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p allen smith reports

Using Water Retentive Polymers

One of the most frustrating things for me about gardening in containers is that my plants dry out so quickly. Oh I can start out with a large container like this and that certainly helps, but when the summer heat rolls in and I put my containers out in full sun it seems like it is a constant battle just keeping the plants alive.

One of the ways that I've found to help keep the soil moist in my containers is to use these little granules. These are water retentive polymers. You see when they are dry they look like old fashioned ice cream salt but when they are wet they become soft, full of water and gelatinous. These granules have already expanded over 10 times their original size because they are holding the moisture.

They are great for plants that are confined to containers because as the plants need moisture they can draw from the water that is held in the granules. It acts like a water storage system.

These polymers are easy to use and little goes a long way. Just look how well all these annuals are doing in this container. You see I only use 2 tablespoons of polymer in a container this size. Another advantage is that I don't have to fertilize these plants as often because I won't flush all of the nutrients out of the soil by watering everyday.

I've even seen these polymers used in the planting of young trees by sprinkling some in the hole before planting. This is particularly helpful when it is difficult to water them.

Now if you're tired of seeing your flower pots dry out, you might try some of these water retentive polymers. They can make your life much easier.


Gooey Substance Made In Hot Springs Kitchen Helps Troops

By Lyndall Stout

U.S. Marines fighting in Iraq will soon be able to do so, more safely and efficiently, thanks in part to a product developed by a company based in Hot Springs. Researchers say the materials help control blowing sand, whenever a helicopter takes-off, or lands.

Watersorb, Inc. has been developing products made with super-absorbent polymers for years. Now, Company President, Ted Douglas, has helped come up with something that will likely save the lives of soldiers in the heat of battle.

Ted Douglas knows his way around the kitchen. Not only does he make toast in here…but, it's also his scientific laboratory. "I'm a kitchen inventor. We just started mixing polymers and putting them together."

Douglas played a key role in developing a formula using three different super-absorbent polymers...Combined with water, to form a glue-like substance that sticks to sand. Douglas says military ground crews can easily spread it on the sand in advance of helicopter landings. "They will put down one of the granular forms of the polymer, then they will put down the second granular form of the polymer, then they will put the emulsion on top of that and they will lightly sprinkle that with water, and within 10 minutes, the sand turns into jello."

The process appears to make extremely difficult helicopter landings on the desert sand much easier. Researchers recently tested the mixture at a Marine base in California. "It basically turns the sand into jelly, and it congeals the sand, to where it won't blow."

A kitchen invention that will no doubt save lives.

Once it's spread on the sand, Douglas says the mixture will last up to six weeks. It can be dissolved simply and quickly, by adding salt. Then it’s absorbed back into the ground as a fertilizer.

Watersorb recently shipped more than 5,000 pounds of the polymer mixture to Marines in Kuwait. More orders from other branches of the military are expected.

Watersorb also makes a special polymer used inside Cool Ties, which help keep soldiers from overheating in the desert. The strip of fabric is worn around the neck, and when dipped in water, it expands and helps keep soldiers cool.

If you want instructions to make a cool tie for someone overseas, visit our Cool Ties page.


Erosion Control

By Janis Keating

In a market-driven economy, there's always a push toward "new and improved," and the seed industry is no exception. Seed producers continually develop mixes designed for better yields and less work. On the other hand, since Executive Order 13112 of 1999, which directs the planting of native species on federal lands, the seed industry also develops "old and approved" products for sale, and the business concepts of looking ahead and looking back have, at least, blurred.

Something New

A glyphosate-tolerant grass mix, Aurora Gold, is being used for numerous applications requiring soil stabilization and weed-free areas. Offered by Turf-Seed Inc. in Hubbard, OR, the hard fescue is the result of natural breeding and selection conducted by Pure Seed Testing, a Turf-Seed affiliate. Rutgers University studies showed Aurora Gold tolerated up to 16 oz./ac. of glyphosate with less than 8% damage, even with repeated applications. Such tolerance makes the mix a highly effective component in controlling annual bluegrass on golf courses; glyphosate spraying would keep the bluegrass in check until Aurora Gold became established and crowded out the invasive plant. The mix also serves as an effective cover crop to prevent soil erosion and water runoff, conserving rainfall or irrigation water; it has good drought and shade performance and requires minimal (once or twice per year) mowing.

 

hydroseeding before

hydroseeding after

 

 

 

 

 

 

The pictures above show a berm before polymer application (left), then after 90 days (right.).



Another seed blend has been developed in response to erosion control professionals' frustrations with existing blends. Platinum EC blend seed, from IKEX in Middlesex, NC, had been in development since November 2001 and became available earlier this year. "So many contractors have been using 80% to 50% fescue and 50% annual rye mix for their applications, and that doesn't work as well," observes Jerry Kallam, IKEX geotextile manager. "We have three different blends, combining native and erosion control grasses, and seven to 10 varieties of permanent grass seed mix. Even if a contractor's planted "temporary' - even for just two years - Platinum EC will help hold and control erosion." A 40-lb. bag of Platinum EC sows a half-acre, and the mix might be slightly different, depending on where it's being used. "Our goal for Platinum EC is to make a blend that will grow well just about anyplace in the [United States]," Kallam continues. "However, we're adding some native grasses to our Maryland formulation - crown vetch, big bluestem, switchgrass. We're also working on a Rocky Mountain mix, which will include Prairie June grass, but as it's expensive, we won't be able to use a lot of it, just enough to offer erosion control and coverage. The mix includes a Barcole variety bunch grass with a deep root system; the Rocky Mountain area especially needs mixes that will outlive droughts. We "overdesigned' the mix - even if a contractor goes light on his sowing, it should work. Of course, we'd rather have everyone do it right the first time."

To help seeds germinate, water-absorbing polymers are available that retain moisture in the soil. Watersorb of Hot Springs, AR, distributes polymers, similar to those used in baby diapers, in several forms. The super-absorbent polymer, a cross-linked polyacrylamide (that, when watered, looks like gelatin), holds up to 400 times its density in water, then slowly releases the water - along with any added fertilizers/nutrients - to the plant roots. In some regions, the polymers can save up to 50% on irrigation. The super-absorbent will work in the soil for five to 10 years, at which time it then slowly breaks down into its component parts of ammonia, carbon dioxide, and water, with no residual toxicity. Watersorb uses potassium polymers, which are better for plants than polymers containing sodium.

Another seed blend has been developed in response to erosion control professionals' frustrations with existing blends. Platinum EC blend seed, from IKEX in Middlesex, NC, had been in development since November 2001 and became available earlier this year. "So many contractors have been using 80% to 50% fescue and 50% annual rye mix for their applications, and that doesn't work as well," observes Jerry Kallam, IKEX geotextile manager. "We have three different blends, combining native and erosion control grasses, and seven to 10 varieties of permanent grass seed mix. Even if a contractor's planted "temporary' - even for just two years - Platinum EC will help hold and control erosion." A 40-lb. bag of Platinum EC sows a half-acre, and the mix might be slightly different, depending on where it's being used. "Our goal for Platinum EC is to make a blend that will grow well just about anyplace in the [United States]," Kallam continues. "However, we're adding some native grasses to our Maryland formulation - crown vetch, big bluestem, switchgrass. We're also working on a Rocky Mountain mix, which will include Prairie June grass, but as it's expensive, we won't be able to use a lot of it, just enough to offer erosion control and coverage. The mix includes a Barcole variety bunch grass with a deep root system; the Rocky Mountain area especially needs mixes that will outlive droughts. We "overdesigned' the mix - even if a contractor goes light on his sowing, it should work. Of course, we'd rather have everyone do it right the first time."

To help seeds germinate, water-absorbing polymers are available that retain moisture in the soil. Watersorb of Hot Springs, AR, distributes polymers, similar to those used in baby diapers, in several forms. The super-absorbent polymer, a cross-linked polyacrylamide (that, when watered, looks like gelatin), holds up to 400 times its density in water, then slowly releases the water - along with any added fertilizers/nutrients - to the plant roots. In some regions, the polymers can save up to 50% on irrigation. The super-absorbent will work in the soil for five to 10 years, at which time it then slowly breaks down into its component parts of ammonia, carbon dioxide, and water, with no residual toxicity. Watersorb uses potassium polymers, which are better for plants than polymers containing sodium.

Something Old: Native Seeds

In 1999, in an effort to check the spread of invasive plant species, President Clinton signed legislation that, among other things, decreed that all public lands (federal land as well as certain cemeteries and historical sites) needing replanting after fires, drought-caused die-outs, and so on should be sown with native species. However, the legislation did not offer a decisive definition for the term "native" and thus left it open to a wide interpretation. Does native mean only North American, not South or Central American, species? Does the designation differ from region to region and US Department of Agriculture zone to zone? Would native species be those growing on these soils before 1620, before 1492, or before nomadic Asians crossed the Bering Strait some 10,000 years ago? No matter what date might be selected, did anyone perform a plant-species inventory at the time?

"There's a movement today among different groups - government and environmental groups - to reseed the West with native seeds, to put the land back to the way it was before white men got here," points out Don Hijar, president of Pawnee Buttes Seed in Greeley, CO. "Unfortunately this is not the same soil it was at that time. In essence we made a big mistake plowing up this land. We fractured ecosystems and grasslands, destroying an extreme diversity of plants that also helped animal life."

The 1999 legislation definitely caused change. "Different states started making lists of species that they considered invasive, and some plants that ended up on those lists - orchard grass, timothy grass, perennial rye, Kentucky blue - are what we have used for years for reclamation," Hijar continues. "Indeed, a lot of money has been put into improving these different species. There are good reasons to use native but, it seems, bad interpretations on when to use them. People have gotten on this "emotional ship,' if you will - "If it's not native to this area, we don't want to use it anywhere.' If you use a strict interpretation of what's not native, you quickly run into introduced species we couldn't do without - wheat, for example!"

Do these guidelines inhibit consumer choice? "If someone asks to plant timothy - he's the customer, I want to sell it to him," Hijar explains. "I haven't done anything illegal, immoral, or unethical. But some would say, "But timothy has spread over the mountains - taken over!'"

Hijar, who has been in the native grass industry since 1974, points out that the West isn't just one homogeneous environment, and the same plant species might vary within a relatively small region.

"One environmental group's answer is to plant native grasses. That's fine, but just in this region alone there are varying precipitation levels that would have an impact on how those grasses survive," he notes. "Kansas, for example, is mostly farm country; the eastern and central thirds of the state get more precipitation than does the western third, which only gets 17 to 22 inches of rain yearly. A thin, 5-mile-wide area of Colorado gets 17 inches a year; most of the state, including the Denver area, gets about 14 to 16 inches. However, certain parts of eastern Colorado only receive 7 to 11 inches, and go over the mountains and it gets really dry."

One Region's Native - Another's "Introduced"?

Because governments, environmentalists, and ecologists recognize such regional differences, orders often are made for subspecies or ecotypical seeds - which might or might not be available.

"Some native grasses - big bluestem, bluestem, and Indian grass - grow throughout the nation," Hijar states. "However, if a New York customer wants big bluestem, he might not want Kansas seed, but seed from growth 10 miles away from his site - local ecotypes. How important is that? What's the limit of an ecotype? Some scientists say it has to be harvested within 3,000 feet of the intended planting site. That's not always possible."

Don Bermant of Granite Seed Company in Lehi, UT, points out two very important words in the legislation: "When practical, one should use natives when seeding on public lands. Of course, there's no consensus on what "native"' is native to what? The city? County? State? Planet? Some insist on not just the species, but the exact genetic makeup. There's a similar idea when talking about fish populations "genetic pollution" occurs when you move a trout from one area to another. But since seeds are carried by animals and the wind, plant populations travel all over anyway."

Granite Seed services the 13 western states with native seed. "The majority of our stock is native grasses," Bermant reports. "Some mixes also contain shrubs and forbs, which are used mostly for fire-area reclamation, or right-of-way vegetation, or wherever there's been drastically disturbed ground. Our biggest order lately was the 5 million pounds of seed sold to reclaim the areas in Arizona decimated by fire in 2001."

Bermant agrees that some orders are harder to fill than others. "From a supply standpoint, the greatest challenge for us is being able to meet specific demands. If customers say, "Seed must come from only a certain distance away' - perhaps 200 miles east or west of the site - that's not such a problem. But if they specify seed from the same county, that's not always possible. For example, to reclaim the Rodeo, Arizona, fire - how could we possibly find site-specific seed? Nothing survived!

"A lot of people don't understand the problems with offering site-specific materials," he continues. "Like the Hayman fire last year: Originally they wanted local native seed for reclamation. We told them it was just not available. Instead they just stabilized slopes with annual cover crops and hoped the natives in the soil would come back."

Hunt of Allgreen Environmental concurs. "Most of what you're dealing with out here never came from here in the first place. When you're bringing back a site, sagebrush comes back in two years. As for the problems of fires, prior to 200 years ago, the native tribes planned controlled burns for hundreds of years, and sagebrush and scrub oaks survive burns. Idealism doesn't have much to do with our seed selection; we just have to make sure we don't pick something that will take over. It can be difficult to find a reputable seed producer. Some native seed is microscopic, and there's no testing procedure with some suppliers. Are you really getting only the seed you want?"

Seed Harvesting By Hand

Granite Seed does do custom seed collections, but Bermant notes, "That can be 10 times more expensive [than cultivated seed] because we will hand-collect, and collecting seed from nature is always a challenge. First, it has to be economically viable to do so. Of course, it also depends upon whether the species set seed this year. With some plants, you'll get a crop only every other year, and if you get there too late, the seed is on the ground, or sheep ate it, et cetera. A lot of times we will inform customers before we agree to custom that we'll go out and see if the seeds are even available."

Bermant also points out that changes in the environment have an impact on how native plants establish and grow. "As we move forward in time, plant populations change. Nature is not static. Everyone has a different reference point for what's native. Plus, some customers want results in a year; others understand it might take five years for the native plants to establish. Introduced plants have also changed a native's chances of survival. For example, cheatgrass, an introduced species, an annual grass originally from the Mediterranean, is a big problem. Since 1972, I have seen it take over thousands of square miles. It has actually changed the ability of natives to establish. Cheatgrass grows similar to a cool-season grass; it steals moisture from native plants and outcompetes them. Cheatgrass is a drought-tolerant species, surviving in cold-desert areas, and it's also able to survive fire. You hear of rangeland fires that destroy shrubs, grasses, and forbs - sometimes the cheatgrass burns first, which knocks out the shrubs, then cheatgrass comes back the next year. It's difficult to establish natives until you eliminate the cheatgrass first. Some people are first putting in prostrate kochia or other desirable introduced species until that crowds out the cheatgrass, then they put in native grasses."

S&S Seeds's inventory has been geared toward natives since 1975. "We see everything - from people wanting ecotypes, for which we do site-specific collection, to bid requests without any declaration about what type of seeds," relates Bruce Berlin, erosion control line manager for the Carpinteria, CA, company. "I'd say "native' is not well defined, but we do see increased demand for trying to match what's on the customer's working site. When filling an order, a lot of our concern stems around how much water the site gets."

As for defining native plants within its home state, S&S depends on a preferred reference book: Willis Linn Jepson's Manual of the Flowering Plants of California (now also named The Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California, University of California Press). "It's a huge book of flora from different plant authorities," Berlin explains. "It defines native and non-native and also lists a number of subspecies."

Many of S&S's mixes are a combination of grasses and forbs. "For native shrubs, we do a fair amount of seed collection by hand," Berlin explains. "We clean them up, get them ready to resell - it's very labor-intensive. We do some pretreatment of seeds; we have to scarify, or nick, some, and for others we do some chemical pretreatment to promote germination. Although we sell to customers nationwide, our end users pretty much are located in the Southwest. They buy our product for cover crops, restoration projects, erosion control, and other projects, including turf grasses for ball fields."

S&S Seeds carries more than 1,500 native species in stock. "Three-quarters of them are literally hand-collected," Berlin points out. "This takes a lot of work. Even the most efficient person probably gets only 20% of the seed. For some items, we need special permits to get the seed - for anything growing within state parks, for instance. But most of the picking [we do] there is for that site; if you pick it, the state parks demand a percentage of your collection."

Berlin readily understands some customers' requests for plant ecotypes: "Indian rice grass is a great example. Although it goes into many states, we do a thorough tracking of where our seeds come from because we see a big difference between coastal plants and those that grow at a higher elevation or inland. Because of different moisture levels, and the salts in that moisture, a coastal plant wouldn't work well inland, and vice versa. Yet you might be able to use something from the desert on the coast and it might work well. We work closely with botanic gardens and universities to match the best plants to a site."

In League With Their Own

In 2000, in part because of the confusing standards (or lack thereof) for native plants, Dawn Southard established the Native Seed Trade Association (NSTA). Located in Washington, DC, the organization strives to provide field-tested information to policy-makers.

"I founded this organization because I saw a lot of policy emphasizing the use of native plants, but no one from the industry was helping write or influence the policy," Southard recalls. "Each federal agency is making their own policy on native seeds. Our workshop this past February helped agencies design demand; we were "educating the customer.'"

Southard's first challenge: helping NSTA members and their customers define their terms. "The Executive Order on invasive species does not specify what type of native seeds should be used, and it didn't make any guidelines. In today's market, the definition varies; "native" can mean ecotype seed, which is very site specific. There's also "straight' native seed, which is raised from wild-harvested seed stock. There are also native cultivars, which have been improved by selective breeding. Now there's no empirical evidence that ecotype is better than native seed, but if you put it in terms of land management perspective - if I'm managing a pristine wilderness area - I am well within my rights to ask for an ecotype if I want to maintain my area. Some facilities are making their own seed just for that reason, because they don't want to pollute ecosystems.

"Some federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management, are very flexible when choosing native seed," Southard continues. "They know what they want, but when they can't find it, they ask what is available. But there is a trend toward ecotypes, and that's not generally a good business model for most native seed producers. Because ecotype seed must be sold within a narrow geographic region, the producer becomes slave to wild fluctuations in merely local demand. Producers usually can't survive in this type of market. Overreliance on ecotypes also minimizes the supply available to any agency installation since it can only draw on seed produced within a limited area. Ecotypes can be profitable crops when the market is designed sensibly. This is one of the objectives of NSTA."

She adds, "Native plants also struggle to reproduce. A lot of our native insect pollinators are no longer here. European pollinators, such as honeybees, have taken over. Also, invasive species tend to bloom first; insect pollinators do their work, then move on, leaving native species unworked. Yes, some species self-pollinate - and others are wind-pollinated - but, forbs especially, 95% are insect-pollinated."

Another problem for the native seed industry: Making customers and policy-makers understand that producing native plants is nontraditional agriculture. "It's not an annual crop that's sown in spring, harvested in fall," Southard explains. "If a customer decides he wants thousands of pounds of some plant seed, and no one knew there was a demand, they haven't grown it! Native seed producers are truly pioneers in nontraditional agriculture. They have, however, spent lots of money in [research and development] to discover what they can do."

Of course, there remains one variable the Executive Order didn't mention when addressing invasive species: "Man is an invasive species," Pawnee Buttes Seed's Hijar quips. "Ecosystems change, and man has influenced that change; we can never turn the ecosystem back to how it was in settlement times."

Janis Keating is a frequent contributor to Erosion Control magazine.

 

Watersorb HydroPAM polymer is used in erosion control and hydroseeding, visit our Applications page for more information.