Straw in the Garden: Be Careful!

by Sandy Swegel

Straw bales are one of my favorite garden tools.  They are useful to the gardener in so many ways.  All nicely tied up, straw bales are like giant Lego blocks that can be stacked to make so many things. I’m using the term “straw” bale, but old “hay” bales have the same great features.  Three bales make a great compost bin.  A row of bales makes excellent walls that double as sitting places.  Open the bales up and you have the perfect mulch to keep strawberries or squash off the ground or to make a path protected from mud.  Give the chickens one bale and an hour later they have spread it evenly over the coop floor in their pursuit of worms or food in the bale.  A square of bales with some plastic thrown over is an excellent cold frame.  And I haven’t even begun to touch on the usefulness of bales as a fort.

So it was distressing this week to be reminded that we can no longer just trust the wonderful bales that we scavenged in the past because modern agriculture has rendered hay, straw, and even the gardener’s best friend, manure, unsafe for growing food.

This conversation came up because tomatoes are very sensitive to herbicide damage.  The most common cause of herbicide damage extension agents used to see was from “herbicide drift” where chemicals sprayed nearby go airborne and are spread by the wind onto your garden.  But my experience this week was with tomato plants, a very susceptible plant – sort of the canary in the mine.  After considering dozens of diseases from virus and fungus and bacteria that might be stunting a friend’s tomatoes and keeping them from setting fruit, we had to face the likelihood that the culprit was last year’s straw that was liberally mulched throughout the garden.

Hay and straw become hidden poison bombs in the garden when farmers use the new generation of weed killers (that are very effective on weeds) like Milestone or Forefront or Curtail.  Milestone is aminopyralid it is a very persistent killer of broad-leaf plants.  Farmers like it because it kills weeds and because unlike other weedkillers, they can feed treated pasture to their animals without any waiting time.  The label says clearly that while animals can still feed on the pasture, the herbicide survives being eaten by the animals, and it survives composting.  So even year old hay that you’ve composted or nice old manure from free-range animals on pasture still has enough herbicide in it to kill your tomato crop.

The bottom line is you can’t just get straw at the feed store or old hay or manure from a neighbor’s barn to use in your garden unless you know how the original pasture was treated this year and last year.  It’s another sad but true example of the destructive environmental impact even small actions such as applying some weedkiller can have. And it’s not even just the farmer who has to take care.  Grass clippings are a gardener’s favorite mulch…and some of the new weed killers or weed and feed products contain these long-lasting poison time bombs.  It’s easy to want to kill some thistle…but you have to read the very tiny small print to see if you are destroying your own garden by using the organic practices of mulching with grass or hay or straw that generations of gardeners have sworn by.  It’s not your father’s straw bale anymore.

http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/fletcher/programs/ncorganic/special-pubs/herbicide_carryover.pdf
http://www.motherearthnews.com/Grow-It/Milestone-Herbicide-Contamination-Creates-Dangerous-Toxic-Compost.aspx

The first 21 days of a bee’s life.

by Sandy Swegel

You have to watch this Ted Talk. It’s a time-lapse video of the first 21 days of a bee’s life and how bee babies turn into what looks like slime into a bee.

http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2015/05/an-extraordinary-glimpse-into-the-first-21-days-of-a-bees-life-in-60-seconds/

I think promoting bees is the real key to reversing the dumping of pesticides in our environment. It’s just not compelling to try to say we should use fewer chemicals in our lawns and trees. But it does persuade people when they understand how many bees are being killed. In our area, there are noticeably fewer bees this Spring. Even non-gardeners are starting to notice.

I had a different opportunity this week to talk about protecting bees. We have a big problem in Colorado in that the Emerald Ash Borer that destroys ash trees finally reached us. The problem is the systemic treatment that people hope will save the ash tree. Our scientists think the only ash trees that will survive will be ash trees that are treated with the systemics that are toxic to bees and other pollinators and beneficial insects. The trees will be treated every year for years and years.   So we might save the ash trees at the cost of flooding our environment annually with the chemicals that kill bees and beneficial insects. This is the dilemma when we face when we use chemicals to save one part of the environment…we then damage other parts of the environment.

For most people, this is a boring argument. That’s why I like things like videos of developing baby bees. It makes the story more real.   The more we understand the importance of bees and pollinators, and the more we think they are cute and valuable, then the better chance we have for stopping the systematic pouring of toxic chemicals into our yards and parks.

One more thing Bees and Humans have in common: We’re Addicted.

by Sandy Swegel

Nature magazine published a scientific study with the odd news that bees, when given a choice, prefer nectar with the neonic pesticides in them. Given a choice, even though scientists don’t think bee can smell or taste the pesticide, bees opt for neonic-treated plants or neonic-treated sugar solutions. Why? It’s because of the “nics.” The nics in neonics are nicotine compounds. A bee sipping on a flower gets the same rush as human dragging on a cigarette. Wow! We really have to get this substance out of the environment.

The study looks at both honey bees and wild bees. Both wanted the nicotine hit.

Of course, it was just last year that Science magazine reported that bees get addicted to caffeine too and prefer nectar and flowers with caffeine over other nectar.

 

Bees and Humans both love our drugs.

Earlier in the week, I was feeling hopeful because about 90% of the plants at our local Home Depot were neonic-free. Last year virtually all of them had been treated with the pesticide, but Home Depot is requiring more and more of its growers to be neonic-free. That’s hundreds of thousands of plants in our area.

But the Nature article shows us that while we can enjoy the small victories, but we have to keep paying attention to who is silently poisoning our environment.

We know you are our allies with the bees. You use our untreated seeds and you plant our wildflower mixes. Let’s keep up the good fight.

 

 

http://mappingignorance.org/2014/01/27/bees-are-coffee-addicts-too/

http://www.tattoojohnny.com/search/cigarette

No Neonics: Three Easy Ways to Help

by Sandy Swegel

Just a moment to be serious now. Spring has arrived and stores are filling with bedding plants and seeds. At the same time, homeowners are noticing all the weeds in yards and some still go out to buy weed killer.

There are three easy quick things you can do that make a difference to help protect bees and yourself from the “neonic” pesticides.

Learn One Name
Imidacloprid
That’s the neonic most likely in retail products. If you’re an overachiever, the other names are Clothianidin, Thiamethoxam, Acetamiprid, Dinotefuran. These are ingredients in weed killers, especially products marked Bayer or with names like Systemic or Max. Just check your labels and don’t buy these.

Watch For the Label
Customer pressure led Home Depot and Lowe’s last year to agree to put labels on all plants treated with neonics. The label is deceptive….makes it sound like neonics are better…but watch for the label.

Ask Your Retailer
There’s no government regulation (Alas!) that says neonics have to be labeled. The best thing you can do is ask at the garden center if the plants you are buying have been treated with neonics. If they don’t know…then you can probably assume the plants have been sprayed. The treatments can last up to two months in your garden…making your pretty flowers potentially lethal to bees that land on them.

Every time you ask a garden center employee or a grower if their plants have been treated with neonics, you are educating them. That’s what we are after. Nobody really wants to harm bees or the environment. Two years ago when I asked a major grower here in the Denver area if they used neonics, the owner looked at me like I was some crazy Boulder liberal. Which of course I am. He said, “Bah humbug, there’s no way to grow plants without neonics.” But last week, his greenhouse (Welby) had an open house in which they proudly said that most of their plants were grown without neonics and they were continuing to work on how to get neonic-free.

Oh, and of course there’s a fourth thing to do to help the bees. Grow your own plants from good non-pesticide treated, non-GMO, often organic, often heirloom, always neonic-free seeds like ours!
For lots of info on neonics in consumer products, you can read this pdf put out by Xerces.
http://www.xerces.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/NeonicsInYourGarden.pdf

Photo Credit
http://ecowatch.com/2015/02/10/global-ban-bee-killing-neonics/

 

Saving the Monarch—one yard at a time

by Sandy Swegel

Native plant advocate Doug Tallamy tells a wonderful story about how the Atala butterfly was saved from the brink of extinction.

“…the Atala butterfly was thought to be extinct in the 1970s. Then landscapers started placing the insect’s food source, a native plant called the coontie, around houses – not to help the butterfly – but because the plant was attractive in home landscapes. The result – a butterfly thought to be extinct found the suburban plants and today appears to be on the rebound.”

 

The greatest challenge for the monarch butterfly has been the loss of habitat across all of its migratory path. The monarch only feeds and lays eggs on one kind of plant: milkweed. Milkweed is considered a weed by Big Ag, and large farming operations have done their best to kill all the weeds including milkweed. Highway departments also have helped eliminate habitat as they found it was cheaper to pour weedkiller on roadsides rather than mow.

It’s difficult for us as individuals to change Big Ag, or highway departments or to stop deforestation in the Mexican winter habitat monarch. But the story of the Atala butterfly suggests that the monarch can be brought back from its hurdle toward extinction. And we, in individual suburban and city yards, can do something. We can plant native milkweed, a beautiful flowering plant, in our own gardens. Our hope will be that the monarch will figure out that the milkweeds are now in a new place…our individual yards…rather than along highways and farms.

For the last couple of years, I’ve lived in the city where my yard has space for maybe two milkweed plants if I smoosh them together. It seems like a pretty tiny impact I can make. It’s hard to buy milkweed plants in garden centers, so I have to grow from seed. What I’m doing this year is germinating the entire packet of seeds in little pots. After I plant my two plants, I’ll give the other baby plants to as many of my neighbors as I can and ask them to grow the plants. With any luck, our entire block (or two) will have milkweeds growing that will be beacons to overflying monarchs. It might be hard for the monarchs to see one or two plants in my yard….but I think they’ll notice a whole neighborhood worth of milkweed.

Habitat restoration on a grand scale is a great idea. But I feel powerless as an individual to accomplish that. But in the meantime, maybe we can offer new habitat in our collective yards. I can grow out a packet of seeds and change my neighborhood.

Another quote from Tallamy:
If half of the American lawns were replaced with native plants, we would create the equivalent of a 20 million acre national park – nine times bigger than Yellowstone, or 100 times bigger than Shenandoah National Park.

If you have more space in your yard, Tallamy tells about a great experiment in Delaware where researches planted Common Milkweed in a naturalistic planting in a 15′ x 15′ plot. That plot produced 150 monarchs in one season.

Let’s create this new hidden monarch habitat in our yards. Whether you have two square feet like me or space for a 15′ x 15′ plot, you can help save monarchs from extinction. One yard, one packet of seeds, one plant at a time, we can provide food and a place to raise baby monarchs.

Photo Credit:

http://www.butterflyfunfacts.com/atala.php

A Valentine’s Day Gift for the Bees

by Sandy Swegel

Nothing like Valentine’s Day to make us think about who and what we love. If we look at the huge number of Facebook “likes” we get when Mike posts about bees or wildflowers, we know our followers have a special love for wildflowers and for the bees and other pollinators who feast on wildflowers.

So how about we all do something special for bees this Valentine’s Day and plant a special Wildflower Patch for them that is a food source both beautiful and safe. A wildflower garden can be a whole meadow or it can be a tiny corner of your garden. Size isn’t as important as a good source of food that’s grown from seed naturally.

 

We’ve written here before about the dangers of the neonicotinoid pesticides (now more easily named neonics.) The bottom line is that if you buy plants, it is likely they were treated with neonics at some point in the greenhouses where they are propagated and grown for sale. Neonics are good killers and control the aphids, mealy bugs, scale and thrips that plague crowded unnatural greenhouse conditions. It’s much for expensive for big growers to treat pests naturally when mass spraying of neonics takes care of the problem for them cheaply. The cost to the bees doesn’t factor into the budget.

But for bees, it’s starting to look like even small amounts of neonic residue left in plants can hurt them. See the link below for the Harvard study that found that healthy bees that were exposed to even sublethal doses of neonics were significantly less likely to survive winter.

The only way to protect the bees until neonics are outlawed here as they are in Europe is to make sure they have natural sources of flowers that are grown from seeds instead of from purchased plants. And the best plants to grow are the ones bees have evolved with: Wildflowers. Anyone who gardens that knows that Wildflowers are a real “if you plant it they will come” experience. Every pesticide free wildflower you plant will be covered with happy bees.

So our Valentine’s message is this:02.13.15-VDay-FB
“Bees, We Love you. We want to show you our love in a time-honored way humans have always shown love: we want to feed you lots of good food: the pollen and nectar from naturally grown wildflowers. We want you to be healthy and happy and share many more Valentine’s Days with us.”

Harvard study:
http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/study-strengthens-link-between-neonicotinoids-and-collapse-of-honey-bee-colonies/
Photo credit:
http://www.sweetcomments.net/picture/valentines-day/bee-valentine.gif.html

Bugs are Our Friends

by Sandy Swegel

“Stop! Spiders are Our Friends” is the phrase I’ve been shouting lately.  A young teenage house guest has been alarmed at the wolf spiders (big but harmless to us) that seem to make their way into our bathtub.  I’ve been in another room in the house and heard a high-pitched squeal and a quick fumbling around for a weapon of destruction such as a shoe.  My house guest can’t help it…she’s grown up in a city condo and isn’t used to the wild ways of my semi-rural house. I’m happy she hasn’t noticed the cricket who happily lives beneath the steps by the water faucet.

Spiders and all kinds of bugs are our friends.  Not everyone of course, and I’m not suggesting you invite black widows spiders to live with you.  But I cringe when I am in public places and notice people enthusiastically killing bugs and spiders because they think they are bad.  Ants, in particular, seem to be the target of children who stomp on each one with glee.  Nearby adults usually take no notice because they think of crawly things as something to be destroyed.  The shelf space at the local hardware store devoted to weedkiller is matched only by the shelf space of bug killer.  Here at BBB Seed, we educate people a lot about pollinators and we’re especially protective about bees. But we also respect the other lesser known pollinators like flies and ants.  When we respond to crawly things as creepy and something to be feared and killed, we actually hurt the environment by disturbing the natural balance of insect life and the many creatures that work hard to pollinate our plants or eat the bad bugs.

One of my top garden rules…don’t pull any weed if you don’t know its name…applies to the insect world as well.  Don’t kill any bugs if you don’t know their name and what purpose they serve in your little ecosystem.  (Organic Pest Control)

This doesn’t mean I think your house has to be crawling with bugs.  Just as the garden has designated “no weeds here zones,” I think you can declare the house a “bug-free” zone. But the world around you doesn’t have to be bug-free.  And you can teach your friends and your kids the difference.  If you are killing an insect (more often I catch them with a glass and put them outside…it’s easier than cleaning smooshed bug), act with a clear purpose to remove it from your home not because all bugs are evil.

My rule for bugs is that they have to respect my space and play well with others.  No flies or ants in my kitchen, but ants and native flies outdoors are great pollinators.  A few aphids, or even a cabbage worm or two are fine in the garden because the predators usually come to eat them. But if the plants start suffering, the insects lose their right to stay. Aside from a few miscreants, most of the time the garden world is a zoo of beneficial insects.

Bugs are Our Friends.

Photo credit: www.newoaksfarm.com/how-we-grow-your-food.html
http://antsbeesbutterfliesnature.blogspot.com/2009_08_01_archive.html

 

Organic Pest Control

Wildflowers for pollinators

 

How to get your Neighbors & Friends Interested in Pollinators

by Sandy Swegel

You have finally come to understand how important pollinators are and why we need to protect them.  One of the challenges we who value pollinators face is how to educate other people to care and get your neighbors and friends interested in pollinators too.  Unfortunately, we’ll start to ramble about how bad chemicals are or how GMO crops harm the environment and if we pay attention we’ll notice our listeners’ eyes are glazing over and they’re looking for a quick exit.  Even with other people interested in the same topics, it’s not long till people get that bored “You’re preaching to the choir” look. When you’re passionate you want other people to be passionate too, and maybe take to the streets in pursuit of your cause…but that rarely happens.

So what can you do to educate others about protecting pollinators?  I’ve learned a lot from watching Niki, a member of our garden group, over the years.  Over time she had inspired many people to put in pollinator habitats or at least to stop pouring chemicals on their lawns.  And she did it without preaching.  So taking inspiration from her over the years, here’s an action list on how to gently inspire others to protect pollinators and the environment.

Make a demo garden in your front yard.  It was a slow start for Niki.  She lived in a typical suburban neighborhood and her decision to turn her front yard from perfect green grass to a xeric native habitat caused some upset in the ‘hood. At first, people thought she was bringing property values down with all those weeds.  But she kept the garden tidy and explained every plant she grew to anyone who stopped by.  She invited the kids over to watch butterflies.  She explained to people who asked why she was doing what she did.  Her friendly attitude and a “come pick out of my garden anytime” attitude built relationships.  Neighbors on their mowers noticed they were out doing yard work every weekend and she wasn’t.  Then she started to tell people how much money she was saving by not watering the lawn and using chemicals.  That changed a few people’s minds. She added in the info that you could protect your trees without the expensive sprays the tree companies wanted to do. Soon the whole neighborhood was just a little more pollinator friendly.

Teach the kids
Kids have open minds.  Have an inviting garden with butterflies everywhere, and kids will stop to look around.  They’ll ask questions and they’ll tell their families about the cool stuff they learned today.

Give away free stuff.
It’s pretty easy to collect seed from native plants or to put seed you have in little envelopes to give away.  People in the neighborhood learned they could get free seeds for lots of low-water flowering plants if they stopped at Niki’s.  They also learned they could get free plants.  She started seeds in her living room or dug up self-seeding plants and put them in tiny pots and gave them to anyone who would learn how to take care of them. Soon, that’s native food sources up and down the block.

Offer Free Public Classes
Soon the neighbors had all the free seeds and plants they could use.  So the next step was to offer free classes to the public. Our library offers meeting rooms for public groups for free so soon Niki was offering 2-hour Saturday classes on “Chemical-free gardening” or “Make your own natural cleaning products.” Another 2-hour Saturday project was the free Seed Swap in January which invited everyone to bring their extra seeds and swap with one another.  Gardeners meeting other gardeners is often all it takes.  Lots of people came to classes because they wanted to save money or have a safer environment for their kids.  They all left with that info and with an understanding of why chemicals can really hurt bees and other pollinators and how there’s an easier way to do things.  Not preachy…but well-researched information.  A heartfelt story about the impact of pesticides in Kansas on monarch butterflies all over the world helps people want to do the right thing.

Be generous with your time to talk to others
Soon gardeners and community members learned Niki and now her gardening circle friends would come to talk to their neighborhood association or school about native bees and butterflies.  Or they’d look at your suffering tomato plant and suggest a natural home-made remedy.  Everyone got on an email group together and ended up teaching each other about natural gardening and making homes for pollinators. Local media people saw the library classes and now had someone to call when they needed a radio show or newspaper article.

Photo Credits:

www.huffingtonpost.com

www.valleyviewfarms.blogspot.com

 

 

 

Pollinator flower mixes

Heirloom vegetable seed

Wildflower mixes

 

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: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/sunday-review/the-year-the-monarch-didnt-appear.html?_r=0http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/13/opinion/sunday/monarchs-fight-for-their-lives.htmlhttp://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/14/science/earth/monarch-migration-plunges-to-lowest-level-in-decades.html

Photo Credit:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/12/science/12butterfly.html?pagewanted=all