Friday, October 14, 2011

Since You Asked...Tracey Payton Miller

If you have a yard—and there is anything at all growing in that yard—you really do need to know your  county's cooperative extension agent. Seriously. You do. There is an office in each county throughout the country, where you'll be pleasantly surprised by just how much information and assistance is available just for the asking.

Part of the US Department of Agriculture, the network of  cooperative extension offices is one of the most accessible (and mostly free) benefits available to the landscape owner. So I decided to ask my own agent, Tracey Payton Miller, a few questions, just to give you an idea.

Q. Tracey, when selecting trees and shrubs that are tolerant of extreme-weather conditions, why is it important to check with your local cooperative extension agent?

A. Most county agents are up to date on current disease and insect problems, which can influence whether a plant is a good choice. This can change in a 5 to 10 year period (or less), so it never hurts to check.

Plus, most agents might have information regarding proven plants in your area. Several states have adopted programs that identify strong performers, such as Oklahoma Proven, Texas Superstar, and Pride of Kansas.

Q. What kinds of tree/shrub-care how-to information is available through cooperative extension offices?

A. Your county office might have information sheets devoted to a popular tree or shrub, with tips on how to care for, fertilize, and prune it in your specific state.

In the case of our office, we have compiled entire lists of plants that we know do well here. And county extension agents have a direct vein to research heads at their particular land-grant institutions. So we can usually find an answer [to your questions] if we don't have one right away.

Q. After a landscape disaster occurs, what helpful information is available from cooperative extension offices?

A. I started this position only weeks after a major ice storm in my area. Therefore, I've compiled an entire bank of information for future use. This includes material I was emailed from higher up, but is mainly information that I noticed was in dire need [in this disaster zone].

Topics range from assessing the damage to your trees, to good replacement trees, and a list of certified arborists. (Since we cannot recommend just one arborist, we compiled a list in direct response to being asked hundreds of times, "Who do I call to prune my tree?" I can only imagine that other offices have done the same in cases of extreme weather.)

Q. Do cooperative extension offices provide diagnoses and treatment recommendations for pests or diseases in trees and shrubs?

A. Yes. It can be hard to diagnose a problem over the phone, so we usually recommend that you bring in a sample. We have a saying: "dead plants tell no stories," meaning that it can be hard to tell what killed a plant when all the leaves are dead and brittle. So we would need fresh samples (not gathered last week or left in a hot care for two days) in grocery or zipper bags.

For insects, we would need fresh (dead or alive) specimens that have not been waterlogged or squished. I get a lot of insects in jars and other containers that have been recently sprayed. We ask that you do not do this.

There are a lot of common problems and disorders that aren't caused by a pathogen such as fungi, bacteria, or insects. So I try to diagnose these in-house. However, if I am stumped, I will send the plant to the diagnostic lab on campus. In our state, this is free of charge when it comes through the extension office, unless there is an expense for a particular assay.

Q. What about soil testing? How do citizens get that done?

A. The charge and method of soil collection may vary state by state, so I would recommend you call your local office.

In our state, there is a $10 charge for a routine test: NPK and pH. (However, there are more extensive tests if they are warranted, such as for salinity, organic matter, soil texture, sub soil, etc.)

We recommend that you take around 20 core samples, which consist of randomized soil plugs 6 to 8 inches deep. You would mix those samples together and bring us a full quart-size zipper bag full. The more cores you take, the more representative the sample will be of that area. One bag for each area you want tested (lawn, garden bed, vegetable bed, pasture, etc.).

We also do irrigation, livestock, and household water tests for $15.

[NOTE: To find the cooperative extension office nearest you, go to Cooperative Extension System Offices.]

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

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A Shocking Development

When you survey your yard, what do you see? Grass? Trees? Shrubs? During the growing season, maybe a garden plot with squash and tomatoes? Have you ever put much thought into what lies under all that?

My neighbor most assuredly did not.

When he set out to install a fence on his property, he brought in a big powered auger to speed up the work. Beginning at the corner of his yard, he drilled his first post hole. And that's as far as he ever got.

The site of that first hole happened to be dead-center over a buried power line. The auger sliced neatly through the cable, shorting out a transformer and power lines that serviced four households, including his own.

From the neighbor's standpoint, that was bad enough. But the power company employee who came to replace the fried electric cable leading to my house informed me that, because the neighbor neglected to have his buried lines marked before drilling the hole, that neighbor was responsible for all repair costs—including replacing the transformer.

When digging in your yard, it's up to you to protect any buried utility lines on your property. But unless you stood and watched while they were buried, you probably don't have much of a clue as to where all those lines are located.

Chances are, there is a concentration of lines along a "utility right of way" bordering one side of your lot. Lines (electricity, cable TV, phone, etc.) branch off from that and lead to your house, not always following the same path. These lines are usually installed at least a foot or so below the surface, but erosion and grade changes can leave them just inches below ground.

So you don't necessarily need a big power auger to do a lot of damage. A simple garden spade can sever a shallow utility line; certainly, digging deep enough to plant a tree or shrub might.

Before doing any digging on your property, you'd be wise to have all of your buried utility lines marked. This is a free, one-stop service. Simply call 811 or go online at to make arrangements. You'll be happy; your utility companies will be happy.

And while the jaunty little marker flags are still in place, it might be a good idea to make a map of their locations for future reference.

I'm sure my neighbor wishes he'd done that.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Lies You Tell Your Trees

I have a big pine tree in my backyard. And a couple of small, ornamental crabapples. None of them belongs there. The pine, in fact, is sick and miserable. They're all products of the Big Lie.

As I learned from a botanist friend awhile back, the wooded land where I live was once open grassland sparsely dotted with trees. Then the farmers and townspeople came, turning the grasslands upside down, and felling the trees to build houses and shops. And then, because the land was made so barren, they planted trees. Thousands of trees, of countless species.

Strictly speaking, few of these transplants belong here.

Citizens of virtually every populated area of the country have worked hard at transforming Nature in some fashion. Water features and palm trees appear in desert neighborhoods. Trees by the millions are planted on the vast Great Plains. Wetlands are drained and replanted with species that don't like wet feet. Even the changes are changed, with pines and magnolias migrating to backyards that were once open prairie and then cultivated wheat fields before becoming housing developments.

And then, stinko weather happens.

A tree species grown in the same area where it originally evolved has adapted itself to the extreme-weather conditions common to its natural habitat. But species that come from elsewhere are, in effect, forced immigrants. They have no choice but to accept the Big Lie that says they can grow and thrive wherever we want them to.

Sometimes, it works. But more often than not, when extreme weather strikes, it is the non-native species that commonly suffer the most damage. The reasons are myriad. Perhaps they haven't developed strong branching habits better able to bear the weight of ice or high winds. Or they can't adapt to cyclic dry spells. Or their thin bark can't protect them from fast-moving wildfires.

So back when my friend told me about the open-grassland history of my property, I took myself straightaway to my local Conservation District office to find out more about this. There, I was given a local "Soil Survey," which contains aerial maps, an overview of development of the area, a rundown of soil types and plant communities...well, you get the picture: lots of important stuff about my tiny piece of the world. The friendly folks at the CD also gifted me with a copy of the "Ecological Site Description," which told me about the original state of my soil district.

(If you haven't visited your local Conservation District office, do so and report back here. To find the closest one, hop over to the USDA website at and click on "NRCS State Offices.")

Thanks to those two documents, I now know what trees and other plants grow naturally in my area. I know what my soil should be like, though development over the past century-plus has changed it. With an accurate awareness of the past, I can develop soil and planting strategies that can bring my landscape better in line with its ecological history, which will populate it with plants that are naturally more weatherproof.

After all, trees are remarkable works of Nature, evolved over thousands of years. Why wouldn't I want to take advantage of all that hard work by planting trees that are native to my locale?

Believe me, personal experience is the best teacher—and it taught me that the Big Lie will always come back to bite. Several years ago, we lost most of our "immigrant" trees to a catastrophic ice storm. Most native trees made it through the storm with survivable damage. Lesson learned

Sunday, October 9, 2011


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