t eat.

    Garlic Mustard, Alliaria Petiolata
    credit: S.Callahan/Photri Images
    Photo by Dreamstime, permissions granted for the sole use of MGANM

  3. Phragmites, which is prevalent along our shorelines in Michigan.

    Phragmites australis flower close to the lake in autumn. Photo by Dreamstime, permissions granted for the sole use of MGANM

  4. Oriental bittersweet, known for its “kudzu effect” in covering trees and anything else in its path.

    Oriental Bittersweet. Photo by Dreamstime, permissions granted for the sole use of MGANM

If you’re on the fence about removing some of the invasive plants on your property check out some native gardens near you and see how beautiful native plants can be while providing a habitat for birds, butterflies and bees. 

Dicentra canadensis, Squirrel corn. Photo by Whitney Miller

What’s in a Name?

by Cheryl A. Gross, AEMG

It is time to begin making plant wish lists for spring!  Scour catalogues and books, think about adding new landscaped beds, refreshing existing landscaped beds, reducing lawn, benefiting pollinators and birds, oh my.  What plants will you choose? Knowing plant origins and names is very important if you want to be an ecological gardener superstar.

The very best plants for ecological support are native plants.  They developed here and have the intricate relationships between soil, climate, and insects that create the web of life.   Why do native plants matter? Insects create the biomass of food for baby birds. Adult birds prefer insects as well, but as adults can also feed on seeds and berries.  Insects are famously picky eaters. Some insects eat ONLY one plant, while a very few are generalists. Pollinators are required to help plants make seeds and fruit and our food.  The highest quality of nectar and pollen available to our pollinators are provided by native plants. For example, dandelions have only 40% of the nutrition of a native spring bloomer.  When visiting a nursery, buy “straight” native varieties. (To learn about which plants are native visit: michiganflora.org.)

So when visiting a nursery, it is best to buy “straight” native varieties.  The question becomes, though, how can you tell if a plant is “straight” and not a “cultivar” or a “nativar”  Well, ALL plants have Latin names. That name is their scientific descriptor. Many also have common names… or “nick names” and can have many of those. Let’s take Dicentra canadensis. It is also commonly called Squirrel Corn, Wild Bleeding Heart, or  Girls, (in relation to Dicentra cucullaria, also called Boys or Dutchman’s Breeches). Therefore, when shopping for plants, you really should know the Latin name.

Plant scientists LOVE messing with plants and creating “new” or altered plants. These are called “cultivars” because they have been “cultivated”. This includes, but is not limited to, different leaf color, different blossom color or size, or different berry size. When cultivating or “messing” with native plants, they sometimes call them “nativars”.  The problem is this: insects have a specific relationship with the native plant and we have no idea how any change will affect that relationship. The argument is that there is no science to prove that it is a problem. So until there is, cultivars of native plants should be considered OK. I don’t buy it. Science HAS gotten as far as to determine that changing a leaf from green to red changes the enzymes and the chewing insect that relies on that leaf is unable to digest it and that bees and other pollinators cannot access the nectar and pollen in double blossoms.

Here is the final tip. Look at the plant tag to learn whether the plant has been cultivated. Those plants generally have a third name in quotes. For example, if you want a Serviceberry, or Amelanchier laevis, it has many varieties, several second Latin names, and many, many common names. If you see a THIRD name in quotes, “Autumn Brilliance” you know it is a cultivar.  Don’t buy it.

Tree huggers, Birch and Maple. Photo by Kathryn Frerichs

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben: A Review

by Kathryn Frerichs, AEMG

Once in a great while I am astounded by some new, amazing findings in medicine, genetics, botany, etc.  The revelations in Peter Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees create one of those times. The works of natural scientists in recent years have revealed the role of mycelium and bacteria in the soil now called the Wood Wide Web.

Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels was reviewed in the Real Dirt previously. In it, mycelium is described to extend plant roots and exchange minerals and water for sugars from those roots.  Miles of threads of mycelium exist in a teaspoon of soil. The mycelium belong to the fungi family and the largest living organism on earth is a fungus that covers 2,384 acres and is dated at 2,400 to possibly 8,650 years old.  Plenty to be gobsmacked about with these discoveries. Then comes Wohlleben’s book to take us to that place of wonder and amazement regarding trees.

Wohlleben reveals how to observe that trees can, in fact, detect smell. The thorned acacia trees in Africa have been observed to ward off giraffes by secreting a bad tasting substance in their leaves tanking them from tasty to nasty.  The long-necked herbivores then trot off to a neighboring acacia and depending upon the wind direction, the trees will have already begun secreting that nasty-tasting chemical into their leaves too. The giraffes have figured out that the downwind trees can smell chemicals from neighboring trees and just move upwind to chomp on other unsuspecting trees.  Trees do, by deduction from this example and others examples, have to be able to “smell” or detect the odor the other trees emit. Some critics claim that Wohlleben’s writing becomes anthropomorphic. Whatever you may want to call it, smell or detect, trees are communicating via odor/smell. Man can be very egocentric in thinking that only the human species can ‘smell’.  I think more of us will pay attention to his work with his imaginative approach.

Peter Wohlleben explains how trees communicate through the air and through the Wood Wide Web (WWW).  Saplings that are living on the shaded forest floor are fed by the mother trees through their roots. The saplings can wait in the dark, so to speak, because the mother trees feed them for decades before an opening in the forest canopy provides the light to fuel their growth. Trees feed one another in times of illness too.  They use the WWW, also known as mycelium, to accomplish this feat. After a number of these examples, you begin to realize that a forest is not made up of individual trees but is a type of super organism. The parts are all interconnected and protecting one another. Trees, also, have the ability to detect artificial light at night  Eventually the light stunts their growth. They need to stop photosynthesis at night in order to rest.

A forest of trees operates in concert with one another by regulating their climate.  The leaves, or their solar panels, provide a cooling effect and feed and water the roots every autumn when they are broken down and become soil.   The depth of the soil increases over time. They can withstand wind storms by buffering each other to prevent being toppled over. By fall the trees have made and stored as much sugar as they can so they shed the solar panels to rot and become new soil for the next season.  Also, Mr. Wohlleben tells us that when man comes along to harvest lumber from these magnificent giant-coordinated organisms called forests, they cut down the oldest, largest most mature trees. Our old growth trees are the biggest carbon sequesterers we have. The first trees to be cut down in a forest are the largest ones ‘who’ are the most capable of helping us fend off climate change.  

I highly recommend The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben to Master Gardeners.   Besides being a delightful read, it is informative, teaches us to respect those giants of the forest living in the slow lane, and recognizes that trees are interconnected in ways we have not anticipated.  Communication, sleep, nurturance, and functioning as one organism make for better survival just as Darwin hypothesized.

Enjoy this wonderful book!


Steward – January 2019

Another doping scandal… in your yard

by Cheryl Gross Advanced Extension Master Gardener

You have read the headlines about performance enhancing drugs in baseball and cycling.  The improvements to performance are temporary and the dangers are significant. Well, homeowners have been engaged in “doping’” their lawns and gardens for years and don’t even realize it.   Most lawn “care’” products- – fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides- -act a lot like performance enhancing drugs. They may make your lawn “look” better, but the results are temporary and the side effects are serious.

Any plant, whether a lawn or landscape bed, needs nutritious soil and the appropriate amount of sunlight and moisture to thrive. The soil is the “diet” of the plant.  It needs good food. The nutritious soil comes from organic material. When we fertilize, we give it a vitamin at best and a steroid at worst. We do not really “feed” the plant for strength and vitality.  A healthy lawn can compete fairly with the weeds and, for the most part, choke them out. A lawn on “steroids” can only compete as long as the grass plant has the chemical in its system.

Herbicides kill plants.  Used selectively they can be very useful in eradicating nuisance or harmful plants, such as poison ivy, from our lawns or environment.  Used broadly, they may miss the target and leave harmful chemicals in our yards to be spread to our kids, pets and tracked into our houses.  We don’t fully know the affect these chemicals have on us, but there is plenty of research looking into it.

Pesticides kill insects and animals.  Again, there may be a place for selective pesticide use.  However, broad use of pesticides may result in harming or killing beneficial insects and animals.  How soon after application is it “safe” for a child to play or an animal to lie on a treated lawn? No one really knows.

While it is your decision to use lawn care services or do it yourself and follow a manufacturer’s step plan, have you considered where these chemicals go once applied to your lawn?  They can both float on the breeze and runoff into our watershed. You and your neighbors breathe the chemical residue. The creeks, rivers, and lakes receive the excess. The plants and animals in the water are affected by the runoff.  Before you invest in any lawn or garden chemical, stop and think about it. Does your lawn really need to have artificial vitality? Do a few weeds really cause such offense? Is killing a few insects worth the risk?

Instead, look into ways to improve your lawn and garden diet.  Add composted organic material to feed your plants. Strengthen the entire ecosystem to encourage the plants you desire and discourage weeds.  Use only targeted herbicides and pesticides and be sure they are worth the effort and expense. Finally, seek out organically friendly products that address your needs without contributing to problems downstream.

Help is out there.  Contact your local conservation district, Master Gardeners, organic gardening center, or garden club.  Learn more about weaning your yard from chemical dependency and protecting our environment.

 


Steward – November 2018

The Biochar Story

Coordinator’s Corner: Six-legged fall invaders

The Biochar Story

by Tim Overdier
Northport, MI

Figure 1: Biochar (National Geographic)

Biochar is a natural high-carbon soil builder. As the name implies, “bio” represents a biological coating on a “char” particle produced in a low oxygen burn (pyrolysis). Biochar (Fig. 1) is much like charcoal but rather than purposed for fuel, it is created for use as an agricultural soil amendment. Biochar’s unique electrochemical properties and high surface area (Fig. 2) adsorbs nutrients and greenhouse gases, increases nutrient and water holding capacities, and provides habitat for a diversity of beneficial soil microbes. Biochar can be processed from many types of organic wastes.

While the name “biochar” was only coined in 2005, this material was used by Amazonian Indians as far back as 2500 years ago.

Figure 2: A microscopic view of biochar (deeproot.com)

A Spanish expedition In 1542 a Spanish expedition seeking gold and cinnamon put into the headwaters of the Amazon with a young Conquistador named Francisco de Orellana. On the way to the Pacific ocean, Orellana’s scribe, Friar Gaspar de Carvajal, recorded that the party encountered extensive and grand villages with ornate plazas, lush green fields, roads, and warehouses of stored exotic foods, corrals of turtles and manatees, ferocious warrior women, and tall warrior men painted black.

 

So remote was the Amazon, that by the time researchers of the late 19th century returned to the area there were no such villages. Carvajal’s writings were considered to be myth. Modern studies indicate that European-introduced diseases decimated the ancient civilizations by about 95 percent.

Since then geologists and archaeologists passed through the area in the 19th and 20th Centuries, found buried beneath the Amazon rain forest a soil called “Terra Preta” — Portuguese for “dark earth”. In 1874 a geology report by a Dr. Charles Hartt of Cornell described the terra preta soils as a “kitchen middens, created by 1000 kitchens over 1000 years”, indicating a loop of carbon recycling that returned refuse – cooking char, pottery shards, and bones– back into the soil to grow crops. Everything but the kitchen sink…

It wasn’t until after the advent of “soil science” in the 20th Century that more specific chemical and physical properties of terra preta were analyzed. In 1996, William Sombroek, a soil scientist from the Netherlands completed the first PhD thesis on terra preta, offering to the world the classic side by side photo of soil profiles (Figure 3.) with the dark, Anthropogenic or human-made terra preta next to the native tropical soil. The key ingredient Sombroek identified was the char, along with a host of diverse microbes that comprised the fertile, well-structured soil.

By contrast, the native tropical soils are highly weathered red clays, acidic, and lacking in organic matter and nutrients. The dark earth profile at over 15% organic matter enabled the cultivation of food crops that would not have been possible in the native soils. So while these civilizations that supported millions of Amazonian people disappeared, they may have left behind a soil solution to the carbon balance we now need for a sustainable future.

Northwest Michigan’s upland topsoils cleared for agriculture are typically 1-2 percent organic matter. They could easily become 3 to 5 percent with changes in management, including the addition of biochar.

Today, a high tech 21st Century worldwide biochar effort to improve the pyrolysis procedures, environmental monitoring, process engineering, marketing, and economics is underway. Education and public awareness remain a big factor for successful implementation of a future with appropriate biochar applications. Nearly 125 institutions worldwide are studying biochar, including 15 colleges and universities in the United States.

Figure 3: Native tropical soil on the left; terra preta on the right. (Dr. Wm Sombroek)

The International Biochar Initiative has successfully advocated for the inclusion of biochar into the proposed United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and at least 20 countries have supported the inclusion of biochar as a high-potential climate change mitigation and adaptation tool.

 

In 2018, Cool Terra, a U.S. company financed by Google, Exxon Mobil, JR Simplot, USDA, and others, are rolling out a high carbon, microbially inoculated, enhanced biochar. This product is the result of several years of filing 35 patents, field trials though Colorado State University and a California research firm. The granular product will provide farms, orchards, turf growers, and greenhouses with an incremental, high return soil amendment, that will help shift farms from the chemical treadmill to a more ecologically sustainable, set of soil building practices. This is just the beginning of biochar moving into the mainstream.

Other uses of biochar such as wastewater treatment, electrical cells, and hazardous material cleanup are being researched.

With our NW Michigan excess woody debris, a small fire, and a water source to douse the flames before the fire burns to ash, we can make biochar and make a difference in the carbon cycle and our local food. Figures 4 and 5 show results in my Northport garden in 2017 with biochar additions to 30 inches of depth.

There will be a two hour Biochar Workshop at Grow Benzie November 3, 2018 to introduce the process for NW Michigan gardeners and growers.

Biochar: be the change!

Figure 4: early leaf out on tomato
transplants in biochar treated soil in
Northport. (Started indoors and given to
me by a Master Gardener here!)

Figure 5 Tomato crop sampling,
spotless mixed varieties.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coordinator’s Corner: Six-legged fall invaders

Nate Walton, MSU Extension Master Gardener Coordinator

As the shadows lengthen and days get shorter, we start to see some six-legged friends sneaking around our windows, eaves, and soffits. This seems like a good time for a reminder about just who some of these insects are, and how you can tell them apart.

The fall invaders are all just following their natural inclination to seek an out of the way resting place to spend the winter. Unfortunately for all parties involved, what happens next is anything but natural.

The exterior side walls of our structures provide a very attractive array of nooks and crannies for these critters. The problem is that these nooks and crannies often lead into the interiors of our human dwellings. Three of the most common insects that we find doing this in Michigan are Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, Box Elder Bug, and Western Conifer Seed Bug, and are all closely related insects in the insect order Hemiptera (true bugs).

Of these three, the newest to our area and most problematic by far is the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (BMSB). A great deal of information on identification and management of BMSB can be found on the website www.stopbmsb.org.

Keeping all three of these insects out of our structures can be a real challenge, but essentially consists of maintaining good seals around the exterior. Once they are in your house there is not much that you can do, other than remove them. Like many of the other insects in the order Hemiptera (True Bugs) these bugs have a piercing sucking mouthpart and they are capable of using it in self-defense. In other words, handle them with caution. They can be knocked into a bucket of soapy water, vacuumed up, or just left alone. Of these three insects, BMSB is the only one that is a garden or agricultural pest.

In case you are unsure whether the insects in your home are BMSB, I have prepared the following table and photo guide to help you tell them apart. The shape of their hind legs, overall body shape, and color can be used to differentiate these three fall invaders.

 

Common Name Foods Body Shape Hind Leg Shape Color
Brown Marmorated Stink Bug Wide variety Pentagonal Long and thin Mottled brown tan and white
Western Conifer Seed Bug Seeds of conifers Elliptical Flat and broadened Mottled brown tan and white
Box Elder Bug Box elder and related maples Elliptical  Long and thin Black and red

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