Pollinators and Pesticides Don’t Mix

I am sure that you don’t want to hear the story about why I became an organic gardener again. I re-hashed it just in the last two weeks.

So here’s a different story that I haven’t told in quite some time. Retail gardening was an eye-opener for me, particularly as an organic gardener. The idea that not only was I there to sell an arsenal of toxic products and to advise the consumers on how to use them was difficult, but worse yet, in the box store where I worked, half the customers were absolutely convinced that they knew far better than I did how to use the products and refused to take my suggestions.

This was extremely upsetting because I had customers coming in and saying things like that they were going to put down their crabgrass preventer in February because the bag said it could be applied then (mind you, it’s a national product, so the February recommendation is for the southern regions of the country!). Some of them even said that they were going to apply it over the snow! Sigh.

I don’t have enough time or patience to explain why that is a bad idea other to say that none of the product is going to reach your grass. It’s just going to wash away, into the streets and storm drains and contribute to pollution in our waterways. So for those of you that do that, you are wasting money and polluting our waters. Please re-think.

The other issue with this foolhardy way of using so-called “Step 1” programs is that the preventer in these bags is good for 4 months of crabgrass prevention. Now, crabgrass germinates at soil temperatures of 50 degrees or so (not under the snow!) So if you put the preventer down in mid-February, let’s count forward. Your preventer will be all used up by mid-June–just about the time crabgrass really gets going in my region.

But this is not a post about crabgrass. It’s a post about the many crazy things that folks do to harm our pollinators, our waterways and even ourselves.

Back when I was at that same box store, I had a lovely woman come to me and say that she wasn’t getting any zucchini on her plants. She had flowers on the plants, but the flowers were just falling off and not forming squashes.

So I asked her if she saw any bees in her yard. She had to think long and hard and finally said, no, that she didn’t. So I told her that her squashes weren’t getting pollinated so they couldn’t form the zucchini.

She wanted to know why, so I asked her about pesticide use. Normally, I knew better than to voluntarily bring this up. At first she said no, but then she said that yes, they did use the 4 step program on their lawns. They used a grub killer on the lawn. She also used a foundation spray that claimed to work for long periods of time to keep insects out. And she might even have used something in the garden–I don’t recall now–like a weed killing product.  But even if not, that’s still a pretty intensive pesticide load on the property and it was clearly taking a toll on the bees–there were none.

So you tell me whether pesticides and pollinators mix based on that story. Or, you can learn the hard way and try it on your own. But, quite frankly, I’d prefer that you didn’t. Our pollinators are too imperiled for that!

Stop Right There! Is It Safe to Clean Up Your Garden Yet?

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You’re going to hear a lot about pollinators from me and all the other Garden Writers (yes, I use capital letters because we’re all members of GWA, formerly Garden Writers of America) in the next few months.

For years we’ve been hearing about particular individual pollinators like bats, who were in decline from white nose fungus, or monarch butterflies who were declining because of loss of habitat and perhaps pesticide use and of course the honeybee and colony collapse disorder.

But have we ever stopped to consider that we might be the cause of some of the problem? It’s a dreadful thought, and not one that any of us want to think about I’m sure.

I know that I like to think that I do my part for pollinators. I plant native plants whenever possible. And I am the organic gardener that I am specifically because of butterflies–or the lack that I found when I moved to my current property in 1994. As soon as I convinced the Spoiler we had to stop using pesticides, the butterflies came back (now, if only I could convince the rest of the neighborhood!)

But I recently read this fascinating piece from the Xerces Society about leaving spring clean up in the garden until later in the season to allow the ground nesting native bees to seek shelter on cooler nights and to permit the overwintering butterflies to hatch out.

Whoa! That’s huge! Why does no one ever talk  about this?

I know we’re just starting to publicize leaving leaf litter and twigs, etc in the garden in the fall for just these same reasons–shelter and cover for beneficial insects and native bees.

You’ll be seeing a lot more from me–this month and in June, during Pollinator Week–about this topic.

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The realization that for my climate I still need to be leaving the stems of my perennials standing a wee bit longer was amazing. I’ve been thinking about cutting them back for weeks and only time and wet weather prohibited me (thank goodness it’s raining again!)

If you live somewhere warmer, file this under “to be remembered.” The Xerces Society post has a great chart about how to know it’s safe to do spring clean-up by simple things like whether you have done your first spring mowing or whether the apple and cherry trees in your neighborhood have finished blooming.

Considering that’s a big fat “NO!” for me right now, I guess I and my neighbors will need to look at a messy yard a little bit longer–at least on my property!

How Did the Garden Gift Givers Do?

In the days leading up to Christmas and Hanukkah, I heard and read a lot of different stories about “the best gifts for gardeners.” I may have shared a few on Twitter myself.

But I probably shared very few because for the most part very few of them actually appealed to me!  Call me jaded–or perhaps it’s just that after 20-plus years of gardening in the same location, I have what I need–but lots of suggestions for gloves, pruners, twine and things like that I just didn’t find the least bit appealing.

For one thing, I have very tiny hands–so tiny that I will occasionally buy child-sized gloves. Anyone who buys me gloves is going to have to know me pretty well to get that correct.

And that will go for pruners as well. First of all, after all these years, I have literally dozens lying around the garage–and house. I have them in just about every room (with all those house plants, they come in handy!) But I don’t like just any pruner and when I am outside pruning most things a particular pair of Felcos™ is my go to pruner of choice. I don’t want–or need–anything else.

I did get a gardening book for Christmas but I have so many that it’s one I specifically asked for. Again, unless you know your gardener well–or unless it’s one of the very latest offerings from a publisher, how do you know the gardener hasn’t read it? I adore books as gifts and think winter is the perfect time to catch up on new reads and new gardening techniques. But I wouldn’t just spring a book on an unsuspecting gardener unless I were somehow sure he or she hadn’t read it.

The one suggestion that I heard a few times that I thought was good was a garden gift certificate. Yes, it’s unimaginative–one step above cash–but at least you know your gardening friend will truly be able to put it to good use for plants, tools or books that he or she really wants. Nothing wrong with that.

So if you haven’t finished your gifting yet–and some of you haven’t, with Hanukkah and Kwanzaa just beginning–maybe these thoughts will help you with the gardeners in your life.

 

The Garden Contrarian

There are days when I just feel like a big curmudgeon.  Last season I did a whole series of posts called “Let’s Not Be Mindless…” about different things including how to use mulch.  Most times when I talk about why I don’t use mulch on my heavy, wet clay soil I feel a little like John the Baptist: a lonely voice crying out in the wilderness.

Unlike John, however, my voice is rarely heeded. I think people think I am just a contrarian.

Now it’s “spring” (at least according to the calendar) or what passes for spring in my part of the country: cold, wet damp days on end followed by an occasional nice day or perhaps even an unseemly warm day.  Mud season. People ask my why I’m not out working in the garden.

“Can’t,” I reply. “The soil is too wet. I’ll ruin it.”

Now I might as well be one of those mythical beasts with 3 or 4 heads from the looks I get. Even the magazines are running articles and newsletter posts with titles like “Get Out There!”

Well, yes, and no. Depending on where you live, what your conditions are, and how wet your soil is, you can really be doing a lot of harm if you “get out there” and walk on wet lawn or soil.

So gardeners, know yourselves, your gardens and your conditions. And on a bright sunny day, if those conditions aren’t right for working in the garden, take a walk instead!

Let’s Not Be Mindless About…Pre-Emergents

I’ve saved one of the best for last because this is something that I think too few folks understand. I even saw a garden center recommending that we apply pre-emergents to our garden beds now without any recommendation that the beds be weed free first (or snow free, for that matter–at the time I read the blog post, 6″ of snow still covered most of my beds and the garden center wasn’t too far from me!)

Pre-emergents are just that–for weeds that have not yet come out. If there are weeds already there, forget about it. If you have perennial weeds, forget about it.

What do I mean by perennial weeds? Well, dandelions are perennials. Did you get all those out last year? I know that sadly, most of my weeds are perennial or I wouldn’t be back there going over the same thing year after year after year. And if they’re not perennial, they’re bi-enniel, like garlic mustard, for example. No pre-emergent is going to stop that from coming back.

Worse yet, the advice was simply to apply a pre-emergent with no mention of how to do it correctly. In order for the darn things to work (and please keep in mind that unless you’re applying corn gluten meal, all pre-emergent are not organic) you must water them in. So perhaps that’s why the garden center made no recommendation about how to do it–because they knew it was impossible to water right now.

But without water, the pre-emergent doesn’t work properly so all you’re doing is basically applying a chemical to your garden that will not control even annual weeds–so why are you doing that? Don’t go there.

If you want to control weeds and don’t have heavy clay soil, you’re much better off mulching. If you do have heavy clay, try what I saw one garden writer describe as a “living mulch”–otherwise known as plants or a low groundcover

But these pre-emergents are way over-sold for what they can do. And if you cannot apply them properly and water them in, and if your area is not weed free to begin with, do not expect good results.

Let’s Not Be Mindless About….Removing A Plant Too Soon

overgrown juniper

You may remember this plant–or a portion of it–from a few Wordless Wednesdays ago. There was a robin standing under it.

At that time it didn’t look too bad. Now that you see the whole thing, you think, “Ick! I would have chopped that plant down years ago. What is she thinking?!”

Well, there were 2 different times I almost chopped it down. This thing, if you can believe it, started its life as one of those cute little 5 pom-pom balled junipers. I’m not entirely sure how it got so overgrown but the Spoiler with his electric hedge trimmers hasn’t done it any favors over the years.

The first time I started making noises about “this thing has got to go!” my neighbor erected a playscape for his children directly on my property line (why do people do that?!) and directly in my line of vision from every room of my house. This was the only thing that saved me.

But thankfully, kids grow and the playscape has fallen into disuse and so I thought about getting out the saw again. And then we had a really bad winter. And a flock of robins came through and descended on it and stripped it bare of its berries. And from that year on, the robins have always come back to nest there.

So now you know why I permit this “eyesore.” Sometimes nature trumps beauty after all.

Let’s Not Be Mindless About….Milorganite

Uh-oh–now what’s wrong? Can she really be talking about a brand name product here? And is that a good idea?

Here’s how this post came about: I was visiting my sister over the holidays and we were in a garden center, wandering around looking at all the great things garden centers have. We walked over to where the large bagged goods were stored (I think we were looking for some soil) and we saw, among other things, Milorganite.

I said something like, “that’s an organic fertilizer, but it’s not approved for organic gardening in Connecticut because of what it’s made of. Lots of folks use it as a deer repellent.” So naturally she asked what it was made of and I said, “Look at the name. Mil-Or-ganite. It comes from the Milwaukee sewers.”

She shrieked and said, “Does it say that?!” and I told her to flip over the bag and read it for herself.

And it’s not quite the Milwaukee sewers–it’s the Milwaukee sanitation system.

Now actually, this is a great product and it is at the forefront of the way we should all be thinking. We should be using rain barrels and re-using our gray water and it would be great if more towns could find useful ways to use the by-products of their sanitation systems. After visiting my sister, I went on to Vail, Colorado, where they heat the sidewalks and streets with heat produced, at least in part, from their wastewater and sanitation systems. More power to them (no pun intended!)

An update: less than a week after I wrote this post the good folks at Milorganite contacted me. They wanted my readers to know that they were so much more than “poop in a bag.” (Their words, not mine, and I hope I didn’t leave you all with that impression)

This actually is the problem with organics. I’ll address that in April. But I digress here for a minute. Tina from Milorganite directed me to a video on their web site (which I actually am familiar with) that shows how it’s made. I attach the link for you here (they actually have a whole video library for you if you’d like).

She also sent along some literature saying that Milorganite is perfectly safe for use on vegetables. And again, it’s here that we have the issues with organics. I know lots of organic gardeners that won’t even use animal products (bone meal, blood meal and chicken manure) on their edibles. Others are fine with that but get a little squeamish when they hear the source of Milorganite.

I make no judgments. What I go by is my state NOFA rulings. They have decided that for my state, Milorganite is not considered an organic fertilizer for any purpose–not for lawns, not for ornamentals and not for edibles–not even as a deer repellant. Therefore, I personally do not use it even though I am on a deer trail.

I do however, greatly appreciate the opportunity to clarify things.

Let’s Not Be Mindless About….Seed Starting

I have been a seed starter from way back–probably from childhood. So this was a bit of a wake up call for me. I’ll tell you how it came about (and how I’ve changed it, obviously)

I was reading an article in my local paper about how March gives gardeners the gift of time (I presumed the writer meant that gardeners still had the luxury of planning the garden). The article asked a series of questions that “the gardener” was supposed to ponder. One of the most shocking questions–and I hope it was asked tongue in cheek–was something like, “Do I really need that big vegetable garden that’s not sustainable because it uses all that water, or should I just sneak over and steal a few tomatoes from my neighbor?”

One thing the writer has correct is that vegetable gardens, even if they are using drip irrigation fed by a rain barrel, are not the most xeric gardens out there. They can’t be. You need water to grow good vegetables.

And of course last year I had the well-publicized battle with the deer.

So that got me thinking (not about stealing my neighbors’ veggies, I hope you understand!). But it did get me thinking about whether there were ways to do what I was doing any better. Or perhaps I should just get my tomatoes from the abundance of Farmer’s Markets in my town. Is that more sustainable and would I regret that?

I do have a week or two left to decide. I could also try to come up with Plan C, which I haven’t yet thought of.

You all will obviously see the results–or not–here this summer.

Let’s Not Be Mindless About….Peat Moss

Peat Moss? Can she really be assailing peat moss? What’s wrong with that??

First of all, it’s not sustainable. Do you know where it comes from? It comes from something called peat bogs. These are primarily found in Canada and the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Council would have us believe that just a tiny fragment of what is sold every year is what’s available to be harvested.

That may very well be. But it’s sort of like any other resource: coal, oil, natural gas, etc. There is a finite amount of it and it will be used up. (Although not according to the arguments made by the CSPC–you can read all about it in their 45 page document here.)

Even if more peat accumulates per year than can possibly be harvested (a fact that my Canadian friends tell me is not correct), there’s just no reason to use peat moss in many circumstances and here’s why:

1. It’s extremely hard to re-wet once it dries out. Think about a house plant, which is still quite often planted in a peat based soil. Once it’s very dry and you water, what happens? All the water runs straight out the bottom instead of being absorbed, right? Because very dry peat does not absorb water. Now think about that same stuff in your garden. Not good, particularly in our drought situations. Why would you use that stuff?

2. Many of us have acidic soil. Peat is acidic by nature. Why add an acid based amendment to your already acidic soil?

3. And finally, there are just way better things to add that will do better things for your garden. Compost is far more beneficial and will enrich the garden no matter what your soil type or acidity.

So please–they next time you are at the garden center and you see a great big bale of peat moss, stop to think about your conditions. Perhaps you’d be better off with some compost instead.

Let’s Not Be Mindless About….Mulches

But wait–didn’t we just talk about mulch? Yes, we did, but that was about whether to mulch. This is about what kind of mulch to use if you choose to use mulch and if mulch is appropriate for your circumstances.

Believe it or not, I do have one or two spots in my yard where I can mulch. I have a shade garden that is 100% sand. I have no idea how this came to be. The Spoiler says there was a shed there when he bought the property. Even so, as far as I dig, I don’t hit my horrible clay. They must have scooped out literally tons of soil and brought in literally tons of sand for that shed. Craziness.

Or maybe it was their depository for all the road sand over the years–and then a shed was placed there. Who knows? All I can tell you is that I’m growing shade plants there now so needless to say, I do need to retain water in that area. So I do mulch that area. Unlike the garden 3′ away, which wouldn’t drain if I put French drains there, this one will dry out.

What do I do about drought? I don’t worry. I’ve put drought tolerant shade plants there. No astilbes or hostas. Most everything has made it. And the things that haven’t I’ve learned are not really “dry shade” plants after all.

But back to mulches. Back in my days of retail gardening–and remember I’ve done two types, independent garden center gardening and big box store gardening–I saw folks buying all sorts of mulches by the yards full–literally–every spring.

Needless to say, at the independent garden center we sold a different type of mulch–and of course much pricier mulches–than at the box store. But it didn’t really matter in one sense. Most folks wanted very dark mulch for the garden. I’m not sure why that is. The last thing I want my mulch to look like is mud. Can anyone enlighten me on that?

At the box store, we sold tons–and I mean tons–of that dyed red stuff. We didn’t sell it at the garden center and for good reason. It has nothing to do with aesthetics, which has no place in this discussion. You either like the dyed red “mulch” or you don’t.

But you’ll notice that I put the word “mulch” in quotes. That’s because it’s not really “mulch.” If you take the word at its most basic–“a layer of material applied to the surface of the soil”, according to Wikipedia, then technically, yes, it qualifies.

But when you use the dyed red–or dyed brown or dyed any color mulches, what you are getting is not a mulch that will in any way enrich you soil or your garden. You are getting ground up, cheap wood, most often from wooden pallets (like the kind they use to store those mulches, and bagged stone, and fertilizers, and who knows what else on in those box stores) that has been dyed a color to make it pleasing to you, the unsuspecting home owner.

Why is this not good? Well, first of all, you do not know the source of that wood. Therefore, if you’re going to buy colored mulch, make sure the bag carries the mulch and soil council certification so that at least you know the wood does not contain anything toxic.

Next, these mulches, more so than the hard woods, tend to break down oddly (because let’s face it–we don’t know what wood, or combination of woods is in there) and may give off a fungus known as “artillery fungus.” These little guys have been known to shoot black spores that adhere to everything they come into contact with–and they are not removable, even with power washing. I know of homes and cars that have had to be repainted after being near a dyed red mulched bed.

The takeaway here: If you do mulch, make sure your mulches are quality mulches. You don’t want the mulch doing more damage than it fixes.