Dec. 10, 2015: It is the holiday season, a time of friends, family, reflection and shopping . . . or its avoidance (the shopping, I mean, but maybe some family, too). If you choose avoidance, as I do, it's best to have a good excuse and mine is writing this laborious blog on traditional Christmas plants.

THE HOLLY: Holly's association with Christmas began back in Roman times. Holly was the sacred plant of the Roman god Saturn and during Saturnalis, the wintertime pagan celebration of Saturn, holly sprigs were used to decorate Roman houses and hair. Early Christians adopted the holly custom, to avoid detection and persecution for their Christmas observances taking place at the same time. Something to keep in mind next time you're trying to avoid the law.

Celtic druids also considered the holly a sacred plant symbolizing fertility and long life. Holly boughs attached to the house were believed to protect against lightening and evil spirits. Holly was thought to also determine which member of a household couple would have power in the coming year. If a sprig of holly was brought into the house and the leaves had spines on them, then the male would be dominant in the house. If the leaves were smooth, without spines, then the female would be the dominant member. Many holly species, and there are about 400 of them, exhibit leaf dimorphism, having different leaves on the same individual. English holly, the kind most often used for Christmas wreaths, have both spiny and smooth leaves. So before you go decking your halls with boughs of holly , look at them and carefully consider how this might change the family dynamic of your household. If only I had know this in my first marriage.

Holly, English holly to be precise, has been a commercial crop in Oregon since the nursery industry first started in the mid-nineteenth century. Hollies have the unique characteristic of being dioecious, having male and female individuals. It's the females that produce the bright red berries that festoon our Christmas wreathes. Legend has it that holly growers used to go out into the holly fields and shoot the female trees with bird shot in order to get them to produce more berries. I don't know if the legend is true, but there is actually a biological basis behind that. That, however, gentle reader, I will leave to another future blog on torturing trees for fruit and berry production.

"Here's to holly and ivy hanging up, and to something wet in every cup!" - Old English toast



Dec. 3, 2015: I have always been interested in the junction where history and botany meets. One of the more peculiar junctions involves the horse chestnut tree and how it won World War I and started the nation of Israel (well, it kinda helped, but that's not as dramatic)

The horse chestnut, a native of the Balkans, is used as a street and ornamental tree throughout Europe and North America. It's large brown nut is contained in a green spiny husk and, unlike the sweet chestnut that is edible, the horse chestnut is poisonous.

In Britain, the nut is called a conker and a game, "conkers", is played where the nut is suspended on a string and one swings it into an opposing players nut to see if you can crack it. There is even a World Conkers Championship. In the US, as a child, we used throw the nut, with spiny husk attached, at each other's heads to see if we could get them to stick. I don't recall how we scored those matches but it was much more violent than the English version. I recall having been scored upon several times.

But, I digress, back to WWI and the horse chestnut. In the spring of 1915 Britain was suffering from The Great Shell Shortage. Stores of cordite, the stuff that makes high explosive shells go boom, were dangerously low. It was so bad that artiliery and naval guns were rationed four shells a day. Since 1889, Britain had replaced gunpowder with cordite as the explosive agent in shells. Cordite is a mixture of nitroglycerine, petroleum jelly and gun cotton and the chemical process to produce it required large quantities of acetone. Acetone was produced by the destructive distillation of wood and whole forests were cut and burned to keep the shell factories going.

Britain did not have enough wood to meet its ammunition needs and relied on the forests of North America to supply it. The problem resulted from shipping that wood to Britain through German sub infested waters. It wasn't working. British Minister of Munitions, David Lloyd George, enlisted the aid of a Jewish chemist, Chaim Weizmann. Weizman developed an acetone production process that could use varied forms of cellulose, such as corn or potatoes. Once again there was a problem because corn and potatoes were needed to feed the English populace and troops.

So where do you find an abundant supply of cellulose that's not a foodstuff or wood? Turns out there's a whole lot of horse chestnuts in Britain. The government put out an appeal to the schoolchildren of Britain to collect the nuts. In short order, the patriotic (plus a few shillings per hundred pound bag) kids collected so many horse chesnuts that tons of them were left rotting by the railway. Shell production was back on track and the Brits were back to bombing the bejesus out of the Germans.

Chaim Weizmann, the Jewish chemist that made this possible , became a venerated member of British political circles. Chaim was also an ardent Zionist and argued passionately within those political circles for the formation of an independent Jewish nation. In 1917 his persuasion lead to the Balfour Declaration, which was a promise by the British government to help form a national homeland for the Jew out of Palestine, then in control of by the Ottoman Turks. It was the first in a long series of steps to the birth of Israel and Weizmann later became the first president of the nation.

And that's how the horse chestnut conkerd Germany, won WWI and started Israel (or sorta, kinda). If I had known all that as a kid, it would have seemed less painful having them stuck to my head.


Oct. 18, 2015: Now that the rains have come, our dangers of drought are allayed for the winter, it's not a reprieve for trees though. The effects of environmental disorders, such as too little or too much water, soil contaminants, etc., are not experienced immediately. Much like chronic diseases in people, most environmental disorders take time to eventually kill a tree.

This summer was our second drought in a row and I observed a number of trees in client's yards that were showing signs of drought stress. Stress in trees often times leads to them succumbing to disease and insect attack.

A good example in our area is the bronze birch borer. The beetle attacks European birch. The adults fly to a birch, chew through the outer bark, and deposit their eggs underneath it. The larvae that hatch chew up the inner bark and cambium layers. This "girdles" the branch or trunk, in this case severing the phloem which carries food to the roots. The roots associated with those branches die and then the branches die. The flagging and dying branches in the crown this summer came from larval damage done the summer before. Trees that are stressed by environmental factors are more likely to be attacked by the borer.

So drought will lead to tree stress , will lead to pest attack, which may lead eventually to tree mortality. That process could be a couple of years. So next summer, I'm guessing we'll see a lot more declining trees due to those dadgum opportunistic pests and diseases.

Next year I expect to see more problems with:
European and Himalayan Birch

Douglas Fir: Here pine beetles and twig weevils will be the culprits and well as plain drought stress. Watch out for excessive needle drop from the inside of the tree progressing outward.

Oregon white oak and Oregon ash: Even these native trees that are adapted to our dry summer are showing signs of drought stress this summer (browning of the leaf ends).

Flowering dogwoods: The dogwood is a drought indicator tree because of its shallow root system. I expect to see some leaf scorch (browning of leaf edges) and outright branch dieback.

The list could go on. Our winter weather forecast is not going to help matters as forecasters are calling for a warmer drier winter due to El Nino. ("The Child'?, I really think it should be called El Mocoso, "The Brat" ).

I hate to be a" Debbie Downer" but it's not looking good for next year. What to do? Monitor the trees for health and water, if it's dry. I've never been an advocate for watering established trees, but this summer I will be.

To your and your tree's health.


July 26, 2014: Welcome, rather belatedly, to July - Smart Irrigation Month! It's a time when we focus on the issue of water conservation and making irrigation systems more efficient, I have been busy doing that, which explains my tardiness in getting out the word to my faithful reader (sorry, Mom).I'm even too busy to write something so I'm adding a water conservation flyer from Ewing Irrigation, wholesale distributors of irrigation and landscape supplies. It's a lot more interesting than anything I could write.

Water use poster


April 13, 2014: Once again it's that time of year to turn on and tune up your irrigation system. Forecasts are for a hot, dry summer this year. As I have in a past blog entry, I'd like to tell you how to properly do that. Unlike the past blog, where I not only told you how to get your irrigation going but also revealed the meaning of life. This time I'd like to reveal something a little more mundane and wordly, how to beat the stock market and making a boatload of money! (*Past performance is not necessarily indicative of results) First,let's talk about starting up the irrigation system.

Your irrigation system has been winterized, as it should be. There have been winters that really haven’t necessitated winterization. Our ground only freezes a couple of inches deep at best and a well installed irrigation system is at least 12” deep everywhere, but not all irrigation systems are well installed. To not winterize a system is to bait the gods and that’s seldom a wise strategy. In winterization, the water flow to your irrigation system has been shut off at a main irrigation shutoff valve or at your irrigation backflow. The irrigation lines are probably also drained through the use of manual drain valves located at low points in the irrigation system or have been blown out by the use of compressed air.

The spring startup is turning the water back on, pressurizing the lines, and seeing if everything works. Sounds pretty simple and is . . . . if done properly. So here are some steps to reviving your irrigation again.

1)Before you turn the water on, first locate your drain valves and shut them. They’re typically located in 6”diameter round plastic boxes with green lids. Sometimes they can be located in the boxes that your irrigation valves are in, just upstream of the valves.

2)Now to turn on the water – sssllloooowwwllllyyyy crack open the main shutoff valve or turn one of the ball valves on your backflow. Fully and quickly opening a valve sends a wall of pressurized water racing down pipes that can blow them apart or at least weaken the joints for later failure. As you crack open the valve, you’ll hear the whine of water as it squeezes through the small opening you’ve made. It’s screaming to be let go and bring life to your landscape , but you must be strong! Do not let it fully escape! Go in the house and have a cup of coffee, watch a game, or read Wordsworth, anything that will occupy 15-20 minutes. If you come out and it’s no longer screaming for freedom, then the water has filled the pipes and is satisfied and you may and must fully open the valve. Partially open valves will cause a lack of pressure in your sprinkler system.

3)If you have drip irrigation in your irrigation system, your next step is to find the drip irrigation valve box(s). These will be rectangular boxes (~11 x 17”) and they house the electric valve, a pressure regulator and a drip filter. It’s the drip filter we’re looking for and it resembles an inverted extra large wafer ice cream cone (not the pointy sugar cones but the flat bottomed wafer kind except the bottom isn’t flat, it’s rounded and . . would you excuse me for a minute?) . . . . Thank you for your patience. I had sudden irresistible craving. That drip filter cover will unscrew from its base and underneath will be a round mesh screen. Take this out and wash the slimy green algae, sediment or whatever off the screen with a garden hose and reinstall.

Now check the ends of your drip laterals, the black or brown pipe that delivers the water to your drip emitters. These lines, in normal operation, are usually closed with a screwable cap or a plastic figure eight end closure. You want to make sure the ends of the lines are open so that water may pour through them and flush the system out when the drip valve first comes on. Drip systems depend on water without sediment in it that can clog the tiny orifices of emitters. Flushing out sediment through the lateral pipes is an excellent way to keep your drip functioning properly.

4) Now you’re ready to test the valves. Go to your irrigation controller and manually, from the controller, turn each zone on in sequence. There’s usually a manual advance button on the controller but there’s a lot of different irrigation controllers out there. You may need to find the manual to figure out how to turn on your valves. As you fire off each zone, go out and observe it in action. Are all the heads popping up? Are they spraying exactly where they should be and not overspraying? Do you see water gurgling out of the ground? Now’s the time to note any problems, by zone, you see and also to mark them (I use cute little multi-colored irrigation flags to mark trouble spots, but any kind of stake will do).

5) Close back up the ends of the drip laterals.

6) If there no problems, then life is good. Enjoy your spring. If not, then it’s time for repair and that’s another article.

So, you're probably thinking, now that I know how to get the water flowing in my irrigation, how do I get money flowing into my brokerage account? It first starts by taking the money you've saved from repairs for improperly starting up your irrigation system and investing it smartly. Ah yes, clever reader, already you asking what do you mean by investing smartly. Does that mean fundamental analysis, qualitative analysis, value investing, GARP? What is the secret? . . . . Monkeys! In an April 5, 2013 article by UPI in a study conducted by Cass Business School in London that when monkeys were randomly select stocks from a computer their choices, when pitted against a traditional market capitalization weighted index, won every time.

I got to thinking about getting a monkey but then I began considering the downside of it. Like where would you keep the monkey, what and how much do you have to feed it, and maybe monkeys are emotional needy and it'll use up alot of time bonding and so forth? There has to be an easier way of random stock selection. . . . and then I found another article about using darts to pick stocks. Evidently the Wall STrret Journal held contests between 1998 and 2002 where staffers threw darts at stock tables to choose stocks to track and that these were compared to the picks by professional money managers. The short story was that professional money managers only did slightly better than the dart picked ones and when you factored in the professional management fee their returns were worse.

I work with irrigation pipe and I work with lawns. What if I sharpened a piece of PVC pipe into a lawn dart? . . And what if I pinned pieces of paper out on a lawn with a different stock ticker symbol on each? Take some steps back and launch my new lawn dart in the air and the paper it pierced I would buy. Lawn darts! Definitely less messy than a monkey. I'm trying it this spring. If successful, you can expect to see next spring the start-up of my new business, Lawn Fortunes Financial Planning. Until then, take care of your irrigation. It may some day take care of you.

F & P