More Plants for Cleaner, Fresher Indoor Air

On Monday, I talked about plants for lower light situations that will help clean the air. I thought it was important to talk about those first because so many folks think they don’t have good indoor light–or perhaps they want something for an office.

Today I’m going to talk about plants that need a bit more light–but still not direct sun. These are plants that, in my house, are in an east or a west window. They might get a bit of early morning or late afternoon sun in the winter but once the trees leaf out in the summer, they don’t even get that–and they still do fine.

Spider Plant

This is a throwback to the 70s, isn’t it? It seemed that everyone had one back then–and why not? They were easy to grow and they propagated like mad by runners which you could just cut off and give to friends. How many of you remember those spider plant “babies” sitting neglected in glasses of water for months?

As it turns out, this humble plant is great for getting formaldehyde, xylene and toluene and ammonia out of the air, at least according to the NASA research. Makes you think of this in a different way now, doesn’t it? This plant hangs in my guest room.

rubber plant

Ah, the rubber plant–here’s another oldie but goodie. This variegated version is just a slight variation on a theme; there are also lovely reddish versions as well. We also have a gnarled old plant that my husband has had for over 50 years! I have to wonder if its still cleaning the air at that point!

This plant is great for removing formaldehyde from the air. As I discussed Monday, formaldehyde comes into our home in the things we use everyday so a plant like this can be very valuable.

Still not convinced? Prefer something that flowers? I’ve got something for that. We’ll talk about those on Monday.

Is It Chemically Laden In Here, Or Is It Me?

Just about everything you read these days talks about the dangers of chemicals. We can’t put make-up on because of all the chemicals in there. Heaven knows, many lipsticks are more toxic than landfills, it seems.

Don’t bother using shampoo or body lotion either–they are laden with chemicals too–and they don’t even have to be listed on the labels sometimes. There’s a scary thought!

Even the so called “fragrance free” products are laden with all sorts of things that sensitive folks–or even the not so sensitive–might want to avoid.

And I think we’re all wise enough to know that we don’t microwave in plastic containers or with plastic wrap. A lot of what we worry about for our children can also be sensible for us too.

So how do we combat all of the free floating chemicals–at least in the air?

You knew I was going to say house plants, didn’t you? Of course–this is a garden blog, after all!

Now for those of you that are horticulturally challenged, never fear: there are house plants for you. And for those that want flowering plants, there are those too. In fact, there are plants for just about every taste (so long as you don’t taste them–most are not edible!)

So before I waste anymore time, I’m going to talk today about some of the easiest plants to clean the air–and those that will grow in practically no light at all as well!

peace lily

I’ve actually got this plant in a fairly high light situation–in an east window–but it’s notorious for being able to grow in almost no light at all. our local paper had a great article about bringing plants into the home and it suggested grouping plants in a corner or placing plants in the center of the dining room table. Unfortunately, it didn’t suggest that one use low light plants for this. A Peace lily would be one of the plants that could survive this.

It will also clean just about whatever you’ve got from the air according to NASA: benzene, formaldehye, xylene, toluene and ammonia.

Snake Plant

Not only is this plant the darling of interior decorators for its sculptural shape, but it is great for low light situations as well–another one you could put in a corner with that peace lily!

In terms of its function as an air cleaner, it too is a powerhouse, performing almost as well as the peace lily. About the only thing it does not remove from the air is ammonia. And with its lovely variegation, (the NASA study specifically mentioned variegated snake plant) it would brighten up any corner in which it sat!

heart-leaved philodendron

Most folks find these plants completely boring. In fact, a green leafed philodendron can look a little drab. This is a variety called ‘Brasil.’ It has a brighter chartreuse strip down the center of the leaf. I don’t think the fact that it’s a hybrid makes it any less of an attractive air cleaner. And it still takes very low light. I have it hanging in a north window.

These plants, according to the NASA study, are great at removing formaldehyde from the air. Most of us don’t do science experiments in our homes so you might wonder how that gets there. It actually comes in in all sorts of things we use in the business of everyday living: furniture, carpets, paint, clothing, cosmetics and even paper bags. No need to be a scientist to be exposed to formaldehyde, sadly.

Consider adding one–or some–of these plants to your home. In addition to making your home beautiful, they’ll do double duty and clean the air for you!

House Plants Instead of Yoga?

Okay, maybe not instead of yoga–or meditation, or whatever it is that you do for relaxation. But there is a marked relaxation response noted in the presence of plants. And that seems good enough reason for me to have them in my home.

Once again, this research comes out of Washington State University. Professor Virginia Lohr seems to be doing most of the groundbreaking work on plants there and not only are her papers online but her course syllabi are too. Fascinating stuff!

Professor Lohr suggests that her study is of the “intangible” benefits of indoor plants on people. She set out to determine their effects on things like feelings of well-being, stress reduction, pain management and general discomfort (having already proven their tangible benefits on air pollution, particulate matter, relative humidity and acoustics in earlier studies). And you thought that the ficus in the corner was just taking up space!

Clearly I wouldn’t be posting about all this if she did not indeed show that indoor plants have a marked effect on people.

And I’m sure this comes as no shock to most of my readers. The proliferation of indoor green walls alone is proof that people are beginning to see value in indoor plants. They are being installed in offices, and in one case, in a LEED designed project in New York City.

While most of us aren’t going so far as to have green walls installed in our homes, surely an extra plant or two would never be amiss, particularly in this cold and dreary winter.

Resolve to Make 2014 The Year You Make A Change For the Environment

The thought crossed my mind when I re-tweeted a link from Garden Rant last week about the neonecontinoid pesticides and bees. Then I heard a story on BirdNote about bird safe rat poisons that really opened my eyes.

Of course I knew that rat poison was “poison.” And the one time I had to use it out of doors, I took great care to put it in a very out of the way spot, and I warned any neighbors that might have roaming pets that I had to do this because I had seen a rat.

But I had not thought of the implications on birds of prey. I was concerned about my other wildlife–the smaller critters like chipmunks and squirrels. I didn’t know how attractive the poison might be to them.

But the BirdNote story makes clear that I need to be thinking about the wider circle of life (if, perish the thought, I ever need to use the stuff again!) And that makes good sense. Birds of prey–in my yard this would be hawks, and yes, owls–feed on these smaller creatures. If they are poisoned, we are inadvertently poisoning these larger majestic creatures as well. And I know none of us wants that.

There are numerous good alternatives listed in the BirdNote story.

Finally, on Tuesday, even my local paper, the Hartford Courant had an editorial about the plight of the monarch butterflies. This year, the monarchs numbers have fallen to their lowest count in history. It is not known if they will survive their migration to Mexico and back.

The editorial–and most writers and wildlife biologists who have written on this topic–blame habitat destruction for the die off. As in the case of the bees, the problem is complicated. Pesticides are part of the problem, but they are not the only problem. In this case, the pesticide is an herbicide that destroys the monarchs’ preferred larval food, milkweed. Other habitat destruction is blamed as well.

So in this holiday season–whatever holiday you celebrate–resolve to make 2014 the year you do your part for the environment. It doesn’t have to be much–do what you can. We can all learn from each other and make the world a better place for the beautiful creatures we need to save!

Is It Too Late To Save The Pine Barrens?

This past summer (2013) an expansion of the Native Flora garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden opened to the delight of thousands of visitors. The original Native Flora garden had been planted in 1911 (hence its somewhat quaint name) and celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2011.

It then subsequently underwent a total renovation in which it added another acre. The additional acre replicates Hempstead Heath on Long Island and the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Here is the New York Times article about the re-opening of the entire garden.

To my mind, that may be a good thing because another New York Times article this week talked about how the southern pine beetle was ravaging the pine barrens of New Jersey.

As an aside, the article, which appears here, mentions that the pine beetle began appearing in New Jersey because it is slowly warming. Their idea of “slowly warming” meant no nights of minus 8 degree temperatures which the state climatologist said used to occur several times a decade. As someone who lived in New Jersey for several decades, I can tell you I never remember a night that cold in my life–and I lived on the edge of the Pine Barrens. I do not know where he is measuring but it’s surely not there!

I remember reading a BBG publication (which does not seem to be online so I cannot provide a link for you) last summer about how delighted the designers and horticulturists of the BBG were to find so many species they were looking for in their garden expansion so nearby in the Pine Barrens. To now read that that ecosystem is threatened (again, or perhaps I should say, for a change) is deeply troubling.

I wonder if perhaps native plant gardens will become like zoos–a place we will go to see these rare things that no longer exist in the wild?

I pray it never comes to that!

A Book To Change Your Shopping Habits–Tomatoland

I first heard about the book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook in Mark Bittman’s blog that he does for the New York Times.  Because the intersection of politics and food writing is one of my favorite types of writing, and of course because I love growing and eating tomatoes fresh from the backyard, I had to read the book.

Just from what Bittman had written in his blog I knew enough to expect very bad things.  The book reviews also tipped me off to how horrific the book would be.  But nothing really could prepare me for what I would read.

I know I have said it here before and on Twitter that I will not ever buy a supermarket tomato again–and I will not knowingly eat a tomato that comes from growers that do not support those workers.  But of course, how can you know, really?

What Estabrook uncovered in his book is that there are several growers in the heart of Florida who systematically exploit workers (I’m sure nothing I say here is yet a surprise).  What was a shock is that they are literally enslaved, routinely beaten, regularly promised one thing and then another is delivered, particularly with respect to wages–all the laws that I thought applied in our country do not apply to these workers, particularly when it comes to pesticides.

They are forced to live in the most primitive conditions without air conditioning and sometimes without even plumbing–some were forced to live in the backs of truck trailers sleeping on pallets where the temperatures routinely exceeded 100 degrees and there was no ventilation.

As for the pesticides–tomatoes are one of a few crops where a very toxic chemical–methyl bromide–that has been banned by the EPA is still permitted to be used–the others are strawberries and peppers.  The tomato plants are routinely sprayed while workers are in the fields–and workers are often working on plants dripping with wet pesticides.  Needless to say, the rate of illness among the workers is high and birth defects among their children is staggering.

Nevertheless, if workers were too ill to work, the “overseerers” beat them for “refusing” to work. Sound a bit like something that existed in the south prior to the Civil War to me. And Florida refuses to do much to help these poor workers–and many, because of their immigration status, refuse to ask for help.

Regardless of how you feel about the immigration issue, human beings should not be exploited in this manner–and we have seen what happens, most recently in Alabama, when farmers try to get local residents to help in the field.  It was a disaster.  Unfortunately until we get local workers used to farm work–and safe conditions in which they can work–this is the circumstance in which we find ourselves.

Estabrook begins and ends the book hunting for wild tomatoes in Peru. He also spends a small portion of the book talking about the US Supreme court case that legally declared that although botanically the tomato is a fruit, for commodity’s sake, it is a vegetable. It has always been known as a vegetable since then.

The book is a fascinating, if truly disturbing, look at the commoditization of a crop.  There have been some advances made in the treatment of these workers thanks to the good works of lawyers and worker rights groups in Florida.  And it is safe to buy tomatoes at Trader Joes and Whole Foods because they have signed a pledge to trade fairly with these workers.  But otherwise, I’d stay away from supermarket tomatoes because you can never know whether they have come from one of these major agri-businesses who treat their workers worse than cattle and poison the earth, the tomatoes and the workers with toxic pesticides.

Happy 2012!

Happy New Year!  And welcome to what, for most gardeners, is the darkest, dreariest part of the year.  So what is a person who loves to dig in the dirt supposed to do (besides count the birds and play with the houseplants I mean?)

I’m sure you all have many other interesting hobbies–I work on some of those too of course.  That’s one of the reasons I enjoy gardening in a place with seasons–to give me a chance to enjoy some of the hobbies I do have in the “non-gardening” season.

But gardening is really my joy and my passion (otherwise I’d be blogging about something else I suppose) so when I can’t garden for too long a time I get a little antsy.  One of the ways I solve that problem is by reading about gardening–not exactly the same thing as doing it but at least I can dream about it of course.

So for the next month, on the Monday and Friday posts, I’ll be telling you about some of the gardening books I’ve read or am reading.  I’ll tell you about the ones I’ve liked  and perhaps about ones I haven’t liked so well or ones I thought folks were overly enthusiastic about that I just didn’t see what the fuss was about.  And maybe together we can get through the bleakest part of the non-gardening season!

Greening the Holiday a Bit

Each year, I ponder what I can do to make my holidays a little bit more sustainable.  There are some concessions I’m willing to make, some I’ll make when the time comes, and others I haven’t made and don’t know whether I will make.  So here are my personal choices–and I make no judgments about the rest of you and yours (except for those of you that went out and used assault weapons on Black Friday!)

In our house, we still put up two trees, one live and one artificial.  The artificial on was purchased years before I arrived at the house so no petroleum products were used on my watch in its creation or shipping.  If it were up to me, I would prefer the live only–but it’s not just up to me.

In case you haven’t followed the discussions, it’s generally considered more ecologically correct to go “live” with a tree–unless of course you can’t for health reasons.  Every year when I bring mine in it does trigger mild allergies, but nothing severe enough to keep me from doing it.

The reason “fresh-cut” is preferred is because for every tree cut down, at least one or more is planted to replace it, thus helping with the cycle of carbon sequestration.  In addition, fresh-cut trees are often recycled into mulch, as ours is.  Artificial trees cannot be recycled.

Next comes the whole “paper” issue.  One of the ways I’ve solved a lot of it is by not buying any new Christmas cards.  I am often “gifted” with Christmas cards because of the organizations to which I belong.  For a modest donation, I will receive more cards than I can use in a given year–perhaps in my lifetime at this point.

Any that I don’t want or need I can pass along to the St. Jude’s Ranch for Children (fronts only, which saves on mailing costs).  They recycle them into new holiday cards.  This is also a great way to recycle the cards you receive at the holidays.  Their mailing address is Recycled Card Program, 100 St. Jude’s St., Boulder City, NV 89005.

The more eco-friendly thing to do would be to send e-cards but many of my recipients don’t have email (hard to believe in this day and age but there we are).  Besides, I do think that on occasion there is something nice about the handwritten word–and someone has to help keep the postal service in business. So long as my recipients are at least recycling their envelopes, something good is coming of it.

Wrapping paper is another thing I haven’t bought in years.  Again, I am often gifted with some.  And we have just cut down on the number of gifts that are exchanged in our small family as well so that they need for paper is unnecessary as well.  I may not ever get my husband to give us his love for the shiny stuff, but what little of it we do use we are able to recycle through our town recycling program–so that is at least a blessing.  And I do save bows to re-use from year to year.

I will buy one or two other fresh-cut green-type items to display around our home but I don’t generally feel too badly about doing that.  Every year I buy a kissing ball in late December that hangs in our crab apple until March–you’ll see it next week.  For whatever reason, the birds seem to enjoy it there–I’m not sure if it provides cover for them or what.  But that’s why I don’t mind that extravagance (never mind that I like looking at it)

And I’ll usually get a swag to adorn my garage-sale salvaged sled as well.  Once the holidays are over, I can easily dismantle it for compost.

So those are my attempts to live a little less commercially at the holidays.  There is certainly more I could do and certainly more I might do differently if my husband didn’t like things a certain way.  But heck, it’s the holidays–I need to keep the joy in it for everyone.

Is There Such A Thing As A True Locavore?

John Tierney, writing a column for the New York Times, reviewing the book 1493: Uncovering The New World Columbus, remarks that its author, Charles C. Mann, knows better than to think he can eat like a locavore.  After all, he knows that tomatoes really come from South America and that the other vegetables in his CSA food share have similarly far-flung pedigrees.  Does that mean they haven’t come from the farm down the road?  No.  But Mann thinks that locavores should think a bit differently about the origins of their food since most of our foods–and even the earthworms we use to make fertilizer–are imported (some might say invasive).

Mann calls this “homogeneity” and he argues that the havoc wrought (my take on it, not his) by the “Columbian Exchange” of plants and diseases between the New World and Europe changed the balance of power forever.  His book reads like an inventory of the spread of invasive species–scale and fire ants to Hispanola, earthworms to Jamestown, malaria to Britain, potato famine to Ireland, gypsy moth to the United States–well, you can see the pattern here.

Mann wrote a prior book covering just North and South America called 1491 arguing that the Americas were not the backwaters that most of us were taught in our high school history classes.  He argues–and again, much of this is only supported by pottery and other archeological remnants–that the two continents had sophisticated cultures and lifestyles and when the Europeans arrived here they would have encountered thriving civilizations and cultures.

What does all this have to do with your backyard tomato or garden?  Just that these thriving cultures that the Europeans encountered became part of the trade routes–the spice route that Columbus was seeking.  And that breeders and hybridizers the world over (much to some of our dismay) have as much to do with what’s growing in that CSA farm down the road as do the farmer!

Backyard Veggies and Flooding

Now that last week’s hurricane/tropical storm is over and most of us are clearly in clean-up/recovery mode, I received an email from our local Master Gardener about the safety of flooded produce.  This was something that wasn’t even on my radar so I wonder how many other folks are thinking about this.  I know I had been reading in my local/regional paper, The Hartford Courant, about how many of the state farmers either had harvested what the could before the storm, or were going to take huge losses now.

But I hadn’t thought about the crops that were and are still in the ground.  This of course includes things like corn, tomatoes, pumpkins, squash and many other late season edibles.  My Master Gardener contact insists that any produce intended for consumption must be destroyed–and that would include the pumpkins because of the dangers of cross-contamination when you cut it.

The University of Massachusetts is a little more forgiving.  Here is their Fact Sheet for growers.  It’s obviously intended more for the commercial grower and it is intended to minimize loss, of course.  In brief, it suggests that the dangers of e.coli are minimized after several dry days, and that any dangers  can be further lessened by washing durable crops with a dilute solution of bleach in water.

The FDA is not nearly so forgiving.  It does not recommend any of the methods endorsed by UMass and in fact it lays out four scenarios and then goes on to debunk those scenarios.  The washing/disinfecting scenarios is one of the fact patterns that is specifically rejected by the FDA as unsafe.

Another possible concern is with root crops (and crops with peel, as I discussed in the pumpkin example, above) is that once they are contaminated on the outside, you will contaminate the “good” part of the crop by trying to remove the “bad” either by washing, peeling, cutting or whatever.

Finally, as we know from previous contamination cases, cooking does not usually solve e.coli unless the cooking is above 165 degrees and most veggies are not cooked that thoroughly unless they are boiled–and the dangers of cross-contamination still remain.

So it’s a question of what your garden is worth to you if indeed it has been flooded–and by what.  Standing rainwater is fine.  Floodwater, on the other hand, could carry pathogens, microbes or both that could infect your crops.  While it’s heartbreaking to have to destroy your harvest, I suspect it might be worse to be sickened by it.