Perfect Soil? Not a Chance

We know that balanced nutrition plays an integral role in producing healthy trees and shrubs. One could not afford to build the perfect soil on a 550-acre farm, so when we say “Pioneering Sustainable Horticulture”, we’re saying through research and experience we are identifying our deficiencies and addressing them one at a time through soil building. I believe no one knows for sure what the perfect soil is. I personally have talked to some of the leaders of the sustainable movement and they all have bits and pieces that connect some but not all of the dots. So you have to build your soil like a puzzle using the overall goal to work backwards to achieve what works on your property. We at Abby Farms are doing just that and our results are good enough for us to be insecticide and fungicide free for 7 continuous years.
I’m sure you’ve heard me say before that growth is limited by the nutrient in least supply, so excess of any nutrient just causes problems in other areas. Identify your weakness first. Start with the cations. The mid-Atlantic soils are usually deficient in calcium, so correctly amending this nutrient helps balance the other cations. You could proactively bring in line potassium or magnesium at the same time you’re addressing calcium. Plants’ needs are in this order according to some experts: calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and sulfur.
In the mid-Atlantic area, we have a difficult time getting phosphorous to the correct levels because of the way the nutrient management state laws were written. The composers of the law still believe toxic chemical rescue is the way to farm and until we can get younger talent into these positions, with new training we will have to do the best we can. Magnesium is an exergy molecule and probably the most difficult I found to balance, so foliar sprays come into play. Magnesium; get it close in the soil and the balance through the tissue.
Sulfur brings into play the plant’s immune system and is used to make proteins and amino acids. Sulfur is now the red-headed step child. Back when I was young, you rarely had to worry about adding sulfur because of industrial pollution. Today, with better air quality, everybody forgets to add sulfur. Balance phosphorous and sulfur in equal parts.
Manage what you measure from the soil. Get it as close as money allows, but remember, this is no guarantee of success. This is where tissue testing comes in to play. There are rules to follow, not difficult rules, but it can become costly if you’re using an outside lab. The advancement in this segment is moving rapidly. We can now use sap analysis to predict insect and disease attacks. Science is a powerful thing. Keep in mind that you have to earn the right before you tissue test, having healthy fungi and bacteria in the soil, with some type of balancing of the cations coupled with good levels of organic matter, all complete the puzzle.

Abby Farms interviewed at MANTS 2017


Mid Atlantic Nursery Trade Show, MANTS, was held last week with an attendance of over 11,000 people.  It continues to rank as the top horticulture show in the industry for the nursery and tree farmers.  Abby Farms was there in full force with every member of our team spending time in the booth meeting and greeting our current customers along with meeting potential new customers.

The show highlighted a lot of our customers’ concerns about the availability of mainly 2.5”-3” trees.  So we continued to encourage our current customers to get the early order program that we offer turned in quickly.

I was caught off guard by the camera crew at MANTS when they wanted to film me and ask what sustainable horticulture was.  If you know me, I am a somewhat reserved person, so a non-prepared- for video segment seemed to go well after the loss of blood in my face.  In the short taped version, we farm in a different manner by using natural inputs vs. chemical inputs.  We feed the soil and let the soil feed the plants.  The question and answer session could and should have been much longer, but with a time limit, the segment gave a quick overview.  We receive the same question several times from curious potential new customers.  What is Abby Farms?  It’s difficult to pin point; we are a combination of carbon farming, sustainable, organic and permaculture.  We include the following in our program:

  1. OMRI certified or natural inputs
  2. Natural nitrogen fix in the field “cover crops”
  3. Encourage nature to take the lead
  4. Predatory insect establishments
  5. Wild flower nesting stations
  6. Food grade products when possible for insect control
  7. Carbon farming with organic compounds to fortify the soil and increase organic matter
  8. Balance the cation exchange capacity
  9. Rigid testing of leaf tissue to see the energy level of the plant
  10. Horticultural sustainable habits through  resource management

When we add all this up, we’re a hybrid of all the above, a sustainable permaculture with natural inputs which include total site management that works with nature.

Phytoremediation: A green sustainable technology

Phytoremediation and/or phytotechnologies definition: Using living plants to help clean soil, water and air of pollutants. Abby Farms stocks many known remediation plants in its inventory. 

The demand for this type of work and plant material seems to be increasing in the mid-Atlantic area for state and federal contracts. While a lot of people don’t think of the small jobs as contamination sites like Chernobyl, almost all new commercial construction sites have a paved parking lot with an attached drainage area for the collection of water after rain events. These collection areas receive fuel or oil leaked from their customers’ cars, not to mention any object or item tossed out the window or dumped out- it could be anything from a Big Gulp to battery acid.

Look around the next time you go to Lowe’s or Wawa and you’ll see tiny “Chernobyls” all over Maryland. This is an excellent opportunity for the landscape contractor to up-sell his landscape installation or maintenance contracts. Abby Farms can help you as we have some knowledge on the subject of phytoremediation plant selection and size of material that will help you get the biggest bang for your buck. The small contractor or the “little guy” can really clean up (no pun intended.) Here is what I mean. These jobs usually require minimal equipment, in most cases, hand tools and a pickup truck. Smaller sized trees and shrubs are the best remediators because younger plants have a higher growth rate, tapering off as they mature, thus doing a better job of decontamination or mitigation depending on the existing site conditions. Understanding conditions and contaminants determines the level of clean up, as certain plants will do certain things. River birch would be a target plant for nickel contaminated sites. It’s a proven fact that river birch needs nickel to reduce the chance of having deformed leaves. Phytotechnologies can be also utilized as a preventive measure, rather than solely a post-remediation tool. Dura heat, heritage or seedling all will work just fine. Abby Farms can help rebuild your soil and supply plants to match some of your needs for a sustainable future.

Partial List of Abby Farms Plants with Phyto Remediation Capabilities

  • Norway Maple
  • Black Alder
  • Big Blue Stem
  • White Birch
  • Hackberry
  • Eastern Redbud
  • Honey Locust
  • Red Cedar
  • Mulberry
  • Switch Grass
  • Loblolly Pine
  • Virginia Pine
  • Bur Oak
  • Willow Oak
  • Black Locust
  • Weeping Willow
  • Chinese Elm
  • Day Lily
  • Dwarf Burford Holly
  • Crape Myrtle
  • Liriope
  • Nandina
  • Chinese Pistache
  • Sweetgum

Environmental Accountability

Abby Farms will be entering or 7th year since we chose to go insecticide, fungicide and bactericide-free and push the sustainable envelope.  The word is spreading quite rapidly with our customers/contractors as we continue to enlighten them on our practices.  The sustainability is actually helping our customers sell jobs to their clients, creating a grass-roots movement in the mid-Atlantic region and beyond.  Abby Farms now has a sustainable footprint in 12 states.  Garden center clients use our products to push a pollinator plant product line.  We are showing a presence on the “Green Roof Movement,” also.

The customer feedback has been tremendous, including a buzz from our government agencies.  Surveying our customers, we have pin-pointed the fact that the trend is growing.  Our customers are aware that when we partner up sustainability, it definitely helps sell jobs and provide customer satisfaction.  Keep in mind that we can assist you with sustainable discussions with your clients, if need be, as we have meeting rooms that can accommodate 12-30 people.  All we ask is that you give us some notice and for you to choose a client that it really matters to.

Things to Remember for a Successful Commercial Landscape Project

Here is a list of professional tips to remember when working on a successful commercial landscape project.

  • The calcium-magnesium or sodium in the hard water can compete with the Roundup molecule and render it ineffective.
  • Don’t store plant material on asphalt.
  • Train your crew to jet or water in trees by paying attention to the air bubbles.  No air bubbles=a tree that will survive.
  • Check tree stakes.  Many crews install them way too tight against the bark.
  • When augering holes to install trees, scar the sidewalls of the hole with a shovel to reduce the bathtub-effect.
  • Don’t choke strap trees without some protection.  An old t-shirt or burlap can save you a lot of embarrassment.
  • A 3 inch B&B tree will need about 6 gallons of water a day in lighter soils for the first couple of weeks.
  • The organics in pond water will tie up or use up the glyphosate molecule rendering it useless.
  • It’s better to have a tree planted 2” high than 2” low.
  • Tree stakes and guy wires need to be adjusted as the tree grows.
  • It is always a good idea to water holes before planting the trees into them.
  • Treat root balls carefully.  Don’t drag or drop it off the truck or trailer.
  • The optimum pH when using Roundup is 5-5.5 pH.
  • Always water trees when they are unloaded from the truck after delivery.  Wind from highway travel will dry out the root ball.
  • When digging holes for plants, save the soil from the upper half of the hole to backfill because it is more biologically active.
  • Discard the lower half of the hole’s soil.
  • Little things like this make a difference.

Rose Rosette Disease


Rose Rosette disease is a virus transmitted by a mite, phyllocoptes fructiphilus.  It has been around for 70-80 years but has moved to the forefront due to over-planting of the Knockout Rose.  Many people, including nurserymen, believe this virus only affects the Knockout Rose which is untrue.  We are a sustainable grower at Abby Farms so we can’t use any chemicals to control this disease if we get it.

The universities are saying miticides are worthless anyway and we agree with them.  We know a miticides change the sap PH of the plant and disrupts the protein/carbohydrate balance and actually makes the plant more susceptible.

Abby Farms uses a two-pronged approach:

  1. Soil
    • Balance your cations in the soil.
    • Balance your nitrogen—equal parts nitrate to ammoniacal nitrogen.  Go with lower rates.  You do not want excessive growth!
    • Work your minor nutrients.  Zinc is a big factor but, remember, it retards copper.  Keep a 2-1 ratio ZN to CU .
    • Sulfur needs to be in adequate levels.
    • Use humates/humic acids to build your carbon.
    • Boron needs to be in the middle/high based on your cation exchange capacity.  Do not overdo it.  Get a soil test done.
  2. Foliar Sprays
    • Light foliar applications of fish fertilizer mixed with kelp—rotate with calcium, a little boron and carbon, spray to run off.
    • Get your brix level to 14%-19%.
    • Sanitize your pruners after every plant you trim.

These adjustments should keep you clean in the nursery.  The biggest failures in the landscape start with low calcium and boron levels in the soil along with no organic matter!

Boxwood Blight- Claonectria Pseudonauiculata


Row of infected boxwoods
Row of infected boxwoods in CT. Photo: Sharon Douglas, PhD, Plant Pathologist, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station


This is a very quick disease and hard to control because it can penetrate cuticle and stomata.  Start with sanitation.  Remove all old leaves from the container when weeding.  Space correctly so you can get air movement and sunshine to dry off the leaves quickly in the morning.  Sanitize your shears after pruning each plant if you suspect you have boxwood blight.

  1. Soil
    • Elevate your calcium 7 times higher than magnesium 70% to 10% soil balance.
    • Elevate your boron based on cation exchange capacity.
    • Good sulfur levels with a higher soil PH.
  2. Foliar Sprays
    • Fish fertilizer/carbon/rotated with a calcium silicate/boron mix.

Landscape’s biggest failures are low soil PH and poor drainage along with excessive irrigation.

Scale Insects

Scale insects are classified as either hard (armored) or soft (waxy).  They  are occasional invaders of the nursery and landscape setting while being sometimes the hardest to see due to size or coloration.  When you walk or inspect your grounds or nursery,  take a hard look,  as sometimes a scale insect will hide in cracks of the bark and if you’re doing your inspection on the fly,  you may not be close enough to see them.  Tulip tree scale is a larger scale easier to see from a distance while Japanese maple scale is smaller and can look like an extension of the bark.  The color of the bark also helps hide the scale and the newly emerged instar is extremely small.  Japanese maple scale can be found on a number of different types of trees, not just maples.  The same goes for tulip tree scale.  It is often found on southern magnolia, so don’t let the name confuse you.  Look at all the trees when doing a walk- thru.

The severity and length of the infestation can usually be determined by the sheer number of scale.  For example, Japanese maple scale will typically reproduce about 40-50 a year.  Then ask yourself, which side of the tree are they on, north, south, east or west.  Is one side more populated than the other?  If so, this could have been the initial site.  Stop and do a few random fingernail samples to see if they’re still alive as many times they are dead but still attached to the tree.  Flip them lightly with your finger nail.  Most times they will be moist and will be different colors.  For example, they can be whitish-yellow, yellow- pink or purple.  They may be dead with no moisture and are blown away with the wind like a feather.  Scale insects are not as hard to kill as some pest control companies want you to believe. In most cases this is a way they can command higher fees and instill fear in the property manager to quickly sign an expensive contract.  Remember, you’re dealing with a sick tree.

Healthy trees do not get attacked by scale insects.  Examine the site.  For example, is it new construction with no top soil left, wet areas, wet shaded areas, so on and so on?  A simple soil sample can tell you a lot and if you’re  dealing with a scale insect,  I would also send off a tissue sample to see what is not being picked up by the roots. There are many organic products that can kill scale within 48 hours (temperature-dependent ) in your kitchen at home.

Elm Trees

Elm trees and the weather are typically the most common topics at trade shows and meetings where growers congregate.  When attending trade shows I somehow end up in the booth as I am a grower, not a salesman.  I am always happy to see my friends and associates throughout the industry and to listen to our sales team answer some of the usual questions about availability, shipping, etc.  I’ve heard some potential customers say, “I stopped growing elms because I always get a bark canker and I’m tired of losing money,” or “I got freeze damage that split the bark,” or “the tops all died out this year.”  All of these comments get me stirred up.  It’s not that difficult so please don’t give up on elms!  There are a few simple rules for growing an elm.  When I speak of elms, I’m only talking about Ulmus Parvifolia, the trees that Abby Farms currently grows; Allee and Bosque.  Let’s discuss two major diseases that affect elms and how to prevent them from occurring.

Bark Canker is actually Fusarium stem canker and there is no chemical control if you get it.  The telltale signs are orangish-colored spore masses on the trunk about the size of a pencil eraser and you may see bark peeling or a wound that looks like a bull’s eye leaking sap.   The large wounds will not heal and will continue to leak sap periodically.  There are several causes of these wounds; the most common being mechanical injury.  Wounds provide an entry point for Fusarium to infect the tree.  Mechanical or physical injury can come from shipping.  If one or three gallon trees are stacked like cordwood in very hard, rigid pots, bouncing down the road may cause it.  If your planting crew is in a big rush, they can drop or slam trees around.  Mowers throwing sticks or rocks, bump sprayers and a whole host of other factors like hail, can cause injury.  Herbicide damage from repeated chemical weed control applications is another possibility and one that is hard to detect.  Are the entry points at the same height?  Are they on the same side of the tree?  A little detective work can eliminate many possibilities.  I almost forgot to mention that stress from inconsistent moisture, and water-logged or too dry a specimen can amplify the problem.  Get a good book or read up on Fusarium online.  This one is easy to prevent.

Coral Spot Nectria shows up in the spring and early summer.  As with Fusarium, there is no chemical control.  You will know when you have it as the tree will usually flush from the bottom in the spring with no flush occurring at the top.  It may flush separately, and will soon turn brown, usually dying in four to eight weeks.  After careful examination, you will see pink pustules.  You may also see discolored bark or dead, sunken areas.  The cause is simple; it is usually a stress condition.  Untimely late summer or fall pruning leaving fresh pruning cuts exposed, provides entry points for this fungus.  Other causes for points of entry are root pruning at the wrong time and freeze damage.  Freeze damage is the most common cause, resulting in injured bark or buds during the first or second cold snap in the fall when the trees have not yet hardened off.  Coral Spot Nectria mainly affects younger trees.  I have not observed this to any major degree after they have reached about a 2” caliper.

What steps can the grower take to lower the risk of getting either of these diseases?  The first step is to gain knowledge such as what I’ve outlined here, a quick overview, based on my personal experience as a grower.  There are several things you can do to set yourself up for a successful elm crop.  The prevention of man-made injury and bruising, timely pruning and not getting herbicide on the trunk are all under your control.  Don’t blame the tree.  Train your crew to be careful with them.  The weather is a factor that is completely out of your control, but you can minimize your risk by preparing the tree for the cold.  Forget the old wives tale of shutting elms down in the fall.  Reducing the fertilizer and shutting the water off are the two most detrimental things you can do.  Adjust your water to match the weather.  Inconsistent fall moisture, mainly being too dry, is also a major factor in container production.  Also, change your fertilizer.  Nitrogen is essential going into the winter months, especially if you plan on digging.  When doing this with elms, drop the sodium level in the soil down to no more than 3%.  Personally, I aim for 1-2% sodium.  Remember, potassium and sodium have the same positive charge; the plant will absorb sodium because it’s more mobile and move it into the cell walls.  As long as the weather is cool, you’ll have no problem.  But when it gets hot and humid, the sodium will expand and break the cell walls allowing an entry point for Fusarium or Nectria, occurring in the summer.  This is the beginning of the problem.  You will most likely see the damage in the following spring.  I lower the sodium and raise the potassium to try to keep this from happening.  It is actually very simple; just get a base saturation soil sample.  This is usually a free service provided by your fertilizer sales person.  Read your test and make sure you have good potassium levels.  Potassium also helps with your cold hardiness by regulating pressure in the cellular tissues.  The next step is to make sure you have adequate sulfur levels.  I like to be in the mid-20 ppm minimum, which helps the plant deal with stress.  With all of this being said and done, I think these simple steps help lower my risk of loss due to Mother Nature.

In conclusion, I am a grower and these suggestions, again, are based on my personal experience.  In 2002 I lost over 4,000 three gallon elms to Coral Spot Nectria.  Since then using these methods, I have not lost a single tree to the disease, so these methods are working.


Plant Health Checkup

March 2016

Scouting is an integral part of sustainability practices at Abby Farms. By constantly walking our fields, we are able to notice many problems when they are small, and get them corrected quickly. In addition, we are constantly sampling our trees and soil, looking for problems before they are visible to the naked eye.

Soil samples are pulled every year, 3 times the recommended State of Maryland rate. We do this to fine tune our soils every year instead of making large scale corrections every three years. This keeps our soil humming along like a fine-tuned engine.

Leaf and tissue samples are pulled during the growing season. Sap is extracted from the leaves and run through several in-house tests. We are then able to make real time decisions about the health of a tree and make targeted mineral treatments.