Drought Tolerant Plants: Water Conservation Landscape at Idaho Botanical Garden

Demonstration gardens are one of the best places to learn about drought tolerant plants that are appropriate for your region. Such gardens not only help you decide which species you should plant, but also show you what the plants look like at maturity, what they are doing at any given time of year, and how to organize them (or how not to organize them, depending on the quality of the garden) in an aesthetically pleasing way. A couple of years ago, I explored the Water Efficient Garden at the Idaho State Capitol Building. This year I visited the Water Conservation Landscape at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.

The Water Conservation Landscape is planted on a large L-shaped berm on the edge of Idaho Botanical Garden’s property. It is the first thing that visitors to the garden see, before they reach the parking area and the front gate. It is nearly a decade old, so the majority of the plants are well established and in their prime. Because the garden is so visible, year-round interest is important. This imperative has been achieved thanks to thoughtful plant selection and design.

This demonstration garden came about thanks to a partnership between Idaho Botanical Garden and several other organizations, including the water company, sprinkler supply companies, and a landscape designer. An interpretive sign is installed at one end of the garden describing the benefits of using regionally appropriate plants to create beautiful drought tolerant landscapes. If you ever find yourself in the Boise area, this is a garden well worth your visit. In the meantime, here are a few photos as it appeared in 2017.

February 2017

bluebeard (Caryopteris incana ‘Jason’) – February 2017

Sedum spurium ‘Dragon’s Blood – March 2017

winter heath (Erica x darleyensis ‘Kramer’s Red’) – March 2017

May 2017

avens (Geum x hybrida ‘Totally Tangerine’) – May 2017

July 2017

American cranberrybush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum ‘Wentworth’) – July 2017

Fremont’s evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa ssp. fremontii ‘Shimmer’) – July 2017

Fremont’s evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa ssp. fremontii ‘Shimmer’) – July 2017

August 2017

cheddar pink (Dianthus gratianopolitanus ‘Firewitch’) – August 2017

smoketree (Cotinus coggyria ‘Royal Purple’) – August 2017

gray lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus) – September 2017

showy stonecrop (Hylotelephium telephium ‘Matrona’) – September 2017

showy stonecrop (Hylotelephium telephium ‘Matrona’) – September 2017

Adam’s needle (Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’) – October 2017

fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’) – October 2017

More Drought Tolerant Plant Posts:

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The Problem with ‘Yes’ Landscapes

This is a guest post by Jeremiah Sandler. Follow Jeremiah on Instagram @j4.sandler

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I don’t work for a landscape company, nor have I ever worked for one. The company I do work for contracts with these companies to do health care on their landscapes. For example, we scout for insects and diseases, spray pesticides when necessary, make recommendations of proper cultural practices, and fertilize.

Something has been bothering me for the past two years about the landscapes in metropolitan southeast Michigan. Both commercial and residential landscapes have at least two things in common: the same plants, and the same poor management of these plants. The clients have no idea they’re being ripped off.

The landscape companies I have experience with seem to think the homeowner is always right.

The ‘Yes’ Conversation

You want a Colorado blue spruce in humid Michigan? Sure, no problem. Let’s put six trees within 15 square feet. Don’t bother removing the cage and burlap. We also won’t tell you the massive expense you’ll pay in the future to spray fungicides on your spruce to keep it alive. If one dies, we’ll just replace it with the same plant.

You want a green hedge? Boxwoods or yews. They’ll be sheared multiple times a year by our crew of expert (and underpaid and exhausted) workers. At the first sign of new growth, we’ll be there mutilating your plants to ensure that they stay at right angles. You see all of those ripped apart, discolored leaves on your shrubs? Ignore that; plants are meant to be tamed into perfect geometry. Oh, that’ll be an extra charge to spray insecticides and fungicides.

Here’s a list of plants you can get to add to the monotony in your neighborhood: crabapple, hawthorn, cherry, honeylocust, blue spruce, oak, red maple, Japanese maple, pear, white pine, boxwood, yew, hydrangea, arborvitae, burning bush, and wax begonias.

Why is your hemlock tree neon yellow? We don’t know, let’s just replace it. Why is your Norway maple declining? Well, when we planted it, we kept the cage on its root ball, despite this tree having notorious girdling roots. Let’s get you a new one. Why are some of your shrubs rotting out? We left the soaker hoses on them for years and kept them running regularly. Yes we can spray all of your plants. We can kill everything before it’s a problem.

We’re the best landscapers in town! Our services are top of the line, and we guarantee your landscape will look exactly the same as your neighbor’s.

That’s a very sardonic, hypothetical conversation between a homeowner and a landscape company. A sensible company knows you don’t know best. As a homeowner, it is wise to heed the advice of a company’s horticulturist. Cost is always a consideration for the homeowner. However, the more expensive company is not always the highest quality. Here’s why.

So, you want a Colorado blue spruce?

A responsible company won’t let you plant a blue spruce in a place with wet springs and humid summers. They will tell you why it is not a good idea, and they will suggest alternatives. For example, a concolor fir (Abies concolor) looks similar to a blue spruce. They are resistant to needle cast diseases and cytospora canker, and they can tolerate southeast Michigan’s alkaline soils. In the long run, it is much cheaper to get the right plant in the right place.

You will pay more for your blue spruce because, not only are you paying for installation, you are paying to spray fungicides year after year to avoid having a skeleton in your yard. Companies know there is a likelihood of replacing your newly planted blue spruces, so you are charged for it.

We love boxwoods and so do you

Maybe you do like the classic, formal look of hedges. And maybe you do like the texture offered by a boxwood or yew. That’s fine. This is the problem I see literally every single day: over-shearing.

An appropriate cultivar selection is the answer. Cultivars and hybrids exist which only grow to x-amount tall and x-amount wide. Simply read the tag from the nursery. If your landscape company planted the proper plants the first time, they wouldn’t be able to charge you as much as they do to “maintain” them. The right plants in the right places need very little maintenance. I will concede, a few plants can tolerate being sheared. Once in a great while is acceptable; not three times a year.

Excessive shearing stresses out a plant. In fact, certain chemicals released by the open wounds of the leaves attract insects. Wet, exposed tissue serves as a breeding ground for fungi. Some of the problems your shrubs face are directly caused by the shearing itself.

PlantAmnesty, a website dedicated to stopping bad pruning practices states:

Any pruning book will explain that one prunes to open up the center of the plant, allowing air and light penetration to make the plant healthy. Shearing, on the other hand, creates a twiggy outer shell that gets ever denser and collects more deadwood and dead leaves every year, the opposite of a healthy condition. The results create the perfect protected place for pests and diseases, akin to locking up the house so the garbage can’t be removed. After many years, this treatment can lead to disease and general bad health without actually being a disease itself. If plants have mites and blights, bugs and mildews galore, how they were pruned may be the root of the problem.

Not to mention, the plant is spending all of its energy regrowing those leaves you continually cut off. There are correct ways to prune plants, and none of them include the excessive use of motorized shears. A plant grows to reach an equilibrium with its environment. If the environment is adequate, the plant will grow. If the environment is unfavorable, the plant will decline. In other words, if it is growing, let it grow!

What’s a monoculture?

There seems to be only 15 plants which are acceptable to the landscaper. The plant selection is predictable. Certainly there are more than 15 different species of plants you can have on your property. Sure, some redundant species are okay: white pines, oaks, maples (except that damned Norway maple). I don’t want to discourage people from exploring new options, though.

Native plants offer easy beauty. They have evolved in your region for millennia and are therefore adapted to your environmental conditions. These plants often tolerate both biological and environmental stressors better than non-native plants. Expenses are saved when you don’t have to pay for disease control. You wouldn’t buy a vehicle, for example, that you know would break down and require fixing all the time.

There are dozens of other shrub options for texture, winter interest, privacy walls, etc., that you don’t have to hire a crew to shear every month. Surprisingly, some large yucca species are hardy in colder zones, which offer a different texture. Red-twig dogwoods provide colorful winter interest; there are red, green, and yellow-stemmed cultivars. Coyote willow is native to southeast Michigan. It is a thin-leafed, rhizomatous Salix species which forms beautiful yellow walls in the fall. An entire, separate article can be written on the subject of alternatives. Just know there are plenty of species to choose from no matter where you live.

Ask, and you shall receive

This request comes from homeowners and is often fulfilled by companies: “Can’t you just spray it?” Granting this request is entirely wrong. One cannot, by law and by principle, go around as a pesticide desperado. You live in that environment. Why would you want pesticides in excess? Chemicals are used as a last resort and strictly on an as needed basis.

Appropriate timing, safety precautions, and proper insect identification are all legally required before insecticides can be applied. Some of the ‘yes’-type companies will comply with all uneducated (and sometimes unsafe) requests.

Some of the appointments I have with customers address very rudimentary horticultural problems. The homeowner’s concerns are legitimate. Most problems they are having, though, can be avoided with an ounce of foresight. Issues include planting hemlock trees in full sun, or replacing a Japanese maple killed by verticillium wilt with another Japanese maple. The list goes on…

Saying ‘No’

There’s a myriad of things that can go wrong in a landscape. It is an artificial environment containing plants which evolved continents apart. Plants often don’t have the capacity to combat pathogens that they are not exposed to in their native habitats, but certain issues are impossible to predict. There is a base knowledge one should have before making these kinds of decisions. The “customer is always right” philosophy doesn’t apply in this domain. You should have some creative influence on your landscape; it’s yours, after all. Spend the time in the nursery looking for interesting plants, make a list, and run it by your landscaper. If they say ‘yes’ to all of your choices, fire them. The people you hire cannot be too timid to tell you ‘no’ sometimes.

“Right plant, right place” is the mantra among plant health care technicians. We are the people who have to clean up the messes made by your landscapers. If your landscaper did their job with longevity in mind, I probably wouldn’t have much to do.

Drought Tolerant Plants: The Junipers

When I first developed a real interest in plants, I was in the heyday of my zine writing career. As my interest in gardening grew, writing a zine about it became inevitable. Initially I envisioned the zine as a journal of sorts – the journal of a budding horticulturist (pun intentional). Since I was new to gardening – and plants in general – the zine was meant to follow my journey as I explored this new world.

A zine needs a name though, so what would I call it? It didn’t take long for me to land on, The Juniper. I was familiar with a common disdain for the unsightly, overgrown, neglected, evergreen shrub full of spiders and cobwebs that for whatever reason was at one point planted right outside just about every house in America (a fire hazard, by the way). I was aware that many people were resorting to tearing them out, cursing as they battled the pokey, dirty, half dead things.

That was basically all I knew about junipers – they were common landscape plants that were just as commonly despised. My affection for freaks, geeks, outsiders, and rejects led me to name my zine after a shrub that everyone hated. I guess I just felt like we had something in common, and that despite being the bane of people’s existence, it deserved some recognition.

the juniper zine

And it does. Junipers are an important species in their natural habitats. In some areas they are dominant features to the point where entire plant communities are named after them. Consider the piñon-juniper woodlands of western North America – prominent steppe habitats that occur throughout high desert regions and support diverse forms of wildlife unique to this part of the world. Dan Johnson writes in the book, Steppes, “the piñon-juniper zone dominates huge expanses of the West in varying stages of  health, providing a wealth of habitats and resources to the wildlife and the people who call it home.”

Johnson goes on to describe some of these habitats:

In the Colorado Plateau this zone is dominated by Pinus edulis and Juniperus osteosperma, with J. scopulorum occupying drainages with more moisture. In the Great Basin, P. edulis is replaced by P. monophylla as the dominant piñon pine, still mixing with J. osteosperma, yet as one moves west, this juniper is increasingly replaced by J. occidentalis. Move farther north, and J. occidentalis dominates completely, with neither piñon pine making an appearance.

The genus Juniperus is in the cypress family (Cupressaceae) and includes up to 67 species, at least 13 of which are native to North America. They are long-lived plants that range from prostrate, sprawling groundcovers to expansive, bushy shrubs to tall, narrow trees. Their foliage is evergreen and can be either needle-like or scale-like. Most juniper species have needle-like foliage in their seedling and juvenile stages and then scale-like foliage at maturity. Some species, like J. communis, never develop scale-like foliage. Junipers are gymnosperms, so their reproductive structures are housed in cones. However, their cones are fleshy and so are commonly (and mistakenly) referred to as berries or fruits. Juniper cones are most often blue or gray-blue, but in some species they have a red, brown, or orange hue.

In general, junipers are quite drought tolerant, particularly those species that are adapted to hot, dry climates. Again referring to piñon-juniper steppes, Johnson writes, “in prolonged periods of drought, the piñon pines seem to suffer long before the junipers; whole hillsides of pine may go brown, leaving islands of olive-green juniper relatively unscathed.” In the book, Shrubs of the Great Basin, Hugh Mozingo attributes this drought toughness to the scale-like leaves: “Because they are smaller and so closely appressed to the twigs, these scale-like leaves are a superior adaptation to the frequently very dry conditions in piñon-juniper communities.” This herculean ability to survive on little water makes them a great addition to a dry garden.

But we may first have to get over our disdain for them. As this post on Chicago Botanic Garden’s website puts it: “Junipers have suffered from overuse and underimagination.” (This article also examines our hatred of juniper bushes). Probably a bigger problem is that, like so many other plants used in a landscape, mature height and width often isn’t taken into consideration, and rather than removing a plant when it gets too big for the site, sheers or a hedge trimmer are regularly deployed. I’m not a huge fan of the sheered look. I much prefer a more natural form to the boxes and globes that are so common in commercial and residential plantings. I’m even less of a fan of the misguided inclination to force a plant to fit in a space that it isn’t meant to be (unless you’re a bonsai artist, I guess). This treatment is what leads to exposing the ugly, brown insides of a juniper shrub – an unsightly look that only makes people hate them more.

Brown insides of juniper shrub exposed after years of forcing the plant to fit in a site that is too small for its britches.

Brown insides of juniper shrub exposed after years of forcing the plant to fit in an improper site.

There are numerous commercially available cultivars of juniper species, offering a plethora of sizes, shapes, and forms as well as various colors of foliage. For small or narrow areas, select dwarf varieties or columnar forms that won’t need to be kept in check, and in all cases let the plant express its authentic self, controlling the urge to sheer and shape it against its will.

As if their natural beauty and low water requirement wasn’t enough, junipers are also great for supporting wildlife. Birds and other animals use them for cover and for nesting sites. The fleshy cones are edible, the shredding bark is used for nesting material, and the evergreen foliage provides much needed protection during winter months. Oh and, among many other benefits that junipers offer humans, their aromatic, fleshy cones have culinary value and are used to flavor gin.

I don’t want to leave the impression that I am opposed to pruning and shaping shrubs. For aesthetic reasons, I think it should be done. However, my opinion is that unnatural shapes should be avoided. Sure, boxed hedge rows have their place in certain types of gardens, but my preference is towards more natural shapes. The following video by University of Illinois Extension provides a brief tutorial on how to achieve that.   

Planting for Pollinators

“All urban greenspaces offer potential for pollinators, and all can become important links in a chain of wildlife habitat winding through developed land. At the most basic level, healthy greenspaces mean healthy people and healthy communities. And at the core of a healthy environment are the pollinators.” –excerpt from the book, Attracting Native Pollinators by The Xerces Society

Concern for pollinators, particularly bees, is widespread. Whether you pay attention to the news or not, you are most likely aware that something is up. The bees are disappearing and no one seems to know why. Of course, most of the news concerning dying bees is in reference to honey bees, largely because they are major agricultural pollinators and producers of honey. But there are two things that many people may not be aware of: 1. Honey bees are not native to North America – they were brought over from Europe by early settlers – and 2. North America is replete with native pollinators (including numerous species of bees, butterflies, beetles, and wasps) and they, too, are threatened (partly due to non-native honey bees, but we won’t get into that here). Oh, and there is a third thing, we do know why bees and other pollinators are disappearing, and it’s not because of cell phone towers or other wacky ideas that have been proposed.

Actually, pollinator decline is due to a whole suite of things. As much as we like to seek out the silver bullet – the single cause with a single solution that will solve the problem – this issue (like so many others) does not have one. Habitat degradation and loss, the spread of pests and diseases, extensive pesticide use, and climate change all play a role in pollinator decline. Consider a modern day farm: acres and acres of a single crop planted from one edge of the field to the other, often planted with an herbicide resistant variety of crop so that all plants (both weedy and non-weedy) can be sprayed and killed leaving only the crop in question to grow competitor free. Or consider an urban landscape: patchy green space amidst miles and miles of pavement, concrete, and rooftops, and when that green space occurs, it is often a chemical green lawn free of weeds or a flower bed loaded with non-native ornamentals, bred for aesthetic appeal and often lacking in wildlife value. Our modern landscapes just aren’t fit for pollinators.

But things can change. The problem is complex, but there are small things each of us can do that when added up can make a colossal difference. Creating pollinator friendly habitats in our communities – spaces that are free from pesticides and include diverse food sources and nesting sites – can help ensure that pollinators will survive and thrive. Here are a few guidelines and resources to help you create pollinator habitat in your yard or neighborhood:

– Find a sunny location: Pollinators are most active when it is warm, so find areas that get at least 6-8 hours of full sun (just like you would if you were planning a vegetable garden).

Plant a wide variety of plants: Something should always be in bloom during the growing season, so select at least 3 plants that flower in each of the 3 blooming periods (spring, summer, and fall). Early spring bloomers and fall bloomers are especially important. Also, in order to attract a wide range of pollinators, select plants with varying heights and growth habits and that have flowers of various colors, shapes, and sizes.

– Plant in clusters: On each foraging trip, bees visit the flowers of a single plant species, so plant each species in small clumps.

-Provide nesting sites and a water source: Bumble bees nest at the bases of bunchgrasses, so include a warm season bunchgrass like little bluestem in your yard. Ground nesting bees require a section of bare ground, so lay off on the mulch. Construct and install bundles of hollow stems (like bamboo or elderberry) in order to provide nesting sites for mason bees. Also, include a birdbath or something with a ledge for pollinators to perch and drink.

There are many resources that can instruct you on providing habitat for pollinators. One standout is The Xerces Society. They are “a nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat.” Their website is loaded with information: specific plant recommendations by region, instructions on how to provide habitat for certain pollinators, alternatives to pesticides, etc. You can even help them by becoming a citizen scientist. Other excellent resources include Monarch Watch and The Great Sunflower Project.

attracting-native-pollinators1

“Simple decisions about selecting plants, providing nest sites, minimizing disturbance, and reducing pesticides can make a dramatic difference between a green, manicured, but lifeless landscape, and one that teems with the color, energy, and life of buzz-pollinating bumble bees, rapidly dashing hummingbird moths, and busy nest-building leafcutter bees.” –excerpt from Attracting Native Pollinators by The Xerces Society

Stay tuned for future posts about pollinators, including pollinator conservation and specific pollinator and plant interactions. Also, comment below to share what you are doing to help pollinators in your community. 

Related Posts:

In the News: Declining Insect Populations

Figs and Fig Wasps

In the News: Declining Insect Populations

Last week the New York Times published an article about declining populations of insects in the United States, specifically monarch butterflies and wild bees. Monarch butterflies migrate south to Mexico each fall, typically arriving by the millions on the first of November. This year was tragically different, because the monarchs did not arrive on the first, and when they finally began trickling in a week late, there were significantly less of them. In his article, The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear, Jim Robbins discusses why this and similar scenarios are becoming commonplace.

Increased pesticide use and global climate change are certainly contributing factors in the decline of insect populations; however, Robbins suggests that the loss of native habit is the major culprit. For example: monarch butterflies rely on milkweed (Asclepias spp.); in fact, their larvae feed exclusively on it. No milkweed = no new monarch butterflies. Urban sprawl, farmland expansion, Roundup Ready crops, and herbicide use along roadways all result in declining milkweed populations, as well as declines in the populations of other beneficial native plants.

And that’s not all. “Around the world people have replaced diverse natural habitat with the biological deserts that are roads, parking lots and bluegrass lawns, ” says Robbins, meanwhile landscape plants are selected for their ornamental appeal, “for their showy colors or shapes, not their ecological role.” In support of his argument, Robbins cites studies which found that native oak and willow species in the mid-Atlantic states are hosts to 537 and 456 species of caterpillars, respectively. On the other hand, non-native, ornamental ginkgoes host three.

Insects provide numerous ecosystem services. They help break down waste products, they are pollinators of countless species of plants (including many of our crops), and they are food sources for larger animals (including birds, reptiles, and amphibians)…and this is just the short list. As John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Thus, the decline of native insect populations is a concern that should not be taken lightly.

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Asclepias tuberosa – butterfly milkweed

If you haven’t already, please consider including some native plants in your yard. If you don’t have a yard, suggest the idea of landscaping with native plants to your friends. To learn more about monarch butterflies and their plight (including information on how to grow milkweed), visit www.monarchwatch.org.

Rock Gardens: An Introduction

Recently I helped build and plant a rock garden. It was a first for me, but something I had been wanting to do for a while. Rock gardens consist of plants that grow in rocky environments, such as rock outcrops on mountains or accumulations of rocks at the bases of cliffs or steep slopes. Rock garden plants are commonly called alpine plants – alpine refers to an environment that is very high in elevation or, in other words, in mountains above the tree line. Not all rock garden plants are native to alpine environments; however, in the rock garden community, the term “alpine” often refers to small, hardy plants that are ideal for rock gardens.

A rock garden mimics the environments of alpine plants by incorporating a mixture of large and small rocks placed in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Well-draining soil is brought in to fill the spaces between the rocks, and the plants are planted in these spaces. Rock garden plants are typically small and compact. Cushion plants (Silene acaulis, Saxifraga spp., etc.) are one example of a type of rock garden plant. Other popular rock garden plants include the following genera: Pulsatilla, Viola, SedumDaphne, DelospermaDianthus, Thymus, Primula, and Scutellaria. The list goes on. Many rock garden plants can be found at local garden centers, while others will require some searching, but there should be enough of them available to at least get you started.

A rock garden doesn’t have to mean a scattering of rocks laid out on the ground. They can also be built in raised beds or they can consist of a series of troughs or planters. Rock garden troughs are typically made of tufa or hypertufa. Tufa is a naturally occurring variety of limestone. Hypertufa is a human-made version of tufa that is composed of various aggregates cemented together.

To learn more about rock gardening and to join a community of rock gardeners, check out the North American Rock Garden Society, and stay tuned to Awkward Botany for future posts on rock gardens.

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Here is an example of a rock garden in a hypertufa trough. You can see this and more like it at Idaho Botanical Garden.

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Crape Murder and Other Crimes

Here is something that will hopefully provide you with a little comic relief…and perhaps bring a little contempt as well. Recently, I was talking with a woman from Texas, and she informed me of an appalling ritual referred to, by those opposed to it, as “Crape Murder.” It’s being carried out on an ornamental tree that was brought over to the United States from Asia. The tree is commonly known as crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia spp.). It is very popular throughout the southern United States and has a reputation of being one of the most beautiful additions to a landscape due to its appealing natural shape, its propensity to flower all summer long, and its attractive bark. The “murder” aspect comes in when folks who, ignorant of proper horticulture techniques (and with a poor opinion on what might be considered “aesthetically appealing”) hack the branches of crape myrtles back at the end of the season so that all that is left of the poor things are nubby trunks. Apparently they think they are doing the tree and themselves a service, but the results of this action aren’t serving anyone – especially the trees. There are a number of passionate arguments against this heinous act found on the internet. Here is a link to one. There is also a facebook page devoted to bringing an end to Crape Murder.

This discussion reminded me of a post that I read on Garden Rant a little while back. The author was ranting against what he calls “plant janitors,” pointing out the atrocities that are carried out by these nefarious creatures on a daily basis. It turns out that the author of this rant also has a facebook page devoted to “crimes against horticulture.”

All of this is quite comforting to me, because it has helped me to realize that I am not the only one who gets squeamish when I see the hideous things that people decide to do to their plants and to their landscapes. Now that I am aware that there are plenty of other places on the internet to let off steam and rant about these issues, I can assure you that I will refrain from doing such things here. For the most part anyway…

crape murder