GMO crops are safe, healthy, and good for the environment.

September 15th, 2014

Controversy time, as a man a science (ahem, real science) I’ve been perpetually annoyed at all the anti-GMO pseudo BS out there, and I thought “What if there is a nice, accurate, informative, article out there letting people know the facts?” Then I figured, I might as well write the article. This post will be long, it will be informative, it may be a little bit funny at times, if you read it I hope you come away with a better understanding of what genetic engineering is, and why its good.

I’m uniquely positioned, perhaps, to write this article. I studied plant genetics in college, and I’m big into gardening, even organic gardening. So maybe people will trust me where others they wouldn’t? I have no financial stake either way, I studied the topic in school, but then switched to computer science I’ve never been employed by any sort of crop science company. My organic gardening credentials should be self evident (see gardening blog, etc), as well as my position as someone who cares about the environment (see blog posts on composting, planting trees, recycling, etc). So, hopefully, you trust me that I’m not trying to lead anyone astray, and I’m certainly not trying to sell you anything.

What is genetic engineering?

Humans have been tinkering with the genes of our crop plants since the dawn of agriculture. Corn used to have but one kernel, but then one intrepid farmer in ancient central america noticed a plant with two kernels, and he thought “Twice as much corn! I should save these seeds to plant again.” And over thousands of years of doing that, what we call selecting, the plant evolved with human help into what we have today. Cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, and cauliflower are all descended from the same plant, with kale humans selected for big leaves, with cabbage a big head of leaves, broccoli and cauliflower were selected for their florets, and of course brussels sprouts were I’m sure a random mutation that made no sense but tasted good so they kept it.

In the 1800s Gregor Mendel, a monk and the father of genetics, did experiments on peas at his monastery and more concretely defined how genetics worked allowing such plant breeding and hybrizing to be done most systematically.

Once we gained the ability to sequence a genome and actually look at the genes that governed traits we gained an ability to work even more systematically and modern genetic engineering was born.

So, how do you actually do it? Well in secret underground lairs scientists plot the end of the world by…. just kidding. In bright shiny sun filled greenhouses (with high security, I remember when I was a student working in a greenhouse it was all high security and I couldn’t figure out why, until I was reminded of the fire bombing a year before I was a student) you grow maybe a hundred thousand plants, these are wild types, just regular plants from regular seeds. Typically you’ll use a model plant for this, arabidopsis thaliana is the one used where I studied, its a plant that’s just easier to grow and study, like how so much genetic research for humans is actually done on mice, arabidopsis thaliana is the mouse of plants.

This is where the magic happens.

This is where the magic happens.

So you grow all these plants, and you look for outliers, weird traits, whatever it is you’re looking for. In the lab where I was they were looking at seed oil content, so what you do, and this is really, really, really, boring (and ultimately the reason I switched to computers), is harvest and catalog the seeds from thousands and thousands of plants. Then you need to analyze the seeds for oil content. One of the projects I worked on was using radial thin layer chromatography to analyze the oil content of the seeds so we could get a grant to buy like a pipette robot to analyze the seeds in bulk, this wasn’t even plant genetics, this was just doing research to figure out the process for doing plant genetics. Does this sound nefarious yet? College students in greenhouses harvesting and cataloging seeds?

So, you grow all these plants hoping for a mutant, like breeding humans and praying Wolverine pops out, then you find the mutant, and if you were back in prehistoric central america you might not even notice you had a mutant (who notices a 1% increase in seed oil content?). If you were in Victorian times you might notice with the aid of chemistry equipment, and you might care, and then you’d plant that seeds from that plant next year, and maybe continue to look for mutants. But now, now you can look into the genome and… well… how do you tell which gene (or genes) are actually responsible for the oil content? There are like a bajillion genes in an organism, who is the know which does what?

So really you need a couple mutants and look and see if they have any genes in common that differ from the wild type, and if so, then you can form an hypothesis and do an experiment, you take a wild type plant, and the mutant gene, and splice the mutant gene into the plant. The gene is native to the plant species, just not the specific member of that species. Some people worry this is playing god, personally I’m not religious. You can do the exact same thing by simply breeding your mutant with a wild type, then doing a genetic analysis on every single one of its children and further refine your hypothesis, but it is far more time consuming and difficult because with regular old plant sex you’re passing on tons of genes from the mutant, how can you be sure which one is responsible if the offspring has the desired feature? With engineering you pass 1 gene, and if it works, great, you’ve identified a gene governing seed oil production, if not, you’ve identified a gene not involved in seed oil production. This is the grind of science. The splicing, in the ends, just allows you to do a truly controlled experiment where the one uncontrolled variable is that spliced gene so you can be absolutely sure what effect it has. This is the only real way to get scientific certainty on the function of a gene.

Now you remember previously when I said that human gene research is largely done on mice? Its because our genomes are so similar, a gene that does something in a mouse probably does the same something in a human, so do we take a mouse gene and put it in your friend Walt? No, we use the mouse research as a road map. This same thing goes with plants, you do the research on arabidopsis thaliana, to learn which gene likely does what, and then you can apply that map to other plants. So if you identified genes in arabidopsis that boost oil production 1% you could apply what you’ve learned to rapeseed and allow farmers to grow canola oil with 1% less land, or 1% less fertilizer. Then, you go to work the next day and try to do it again.

So why is this good?

Does that sound all so bad? Well think about it. What if you took 10% of our farmland and turned it into forest. You’d clean the air, provide animal habitat, and sequester carbon, all of those things are good for the environment. Suppose farmers, even organic farmers, could use less fertilizer? You’d have less fertilizer runoff, which creates algae blooms that destroy marine ecosystems and can poison drinking water. 10% is even a modest goal, corn yields have gone up by a matter of like 600% just since the application of more simple Mendelian genetics (among other things, like better tractors, and everything else). Did you know plants have different types of photosynthesis, and C4 photosynthesis plants are exponentially more efficient than C3? engineering food crops to use C4 alone could give us a many fold increase in yields per acre. Then what if corn or wheat could be made to harbor nitrogen fixing bacterial like legumes? What if we could have perennial wheat? Where the plants grow large deep root systems (needing less water and less fertilizer – anyone who grows both perennial and annual flowers knows the big difference between them) and only needs to be planted once? Science is working on all of these things.

Norman Borlaug, was the father of modern crop science, and the best human every to live. He won a Nobel Prize, and when they gave it to him they estimated his work had saved the lives of a billion people, that is billion, with a B. You see, here in the developed world we have plenty of food, our supermarkets have fresh fruit from all over the world, year round, but not everywhere is that the case. There are still droughts, there are still famines, people still starve to death. If you can provide a seed that will allow a farmer to grow 10% more food per acre, or with 10% less water, or 10% less fertilizer, or whatever else you save lives. We have a growing population on this planet and we’ll need to feed a few billion more people in the future, and unless you’re one of those crazy population control eugenicist kooks (in which case, please never come to my blog again) you probably realize this. So unless you plan to bulldoze down all the forests to grow food, you need to do something. In many cases as well more nutritious food, higher in vitamins and minerals, can be developed using the miracles of modern science, which is a big deal in developing worlds where people still suffer from nutrient deficiencies.

Genetic engineering will literally save the world. It will allow us to grow more food on fewer acres with less water and less fertilizer.

But but but… what about…

What about what? Arguments against it? Sure, there are some, I’ll do my best to address the most common, most, as I’ll show, are either bogus or irrelevant.

GMO food isn’t organic, and organic is better, so… there!

So I tend to garden organically, I usually don’t spray anything, I use organic fertilizers, and I compost like crazy. But you know, organic gardening cannot feed the world. Suppose every farm tomorrow went organic, how many millions of people would starve to death? I mean, maybe we can get there one day, with genetic engineering, but then it wouldn’t be organic? Or is organic a largely arbitrary marketing label that can mean whatever we define it to mean? There are generally accepted definitions, but that all still ends up being semantics. Don’t garden or buy organic food because of a label, understand why it was labeled and what is behind that label and how that might or might not effect your health or the environment. Remember its all chemicals, organic chemicals still still chemicals, don’t assume something natural is safe, anyone who got e. coli from organic spinach would disagree with you. Like I said, I grow organic (mostly), and I shop organic (say half and half), and this post isn’t about organic gardening, but I’m saying that I believe there is a place for GMO seeds in an organic garden. Quite frankly, if I’m buying like beef, I’d rather go for the grass fed cow, than the organic cow, because the organic cow is just fed organic non-GMO corn and soy and that makes absolutely no difference whatsoever to the quality or health profile of the meat. I want to buy the animal not fed corn and soy, even if it isn’t strictly organic (though it usually is).

The whole organic gardening movement is about two things. 1. Being nicer to the earth. 2. Being more self sufficient with food production. I don’t see why the seed pedigree needs to enter into that at all, because GMO seeds can help with #2, and they’re completely agnostic to #1. Gaia doesn’t kill a kitten every time you plant a GMO seed, Gaia doesn’t know the difference.

Monocultures are bad, and if we give into these genetic overlords our entire food system could collapse.

You’re right! Monocultures are bad, and that is an argument against monocultures, not an argument against genetic engineering. A monoculture is where you grow all one type of plant, and by one type I mean where you have a whole industry wrapped around growing plants that are identical or almost identical to each other. So, if a new disease comes along that your plant is weak too, the entire industry can fail. Irish potato famine anyone? But I have another story you may have not heard of.

Until the 1950s (before we could genetically engineer anything), if you ate a banana in the US you probably ate a Big Mike banana, this cultivar provided us all our bananas, and as I understand it, they were better than what we have today. Unfortunately a fungus came along and killed them all, and now we all eat Cavendish bananas. See, monocultures are risky, or in other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The cool thing is, modern genetic science gives us great tools to fight against any future such diseases. We could, for instance, identify which gene in the Cavendish banana gives it resistant to the fungal wilt, and then splice it into the Big Mike banana.

Monocultures are bad because of the risk of disease spreading, but that is an argument against monocultures, and plant genetics should be encouraged because it gives us the tools we need to keep our food safe from such emergent plant diseases. We’ve had problems with monocultures before we even knew what DNA was, it is an entirely separate issue from genetic engineering.

But I heard about pesticides and stuff..

You’re probably talking about Roundup-Ready corn. This is a corn strain developed that is immune to the herbicide Roundup, allowing farmers to spray their fields to better control weeds The weeds die, the corn survives. This is good and bad. It is an increase in efficiency resulting in more corn from fewer acres, but I don’t like such wholesale applications of herbicides. So I think we should throw all genetic plant science out the window… Just kidding, that’d be an entirely irrational response, just because I dislike one herbicide doesn’t mean I dislike crop science. This is one application of crop science, I would also hate it if scientists made corn that tasted like mushrooms. Suppose someone paints a really hideous house blue, do you then throw out all your jeans? If someone uses science in a way we dislike we don’t ban science.

And besides genetic engineering largely can be used to reduce pesticide and herbicide use. For instance, crops that grow closer together to shade out weeds, or crops naturally immune or resistant to pests.

You may have even heard of Bt crops, and they exist. Bt is the most common ORGANIC pesticide out there, it is a bacteria that produces a protein that kills some plant pests. So scientists figured out how to make plants make that same protein, identical to the organic pesticide, and the plants make it themselves. If anyone out there has a problem with that because they like organic gardening they’re a hypocrite. Literally a plant that produces its own organic pesticide. So if you bought potatoes treated with Bt on an organic farm it would be labeled organic in the store, but if you bought some Bt engineered potatoes it wouldn’t be, a distinction without a difference.

So if you have a problem with Roundup, have a problem with Roundup, don’t have a problem with crop science.

Genetic engineering companies are evil bad people who beat up poor little farmers with patent laws

So there is some controversy about plant patents and farmers being sued for growing unlicensed patented plants and some people have a problem with this. They don’t like it if a big company sues a little farmer (note, normally the farmer isn’t so little), or they dislike the concept of plant patents. Here your argument is for patent reform, it has nothing to do with crop science. To do otherwise would be like saying we should ban music because the RIAA sued Napster. But you know what patents do? They fund future research, so if you want more research, we need a patent system (but maybe that’s the idea for the opponents… they really do not want more research).

What about the precautionary principle?

So, the precautionary principle is just about the most conservative thing in the world, and I don’t mean “conservative” in the modern American sense, which is a label that applies to a political leaning that you would have called classical liberalism if you were born 200 years ago (political labels are meaningless), I mean the regular definition of being against change. The precautionary principle is basically standing athwart the progress of civilization, holding up a hand, and yelling “Stop!” It states that we don’t know if something could be bad, so we should avoid doing anything new. Now I think this is silly, we have science to tell us how things work, and scientific progress is a good thing and should not be stopped. It’d be like pulling the plug on the Internet because you were afraid Skynet would become self aware.

The precautionary principle people who bang the anti-GMO drum tend to say scary things like we’re all going to get cancer in 20 years because we’re eating poison. This is a claim without any sort of hypothesis, ask them to explain the mechanism through which they believe this will happen and they’ll throw up their hands and say you’re a shill for big corporate agribusiness. Fact is genetically engineered crops are still the same foods we’ve been eating, just tailored to our needs. What if that guy way back when had thought the two kernel corn was cursed and tossed it, not realizing it was the same corn, just twice as much of it?

They’ll say things like “Why do we need this? Whats the worst that could happen if we don’t do this?” Well, people die. Read this article and then if you’re a greenpeace supporter, STOP IT. People, children, literally died because antiscience nutjob luddites convinced ignorant government officials that GMO food was poison. Then you can also read about golden rice and weep for the blind children who could have saved their eye sight if not for the paternalistic action of a few activists who do not want to see scientific progress in agriculture.

Finishing Up

In my opinion, many of the instigators against genetic engineering come from political motivations not any actual genuine care for the environment. That is just a cover, they really want scarce resources because they believe scarcity will bring around their desired political change. Science that could turn the Earth into a cornucopia of food rubs them the wrong way.

The bottom line is this, if you’re against GMO food, you’ve already lost, sorry. I don’t mean you’ve lost because you’ve lost the argument and people are coming around to seeing how silly you are (though, you’ve lost that too). I mean that despite your best efforts, science marches on, and science has lapped you.

Our genetic engineering and sequencing skills have become so adept that we’re able to engineer plants in a whole new way. We use the regular way I outlined above to discover genes, and then because gene sequencing has become so cheap we can go ahead and sequence a bunch of plants. In a way we make another road map, we make a GMO plant and then analyze its genes to create a traditional breeding roadmap. A computer tells us which plant gets to have sex with which other plants from our library of plants whose genes we have sequenced, and with some traditional breeding we are able to make a plant identical (or near enough that makes no matter) to our GMO plant. They’re the exact same plant genetically, but one is technically GMO, and the other is not, so even if we had a label law (which I oppose, because I think it would create an unsubstantiated stigma, a scarlet letter), you could still have Roundup ready corn, and not have it be labeled. If you think about it, identifying crops with herbicide resistance is just about the easiest thing, much easier than analyzing thousands of tiny seeds for oil content. You just plant a bunch of corn in a field, then spray it, and see which stalks stay standing.

Ultimately GMO is a distinction without a difference, and that is the key point. Its just food people, it could be a random wild mutation (Yellow Delicious apples), it could have been developed by traditional breeding (aided by science and technology but no splicing) (Honeycrisp Apples), it could have been spliced together to speed things up (corn genes from one corn plant put into another corn plant to make…. corn), or it could have been spliced, and then (at greater time and expensive to appease political interests) reverse engineered in a greenhouse with dim lighting and romantic music playing using traditional breeding.

Then, remember, genetic engineering will allow us to reduce farmland, grow more forest, clean the air, sequester carbon, reduce fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide usage while growing more food with more vitamins and feeding more people. It is safe, perfectly healthy, and good for the environment. So next time you get in an argument with someone, or someone posts on facebook about GMO food, kindly link them to this post and save yourself some time.

Double Coneflowers

July 30th, 2014

I find myself lately really enjoying double coneflowers (echinacea). Often in gardening we must make choices, do we want big, complex, showy blossoms, or do we want blossoms for a long period of time. Stella de Oro daylily blooms for a long time with relatively small plain yellow blooms, but there are other daylilies with amazingly large and complex blooms, that bloom for a fraction of the time. Irises make big showy blooms, some of my favorite, with multiple colors, but for maybe a week each Spring.

Coneflowers, to me, were always in the plain camp. They bloom for such a long period of time, but with wide spaced petals, and their most prominent feature being a big brown cone center, I’ll pass.

But lately double coneflowers have been developed, the first one, to my knowledge was not developed that long ago, I first saw them in gardening catalogs in 2005 maybe, in pink, but since then the pallets have expanded.

Razzmatazz Coneflower

Razzmatazz Double Coneflower

These flowers are a great option for your full sun ornamental garden, they have big, beautiful showy blooms, and bloom for a very long time. They slowly multiply in the garden as well, filling the spot in which you plant them, and as perennials should come back year after year.

I think they could make a statement in a mass planting of a single color, I especially like the red ones. I also think they’d look great in a mixed planting of all different colors, well, the colors they come in. Red, pink, yellow, and even white so far that I know of. The white ones might work very well for a wedding.

Hot Papaya Coneflower

Hot Papaya Coneflower

They aren’t without issues though, anytime you get a double blossom on a flower you tend to have problems with the stems being sturdy enough to support the weight. The plant breeders selected for flower size, but not necessarily stem strength, so they can often need support, not always, sometimes mine do okay without support. But, I guess I should have said “issue” not “issues” as that is really the only thing I can think of. Animals don’t seem to bug them, stupid critters eat some of my other plants but never these. They’d work well in a cutting garden too if that is your thing. They’re even drought tolerant, and while Michigan and been more or less flooded with rainfall this year (I haven’t had to water the garden once except for containers), I hear out west it is pretty dry.

The World’s Largest Flowers

July 24th, 2014

I had a chance to experience two of the worlds biggest flowers recently, only mere weeks apart.

The first was the infamous corpse flower, amorphophallus titanum (which means giant misshapen phallus). There is a specimen at MSU near my house that was flowering for the first time in years, and I dragged my kids there (they were troopers, waiting in line nearly 2 hours to see a stinky flower). It really is a rare chance, there aren’t a lot of them out there, and they can bloom as infrequently as every 10 years.

Corpse flower, for scale I'm 6'5.

Corpse flower, for scale I’m 6’5.

The corpse flower is pretty cool, and is one of the largest flowers in the world. Technically they call it the largest unbranched infloresence in the world. It smelled like “squirrel in the ceiling” if you know what I mean, but it wasn’t overpowering, at least when I was in there, you had to stick you head down inside to sniff it (then again, they had the doors open and fans on so who knows).

This flower is rare, but not necessarily out of the reach of the common gardener. It is native to Sumatra and so you need to live in a tropical region to grow it, or have a greenhouse, or an interior room with enough sunlight to hold it over for the winter (bringing it back outside when the weather warms up). It seems to grow a bit like an amaryllis where it’ll put up foliage, in this case a structure that looks like a small tree, until it has enough energy stored up to blossom, and then the foliage all dies back and later the flower comes up, only perhaps only once a decade (and then only for a few days). Pollination as such is difficult, only a couple more were blooming nationwide when the MSU flower was in bloom, and they were trying to use fedex to exchange pollen.

So if you live in zone 10, or if you have a greenhouse or a room with enough sun exposure that can house such a large plant, you can indeed buy one of these, what a neat thing to have. If it blooms the kids can take it to school for show and tell. I’m thinking about it, for when I have my greenhouse.

A few weeks later I was taken by my wife to some botanical gardens at UofM for our anniversary and there, at that time, they had a century plant blooming. Century plants are pretty crazy, they can live for 100 years, but then put up a super tall scape with flowers, and then die (not unlike bamboo I guess). I’ve seen them in bloom before, once when we went to Jamaica a bunch were in bloom and we saw them from the side of the road as we drove past. So this was both more rare and less rare than the corpse flower. It is more rare in the sense that the century plant only blooms once every 100 years (honestly, some varieties are much shorter in duration, but still measured in decades), it is less rare in that they’re all over the place, because of course, another name for the century plant is agave, and it is grown all over in warmer climates, and of course farmed for the tequila industry and for its nectar (sugar), which you’ve probably seen at the store. It was still cool seeing how they had to remove a panel from the top of the greenhouse to let the flower scape grow to the massive height it was heading to.

Wide shot on the left showing it towering up through the roof, the base of the plant on the right. It puts up that giant stalk in a short period of time after spending decades storing up the energy to do so.

Wide shot on the left showing it towering up through the roof, the base of the plant on the right. It puts up that giant stalk in a short period of time after spending decades storing up the energy to do so.

Growing this is even easier for the gardener, and in my opinion it has really attractive foliage that comes in all sorts of colors and is even variegated. Call it, the hosta of the desert maybe. So it is interesting to look at even when it isn’t blooming (dying, heh). While native to deserts of Mexico and Texas, there are cultivars that are hardy as far north as zone 7, and I swear I saw a zone 6 before. Definitely zone 6 if you can make a little microclimate, and of course, you could always plant it in a container if you have room to store it inside over the winter. I couldn’t grow any here in Michigan, but I definitely plan to plant some when I move down to Tennessee. They can be bought lots of places, but the best selection I’ve seen is here.

Of course, being desert plants, they are drought tolerant like other succulents, and I shudder to meet the deer or other animal that’d want to take a bite out of them.

They were both definitely interesting things to visit, especially considering both were rather impromptu excursions. It also was heart warming to see the length of the line to see the corpse flower. That that many people would stay in line that long to see a plant makes me think the future of gardening is bright. It also gave me an idea for an amusement park, who needs to build roller coasters? People will wait in line just to see a plant.

Taking Your Garden With You When You Move

July 18th, 2014

In about a year I am moving to Tennessee as I’ve mentioned on this blog previously, and it is starting to feel closer and closer. I’m sure this last year will go quickly, and I’m starting to make plans for how to move my garden.

One of the benefits of moving, in addition to the much better climate, is the land. I have 20 acres in Tennessee, here in Michigan I have maybe ¼ acre, and only a fraction of that able to be garden. I have been planning my gardens down there since we’ve bought the land, and I know I have, literally, acres of planting to do, that is something that requires planning.

For instance, in the front yard by the driveway, I know I’ll want to do a formal hedge like in an English garden using different colors of barberry. I will need maybe a hundred golden barberries and a hundred red ones to achieve my design, and these are plants that usually sell for $5-$10 each at the cheapest. It quickly adds up. So what I’ve started doing, a year out from now, is harvesting from my own garden as much as possible so as to seed my future garden as cheaply as possible.

Propagation from Cuttings

This means propagation, and one of the most common ways is with cuttings. Cuttings are one of the most common methods of propagation, one that most know of, even if it isn’t suitable for all plants. Barberry luckily for me does very well with cuttings and so I have approximately 148 golden barberry cuttings in trays with now, hoping that enough of them take root to give me the plants I need. I also had some barberry cuttings spawned from my regular hedge trimming just growing in various places, volunteer cuttings if you will, and I potted those up. Next step will be for me to take some from my red barberries and do the same thing. It is a bit of painful work, barberry have thorns, and it is delicate work, which means the loss of dexterity from wearing gloves is annoying, but if it saves me hundreds of dollars, I’ll do it.

Barberry Cuttings

Barberry Cuttings

I know somewhere out there someone is likely fuming “Barberry… but that is invasive where I live how dare you plant it, and plant so many!” Relax. Not every barberry is invasive everywhere, and not every barberry is invasive at all. Many hybrids, like the ones I’m using are sterile.

If the cuttings take I’ll transplant them into larger pots, of course, before I take them to my new garden.

Propagation from Layering

I also plan to do a lot of edible gardening with my new land, and one of the things I plan to grow are boysenberries. Boysenberries spread with underground runners like raspberries do, but they also have very very droopy canes, and where the canes touch the ground they’ll root, forming a new plant. Many plans do this, most if not all vines for instance, verbenas, hydrangeas can. Some plants do it quickly and easily without any help, some need a little help. But this is a great way to get new plants because the new root system is fed by the parent plant until you cut the cord, so to speak. The plants can be much more successful than with cuttings, which have to develop a new root system without a current root system pumping over nutrients.

Propagating boysenberry by layering from one container to the next.

Propagating boysenberry by layering from one container to the next.

With some plants you must bend down a portion of stem or cane, sometimes peel back park, and maybe pin it to the earth, or put a brick or layer of something on top of it to ensure consistent contact with the soil. My boysenberries likely do not need the help, but I am pinning them down with a few rocks to help increase my quantity of potted plants.

These I plan to take down this fall, plant in some out of the way area of my 20 acres where construction will not damage them, and let their national spreading instincts take over, so that late next summer when we move I can transplant them into rows in my berry orchard (with a trellis).

Propagation from Divisions

Many plants, over time, simply grow and spread naturally, and you can dig and divide the root balls or otherwise and form new plants. This is how I’m dealing with my raspberries, digging up all the little plants that have spread from underground runners. Raspberries could also be done with layering I think, but their more upright rigid canes make it more difficult. Other plants that can be done with this method are any sort of ornamental grass, any sort of groundcover really, daylilies, hostas, irises, and many other perennials. Often you need to dig and divide a perennial every few years anyways just to keep the garden fresh, selling the divisions or giving them away.

I haven’t started yet but I definitely will be doing this with my daylilies. I have quite a collection of daylilies, including some rare and more expensive varieties (I paid $200 for my most expensive one if you can believe that. Yes, sir I’m addicted to gardening). I won’t want to scalp my yard and leave it barren for the next owner, I take pride in the garden I’ve created, but I will be taking divisions off many of my plants, leaving some behind in place for the next owner of my current home, but taking others with me. It is a money issue again really, if I needed 100 daylily plants, even at $5 each that is a steep bill, but I can easily pull 100 divisions off my garden. If I really tried I could probably pull a thousand divisions, I have a ton of daylilies. The majority of my ornamental beds are bordered with them.

Propagation from Seeds

And the most obvious method of propagation a plant is with seeds, though this is no true propagation is it? You’re not planting more of the exact same plant if it is a hybrid, you’re planting its children, which could be entirely different, but nothing beats it for price. It also take more time. A daylily planted for seed can take over a year before it flowers for the first time, and it will look different from its parents. I’ll be taking some of the non-hybrid plant seeds I have with me, things I seed every year like lunaria annua. . But I’m also thinking about hostas.

My favorite application with daylilies is as a border, a whole row of the same plant, with the same flower color. So daylily seeds, which produce random offspring, aren’t a good avenue to achieve what I want. However, my favorite type of hosta planting is a big bed of a bunch of random different sized and colored hostas. I don’t much care about tracking individual cultivars like I do with daylilies (though, I do like exceptionally large hostas, which are typically cultivars). So, in addition to taking divisions of my plants, I also am trying to do some pollination this season and will collect the seeds and see about using them to seed a large hosta bed in the shadier locations of my new property. I do have different areas picked out on my land in Tennessee for sun ornamental beds, shade ornamental beds, that one formal bed I mentioned above, informal beds, and of course an epic martha stewart sized vegetable garden.

I don’t like throwing things away, so over the years, when I’ve bought plants, I’ve saved the little cheap plastic pots they come in, and so I have quite a collection, but I also use those when I give plants away, and well, I don’t have enough for all that I’m doing. Luckily for whatever reason, there has been, seemingly, in recent years, a growth in stores selling all the equipment you need for plant propagation and container growing. The trays and pots and everything else. I guess there must be new industries in some states where people are often growing plants in their home, can’t guess what that is…. So anyways, I was able to buy the trays and bulk pots for fairly cheap at greenhousemegastore, shipping was quick too which I like. You could also be frugal and repurpose (clean) household containers that you would otherwise recycle, all your tin cans and or plastic bottles. Just make sure you drill drainage holes in the bottom. They are might not be UV stabilized so might not last long.

An established garden really can be fruitful, I’ve read articles before where people make thousands of dollars a year doing driveway sales of divisions and cuttings taken from their gardens. Gardening is perhaps a unique hobby in that way. If you go fishing, your odds of catching more fish don’t increase with every fish you catch. But when you garden, your garden itself increases the size of your plant collection every season, and you can use that bounty to expand your gardens, make a little spending money, gift friends and family, or beautify public spaces.

The Health Risks of Gardening

June 20th, 2014

Say what? You hear all the time about the health benefits of gardening, usually amounting to moderate activity for otherwise sedentary adults, but what about the health risks? Believe me, they exist.


Heavily Thorned Rose

Heavily Thorned Rose

Recently I encountered one. I was dealing with old roses, the polar vortex killed every last one I had down to the ground so I was pruning out all the old dead canes and then dragging them to my brush pile. I was wearing gloves, gloves with leather palms, but ventilated fabric backs. A rose thorn came in through the back of the glove and stabbed me in the second joint of my right ring finger. A fleshwound… but an infected one unfortunately. I was worried a fungus known to exist on rose thorns infected me, but luckily it was just bacteria, and I sort of mean that sarcastically. Before the discovery of antibiotics I would have lost a finger, if not the hand, ouch. Luckily today all I had to deal with was pain (a ton of swelling it that joint) some temporary loss of range of motion, and taking pills. The fungus would have been worse. Rose Handler’s Disease, otherwise known as sporotrichosis is an infection from a nasty fungus that can take a year or more to heal, requires you to take medicines with nasty side effects, and even today can result in amputations, especially if it gets into a joint. Here is a guy’s video on youtube where he talks about getting it, and sure, it looks small, but check the comments, his most recent one says he has been on treatment for 14 months, the wound oozes and will not heal, and he may still lose his thumb. If you have a strong stomach check out a google image search. Yuck, now remember, over a year to heal.

I don’t know where I first learned about sporotrichosis, but I knew about it before now, so as soon as it became obvious to me I had an infection I went right to the doctor hoping to head it off before it got bad, and luckily, luckily, it was just bacteria. This is no joke though, it isn’t something you’d only get if you were pruning roses in Africa or something, you can get this anywhere, in fully modern first world countries.

How do you avoid it? Don’t grow roses, but it isn’t just on roses (or always on roses either, it wasn’t on mine I guess). But wear gloves. these gloves on Amazon aren’t cheap, but unlike the gloves I had they have leather all around, on the back of the hand too, is your health worth the gamble?

So this episode got me thinking, what are other health risks of gardening?


The big C, yes, did I scare you? Gardening by definition happens outside, in the sun, the sun that causes skin cancer. If you’re caucasian, and you garden, and you don’t die young in an accident, you’ll probably get skin cancer one day. Hopefully it is a more benign kind, easily found, easily removed, but it is more or less a sure thing with enough sun exposure, especially when young. Radiation takes time to turn our cells cancerous, radiation from any source, the sun, X-rays, etc. A significant percentage of brain tumors for instance have been traced to CT scans given before the age of 30, to the point where many doctors have said on record they want to avoid ordering such scans on young people unless it is a life or death situation. See, when your cells get damaged from radiation it is a bit like that old campfire game where you whisper something around the circle and see how garbled it gets by the end. Each time the cell replicates the damage gets a little worse until eventually the cell can turn cancerous.

In a way we need to think differently about our kids. We might let them eat junk food because they’re growing and their not yet at an age where heart disease is a problem, this is not the same thing with sun exposure, the seeds of skin cancer in your 50s, 60s, and 70s are sown before you’re 20. Said another way, the younger you are, there is more effect on your potential eventual contraction of skin cancer for ANY sun exposure you get. Please, make your kids wear sun hats and put sunblock on them.

Suspicious Skin Cancer Lesions

Suspicious Skin Lesions

And yes, if you’re older, you still have to worry too, it is never too late to protect your skin from the sun’s damaging radiation. If you garden, you should have a garden hat, and please put sunblock on your shoulders, arms, and legs too. Get a hat with as wide a brim as you can find, and try to find one rated UPF 50+ for sun protection, not just any old hat, but one specifically treated to protect you from the sun. I like this brand.

Sun exposure is also responsible for aging our skin and destroying our collagen giving us wrinkles and making us old. So, you can be safe and beautiful, wear a hat.


Tetanus is a potentially deadly infection caused by a bacteria often found in soils. I remember when I once had a university greenhouse job it was mandated I get a booster shot before I could work there. All adults should receive a tetanus booster every 10 years, but gardeners definitely should. You can literally die from tetanus, even today.

My last tetanus shot was in 2008, when was yours? Do you remember? If you don’t remember make an appointment and get it done.

Stupid Bugs

Mosquitoes and other insects can also pose dangers as you work in your yard. Are there venomous spiders or snakes where you live? Do you take steps to avoid them such as bringing boots and gloves inside always? I did a whole blog post previously about mosquitoes and they can infect you with a variety of diseases, and it seems new mosquito born illnesses are coming to our shores all the time. Use a bug spray with DEET, and make your yard less mosquito friendly.

Giant Hogweed

So we know about poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, lots of plants can cause itchiness, rashes, contact dermatitis, but there is one that is even worse. Giant Hogweed, touching this plant can cause permanent scarring the blindness. One was recently removed from a yard in a nearby town and the people had to wear hazmat suits, see the below video:

Here is an image showing the progression of the damage:

Hogweed is a native to Asia and was introduced (by some idiot I’m sure) to New York in 1917, from there it has spread around the NE, into Canada, and also now Michigan:

If you see it, don’t touch it, but make sure you kill it or get someone else to kill it. Dump roundup on it from afar, pour vinegar or boiling water over it, burn it out with a weeding torch (wonderful tool).

But do not touch it.

Ears & Eyes

If you use power tools, you should always protect your ears and eyes. Hearing degrades all throughout our life and you’ll make yours last longer if you remember to protect it from loud noises. That your eyes need protection goes without saying, you don’t want a shard of something in your eye. Always wear appropriate protective gear when using power tools.

This is doubly true for chainsaws, probably the most dangerous tool a gardener may ever use. Not only should you use ear, eye, and head protection, but you should wear special chainsaw protective chaps and a protective jacket, ERs every year get people who accidentally cut into their own legs or into a shoulder (because of kickback) with a chainsaw. Chainsaws are no joke, you probably don’t want a severed limb so get the gear you need to stay safe.

Aches, Pains, Sprains

I once tried to lift a very large planter full of soil, others may not have even tried, but I was a young man and strong, but I lifted poorly, and twisted, and severely sprained my back/sacrum. It has been stiff ever since, and I’m talking like years later. I’ve had the full course of medical treatments , all different sorts of doctors, physical therapy, and etc, but it still bothers me every once in awhile.

Stretch, what helps the most with my back is stretching my hamstrings, because everything is connected and tight hamstrings pull your back and pelvis down and create pain, stretch your legs often, trust me, it really helps in the long wrong.

When lifting, always lift with your legs, if you don’t know how to do that, look up a video of someone doing a goblet squat. You keep your back straight, bend with the knees, and go up. Do not lift and twist at the same time.

Dealing with Scale Insects on Pear, Apple, and Other Fruit Trees

June 16th, 2014

There doesn’t seem to be a crop out there that doesn’t have a perfectly adapted insect pest (or score thereof) to attack it.

Last year I my pear tree did not produce well. Overall it looked sickly, with yellowish leaves, smaller fruits, and black spots (sooty mold) on the leaves. I noticed small bumps on the twigs but they were hard and didn’t seem to be anything weird, maybe they were buds where future branches would grow?

In the Spring, as it was leafing out, I examined it again, and noticed these little bumps were still there, but obviously not the source of any new growth. Still hard, still not wanting to be removed, I tried harder, and with additional fingernail pressure, they came off. Bugs, insects, scales. I had heard of scale, being interested in gardening, but had never seen one or researched it. I simply knew it as the name of a pest and I knew instantly what insect this was, because, well, they were aptly named.

Scale Insects on a Pear Branch

Scale Insects on a Pear Branch

Turns out they were likely infecting it last year too, and their secretions were responsible for the black sooty mold as well, their secretions were providing the fuel for the fungus to grow.

I had a full blown infestation on my hand, and I checked my other fruit trees, apricot, infected, apples infected, even my supposedly pest & disease free pawpaw had a few. I researched controls but couldn’t find any, obviously I had too large an infestation for natural predators to control it, if the beneficial insects hadn’t done their job by now, they wouldn’t be. Apparently in late Spring there are some sprays you can use, organic or otherwise, that can help with control. I did a lot of hand cleaning on the branches I could reach as well. Ultimately I settled on a Bayer product, Bayer Advanced Fruit, Citrus, and Vegetable Insect Control. Found at Home Depot or through the link. This is a systemic insecticide, meaning it works, well, like people medicine works, like antibiotics work. You water it into the tree, it gets inside the tree, and the insects who suck from the tree then ingest it, and die. Normally you don’t want to use systemic products on edibles, but this was specifically formulated for fruit trees.

It isn’t organic, but I’m not a zealot, if I thought releasing 100 ladybugs into the tree would have fixed the problem I would have tried that, but I couldn’t find any really good solution to the infestation outside of “deal with it” or “try spraying an oil on the tree a year from now and you’ll get [i]some[/i] benefit.” So I reached for the big guns, and considering I can’t really reach the highest points on these trees, more or less my only option. So far so good, but I’ll update this post after more time has passed.

Damage from a Polar Vortex Winter

June 1st, 2014

The coldest winter in decades, what damage did it do to the garden? Well, so far, I don’t know I lost any plants, nothing actually died, though a few I’m wondering about.

I’m not sure if it was the cold or something else, but my pear tree barely flowered, my honeycrisp apple tree didn’t flower at all (sadface) and my golden delicious apple tree barely flowered. It wasn’t like two years ago, where we had an early warm up, flowers, and then a hard cold snap right during the flowering stage and mine, and 90% of Michigan’s, apple crop was destroyed. This year we had a cold Spring, but once it did warm up, it stayed warm, the plants simply did not flower. I suppose that the extra, long lasting (months without a day above freezing) cold damaged the flower buds over the winter. So that is really disappointing.

All of my roses, all of my roses, even by “sub zero” roses, and my climbing rose which has never had dieback, died back to the ground and are sending up new canes. The grafted ones look like the new canes are still above the graft but I’m not 100% sure.

Winter Damage on Cedrus deodara Karl Fuchs

Many of my evergreens showed winter burn. This essentially comes from dehydration and is caused by a combination of cold, long term cold, wind & sun exposure. My cedrus deodara Karl Fuchs, which is only supposedly marginally hardy here in Michigan, survived, with some internal dieback/winter burn (needle loss) on the middle lower area, but it is already putting on new growth so, after a generationally cold winter, surviving, I say it will survive in Michigan. Of course I also have it tucked in by a large spruce protecting it from drying winter winds/sun.

Winter Damage on dwarf alberta spruce

My dwarf Alberta spruces, I say that again, dwarf Alberta spruces, had significant winter burn, they are on a western exposure so did get a lot of drying winter sun, but I thought they would do better than this. They are already putting on new growth though.

Winter Damage on Chamaecyparis obtusa Nana Lutea

My dwarf, standard form, yellow dwarf hinoki cypress, also had significant winter burn and die back – I am not quite sure if this tree will make it yet or not, it grows so so so slowly I don’t know if it has any new growth on it or not yet.

My three deciduous conifers all are doing fine. I have a weeping larch (definitely hardy) a bald cypress (a southern tree I’m really pushing the hardiness on) and a metasequoia ‘Gold Rush’ which I’m also really pushing the hardiness on. All are doing fine, but regenerating needles yearly means they aren’t at risk of winter burn, but I had no dead limbs or anything either. I can say that it seems to me metasequoia ‘Gold Rush’ is hardier than the species form of that tree, as I know of a planting where both were planted and the species form was killed one winter before.

My weeping red japanese maple, also at the northern limit of its hardiness, is fine as well.

In summary, I have a good excuse to clean out the rose garden, my fruit production is going to be very low this year (which is the worst part), but it looks like none of my trees or other plants actually died, which considering I am aggressive with my zoning is pretty good I think. Of course, a lot of them are looking kind of ratty and will need a good season of growth to look good again.

First Flower of Spring 2014

March 31st, 2014

Today it was 61 degrees out, woohoo, finally, after such a cold cold Winter & Spring. Of course, tommorow it starts getting cold again, but today was nice, and I spied my first flower.

I was out in the garden doing what you should do this time of year, which is prune trees if they need to be pruned, and clean up old spent perennials from last year, getting the garden ready for new growth. You prune trees now because they store all their energy in their roots while dormant, so by cutting off dormant limbs you’re not cutting out any of the tree’s stored energy – but then you wait until the end of Winter to do it because that way the wound is open for longer. Once the sap starts flowing the tree will close it up, and all that sap, since it has fewer limbs to go into, will push up and out and generate a lot of new growth.

First Flower 2014

So while out doing this and pruning my bald cypress I noticed a little crocus poking out and I was thoroughly surprised, the snow only just melted, and in fact, in shady areas, it still hasn’t melted. We’ve got a few inches still, and the ground only just unfroze too in most areas, but I guess the crocuses were as anxious for Spring as me.

My first flower is always a crocus, but this year it is purple.

In 2012, hah, I remember 2012, a warm Spring, the end of March already had fruit trees blooming. My first flower was a yellow crocus on March 10th. In 2011 it was the same flower, on the 15th, in 2010 on the 16th, and in 2009 also on the 15th. This is the Michigan misery metric I use, the date of the first bloom dictates how miserable winter has been. It looks like I forgot to check in 2013.

So this year was slightly different, a purple one was first, and it was in a new location from prior first blooms, and of course, it was practically April before it showed up.

Optimism in the Garden

March 11th, 2014

Spring is a time of optimism, of renewal, of growth, well, normally. Unless you live in Michigan under the specter of the polar vortex.

This winter has been horrible, absolutely horrible. I normally am not one to get worn down spiritually by the winter, but I have this time. I hate it here, I absolutely hate it. It hasn’t even been a fun winter, where you can go out sledding, or skiing, or building a snow man. It has been too cold even for any of that. We’ve had more days below 0 than above freezing. I’m sure some plants will have perished by the time Spring rolls around, even my dwarf alberta spruces (the key word being Alberta, a place I’m told is colder than Michigan) are showing significant winter burn.

How to plant seeds in early March in Michigan.

How to plant seeds in early March in Michigan.

But I just got back from Florida (yay!) and the vitamin D did me a little good, so I’m feeling more optimistic… so much so that despite the feet of snow still lingering on the ground, I’ve started seeds. No, not outdoors, but indoors in trays. In 6 weeks we won’t be past any frost danger, especially this year unless that god forsaken polar vortex goes away, but I could put out cold hardy plants like kale and spinach and beets, so I’ve planted them, and I even planted tomatoes and peppers too, though they will have to stay indoors longer.

But I hate Michigan weather, and I cannot wait to move, and I am moving. I probably only have one winter left here and I’m moving to Tennessee, wonderful Tennessee, where did you know the appropriate planting time for trees is February? Yes, February, when Michigan is still buried in snow, you can plant trees in Tennessee. So I had some planted. A couple years ago I bought some land, we recently had the home site cleared, and we hope to start construction soon, but I had my contractor go up and plant 14 trees for me. 8 apples, two pears, two plums, and two apricots. This will be my orchard.

My future "orchard" In Tennessee.

My future “orchard” In Tennessee.

I could have waited, and planted trees once I move down there, but I love home grown produce, I love being able to go out and pick an apple or pear, and I’d miss not being able to do that when we move. In my opinion every home should have an apple tree, and I certainly wanted many, but it takes time for them to reach fruit bearing size. So I had them planted now. They won’t bear fruit this year, they won’t bear fruit in 2015, but it is possible they’ll bear fruit in 2016, the first full year we’d live down there. By planting them now I’m getting a head start on that growth and I’ll be without fruit for a shorter period of time. If you’ve been thinking about planting an apple tree or something, stop thinking and just do it, they need time to grow, time you can’t get back if you miss the opportunity. I got all mine from Stark Bros, and if you need one variety, pick a Honeycrisp, but you should do it. If you have a 4′ x 4′ space with sun in your yard, you should have an apple tree. You can buy them dwarf sized, so they’ll never get large (which also makes them easier to harvest from). Carpe diem.

I’m really happy to be moving, in addition to more land so I can plant more trees, I’ll have room for a massive Martha Stewart sized vegetable garden, room for chickens and maybe even pigs or goats, and… dun dun dun… a greenhouse! I cannot wait until I have a greenhouse. Right now I don’t even have a south facing window. Indoor growing or seed starting is difficult. I am restricted to a small ledge by a large east facing window in the kitchen. With a greenhouse (and it’ll be over 300 sq/ft), I get giddy thinking about all the seeds I’ll be able to start, the plants I’ll be able to grow year round. Tennessee also has a much longer growing season than Michigan which means I’ll get more crops in, and all my trees and ornamentals should put on more growth each year, getting bigger faster. Zone 7, so many more plants I can grow in Zone 7 than Zone 5. Maybe even hardy varieties of olive or agave, I can’t wait.

Aftermath of an Ice Storm in the Garden

February 23rd, 2014

In December, right before Christmas we were hit by a major ice storm, the worst in decades. People at the power company said it was the worst they could remember. We didn’t lose power, luckily, but people all over our town did, some for as long as 10 days (into January). Major commercial areas lost power, more traffic lights were off than were working, downed power lines were everywhere, some left for days or weeks, because they didn’t have the man power to fix them all. This isn’t Georgia either, this is Michigan, we have tons of crews and plows and salt and people trained for this sort of weather, and it still took weeks.

Then because of the polar vortex the ice stuck on the trees for weeks, and if not for an early January warmup (above freezing for maybe 2 days, woohoo!) it’d still be there. Luckily we didn’t have much wind or it would have been worse, with even more trees falling (as it is, every single yard had a branch in it). To this day I’m unable to take down my Christmas lights because they’re frozen in thick ice (now topped with snow). Likewise branches still litter curbsides everywhere around town as crews couldn’t get them picked up before the snow entombed them.

It was beautiful, peaceful, annoying, and dangerous all at once. I went outside, carefully, and it was quiet, and I live on a 4 lane road, but no one was out, not even the sound of a distant snowblower, it was still, like in the country where I grew up, and then CRACK, or BANG. You’d head or see branches fall, it was like the opening day of deer season out there. If this happens to you, be careful, and do not go outside, and if you do do not walk or stand underneath trees.

It made for a very white Christmas, and it was pretty, but thousands of people spent the holidays in a hotel, and many trees were lost.

For your garden there isn’t much you can do. For heavy, wet snows, that bend branches and bushes to the ground, brushing the snow off can help, but you can’t brush ice off, so you sort of just have to bear it, and take any damage that is dished out.

Ice on an Apple Tree

Ice on an Apple Tree

Limbs Down Across the Street

Limbs Down Across the Street

Ice covers an apple tree, a juniper, a barberry, even some ornamental grass.

Ice covers an apple tree, a juniper, a barberry, even some ornamental grass.

Ice Encasing a Barberry

Ice Encasing a Barberry

Ice Covering a Spent Rose Flower

Ice Covering a Spent Rose Flower

Ice on my Roses

Ice on my Roses

The bright red of a barberry berry pops against the frozen landscape.

The bright red of a barberry berry pops against the frozen landscape.

Closeup of my Cedrus Deodora 'Karl Fuchs' turned into an icicle. It bent but did not break.

Closeup of my Cedrus Deodora ‘Karl Fuchs’ turned into an icicle. It bent but did not break.

Wide shot of my cedrus, showing it leaning heavily. Ironically the arborvitae behind it stayed upright, each little leave was covered in use, but they stayed upright. Normally heavy snows bend them all over the place.

Wide shot of my cedrus, showing it leaning heavily. Ironically the arborvitae behind it stayed upright, each little leave was covered in use, but they stayed upright. Normally heavy snows bend them all over the place.

Apricot tree totally encapsulated

Apricot tree totally encapsulated

Pear tree dripping with ice

Pear tree dripping with ice

It needed no help weeping, but this weep larch got a good inch of ice.

It needed no help weeping, but this weep larch got a good inch of ice.

Grass, crunchy with ice.

Grass, crunchy with ice.

Raspberry Ice Anyone? This is particularly bad, those long drips add significant weight.

Raspberry Ice Anyone? This is particularly bad, those long drips add significant weight.

Kiwi Vine Icicle Forest

Kiwi Vine Icicle Forest

Ice Laying Thick on Branches

Ice Laying Thick on Branches

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