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Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Religion of "Organics"

What Is "Organic"?

I posted this to show the confusion which exists about the term "organic". I don't share my opinions much on my blogs. I try to post facts. But this term, organic, has me concerned. The term "organic" is confused by the public. This confusion leads to sales opportunities. Some marketing people capitalize on this confusion. Others don't know the difference. If this confusion is not addressed or removed it could open the doors towards abuse in marketing and sales.

TRANSGENICS: Biological and Organic Foods

Three types of "organic" products; 100% Organic, USDA Certified Organic and just plain "Organic". What do they mean?

 Organic GreenFixThe Organic Seal | Agricultural Marketing Service

"Organic" Compost

I do quite a bit of consulting. Now that I am retired from my University position I am free to do that. It gives me a lot of chances to see things that I don't see in academics. One of my consulting jobs is with a composting company in the United States. One of the products they market and sell is a compost made from biosolids. The biosolid content was somewhere around 20% by volume. Most composts made from biosolids are 100% "organic" and high in phosphorus. When a consumer asks if this product is organic, what is the correct response? In one sense of the word, it meets this definition 100%! But is this what the consumer is really asking or wanting?

"Organic" compost made with composted biosolids. Biosolids are rich in nitrogen. No additional nitrogen needed to speed up composting into weeks. Is this "organic"? If the components were left to "rot" on their own, it would takes months without the biosolids.
I found that about 80% of the people who understood the difference (after a long explanation about organics by me) decided it was something they could use. Most of these reasons, I believe, were based upon price. But 20% refused the product and were willing to pay a higher price for a product that contained 0% biosolids. I developed a low-cost compost that contained a 0% biosolid. To speed up the composting process of these "vegan" products, nitrogen was added as a mineral fertilizer. Now the compost was no longer "organic" but it contained no biosolids.
Compost made using biosolids. Biosolids contain human waste. Many states no longer allow burying human waste in landfills. This creates a huge potential disposal problem. The US Environmental Protection Agency has worked very hard to develop protocols for composting biosolids and recycling it back into the environment. These protocols include extremely low human pathogen levels and "caps" for heavy metal content. Some of these composted biosolids meet the US EPA levels for "safe" application to fruits and vegetables.

Compost, all organic components made from plants, made without composted biosolids but nitrogen fertilizer is added to speed up composting. Without additional nitrogen added, composting can take a very long time..

"Organic" Weedkilles

There is a weedkiller, that is 100% organic and high in phosphorus. It is extremely effective and systemic as well. In other words, if I applied it to the leaves, the plant could take it to the underground roots and kill the entire plant.

If I told this to a consumer they might buy it, relying on the word "organic"as the key word for purchasing. What if I told you that this description is 100% accurate but it describes the weedkiller called Roundup? Would the consumer still buy it?

Technically speaking, Roundup is a 100% organic, high phosphorus, systemic weedkiller. Consumers looking for a 100% organic product might be sold this when it's not what they wanted.
Plant and Soil Sciences eLibrary
This is the active ingredient in Roundup weedkiller. It is an "organic" compound, high in phosphorus.

 "Organic" Fertilizers

 What is an "organic" fertilizer? These same principles might apply to fertilizers as well. Unlike "mineral" fertilizers, urea fertilizer, 46-0-0 or 45-0-0 could be classified as "organic" because, like glyphosate, it has an "organic backbone" in its chemical structure.
ChienLab - Stephanie's Science Page
The basic structure of urea, whether it comes from animal waste or manufacturing
 Like all mineral fertilizers, the biggest problem is not in the pure, basic chemistry of the fertilizer. The plant doesn't care if the nitrogen comes from bat guano, urea, chicken manure or cow manure. The potential problems are with the chemicals "associated" with the fertilizer, "contaminants" if you will. These contaminants might come from its manufacturing process, minerals associated with the mining of this fertilizer, or even (heaven forbid!) what the cow ate (animal maures) or how it was cared for (antibiotics)! But most antibiotics are also "organic"!

"Organic" Label

The organic label for food in the United States must meet some very specific, legal requirements before this label can be applied to it. These legal requirements are required by the United States Department of Agriculture before this product is "awarded" this label.


The USDA requires a fair amount of bookkeeping that must be presented to a certifying body before the "organic" award is granted. There is fraud sometimes. There are unscrupulous producers who lie about the legal requirements and obtain an organic certification when they shouldn't. Hopefully, the number of producers who are fraudulent are in a very small minority but they are out there.


The Organic Seal | Agricultural Marketing Service
Add captionThis is the "Certified organic label owned by USDA. All products awarded this certification can apply it to their label. Are there fraudulent products which receive this certification? Yes, but hopefully the numbers are very small.

Compost Made from Animal and Plant Waste

 If the nitrogen comes from animals or plants then its "naturally organic", right? But is that type of "organic" safe? Isn't that what we are looking for? The word "compost" is frequently equated to "organic", "natural" and "safe". But is it?

Compost piles "cold composted" or "hot composted". The difference can be the presence of weeds when it is used or an abundance of potentially life threatening microorganisms. Compost does not necessarily mean the product is "safe". 

Compost thermometers are used in commercial composts to kill weed seeds, human pathogens and indicate when the pile needs to be turned or "aerated".
How is the compost made? Is it standard compost made with animal manure? How were the animals managed? Were they given antibiotics? Were they pastured and allowed to graze? Was the animal manure from feedlots where they were fed primarily corn and the animals confined?

Is it a "Vegan" compost made from all plants? Were the plants sprayed, injected or their roots drenched in pesticides before they were cut down and chipped? Were mineral fertilizers used in composting? Were those mineral fertilizers "safe" to use?

And finally, how was the compost "made" or managed" Commercial composts raise the temperatures of the compost pile high enough and long enough to kill potentially harmful microorganisms and kill weed seeds. Non-commercial composts may not. Where is the quality control?

It's All About Trust - Buy Local

Bottom line, its all about trust. Trust your producer. If you value the producers lifestyle and personal philosophy, then buy. As my Economics professor used to say, "Vote with money. If you like something, buy it. If you don't, then don't buy it. If you buy something you believe in, more of it will be produced."

Trust and know your producer. Buy local. 

More important than the religion of "Organics"

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Elm Tree Growth After Bad Pruning a Possible Liability

Q. Could you give some advice on this elm tree. It is about 40-45 years old. My father topped it (it is in SE Oregon).  I think it may need to be cut down, however if possible to improve it, that would be what I would like. The branches are so spindly I think they will break easily.  Also, any idea how much longer it can survive?
Elm tree in SE Oregon, probably Chinese elm.
A. Most of these remaining elm trees are Chinese elm and considered “trashed trees” as far as their landscape value in urban areas is concerned. Yours appears to be in a rural area. In rural areas, “trashed trees” can be still valuable.
            Your tree has grown back for several years from a bad pruning job so I would leave it alone. One of the big problems with bad pruning jobs is limb breakage because of how the tree grows back after bad cuts. This can be a liability problem.
            If you’ve had strong winds through there with no limb breakage then I would be less concerned. Otherwise, have a certified arborist come through and do an evaluation of the tree.
            Personally, I don’t think a tree like that’s worth it. If you have concerns about its looks or liability, I would have it removed and put in something else.

Jimson Weed a Perennial

Q. I have a second year Jimsonweed which I started from seed.  It really grew this year and now all leaves are gone.  Should I cut back the large branches or leave it alone?

A. I wont ask you why you have jimson weed but you are aware that parts of it are hallucinogenic and please be careful with it. It was used by some southwestern Native Americans for religious rituals. It is possible to cause kidney and heart failure if mishandled.It is now recognized for some potential health benefits but you have to know what you are doing to use it safely. Compounds that are potentially dangerous can vary widely from plant to plant.

It is an annual in northern climates and a perennial in tropical climates and herbaceous perennial in semitropical climates. You should start it from seed every year if it is planted in a location where temperatures get low enough to kill it outright. In our climate of the Mojave Desert the top will die when it freezes and regrows from the base in the spring. So, sometime this winter cut it to within about one inch of the soil and let it regrow when it is warm. Mulch it during cold weather.

Got Wind? Consider Windbreaks for Fruit Trees in Containers

Q. We are wanting to grow a couple of dwarf fruit trees in pots. We live on a hill quite a ways above the valley floor. Our backyard faces south with nothing to block the wind so it gets very strong especially in the spring. We want to place the pot in an area off the patio between our house and the neighbors. The sunlight would be somewhat filtered there part of the time. Our first question is what kind of potting mix to use. Also, how big should the pots be and what kind of trees would work the best? 
Wind damage to ornamental plum
A. Sounds like you've got several questions wrapped into one. This could be a fairly involved response. I don't want to make this decision for you but you should be aware of all the factors involved that I can think of.
Persimmon leaf wind damage
Wind is not good when growing anything. I would strongly suggest you consider constructing a windbreak on your property to protect the patio area and any gardening that you're doing. I'm sure it's a beautiful setting but open areas with a beautiful view have its drawbacks when it comes to growing things.
Wind damage to plum leaves
Wind picks up speed as it moves between two homes. This is called wind channeling. Think of how a slow-moving, wide stream increases in speed as the stream narrows. The same thing is true about wind. Not a good location for a patio or fruit trees unless there is a windbreak.

Container mixes are light in weight because containers are usually meant to be moved otherwise you would plant the trees in the ground. Light weight soil mixes are good for containers if the containers are meant to be moved. If you use a heavier soil mix that will hold water, don't expect to move the containers. This is the trade-off when selecting lightweight soil mixes.

If the containers are too small and you select trees that get large, they will blow over in a wind. If you select smaller containers, then select fruit trees that mature smaller in size. I would use containers that hold at least about ½ cubic yard of soil. This would be about 800 to 900 pounds of soil mix, maybe 600 pounds of potting soil.

A combination of wind and freezing temperatures can be a big problem for citrus. I would stay away from citrus in Las Vegas unless your neighbors have success with it.

This is what I would do if I were you. See if you can find an acceptable compromise between building a windbreak and still protecting your view. If this is not possible, be prepared that growing vegetables, fruit trees and even ornamental plants will be a bit of a challenge in that location. It’s not impossible to have both, but you need a talented landscape designer or landscape architect to help you figure that out. You will need at least six hours of full sunlight or maybe about ten hours of indirect light for flowering or fruiting trees in containers.

Moving on with your idea, select smaller sized fruit trees suitable for containers that are not citrus but are able to handle the wind. Some fruit trees you might consider are the miniatures. These are not semi dwarf or standard trees on dwarfing rootstock. These are genetic dwarf trees. There are too many to list but they are out there. They are usually not the best fruit that you can grow but they’re okay.The line of Bonanza peach is one example.

Another option is to select a full-sized fruit tree that is smaller at maturity. This might include pomegranates or persimmon for instance. They can withstand the cold. Pomegranate also withstands the wind better than most fruit trees. Persimmon will hold on to the fruit in windy locations but it gets a lot of leaf wind damage.

Select a soil mix rather than a planter mix. Soil mixes are usually heavier and hold more water after an irrigation. Places like Viragrow in North Las Vegas handle high-quality soil mixes.

Damage to Citrus Leaves Varies with Seasons

Q. Someone I know is having problems with something eating the leaves on his citrus tree.  I cannot think of what animal would do this.  Can you?
Feeding damage by insects can vary with the maturity of the leaf

A.  If this damage occurred to citrus leaves earlier in the season when temperatures were warm, it could because the by insects or even snails. If this is happening now, while temperatures are cold, then think of warm blooded animals such as rabbits, ground squirrels or even rats.

Ground squirrels hibernate when temperatures are cold but you may see them active when temperatures are still warm but it is winter time.

Citrus leaves will probably drop when the temperatures get cold enough and so that problem will be gone. I would not worry about it too much at this time of the year. It would be more of a problem if leaves started disappearing during warm weather when the plant is relying on the sun for its source of energy. If it's caused by warm-blooded animals, they will move on to something else.

Winter Cold and Chilling Hours May Not Be Cherry Problem

Sweet cherry growing in North Las Vegas Nevada

Q. I have a two-year-old pie cherry tree that needs so many days of cold weather to set fruit next year. Should I cover it with burlap for the winter? And if I do, then should I also cover the trunk or just the branches?  
English Morello sour cherry in North Las Vegas Nevada

A. How much protection you give it during the winter depends on where you live and your lowest temperatures during winter. Cherries are divided into two categories; sweet cherries and sour cherries. Sweet cherries are for eating fresh, out of hand. Sour cherries are considered “pie cherries” and used fresh or canned.
            Sour cherries grow as far north as Michigan so I don’t think low temperatures are going to be a problem unless you live in northern climates. If you don’t live that far north, you don’t need to protect them through the winter.
Bing cherry produced on sweet cherry tree in North Las Vegas Nevada. Don't get excited. Twenty-five sweet cherry trees of six varieties produced twelve cherries in twelve years. Backyards in other locations in the Valley, sweet cherries were plentiful.
            Chilling hours is the number of hours needed below 45°F to recognize winter is finished. When the number of chilling hours have been met, the plant waits for warm temperatures of spring so that it can begin flowering again.
            Chilling hours are important but I think they are sometimes overestimated by growers and scientists. In the Las Vegas Valley, our chilling hours are estimated to be somewhere between 300 to 400 hours depending on winter temperatures.
            I have grown five sour cherries in the Las Vegas climate and have had no problems with flowering even though many of them are rated between 400 to 500 hours. I have had problems getting fruit from the flowers. A lack of chilling does not appear to be a problem for sweet and sour cherries grown in Las Vegas.
            I think the problem of setting fruit in the desert is more likely a humidity problem. Trees growing in backyard residences with pools or lawns set fruit each year in the Mojave Desert. Low humidity and failure to set fruit is a common problem with many tropical trees, with 30% relative humidity seeming to be the lower limit for successful fruit set.

Oils Best for Controlling Scale on Bay Laurel

Q. What is the best way to remove scale and aphids on Bay Laurel?

A. Scale are insects have soft bodies and can crawl around from place to place when they are young. They are called “crawlers” at this stage in their life.
            Once they find a place to live, they build a house covering itself called a “scale”. Underneath that scale the soft bodied insect is protected and sucking plant juices. Until it exits the scale to reproduce.
            The scale covering on its outside protects it from predators as well as contact insecticides. Ants move crawlers to new locations just like they will aphids. The trick in controlling them is to catch scale insects in their "crawler" stage, when they are susceptible to just about anything including soap sprays.
            The most effective sprays are considered spray oils; horticultural oils, supreme oil, dormant oil, a bunch of different names. Many of them are petroleum oils derived from paraffin or mineral oil.
            It's a good idea to apply these oils twice during the winter and again in the spring before or after flowering. There are sticky traps available that catch crawlers to identify when to spray. If traps are not used, repeat applications of spray oils during winter and spring is very effective.

Borers in Italian Cypress and What to Do

Q. Good day, Bob. I had 9 mature Italian Cyprus that have all died. Upon inspection by me, I discovered a borer in the trunks. I think it is the flat head borer. Other Italian Cyprus in my north Las Vegas neighborhood are dying as well. Have you heard of anything like this happening in the valley? And any preventive measures? Or is the insect destined to kill all the Italian Cyprus in the valley doomed the insect fate?
This was the picture sent to me several years ago when I asked for help identifying borers in Italian cypress. Flatheaded borer damage confirmed.

A.  Years ago I thought borers was not a problem for Italian cypress. There are many reports from reputable organizations that many of our borers, flat headed apple tree borer and Pacific borer, are primarily attracted to trees damaged by intense sunlight or sunburn. I didn't think this was a problem for Italian cypress so I thought that Italian cypress was not bothered by these insects. Plus the outside of the trunk is covered with evergreen foliage which should prevent egg laying on the trunks by these insects.
Borers in Arizona cypress were well known as a problem.

There were many reports of dieback in Italian cypress. 


I asked for help from my readers because I wasn't sure. A few years ago a reader sent me a picture of Italian cypress with damage suspected by flat headed borers. I am now convinced that flat headed board does occur in Italian cypress. Live and learn. 
The active ingredient is Imidicloprid and a widely used insecticide for many crops. I has been implicated in honeybee colony collapse but has not been proven but has been banned in several countries primarily for this reason. Use of it as a soil drench for killing insects on nonflowering trees is perhaps a good use for it because it has a minimum impact on bees when used this way.
The best protection is a soil applied liquid insecticide called a soil drench. One of the manufacturers of this insecticide is Bayer and it is called Tree and Shrub Insect control . Follow the label directions and the manufacturer claims up to twelve months protection with one application.

Trunk Is Suckering Due To Damage

Q. My tree is sending out shoots all around the trunk about one third of its height. Is there anything I should do to help the tree?
Suckers coming from the base of the tree can mean damage higher up on the trunk. Some plants sucker more at the base than others.

A. The tree has been “girdled” around the trunk and the trunk responded by suckering just below the damaged area.
            Look closely at the trunk, just above the sprouts, you will see that the bark and "sapwood" have been removed all the way down to the dead inner core (wood). In other words, the tree trunk has been damaged beyond repair.
            When both the xylem and phloem aka, sapwood, have been removed, the top of the tree usually dies quickly. It looks like this tree did not. This means the outer phloem has been removed but some of the xylem still remains.
Suckers coming from the trunk due to trunk damage
            The xylem is mostly responsible for transporting water up the tree to the leaves, through the trunk and stems, from the roots. The phloem, on the other hand, is mostly responsible for transporting sugars and starches from the leaves and stems downward toward the roots. Starches are stored in the trunk, roots and limbs.
This tree appears to have been grafted with a sucker coming from below the graft.
            With the loss of the phloem, the tree trunk beneath this damage will no longer get any of the benefits from the green leaves. However, with some of the xylem present, water from the roots is still pushed up towards the leaves keeping the top from dying.
            If the tree does not die outright, it will die a slow death as the roots exhaust its food supply which can no longer be replenished.
            The tree is a goner and should be removed unless you like to see it die a slow death. The suckers are responding to the damage to the trunk. It is trying to grow a new canopy because it knows that it cannot support the existing large canopy. You could regrow the top from the suckers but it will look funny for a long, long time.

Coffee Grounds and Flower Beds

Q. Is it a good idea to work coffee grounds into soil in flower beds? Does it help?

A. Yes, coffee grounds are good. They add some, but not all, nutrients needed by plants and improve soil structure for better water drainage and air movement to the roots. This, in turn, improves plant growth.
            Coffee grounds are better if composted first, but adding them “raw” is one step in helping improve the soil as well.
            Don’t rely on coffee grounds alone. For instance, don’t go to your local Starbucks and add 100 lbs. of coffee grounds to a 4 x 8 planter or raised bed and call soil preparation done.
            Adding only coffee grounds is like eating only corn and expecting to maintain a healthy diet. You need a variety of different foods to remain healthy. Your garden also needs a variety of healthy ingredients from different sources for plants to remain healthy.
            A variety of minerals are needed by plants. Provide this variety by decomposing a wide variety of things in your garden soil besides coffee grounds.
            A very good article was written by Sunset Magazine about the nutrients in coffee grounds. 

Probably the take-home lesson from this article about coffee grounds is about available nitrogen.
            There is plenty of nitrogen in raw coffee grounds but this nitrogen isn’t yet released or available for plants. Releasing this nitrogen to plants is done through composting or letting it sit in the soil and “rot” or decompose. That’s what composting is. It’s “controlled rotting”.
            Other things to add to flower beds in small quantities that round out available plant nutrients include wood ashes (not ash from coal or a petroleum sources), finely ground kitchen scraps (use a blender with a little bit of water to grind up kitchen scraps to a small size), shredded paper with black, not colored, ink, shredded cardboard, sawdust from wood but not particle board, leaves and grass clippings.
            When added to garden soil, all these “rot” over time and release minerals and nutrients. But make sure they are pulverized. The smaller the pieces, the faster they “rot”.
            Stop and think about it. Compost piles are mixtures of a wide variety of things but lumped together and managed so they “rot” faster. Finished compost makes a soil amendment with a wide variety of plant nutrients.
            The nutrient almost always in short supply by plants is nitrogen. Animal manure is added compost because of its high nitrogen content. Vegans use green plant parts which provides exactly the same kind of nitrogen.

Giant Figs Don't Have To Come from Giant Fig Trees

Q. I have Patrick Giant fig tree. Is it the same as Texas giant? If they are different, which one produces bigger fruits under the same conditions?

A. I have never grown any of the so-called giant figs because they never interested me much. I focus more on the “taste” of the fruit rather than its size. I have grown about 15 to 20 different varieties in the Mojave Desert climate but none of them were marketed as “giant”.
            I have harvested figs from fig trees that were quite large. I am quite certain this was from the “Briba” or first crop, not the main crop.

            I believe the reason they were so large is because there were fewer fruit because of winter pruning. So, the fruit remaining got quite large. The fewer fruit on a tree, the larger fruit will become. The amount of "food" produced by a tree has more to do with the number of leaves, their size, and percentage of leaves in full sunlight.
            My experience is that smaller fruit have more flavor than large fruit. And smaller fruit are usually more nutritious. This is because the minerals and nutrients in the fruit are more concentrated.
            So large -sized fruit have never been particularly attractive to me. To me, large -sized fruit is more about "bragging rights" than flavor.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

How to Identify If Your Asparagus Plant Is a Girl or Boy

Q. You mentioned that male asparagus plants produce more than female asparagus plants. How do you tell the difference?

This is what a female asparagus plant will produce. These are the berries that form from female flowers. You want to get rid of asparagus before these berries turn red. Once they are red, the seeds are mature and pulling them can disperse the seeds all through the garden.

A. Male asparagus plants produce more spears than female asparagus plants because of the energy needed to produce seed by females. So male asparagus plants are preferred over female asparagus plants. You pay a premium price for “all male” asparagus crowns or roots.
These are asparagus flowers that have not yet opened. They will be either male or female flowers. This will tell you if the plant is male or female.
            We call plants that have male and female forms, “dioecious”. The plants and spears look identical. The flowers are slightly different. Male flowers and female flowers are easy to sex in some plants. Flowers of asparagus are not. Male and female asparagus flowers look nearly identical.
This is a combination of immature asparagus fruits and flowers.
            After harvesting asparagus spears for 8 to 10 weeks in the spring, the spears are allowed to grow into 5 to 6 foot tall “bushes” called “ferns”. These “ferns” produce small white flowers that are either male on the male plants or female on the female plants. The female plants produce round berries. The male plants do not.
After you have finished harvesting asparagus spears in the spring, you let the remaining spears develop into full sized bushes like this called "ferns".
            The easiest way to tell the sex of it asparagus plant is to look for the “berries” that form from female flowers on the ferns. Dig up and remove the entire female plants including their underground crowns. Do this before these young green berries become red in color or mature and can spread seeds in the garden.
            When you buy one or two-year-old asparagus crowns (roots) for planting, the more expensive ones will be labeled “all male”. To get all male plants, someone must “rogue out” or remove all the female plants including the crowns.