My book and web site

Check out my book, The Sustainable-Enough Garden, available on Amazon, and the book's web site at See more plant photos on Instagram.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Neonics reprised

Beekeepers are spreading the word: neonicotinoid pesticides are bad news for honeybees. A Boston Globe story last week about bee-friendly yards spotlighted the problem. While choosing native plants is a help, beekeepers interviewed emphasized that you undo your good work if you apply toxic pesticides on your property—or if someone nearby sprays these chemicals.

Black-eyed Susans help pollinators--but not if they're treated with toxic neonics

    Friends of Earth and its supporters are asking EPA administrator Scott Pruitt to ban one of the neonics, imidacloprid. The National Pesticide Information Center at Oregon State University reports there are 400 products sold in the US containing this pesticide in various forms: liquids, granules, dusts, and water-soluble powders. A quick search turned up brand names such as Temprid, Maxforce, and Bayer Insect Control. 

    So far the EPA has declined to ban agricultural use of imidacloprid. Plants sold in garden centers may be even more of a problem. 

Tempting, but garden center plants could be toxic for pollinators

They can be treated with the pesticide at 120 times the concentration used on farms. Because the neonics dissolve in water, they migrate into all plant tissues and can contaminate surrounding soil. They’re slow to degrade and can affect your garden for years to come.

    As garden center customers, we have reason to feel betrayed. We’re encouraged—urged—to buy pollinator-friendly plants. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that those plants won’t kill pollinators?

    Beekeepers are of course most concerned about honeybee die-off. In late June, a beekeeper in Rehoboth, Massachusetts lost more than 60,000 bees. Knowledgeable observers say this loss has the hallmarks of pesticide poisoning. Bee scouts go out each morning to find sources of pollen and nectar. They return to the hive to share their information. The Rehoboth bees seem to have followed their scouts to a nearby food source contaminated with pesticide.

A contaminated food source can kill a whole hive--photo by Shawn Caza

     This is the kind of effect neonicotinoid spraying can have. A homeowner could have used a pesticide product according to label instructions, or worse, could have applied more than instructed or sprayed at a windy time when the spray would be carried to surrounding areas. The result: bee genocide.

    We hear most about honeybees, but there are 400 native bee species on the job too pollinating our food crops as well as other plants. 

Bumblebees are important pollinators too

Moths and butterflies also do this work. Neonics threaten all these insect pollinators. 

    Since becoming aware of the neonic problem this year, I’ve been working hard to avoid bringing home any neonic-treated plants. Plant purchases from previous years may already be spreading toxicity on my land. I searched for untreated seeds, or at least seeds sourced from European countries that don’t allow neonic treatment. I found places to shop where sellers guarantee their seedlings are pesticide-free, if not fully organic. But I had to avoid my favorite garden center, because they’re still buying neonic-treated plants.

Stokesia from a pesticide-free garden center

    Big retailers such as BJ’s Wholesale Club and Home Depot have already pledged not to sell neonic-treated plants. It’s high time that local garden centers did the same.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Energy conservation--mine

I spent much of last weekend bashing out a new slide talk for garden clubs. When I got home Monday from presenting it for the first time, what I most wanted to do was get out into the garden. I’d been harboring some resentment about spending nice days indoors working on the talk, although this was totally due to my own procrastination.

Stuck inside looking out
   The only downside of starting work in the garden at two in the afternoon was the outside temperature. It was in the high eighties. My motivation to work outdoors drops off sharply when the temperature passes 80. On cool spring and fall days, my idea of heaven is to be out in the garden. In summer heat, not so much.

In May, it's great to be outside

    I’ve certainly got sweat equity. I’ve put in many hours toiling over the vegetable garden under the hot sun. The only reason my skin in the game isn’t lobster-red is fanatical application of sunscreen. But when it’s hot and there’s no shade, gardening stops being fun and becomes just hard work.

I can relate

    This makes me feel like the consummate wimp, of course. People in Phoenix and Savannah probably don’t let a little heat keep them from tending their gardens. I recently heard an Arizonan describe getting up at 3:00 a.m. to do her outside chores before the 120-degree heat of the day sets in.

    That’s the approach I’ve decided to try. I won’t be getting up before dawn. But if I can be in the garden in the relative cool of 6:30 on days when the temperature is heading for the nineties, I can put in a good two hours before wilting.

Sunrise at home isn't as alluring as in Banff

    Part of this new plan is a liberating decision not to carry out my usual morning routine. No reading the paper over breakfast, just a quick cup of tea. Sunscreen on my face only. The dog can come outside with me, but she’ll have to wait for her walk.


    So far I’ve done this twice, when I had work to do on my new planting project that couldn’t wait, but the weather wasn’t cooperating. Both times have been fun and productive. By 8:30 or 9:00, the day already felt rich with accomplishment.

    What does this have to do with sustainable gardening? A gardener’s energy and enthusiasm are finite resources too, like fossil fuels and peat moss. If sustainable gardening is such a harsh mistress that it demands working in the garden at the hottest time of the hottest days, it’s likely to find few lasting converts among home gardeners. 

Catching more gardeners with honey

    Monday afternoon my desire to plant shrubs trumped the heat, but the sweat running down my face reminded me of why early morning gardening had seemed like a better idea. 

    In deciding what we’ll to do to be part of the solution for environmental problems, each of us makes our own calculations. How much time, energy, money, and hard work are we willing to invest?  We might as well be realistic about what we expect from ourselves.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Better than lawn

It took longer than I anticipated, but this week I finished planting my new perennials--and two shrubs--in new mostly-native beds next to the deck. They made it into the ground none too soon. Despite frequent watering, they were close to broiling where they stood, in planting position, in their containers in the July heat. 

Roots in the ground just in time

     The layer of black loam the contractors had spread was just starting to sprout weeds when I eked out a thin layer of pine-spruce bark mulch from seven large bags from the garden center. It didn’t feel right using purchased mulch, but last year’s leaf mulch was all gone.

     I was standing in the kitchen looking out over the new beds when I had an attack of buyer’s remorse. Had I made a terrible mistake? Now we won’t be able to seat guests in lawn chairs on that erstwhile patch of grass. 

Studying on the lawn circa 2003

They can sit on the wide bluestone path, or we can put chairs on the lawn circle that’s farther from the house. But a party tent over the deck is no longer an option. Had I spent money, fossil fuel energy, and many hours of work in the hot sun on a folly?

     While I was fretting about this, I noticed a swarm of bumblebees eagerly working a new St. John’s wort (Hypericum ‘Magic Universe’). The yellow flowers were already open, and the bees were making the most of them, circling as they searched for the best landing spots.

Bumblebee loading up on pollen

     In all the decades that the same area was covered with lawn grass, I’d never seen pollinators get any benefit from it. Those bumblebees reminded me of why I’d made the change. It wasn’t just for fun. I got a lot of enjoyment from picking out the new plants. Watching them grow, bloom, and fill in is going to be a pleasure. But the new beds are also designed to offer food and shelter for the bugs.

    When I started my garden in the 1980s, English-style perennial borders were all the rage. I was going to emulate Gertrude Jekyll and Vita Sackville-West with elegant perennial beds. 

Not my yard

To my disappointment, that was not to be. Even if I’d had the skills, we didn’t have the space or the unobstructed southern exposure for those long sunny borders. I spent the next 30 years learning about what to grow in part to full shade.

Shade has its rewards, such as this bloodroot in early spring

    This summer’s new beds represent a paradigm shift, as well as a new time of life. Since the seismic change in my gardening point of view induced by reading Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home, I’ve started seeing my garden as a community of plants and animals, not just my own personal play space and blank slate for design experiments.

    In 1985 I might have seen those bumblebees as stinging pests. Now they’re very welcome harbingers of a new era, with pollen and nectar for all.


Monday, July 3, 2017

Back from the edge

Did you know that the Kirtland’s warbler is now a candidate for de-listing as an endangered species because its population has recovered from 167 breeding pairs in 1974 to more than 2,000 today? The news of this conservation success came to me via Living Bird, the magazine of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Singing male Kirtland's warbler--photo USFWS

    The story of this 15-gram bird and its restored summer habitat in northern Michigan is a heartening tale of good will and sound science producing results. It could also be read as a parable for our time.

    The Kirtland’s warbler can only build its nest on the ground beneath young jack pines (Pinus banksiana) no higher than around 12 feet. 

Ground-level warbler nest--photo USFWS

Fires caused by lightning or intentionally set by Native Americans used to result in a steady supply of young trees. Then in the twentieth century, settlers started suppressing wildfire, so the supply of young trees shrank.

    As you can imagine, nesting at ground level means the warblers lose a lot of their young to predators such as squirrels, chipmunks, snakes, feral cats and blue jays. They also can’t tell the difference between their own nestlings and young brown-headed cowbirds.

The cowbird is much bigger than a warbler--photo

     The cowbird mother lays her eggs in other birds’ nests, tricking them into raising her young. Cowbird chicks are bigger than baby warblers and hog the food. Often the little warblers don’t survive. Cowbirds have spread from Midwest grasslands to places like the warblers’ home territory as humans have cleared land and built towns.

Cowbird egg in an Eastern Phoebe nest--photo Galawebdesign

    Heroic conservation efforts started in the 1950s and intensified when the Kirtland’s warbler became one of the first species protected under the Endangered Species Act. Federal and state biologists had to take drastic steps to restore the warblers’ habitat—controlled burns, then thousands of acres of jack pines cut and replanted. They also undertook a major program of trapping cowbirds, so that now few cowbird eggs are found in warbler nests. 

    So these are birds that need to build their nests and lay their eggs at the base of only one species of tree and that can’t tell their own babies from usurpers who scarf down all the insects they bring to feed their young. A set-up for evolutionary failure? At least we can say they were no match for the rapidly occurring changes in their surroundings caused by modern humans.

Human habitat, warbler desert--photo bpbailey

    What can we learn from this? I see two warnings. First, as climate change progresses, we’re going to need to adapt. Extraterrestrials observing us from another planet could draw an analogy between Americans and the warblers. The birds can’t live without jack pines; we seem to think we can’t live without a massive fossil fuel budget. If we can’t adjust to a new way of living, might we join the extinction wave? 

Can we find another way?

     Second, we’ve made radical changes in the natural world, just by expanding our population and taking over land for what we regard as normal, benign purposes. We’re going to need to find a way to make a smaller footprint.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Planting party

What a week! On Wednesday, Kevin Newman’s team finished work on my yard. They left me with two new beds filled with beautiful black loam, ready to be planted. On Friday I set out on a shopping binge, and now I’m shuffling the plants around, designing the new plantings. Chances to plant a whole new area come along once in a decade. I’m having a blast! 

Trying out arrangements of new perennials for sun and part shade

    The first stage of the renovation started Monday morning, with the men rapidly scraping away the lawn around the deck. In a couple of hours, the grass was gone. Then they cut down five hemlocks at back corners of the lot (more on this in a future post), dragged the pieces out to the chipper parked in the driveway, and reduced them to wood chips. They returned the chips to the yard, using them to cover two new paths. 

Wood chip path for trundling wheelbarrows

Paths made from our own wood! You can’t get more sustainable than that! [note the presidential punctuation].

     The longest phase involved the heavy work of lifting large bluestone pavers from around the deck and putting in a new stone path leading toward the garden.

    What’s going into the new beds? They’re partly in sun, which means a chance to grow flowers that can’t thrive in most of the garden because it’s too shady. I had so many perennial darlings on my wish list that the problem was to pare it down. One of everything is not a good design principle. 

    I was looking for plants that stay low, so they won’t block the view of the garden from the deck. I thought back to a successful bed that designer Betsy Brown created for us in 1994 for a hot, dry west-facing spot. This time natives were a priority, but I couldn’t bear to leave out a few imports that had been stars of Betsy’s design.

Lady's mantle (Alchemilla mollis) had to be included--photo by Anneli Salo

    So far here are some high points of what I’ve chosen: For the sunniest area, Achillea ‘Coronation Gold,’ a yarrow with gray foliage and flat yellow flower heads in a subtle shade of yellow, 

'Coronation Gold'

an elegant St. John’s wort (Hypericum ‘Magic Universe’) with golden flowers, dark red fruits, and foliage with tones of red and blue, 

St. John's wort fighting off depression

prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heteroleptus), a native grass that will contribute panicles of pinkish-tan flowers in late summer, and a low-growing blue juniper (Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’) for winter interest.

     For the partly shaded section, a few I have high hopes for include the red-gold flowers of sneezeweed (Helenium ‘Short ‘n’ Sassy’), 

A similar sneezeweed--photo by Dietzel

a nice goldenrod (Solidago odora), and some blues in the form of Stokes aster (Stokesia laevis ‘Blue Danube’) and Canadian phlox (Phlox divaricata ‘Blue Moon’). Among these I have a chance to intersperse some of my favorite ground covers: bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), and a multi-colored bugleweed (Ajuga reptans ‘Burgundy Glow’).

Gaultheria procumbens does well in part shade

     This is just the first pass. Stay tuned for the editing process.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Water, water all around

With Massachusetts’ drought officially over as of May 10,  I’m feeling more comfortable about watering my garden. 

Nice to see rain on the hostas

I’m happy when it rains, even though some of my annual plants, most noticeably the tomatoes, are slow to take off this spring because of fewer sunny days. 

     With plentiful rain comes other problems, though. During last week’s heavy rain, water streamed down the street in front of our house toward the storm drains.

Rainwater heading for the storm drain

    Rainwater running off roofs and down driveways in our neighborhood could be carrying toxic chemicals from both surfaces into storm drains and through them to rivers and Boston Harbor. The EPA, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, and local government all advocate keeping rainwater at home, not letting it wash into the street.

     Our section of town backs up against the Charles River, which is one of our area’s most beautiful and prized natural resources. 

A quiet spot along the Charles

Years of effort have gone into restoring it from a toxic waste stream to a place where people and wildlife can enjoy the benefits of clean water. 

     At this point, storm water runoff is most of what pollutes the Charles by carrying oil, grease, gasoline, pet waste, detergents, pesticides, fertilizer, and trash into the river. 

Overgrowth of algae in a river caused by fertilizer runoff

Rain should be soaking into the soil to replenish groundwater, but with more areas paved or covered with lawns that slope toward the street, it flows into storm drains instead. 

     Not wanting to be part of the problem for the river, in 2013 we agreed to install two 14-foot strips of porous paving in our driveway. One runs from a downspout at the corner of the house toward the street. The other crosses the width of the driveway alongside the sidewalk. 

     This material looks like asphalt but allows water to flow through to a layer of crushed stone which holds the water while it gradually percolates into the subsoil. When it rains, we can see that water no longer flows down the driveway into the street. As the water reaches the porous paving, it disappears into the ground.

Water drains through the darker porous paving

     Our sandy soil drains fast. We never see flooding in our yard. Rainwater falling on soil sinks into the ground and doesn’t flow toward the neighbors’ paved parking area behind our lot. So the porous paving in the driveway is enough to prevent storm water from running off our property.

Rainwater doesn't flow off the berm at the back of the yard

     Rainwater streaming from downspouts and driveways into the street now looks to me like a waste. Instead of watering with purified tap water, we could be collecting storm water and using it in our gardens. I calculate that the rain falling annually on our 1,900-square-foot roof could supply just about all the water I use for irrigation. 

     So have I been harvesting water that falls on the roof? No, I’m sorry to say I haven’t. The obstacles are cost and the prospect of digging a huge hole in the garden for an underground cistern. Maybe 

someday. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the irrigation that’s falling from the sky.

Diverting some rainwater with a rain barrel

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Nature or "all-natural" products?

There’s a thriving market for organic lawn care in my town. These contractors offer periodic fertilizing and even pest control with certified organic products. 

Organic lawn service

Intrigued, I met with Jim Agabedis of Minuteman Landscaping in June 2013 to see about switching to lawn care on sustainable principles.

    Jim had a lot of sensible advice to offer. Some was about switching to better-informed practices, such as letting clippings compost in place on the lawn, changing mower blades frequently so they cut rather than tear the grass, weeding by hand instead of spreading weed killer, and aerating sections of lawn where telltale plantain indicates compaction. 

Could the lawn benefit from organic methods?

Another part of his advice was about “product.” That’s where I started to feel ambivalent.
    Jim had a compelling story of how he decided to switch from conventional to organic lawn care. He started his business while he was still in college and built it up to 360 accounts. Then an acquaintance shared a one-page article on lawn care without chemicals, and he had an epiphany. 

     Most of his clients didn’t make the transition to organic, but he fought his way back. He said it’s worth it to avoid practices and products that could make people or pets sick. 

Not the approach Jim was aiming for

The lawns his company cares for testify to the effectiveness of his method.

     I didn’t end up hiring Jim’s company. I was looking for weekly lawn mowing informed by organic principles. He was offering something more ambitious: a commitment to a beautiful organic lawn. For me, it’s not worth the money, and it's not the direction I'm heading.

    I could see that Jim’s approach was better than conventional lawn care, but I balked at the idea of a lawn, or any other garden area, depending on application of lots of purchased products for health or survival. Jim proposed to apply benign products such as compost pellets and compost tea. 

Spreading compost on a lawn

That’s the organic approach I’d pursue if I had enough time, motivation, and compost to get serious about lawn care. 

     Ideally, though, the compost I’d apply to our lawn would be made up of decomposed materials from our own yard. That way I’d be imitating the natural soil cycle, where organic materials such as leaves and branches decompose on the ground and build soil. 

Organic material cycles back into soil

    I have a problem with replacing chemicals from the garden center or big box store—weed killers, pesticides, synthetic fertilizer—with pricey organic products purporting to fill the same roles. It’s better than the old way, but it’s still a paradigm we should be moving away from.

     Now I see the garden as a community of plants and animals. I aim to enrich and protect it by letting natural processes do their work freely, 

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) blooming this week

rather than just by replacing synthetic products with store-bought “natural” ones.

This is SEG’s 100th post! Thanks for reading. It’s great to know that we share the same gardening pleasures and concerns.