Or Fertilizer – Reality versus Marketing.
Us plant people have a unique talent of turning the simplest of tasks into a complicated fiasco. Like composting: if you throw a banana peel out your window, within a few months it has rotted down to a teaspoonful of, well, rotten banana peel. Compost to be more precise. That’s how easy it is! Yet we have made it so complex that there is a Composting for Dummies book.
Fertilization is another area where us plant people have seemed to have conspired to make everyone else thing they need at least a Bachelor’s Degree in Agronomy in order to feed your plants. We feed (pun intended) you lots of information about pH, timing, fertilizer formulas, and all that happy hooey. If you make it through that, when you go to the store there is a Wall of Fertilizer to conquer. Fertilizer for azaleas. A different fertilizer for tomatoes. One for trees and another for non-tomato veggies. It is nearly endless.
Why so many choices you might ask? It all comes down to marketing. Each brand wants to take up as many feet of shelf space as it can at each store. That leaves fewer feet of shelf for their competitors’ fertilizers. It also means a larger starting order from each retailer. Does it make any meaningful difference to you? Other than how much money goes missing out of your pocket, no!
You may think I have lost it, yet again. Clearly there must be a difference between each fertilizer. The numbers on the bag look a lot different. Let me give you a quick primer on fertilizer and plant nutrition to illustrate my point. There are three main nutrients in a bag of fertilizer Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K, since P was already taken).
Nitrogen provides for the plant to be able to grow green parts; leaves and stems in large part.
Phosphorus is needed for root development.
Potassium is needed for cell walls. (Which provides a number of benefits to the plant.)
Other nutrients are also needed but these are the ones needed in the largest amounts, and also the ones most likely to be limiting.
The barrel illustration shows far better than I can describe how the plant needs each of the labeled ingredients. As it is shown the Moisture is the most limiting at that point in time. Let’s say you watered it, the next most limiting ingredient is Nitrogen. If you were to then fertilize with Nitrogen only, the plant would grow more. But only to the time that Phosphorus then became the limiting factor. And so on…
Back to the fertilizer. We know generally the proportions that plants need nutrients in. Each plant and location can be different in their needs. SLIGHTLY. We sell Plant-O-Ganic 8-8-8 fertilizer for outdoor plants in the ground. We also have a couple of different other fertilizers for unique situations. And one more kind that we will be carrying next year which incorporates some unique soil health additives. But 99% of what we sell is Plant-O-Ganic. It was developed by the Massachusetts Nursery and Landscape Association for Massachusetts conditions. You don’t need to worry or wonder. Follow the flow chart below:
There is one other part of a fertilizer formulation that is very important. That is the speed of release. Primarily a consideration only with the Nitrogen component. Nitrogen can release very quickly, or very slowly.
Quick release Nitrogen is great if you need fast results. A football stadium that needs to green up their grass quickly before a televised game they weren’t expecting to host. In a week the grass will look great! But in a few weeks, it will be hungry all over again. Because it is so quick release, it can also “burn” a lot more. A LOT more. Fertilizer burn is when there is so much fertilizer in the soil that the plant roots cannot take in water, and the plants die. Think back to high school biology and the boring lectures on osmosis and diffusion as to why.
Slow release Nitrogen is the tortoise. Slow and steady that wins the race. It doesn’t seek the spotlight. It isn’t flashy. It just does its job. And since it does its job, your job is easier. You only need to apply it twice a year. When the kids get candy, Halloween and Easter, feed your plants. It has very little potential to burn plants.
After reading the differences you are likely wondering why anyone would want to buy quick release fertilizer. Well it’s all about the dollar. Quick release is cheaper to make. As fertilizers have become more available in chain stores, those stores have pushed the manufacturers for a less expensive product. The manufacturers can only make less expensive with cheaper ingredients. That’s basically the only reason that quick release exists in today’s market. 50 years ago, some quick release had a place where folks had time to fertilize every week or two, but today, we are lucky to be able to get to it twice a year.
(If you read the first section in my email, please skip to the italicized section below.)
Honeybee hives have had a challenging existence over the past decade or so. Specifically, the winter survival of those hives. It hasn't been unusual for backyard beekeepers to lose between 20 and 50% of their hives over the winter. Certainly that's not very encouraging for those of us who like to eat. Because a huge amount of what we eat is dependent on bees and other pollinators to form fruit. From beans to blueberries. From cantaloupe to kiwi. Many of the grain crops are pollinated by the wind, such as corn, wheat, and rice. But other than those most foods only exist because of bees.
Most of us are familiar with the cute little honeybee whose picture seems to adorn everything these days. And also, the bumblebee, which looks about as aerodynamically sound as I do with a pair of fairy wings on my back! But there's a whole bunch of other bees, and other pollinators that are not bees, that have a less effective public relations team. In New England there are about 500 species of native bees. Interestingly, that doesn't include honeybees which were imported from Europe hundreds of years ago. Very little is known about many of these species; life cycle, population density, preferred flowers, and more would make a great mystery novel.
In contrast we know a great deal about honeybees and bumblebees. Those two are some of the few bees that live in colonies. In the case of bumblebees, they live with hundreds of others, or honeybees which live with tens of thousands of others. The vast majority of bees native to New England live singly, or possibly in very small colonies.
In a separate blog post I will go into more detail for those of you who might be interested. For the rest, I will give you the short version. There are a number of factors which have contributed to the problems that honeybees are having. Varroa mites, virus diseases, lack of suitable and consistent forage, and a particular type of pesticide known as neonics. I spent much of one day this past week in Boston at hearings in the Statehouse on this issue. Specifically on the neonic portion of this issue. It is an issue that's as complicated as playing 3-D chess. Not one that many legislators would be willing to tackle because they would be very likely to tick off one group or another. Enter Representative Carolyn Dykema of Holliston. Over the past couple years commercial agriculture groups have worked with her to come up with a way of regulating neonics, while not cutting the legs off the farmer. I say worked with, but the reality is that she and her staff did the work. We merely provided some input. She worked with beekeepers, environmentalists, and many other groups as well, crafting a bill that satisfied the desires of many, while ticking off fairly few. That's a really difficult thing to do, especially with something this complicated.
Anyway, on Tuesday four of us from commercial agriculture testified in support of this bill. It takes neonics out of the hands of untrained applicators, puts blooming season constraints in place for some, and requires training on the techniques needed to use the materials while keeping bees safe.
I would like to publicly thank Representative Dykema for her tireless work on this pollinator protection bill. And I would like to also thank my own Senator, Anne Gobi, for chairing the hearing, and my own Representative, Donnie Berthiaume for his service on the Joint Committee. Now our bees can breathe a bit easier.
Hopefully you are asking what you can do. The answer is plant flowers! Limited forage is one of the other major challenges facing bees. The more open flowers they have, especially over the summer, the better positioned they are to survive the winter. Even if you don't, or can',t plant any flowers, try to leave at least a small section of your yard unmown. This 're-wilding’ provides not only forage, but also habitat for many native bees.
Earlier I compared the complexity of bee health to playing three-dimensional chess. Think of it as a multi legged stool. The stool has one leg for each of these things:
• forage area
• living in a stress-free environment
• varroa mites
• virus infections
• neonicitinoid pesticides
• other issues including fungal problems that won’t be addressed here.
Let's look at some of these issues. Please keep in mind that I'm oversimplifying in order to keep this readable.
Neonics are commonly blamed for the majority of bee problems. One issue I have with that is that in Australia where neonics are used extensively, bees are very healthy. Well, what's different there that could lead to this? Australia has no Varroa mites. Varroa mites, if converted to a human scale, would be the size of a basketball. Can you imagine going through your daily life, trying to work, with two or three basketball sized parasites hanging off your body in different places? It would be terribly difficult!
One of the particularly insidious things about Varroa mites is they transmit several viruses. One virus that harms the bees navigational system. Without an intact navigational system the bees can't find their way to the forage, and they can't find their way back either. Clearly that’s a pretty bad thing.
That brings us to forage. Or more accurately, the absence of it. Bees usually have plenty to eat in the spring; trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and many other things are in bloom, providing both nectar and pollen. Very early spring can be a bit sparse. But the real time that's difficult is summer. While in summer there are some things in bloom, they tend to come in bursts. There can be some significant periods of time in between. Add to that the reduced amount of production agriculture that exists in the state. And also the fact that there is much more forest than they used to be. In the 1880s Massachusetts was approximately 20% forest and 80% field. Those numbers have now reversed! Nearly 80% of the land is forested. While certain trees can provide some be benefit, oaks and pines, which of the predominant species, are both wind pollinated. They produce absolutely no nectar. Both do produce pollen, but bees need both that and nectar to survive.
Onto the stress free environment... every aspect of business has become more challenging since 2008. There is less room to be sloppy. In order to survive, businesses need to maximize efficiency. Commercial bee keeping is no different. Bees are trucked from one location to another. Up and down the East Coast. Back-and-forth of the West Coast. It has become increasingly stressful for both the bees and the bee keepers!
So at this point you ask the question "What do we do to help the bees?" I think the vast majority of informed folks would agree that the best thing that we could possibly do would be to eliminate Varroa mites. But practically speaking, that isn't possible. Beekeepers have been trying to do that for years! Unfortunately eliminating Varroa mites also means using pesticides on them. Some beekeepers have philosophical objections to this. So their hives are doomed to be perpetually infested with these mites. Just like the unvaccinated child in school, these hives are a source of re-infestation for other clean hives.
Well if we can't eliminate the mites, how about eliminating the pesticides? Those nasty neonicitinoids. First a little bit of background. Neonics have become popular because they are effective against insects and yet safe on humans. Well, as safe as any poisonous chemical could be. For decades researchers have looked at pesticide problems in terms of acute toxicity, that is how many nontarget organisms die right away. In this regard neonics are far safer than many of the chemicals that they replaced. One unforeseen, and I would argue unforeseeable, combination of circumstances has lead everyone to take another look at how pesticides are evaluated. When a bee population is infested with Varroa mites which infect the bees with a variety of viruses. When those underlying problems are in place, those same bees become susceptible to the additional problem of neonics. I will let you decide for yourselves whether the blame lies on the pesticides, on the mites, or on the viruses. But the reality is, just like in Washington DC, it doesn't matter who's at blame, it's still very broken! Massachusetts is in the process of adopting a quite reasonable compromise. Neonics would be taken out of untrained hands. Only applicators who have taken and passed a state administered exam may use them. We can thank Representative Carolyn Dykema of Holliston for her tireless work on this subject. She is as sharp as a tack, and able to fully grasp the complexities, and the realities.
I'm going to close by going back to that multi legged stool. With six legs, it's pretty darned stable. Even with five or four. But when you get down to three or two legs, one needs to be an acrobat to maintain their balance.
Thanks for reading!
If you really are a glutton for punishment I'm going to add a few thoughts on science and the media.
The headlines were horrific! Neonicitinoids had been absolutely proven to be the bee killing material they had been feared as. A European study had proven it!
Well, let's take a look at that. You folks who have a background in statistics will be appalled. The study looked at bee health and neonics in 3 countries; Germany, Hungary, and the United Kingdom. It measured a wide range of data ranging from flight activity to number of eggs to overall colony strength. There were 258 measurements, or data points, in the summary.
Of those 238 were inconclusive. It was too hard to tell whether the neonics had been good, bad, or neutral. 4 data points yielded no data. 9 showed that neonics had harmed the bees. But 7 showed that neonics had actually helped the bees! If we subtract the positive from the negative (9-7=2) that leaves 2 net negative. (Yes I'm being creative in my comments, but this is a blog post after all.) There were two data points out of 258 that indicated the neonics did harm. That is 0.077%. Not exactly the overwhelming condemnation that was nearly universally written about. To put that in perspective the National Institute of Health expects about 35% of test subjects will report pain relief from placebos. So to prove a new painkiller is effective more than that 35% need to report relief. Granted pain reporting is subjective. But compare that 35%+ to the 0.077% in the bee study. Conclusive? I think not! Whether media outlets have few capable science minded staff, or whether they simply were promoting a particular point of view, I don't know. What I do know is that they blew it!
Read a critique of this study from the American Council on Science and Health click here. And remember, just because this study was not the smoking gun that it was claimed to be, the jury is still out on neonics.