Everyday Gardener: Stuff you may not know

I’m sure I wasted a lot of time before the Internet came along, but I don’t recall how. These days, when I’m in between writing deadlines, I spend way too much time online watching movie trailers (a lot of movie trailers) and reading gardening blogs, gardening articles and University Extension Service research updates from all over the country. Why am I telling you this? Well, thanks to all my time wasting I can warn you that you probably shouldn’t spend any money going to see “Troll Hunter” or that horror movie “Rubber” in which people get killed right and left by a sentient, super angry rubber tire. I do think that Will Ferrell movie “Everything Must Go” looks like it might be pretty good, though.

And then there’s the gardening-related stuff I learn. I’m always surprised by the amount of information out there on gardening and horticulture that I don’t see written about anywhere. Some of it’s great. Some is truly bizarre. But I usually find at least a few interesting things every week, so I want to share some of what I’ve read recently with you.

QR codes

If you haven’t seen them yet, QR codes for plants will be new at garden centers this year. QR stands for quick response, and these high-tech graphic codes (which kind of look like a Rorschach test) have been used for marketing a variety of products in recent years. Now they’re coming to plant tags on big brands like Proven Winners. Touted as a way to help gardeners get plant care tips and other useful information quickly, QR codes are already being questioned by some for being just another way to bombard people with marketing.

That may be so, but in order to be bombarded a gardener needs to actively participate by (a) having a smart phone (b) downloading the free QR reader app (c) bringing the phone to the garden center (d) aiming the phone at the code. Poof! Information on the plant is right there for the reading. Marketing gone wild? A truly useful tool? Or just another reason for people to walk around with their eyes glued to their phones? Only time will tell.

Wicked Bugs

If you liked Amy Stewart’s book “Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities,” you’ll be happy to know that “Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon’s Army and Other Diabolical Insects” came out a couple of weeks ago.

Like the former book in which Stewart tells funny but truly scary stories of how plants — some we have in our own gardens — have stopped hearts, paralyzed people and even killed, “Wicked Bugs” offers up tales of the dastardly deeds of more than 100 garden foes. Even if you don’t read the book, don’t miss out on the terrifying trailer for it that Stewart has posted on her website: amystewart.com/wickedbugs.html

Spray painted grass

This is so weird. I grew up in Arizona, and was relieved to flee after high school. Still, I can’t help looking back at that train wreck of a state now and then for strange news. Did you hear that some homeowners there are painting their grass since watering bans won’t allow them to keep it golf course green all summer? No lie. There was a story about it in the New York Times recently. Apparently, homeowners associations (those spooky overlords of ugly tract housing) are fining people for having unsightly brown lawns.

So homeowners, who should never have lawns in Arizona’s hot, desert climate in the first place, have resorted to spray painting the grass green. Or course the grass still needs to watered sometimes so it doesn’t die, and the paint reportedly only lasts for about three months before “turning an odd shade of blue.” But that’s not stopping folks from shelling out about $200 to paint an average-sized lawn.

University of Minnesota tree research results

In late April, my friend Jeff Gillman, a horticulture professor at the University of Minnesota, and fellow researchers began examining the roots balls of 72 potbound trees they received from a nursery five years ago. The purpose of the experiment was to test current strategies for minimizing or eliminating the problems associated with the circling roots of potbound trees.

For the test they tried three things with the potbound trees: (1) Do nothing and just drop the tree into a hole. (2) Follow standard recommendations for slicing potbound roots before planting by making four deep slits down the sides and another deep X across the bottom to stop the roots from circling. (3) Remove all of the roots circling the bottom of the root ball by cutting the whole root system into a box shape. Five years later, Gillman and his team are digging up the trees and discovering some interesting things — though he cautions that the results are just preliminary until statistics have been run.

Trees with roots cut into a box shape did show reduced growth in the first few years but they did well after that, and there was no root circling like you would expect with potbound plants. Trees with roots that had been cut using the standard slicing method did not look much different from those that had been dropped in the hole as is.

Not surprisingly, because the trees were planted so that the surface of the soil was at the same level as the surface soil in the containers, the trees were planted too deeply. (I’ve talked about this in past columns. New(ish) research has shown that trees should be planted high enough to see the root flare above the soil. The trunk shouldn’t look like a telephone pole going into the ground!) Because they were planted too deeply, the potbound trees with circling roots were literally being strangled by the roots surrounding the stem.

Even when the results are known, all of this has left Gillman with many questions. Namely, how harmful are damaging roots to the health of a tree if the tree is planted at the right depth? Perhaps they aren’t damaging at all if the root flare is above the soil? Stay tuned.

RadioGarden podcast

I like listening to podcasts and Andrew Keys’ RadioGarden is one of my favorites. You can subscribe to the podcast free at iTunes. Recently Keys spoke with Margaret Roach about her new book “And I Shall Have Some Peace,” in which she describes leaving her high-profile job behind to move to upstate New York and connect with nature in her gardens. Sure, it’s a dream most of us can’t actually experience. But it was nice to hear about what it’s like to check out and just take in the world for a while.    

Meleah Maynard is a writer and Master Gardener. Her Everyday Gardener column appears monthly in Minneapolis’ Southwest Journal.