Researching Maintenance

Eager bulbs I purchased some miniature jonquils and grape hyacinths, among other bulbs, and planted them in October (I'm in Zone 6). However, they immediately grew foliage, so I was afraid of freeze damage (though they seem to be okay so far). Why would bulbs grow prematurely like this? Could they have been pre-chilled by the supplier?-Illinois

Frans Roozen, technical director of the International Flower Bulb Centre of Holland, states that "drysale" bulbs are not chilled prior to shipping. However, Roozen also notes that the two species you specifically mention sometimes are known to emerge early depending on temperatures during storage and shipping.

Another factor that may have been involved is the unusually warm weather in many parts of the country this past fall and winter. Warm soil temperatures may have contributed to the premature emergence.

When you receive a bulb shipment, it is ideal to plant immediately, assuming it is the right time of the year. However, many bulbs will keep well for several weeks if you store them in a cool, dry place. Therefore, if the summer heat is lingering, or you happen to be in the midst of an "Indian summer," you could wait a few weeks for soil temperatures to cool down a bit.

Fortunately, this typically is not a serious problem. Foliage of most of the hardy spring-blooming bulbs is quite cold tolerant and may overwinter unscathed. Roozen explains that even if temperatures are severe enough to burn the foliage, the flower bud remains well below ground until spring, so you probably won't even lose the bloom.

If this is a naturalized planting, simply leave the bulbs in place. They should resume their normal growth cycles in subsequent years.

Is more fungicide better? Can too much fungicide be applied to a green when fighting dollar spot or Pythium? What would be the symptoms?-Via the internet

Virtually any product can be over-applied to the point that it produces symptoms of some sort. Specific symptoms would, of course, depend on which fungicide you're using. However, adhering to rates and other instructions on the label should prevent unexpected consequences.

One key to preventing problems is reading all the fine print on a label. Often you'll find restrictions and precautions that warn about conditions (temperature limits or the physiological status of the turf, to name two examples) that can result in phytotoxicity from rates that would otherwise be harmless to turf.

Some pesticides are known to cause some yellowing even when applied at label rates. However, this will usually be noted on the label and such effects typically are temporary.

Your question suggests you might be experimenting with rates. If so, stop! Always follow label instructions when applying fungicides. Less-than-label rates may result in inadequate control and higher-than-label rates (aside from being illegal) may cause phytotoxicity. This should be more than enough reason to stick to label rates.

If you feel you have followed the label and still experience phytotoxicity, contact the fungicide supplier.

In response to the Researching Maintenance piece about horsetail control (January 2000), Frank Patane of Golden Gate Landscape Maintenance Inc. (Santa Rosa, Calif.) shared his technique.

"Horsetail (Equisetum) requires very wet soil and acid soil conditions," says Patane. "We have controlled it by raising the pH of the soil using lime and reducing available water, if the ornamentals can handle it." He also ensures that he uses fertilizers that do not acidify the soil.

"We now have areas that are free of horsetail," says Patane. "The application of lime was somewhat gradual, over the course of the summer. We kept adding it until either the desirable plant started to look bad, or the Equisetum started to [fade] out. Usually the horsetail starts to thin out to the point that there are only a few stalks, at which point we just pull them out. It rarely returns. Just as important: let the area dry out a bit, improve drainage, etc."

Of course, lime applications may not be appropriate for certain types of ornamentals, such as ericaceous plants. But, where practicable, this is a good example of cultural control, which is especially valuable for a weed like horsetail that's difficult to control with herbicides.

In our February 2000 issue, a typographical error resulted in an incorrect number for Dow Agrosciences customer service. The correct number is (800) 258-3033.

On January 25, the St. Johns, Fla., Board of County Commissioners banned most uses of quick-release fertilizers in the Guana basin drainage. The intent of the law is to reduce nutrient loading in waterways, which is causing rampant growth of aquatic weeds in critical drainage areas.

The ordinance has triggered heated debate. Golf courses in the area (only a handful are affected) are supportive. However, lawn-care operators are less than pleased and feel the ordinance unfairly singles out lawn care.

There's no doubt that LCOs have the most to lose. By banning quick-release products, the ordinance severely restricts the soluble fertilizers used in liquid applications, the staple of many LCOs. It also makes ambiguous distinctions between quick-release, and slow- or controlled-release fertilizers (virtually all of which includes some quick-release component).

Commissioner Mary Kohnke, who spearheaded the ordinance, says that many affected parties provided input during drafting of the ordinance.

Yet, many turf operators feel they've been ambushed by back-room political maneuvering. Jon Wicker, a turf product distributor and commercial turf applicator in St. Johns County, contends that all stakeholders have not been fairly represented. "The county, to my knowledge...did not include members of private business or the university system," says Wicker.

Comissioners note that advertising requirements prior to hearings of the ordinance were met. Nevertheless, as a result of the uproar after its passage, the board held a public discussion on February 15, during which many parties were able to air their opinions. Unfortunately, not much was resolved.

Nick Dennis, an LCO in St. Johns County, has been a vocal opponent of the ordinance. According to Dennis, research demonstrating the low risks of properly applied fertilizer and the ways that turf benefits water quality was largely ignored.

Recent comments from board members suggest that LCOs may have gotten their attention, however. At least one commissioner has publically admitted that the ordinance may have some flaws.

Perhaps the most outlandish aspects of the ordinance are its enforcement provisions. First-time violators are punishable by fines or jail terms, or both. A provision of the law allows county officials to stop and search any vehicle or equipment used for fertilization, anywhere within St. Johns County. It also authorizes taking samples of fertilizer for analysis.

Pat McCormack, the now-departed county attorney who drafted the ordinance, says that the penalties result from Florida state law and are the worst possible penalties, not mandatory punishment. They would not actually be imposed in most cases. McCormack told the Ponte Vedra Reporter, "Would a county judge do that? I doubt it. In practicality, [fines and jail sentences] would not happen."

Tom Delaney, executive director of the Professional Lawn Care Association of America, which adamantly opposes the St. Johns ordinance, says regulations such as this tend to create precedents and lead to similar regulations in other localities. Delaney notes that Maryland, Iowa and New York all are considering, or already have enacted, fertilizer regulations, some of them quite restrictive.

The situation in St. Johns is instructive for the turf industry, which needs to present a unified front in such matters. It's likely we'll see more regulations aimed at turf fertilization. A united industry will be much more effective in combating unfair laws. Erica Santella, a technical manager for Tru-Green ChemLawn and vice president of the Florida Turfgrass Association points out, "All turfgrass has environmental plusses, and we need to be proud of our industry. Turf is part of the solution, not part of the problem."

Don't throw out your gas-burning equipment just yet. But scientists appear to have discovered a way to use algae to produce hydrogen cheaply and in large quantities. This has profound implications for the ways we power our society, because hydrogen has the potential to replace fossil fuels in most uses.

The scientists, from the University of California at Berkeley and The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (Golden, Colorado), announced the discovery in February at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington D.C. "I guess it's the equivalent of striking oil," said Berkeley biologist Tasios Melis. "It was enormously exciting."

Hydrogen is an ideal fuel. When it burns, the only byproduct is water. "Hydrogen is so clean-burning that what comes out of the exhaust pipe is pure water," Melis said. "You can drink it."

Trouble is, hydrogen is not cheap to produce in large quantities. That may change now that the scientists have demonstrated how to manipulate an alga to produce hydrogen.

The alga, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, normally grows like other plants, using sunlight to drive photosynthesis, which converts carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (drawn from water and atmospheric CO2) into sugars. However, the researchers discovered a "molecular switch" that turns off the normal photosynthetic process and instead causes the alga to use its stored energy, producing hydrogen in the process.

"The switch is actually very simple to activate," Melis said. "It depends on the absence of an essential element, sulfur, from the microalga growth medium." Without sulfur, the alga cannot continue photosynthesizing. This, in turn, depletes the alga's supply of oxygen, which is a byproduct of photosynthesis. In the absence of oxygen, the algal cells cannot respire in their typical fashion, which forces them to use an alternative metabolic pathway. A byproduct of this pathway is hydrogen.

Eventually, the alga expends its stored energy and must resume photosynthesizing. But the process can be repeated many times, turning the alga into an on-again/off-again hydrogen factory.

Scientists noticed this phenomenon decades ago. However, this is the first time anyone has found a way to use it to produce large amounts of hydrogen.

Hydrogen is still many years from becoming a major source of fuel. When it does, however, it could ease several problems society currently struggles with, such as greenhouse gases, smog-producing pollutants and dwindling fuel supplies.

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