Save the Monarch Butterfly!

by Sandy Swegel

The big nature news this week was an article in the New York Times that 2013 is the first year anyone remembers that the monarchs didn’t appear in the central forests of Mexico for the Day of the Dead. It’s part of the cultural tradition there that the annual migration of monarchs to their winter home in the mountains of Mexico represents the souls of the dead.  Last year scientists were worried when only 60 million monarchs came back to Mexico, but this year a paltry 3 million struggled in weeks late.

A primary cause of the monarch’s disappearance is the destruction of milkweed in the Midwest, the monarch’s only food. Native habitat in which milkweed thrives has been destroyed as prairie turns to endless mono-crops of Roundup-drenched fields of corn.  There are other factors such as massive deforestation in Mexico and the transition of prairie land to suburbia. But no milkweed means the monarch starves.

It’s interesting that the New York Times has been a big supporter of the monarch.  This was the third article in the last year in which they have featured the decline of the monarch. They have seen the writing on the wall.

What can you do?  Keep up the usual things you do opposing GMO crops that rely on Roundup to wipe out all native “weeds.”  There’s political action work to reduce the corn subsidies that make Roundup profitable.  But as a gardener, you can plant some milkweed and other native plants that will feed the many native pollinators in dramatic decline.  The monarch might be the prettiest most dramatic victim of our prairie destruction, but there are many others.  Gardeners understand the delicate web of life that depends on native habitat.  Tell your friends.

New York Times on the Monarch:

Photo Credit:

3 Ways to Compost in Winter

by Sandy Swegel

It snowed yesterday.  It’s going to snow again today.  This makes me so happy because it means I get a vacation from working.  My gardening business is a lot like a teacher’s schedule.  Work like crazy most of the year then get a wonderful interlude to catch up on the rest of life.  Working in the garden may come to an end during Colorado winters, but eating usually continues and we continue to make lots of food scraps that any gardener would hate to waste.

When I lived on acreage, I did all my food composting by sending it through the chickens.  The backyard chickens loved food scraps and eagerly ran around when I brought the compost bucket. Even if it was just onion scraps and things they didn’t like to eat, they relished scratching it around and mixing it with the coop bedding and poop. Spring compost in the making.

Without chickens, there are still at least three things you can do to compost in winter and capture your kitchen scraps:

Use your regular compost bin.  I empty mine to about ¼ full of compost in progress with lots of worms.  I fill it all the way to the top with dry leaves and sort of hollow out the center. The leaves don’t freeze solid and all winter I drop the scraps down the middle of the leaves.  The leaves provide some insulation and the food scraps and leaves at the bottom of the pile are warmed enough by the earth that a tiny bit of composting keeps happening even when temps get well below freezing. The earthworms are slow but still keep working and reproducing.

Dig a Trench in Fall One year I dug a foot-deep trench the entire length of my garden bed where I normally plant tomatoes each year.  I left the excavated dirt on the side of the trench. Every time the indoor compost bin was full, I just took it out to the garden and dumped it.  If things weren’t too frozen, I pulled some of the excavated dirt on top of the food. If there was snow on the ground, I just put the scraps on top and eventually, it fell into the trench. The key to the success of this method is that the trench was easy to reach from the back door so I didn’t have to hike through the snow.  Come March and April, the trench was crawling with decomposers and happy earthworms. By end of May, it was broken down and I planted tomatoes right into the new compost.  No heavy lifting.

Make a Worm Windrow Compost. John, the Worm Man, Anderson in northern Colorado keeps his worms happy all winter by setting up long short windrows of compost, food scraps and worms.  He throws old carpet or tarps over the top.  Periodically, he lifts the carpet and puts new scraps on top of the piles.  The worms slow down in winter but keep working and reproducing.

Photo Credit:

Plant Some Garlic!

by Sandy Swegel

A foot or two of snow on the garden may make it seem like the gardening season is over, but if your ground isn’t frozen yet, there’s still time to plant some garlic.  Fall is the best time to plant garlic (which needs a cooling cycle before growing) and even though it seems like winter already, the garlic will do a lot of root growth before the soil freezes.

Garlic is super easy to grow.  If you have garden soil that’s already in decent condition, you can be finished in less than an hour.

Get your garlic, preferably garlic sold for planting or organic garlic from the grocery.  There’s a chance that non-organic garlic has been treated to prevent sprouting in the supermarket….which would mean no sprouting or growing in the field.

Take your head of garlic and split it into cloves. Big cloves are better….they make bigger plants.

You’re already half done….that’s how easy garlic is.

Plant garlic 6 inches apart. Plant in a grid, not just a single line.  My beds that had lettuce until hard frost are three feet across so I plant in a grid…five cloves the width of the bed and then as long as my row has space.  I just had four feet available….so that’s 40 cloves of garlic that will equal 40 heads of garlic next June.

My soil is wet from two weeks of early snows, so I didn’t do a lot of digging because I didn’t want to ruin the soil texture (i.e. dig up clumps of clay).  I just took my yardstick to make a straight line and poked 40 holes the depth of my index finger.  Then I dropped a clove, pointed side up, in each hole. Press the soil closed around and over the hole. Done.

The two most useful tips that I learned from our local garlic expert Karen Beeman of WeeBee Farms is:

1. Put 2-4 inches of grass or hay (non-pesticide treated of course) as a mulch over the soil. It helps with protection from drying winds and cold.

2. Water very thoroughly, especially if you’re in a dry climate.  I don’t mean just stand there with a hose.  Put a sprinkler on the area and drench it thoroughly.  Or arrange an all-day rainstorm that puts a couple of inches of moisture into the soil.  I didn’t water the garlic in so much thinking winter snow would be enough, but my heads were pretty puny at harvest.  The cloves didn’t get growing soon enough in soil that was parched from a long hot summer.

There, you’re done for this season. You can harvest some scapes in spring and your fully grown garlic next June or July.

Not bad for an hour (or less) work today!

For more tips from Karen:

Garlic-love Picture:

Which Foods are GMOs, Anyway?

by Sandy Swegel

We read a lot about GMO foods, but a recent reader question made me think about how little I know about which foods are genetically modified when I go shopping. I know I can avoid GMOs by eating only organic foods, but once I stray from the organic aisle, I’m going to run into the approximately 30,000 genetically modified products that are on grocery shelves. Where are those GMOs hiding?

Most of the GMO foods in the US are foods that are ingredients in other foods.  The top GMOs are corn, soy, cottonseed, milk, sugar beets and aspartame.

The bottom line is:

If your food is sweet, there’s likely a GMO involved. Sugar beets are common GMO products and the source for most granular sugar in the USA. Liquid sugar like high fructose corn syrup is made from corn and is often GMO.  Even if you go the artificial sweetener route, aspartame is often GMO. If your food is sweetened, whether, soda, juice, cookies or candy, GMOs probably are ingredients.

If your food is a protein, there’s a good chance GMOs are involved. Soy proteins are everywhere boosting protein content and 95% of US soy is GMO.  If you are eating beef or eggs, it’s likely the animals were fed GMO corn.  I paid extra for nice local eggs until I found out that standard chicken feed from the feed store was made of GMO corn.  GMO corn and alfalfa also fatten up your cows and pigs that produce beef and pork. And now that most fish are “farmed,” the most common food they live on is corn.  All those protein drinks and “smoothies” we love are GMO soy based.

If your food has a thick texture, GMOs could be helping.  The ubiquitous lecithin is made from GMO soy. Lecithin and beet sugar are prime ingredients in favorites like yogurt and ice cream.  GMO cottonseed oil and canola oil are common ingredients used in margarine, salad dressing or for frying potato chips and processed food. GM synthetic hormone rBGH is found in milk products unless they are labeled “no rBGH.”

The bottom line?  Eat like your great-grandparents.  Grow your own food when you can.  Buy organic vegetables and fruits when you shop. Get grass fed meats and wild caught fish.  And don’t waste your money on all those processed foods that aren’t real food anyway.


Photo Credit: