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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Outrage fatigue

Saturday’s Boston March for Science was an exciting gathering of thousands of citizens concerned about the Trump administration’s plans to defund scientific programs.

You wouldn’t know it from the media coverage, though. Neither the Boston Globe nor the New York Times gave it much play. 

    Maybe that’s because there wasn’t enough conflict. Thousands of scientists were there, including contingents from major teaching hospitals and biotechnology labs. Everyone who attended the rally (in Boston we actually didn’t march) was in agreement: it’s dangerous and wrong-headed to cut back funding for public science. 

The tone was calm and rational. Maybe the scientists didn’t want to worsen political polarization, or maybe they’re just reasonable people who prefer civilized discourse to political slogans (personally I enjoy some good chanting at a rally).

     The looming specter in everyone’s mind was climate change. Former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy gave a rousing speech pointing out the crucial necessity of government-funded scientists to our continued life on earth. A popular sign pointed out, “There’s no Planet B.”

     For gardeners, this issue couldn’t be more important. For us, weather is all. As climate change intensifies, we can expect worsening drought interspersed with heavy rains that cause flooding. 

I’m not ready for a cactus garden, but maybe I should draw up plans. As we’ve seen in the past two months, there will be wild swings between temperature extremes. Forget about consistently cool spring days for enjoying blossoms as they open. 

Farewell to spring?

Storms will be more severe; in New England, that means we can expect more destructive hurricanes with high winds taking down major trees. I have several eastern white pines (Pinus strobus) whose soft wood will make them likely victims.

     Lack of media coverage of demonstrations can be demoralizing. How can we make our voices heard? We can call our Congressional delegation, but in Massachusetts they’re already on our side. 

I find myself turning inward, working on my own garden and trying not to think about what the federal government is doing.

     If we can’t count on Washington, though, at least some states are taking action. Massachusetts has committed to limiting greenhouse gas emissions to 10 to 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, with a target 80 percent reduction by 2050. Already our state has made major gains in solar and wind energy production and has been pursuing an aggressive drive for improving energy efficiency.

     We all look to California for leadership. They’ve committed to be 40 percent below 1990 emissions levels by 2030, and they’ve pioneered radical improvements in renewable electricity production, reductions in petroleum use, and increased energy efficiency in existing buildings.

     Unfortunately I can’t expect to garden in 1990’s climate while less-enlightened states feel the brunt of climate change. I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

                            *     *     *

Next week no depressing politics. Stay tuned for some good ideas for sustainable container plantings.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Reuse, recycle

One of the adorable features appearing in each issue of Fine Gardening magazine is readers’ tips for making gardening tasks easier. 

Gardening and recycling go together

People often write in with ways to make garden tools and supplies out of cast-off household objects: nylon stockings as plant ties or K-cups as containers for starting seeds.

     I learned from one of these readers to use polystyrene packing peanuts to fill the bottom of large plant containers. The peanuts weigh almost nothing and let water flow through freely. The only challenge is to keep them from getting all over the place when I dump the container on the compost pile in the fall.

Packing peanuts are lighter than potting mix

     I have a list of other items I save for use in the garden. Collecting them gives me a good feeling that I’m reusing what would otherwise be wasted.

    Of course, I save a lot of things to add to the compost. In addition to fruit and vegetable scraps, I’ve learned you can compost non-food items such as dryer lint and paper shreds. The lint disappears easily into the compost. The paper shreds need a bit more management. They have to be covered with plant material, otherwise they’ll blow around. In a year or so, though, they do decompose and become indistinguishable from other compost components. 

    Clear plastic bags from the dry cleaner come in handy for enclosing any plant I want to keep moist. I wrap newly planted seed flats in these bags. Moisture beading on the inside of the bags provides gratifying confirmation of a humid internal environment. 

Recycled dry cleaning bags keep seedlings moist

I’ve also draped the bags over house plants when we’ll be away for a week or more. This does seem to help them to tolerate longer stretches without watering.

    Mesh bags that held onions or other vegetables turn out to be useful for holding feathers that birds in my yard can use literally to feather their nests. Around this time of year, I fill the bags with clean white goose feathers I found at a web site that sells them for topping up comforters. Birds hang on the mesh and pluck out the feathers they want.

Birds grab feathers for nest building
     Lately I've been trying out another idea from a Fine Gardening reader, lining the bottom of flower pots with used dryer sheets to prevent soil from washing out the drainage hole. I’ve learned not to put gravel in the pots, because this actually worsens drainage, contrary to what we were all taught. The jury is still out on whether their fine texture slows down water flow too much.

    This spring’s big challenge will be to find plants in my collection to combine with “thrillers” such as elephant ears and cannas in containers.

Coleus with elephant ears

Midsize standards from the garden center, such as coleus and impatiens, used to play this role. This year I’m avoiding them to keep from poisoning pollinators with neonicotinoid insecticides used by commercial growers. It will be interesting to see which plants can be repurposed.

Could heuchera divisions from my garden take the place of coleus?

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Native flowers for pollinators

More complications in the search to provide habitat and food for pollinators emerged from a fascinating lecture I attended last week organized by Grow Native Massachusetts. Annie S. White spoke about her research comparing pollinator preferences for flowers of native perennials versus “native cultivars.” 

Annie counting pollinators in her test plot

Cultivars are plants that have been deliberately selected or bred for desirable characteristics, such as different flower forms or colors. 

    Annie’s research filled an important gap for gardeners who want to do the best thing for pollinators. When we shop at the garden center, we’re often choosing between cultivars of native plants. For example, purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, is so popular that breeders offer dozens of cultivars. 

Are my purple coneflowers the native species or a look-alike cultivar?

Instead of the plain daisy form with deep pink petals, you can have a range of colors and flower forms, going as far as showy (or ugly, depending on your taste) double flowers that don’t look much like the unimproved natives. 

Echinacea 'Summer Flower Pink'--highly modified from the native species

You may not be able to buy the straight species at all. Were we right in assuming that these cultivars were just as valuable to pollinators?

    Annie spent summers standing in her experimental plots counting the pollinators that visited the flowers. Her study of eleven New England native species and their cultivars found that the more the cultivars differed from the native species, the less they offered to pollinators. In the case of purple coneflower, pollinators liked the native flowers best, accepted a white-flowered cultivar with little difficulty, 

A white coneflower cultivar is good enough for this bee

but eschewed a double-flowered variety and a sterile hybrid. 

    Double flowers are often sterile, because stamens have morphed into extra petals. So the pollinators get no pollen from these flowers. No wonder they’re not attracted to them. 

    Annie did a lot of detective work to uncover the origin of the native cultivars she studied. I was surprised that several turned out to be hybrids, or crosses between two species, although they were not labeled as such. 

     To make things more complicated, even seeds may not be accurately labeled. A study of sundial lupine seeds (Lupinus perennis)  recently found that only two out of ten sources were providing the true native species. The rest were seeds of naturally-occurring hybrids between the natives and cultivars that either escaped from cultivation or were intentionally planted along highways. 

Wild Maine lupines have interbred with cultivars

     Interestingly, the majority of Annie’s plants were pollinated by bees, with bumblebees leading the way, honeybees next, and a mix of native bees third. Only two percent were pollinated by butterflies and moths.

     For us amateurs, what’s a reasonable procedure for choosing plants that benefit pollinators? First we have to make sure the plants we buy haven’t been treated with systemic insecticides such as neonicotinoids that kill bees and other pollinators. Then we have to do our best to find native species or cultivars that have been only slightly modified. 

This black-eyed Susan cultivar must be close enough to the native species to attract pollinators

Easier said than done. I hope Annie’s research heralds a new awareness among growers so that in future we’ll be offered plants that are truly pollinator-friendly.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Holding off on spring clean-up

If snow, sleet, and freezing rain would stop falling, we’d all like to get outside and start our spring garden clean-up, right? Well, hold off a little longer. An update from my beneficial insect guru Jessica Walliser advises that we need to let last fall’s leaves lie and stems stand until temperatures warm up.

    Last year I learned I needed to adjust my approach in two ways to avoid interrupting the life cycles of insects I want to foster in my garden. There are several reasons to put out the welcome mat for insects. Beneficial insects prey on leaf-eating insects and help keep them in balance. 

Ladybugs eat leaf-eating insects

Pollinators are another desirable group of insect visitors, needed to help plants reproduce and make fruits, whether they’re cucumbers, squash, melons, apples, blueberries, or a host of other crops we take for granted. Even more importantly, we need a wide variety of insects for other animals to feed on. They form the base of the food web; without insects, larger animals will go hungry.

    Last year I heard that chopping up my fall leaves in the leaf shredder could mean I was chopping up insect eggs too. It would be better to let the leaves lie undisturbed through the winter so the eggs have a chance to hatch. So in the fall I cut back on shredding leaves and let more lie on the beds whole. 

Insects eggs laid on fall leaves will hatch in spring

My past practice has been to move these to the compost pile as early as April. Jess advises not to rake up those leaves until the daytime temperature is consistently reaching 50. 

    Second, I learned from Jess’ piece on fall clean-up that it’s best to leave plant stalks standing because many insects hide inside them through the winter. This went against my grain. It looked messy to have perennial stalks poking out of the snow, but I refrained from cutting them down. 

Insects could be hiding in this dead foxglove stem

     At this point I can cut the stems and pile them gently on the compost pile or under the evergreens at the back of the garden, or I can wait a few more weeks for the insects to emerge from their form of hibernation, called diapause. For more of Jess’s tips, see her spring clean-up post at Savvy Gardening.

    Last fall I also restrained myself from cutting down seed heads. Here the idea was that I could offer food for birds if I’d let the seeds stay. Birds are already singing their spring calls, so we know they’re out foraging for food, and I hope the flower seeds I left for them are helping them through the lean days of early spring. 

I left seeds on this spirea for birds to eat

     I’ve seen a few bees visiting the first crocuses, heralding the start of this year’s insect activity. I’ll be interested to see whether the changes I made in my fall and spring clean-up will bring a noticeable increase in the yard’s insect population this spring.

A bumblebee has already found these crocuses

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Safe seeds for safe plants

On a visit last week to my favorite garden center, I got some bad news. The center’s grower confirmed that they do apply neonicotinoid insecticides to their plants, both annual flowers about to go out for sale, and vegetable seedlings getting started in the greenhouse. Since I know their perennials originate elsewhere, I have to assume that those too may be treated at their nurseries of origin.

Impatiens from the garden center come sprayed with insecticide

      This strengthened my resolve not to buy plants at garden centers this spring. The reason I don’t want plants or seeds that are treated with “neonics” is that these products persist in plant tissues and poison insects that eat from them, including bees. In an odd twist, some big sellers, BJ’s Wholesale Club, Home Depot, and Lowe’s, are ahead of local garden centers on this issue.

     Bowing to pressure from environmentalists, the big outlets have promised to phase out neonics. Plants at BJ’s are already neonic-free. Home Depot will be clean by 2018 and Lowe’s by spring 2019. Not that I particularly want to shop for plants at these big chain stores.  I’d much rather give my business to my local family-run garden center. They sell a wide range of beautiful plants. I just don’t feel comfortable exposing visiting insects to neonic toxicity.

When my flowers attract pollinators, I don't want to poison them

    For this reason I’m working hard on growing annuals at home from seed. When possible, I bought organically-produced seed. Where organic wasn’t available, I accepted seed that was listed as untreated. I divided the seed packets into groups according to when they needed to be planted: eight, six, or four weeks before our last frost date in mid-April.  The basil and zinnias are already looking promising in their six-packs under lights. 

Zinnias growing under lights in the kitchen

Plants with smaller seeds, such as flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) have sprouted, but they’ll need more time to grow into garden-sized plants. 

Black-eyed Susans and cosmos are pollinator magnets

     Fortunately some black-eyed Susan seeds from last year’s garden hitched a ride in the compost I used to make potting mix. Young plants sprouted around a begonia I potted to save through the winter. Now the volunteer seedlings are getting a head start on spring in pots of their own.

     This week I planted the last round—marigolds, some more zinnias, and cockscomb (Celosia species).

This week's seeds getting help from a warm, moist environment
I sowed some sweet alyssum I found recently, although they’ll need several weeks to catch up. I squeezed in perennial purple coneflower seeds (Echinacea purpurea) that I scored at a native plant exhibit at the Boston Flower & Garden Show.

Coneflowers will be a good addition to the insectary garden

     It’s an open question whether I’ll be able to nurse these young seedlings through to husky young plants by late April or early May. I know from past experience that the homegrown plants will be spindly in comparison to what I’d buy from the garden center. I hope to fill any gaps with seedlings grown organically at a local school. If retailers get the message, in another year or two we’ll be able to buy plants without worrying that they’re carrying neonic toxicity.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Not quite nonstop bloom

I’ve spent many winters trying to plan for continuous bloom in the garden. This holy grail of perennial gardeners is the elusive assemblage of plants that will follow each other into glorious display, like a symphony with no pauses between movements.

July in Minneapolis--admirably plentiful flowers

    When I started out, I pursued this quest in hopes of enjoying colorful flowers in the garden all season. Now that I’ve become more insect-friendly, my goal has shifted. I’m aiming to offer nectar and pollen throughout the growing season so that passing bugs will always have something to eat.

A bee snacking on some meadow rue pollen in my yard

     Mail order nurseries hold out the tantalizing possibility that a careful buyer can keep the blooms going nonstop. Each plant is listed with a putative bloom time. For example, in this spring’s White Flower Farm catalog, hellebores promise to bloom in March and April, bearded irises are listed as flowering in June (and September!), 

Bearded iris' gorgeous but temperamental flowers don't last long

reblooming daylilies offer to keep going all summer, and the asters are supposed to cover August and September. If only it were that simple!

    Hard experience has taught me that the average perennial really only blooms for about two weeks. There are a few that make flowers for months, but they aren’t just covered with flowers all the time—fortunately, because that would get boring fast. In reality they bloom, pause to regroup, and bloom again.

    Weather conditions can change everything. Those hellebores that flower in March may not help pollinators much if they’re buried under a foot of snow. 

A hyacinth caught in the snow

A heat wave in May can shorten the bloom time for spring flowers, and prolonged heat and drought in July and August often put the whole garden into a state of dormancy. 

     I’ve learned that I can rely on something flowering from late April through June and from mid-September until frost. But that carpet of bright flowers in the heat of August? It’s not happening in my garden.

Summertime, and the garden is boring

    To keep the insect buffet open, I’ve come to rely on a few free-flowering perennials for each time of year, with some annuals filling in the gaps.

    Starting around this time of year, we can count on the spring bulbs, and soon the flowering shrubs will get started. May is a riot of flowers, with lots of my favorites in full bloom.

     Bearded iris and peony flowers usually make it into June, but they don’t last long. 

Nothing's more romantic than peonies, but a rainstorm can knock them out

There’s a dull period in the heat of the summer.  A series of day lilies with overlapping bloom times stretch into August. The insectary bed keeps chugging along, with black-eyed Susan, oxe-eye sunflower, and swamp milkweed providing reliable bloom. 

     September brings cooler weather and a new wave of flowers. Asters and goldenrod flower for as much as two months, and annuals like zinnias and borage hold on into October. Fall offers lots of nectar and

Borage makes sky blue flowers all summer

    This year again I’m hoping to fill in those summer doldrums with more flowers. Seeds starting under lights might be the answer. Cosmos, here we come.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The endangered EPA

It’s been a big week for climate change deniers and polluters. First Scott Pruitt, the new leader of the Environmental Protection Agency, opined that carbon dioxide from human activity isn’t causing global warming. Then Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz sponsored a bill to eliminate the EPA altogether. Meanwhile, the Trump administration proposes to cut EPA funding by 25 percent.

    Where would we be if the EPA hadn’t been at work since 1970? Without it, gardens would be in poor shape for so many reasons.

As spring flowers open, I'm grateful to the EPA for protecting the garden environment

    Remember acid rain? Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from Midwest power plants used to drift eastward, damaging northeastern forests. The big oak tree that anchors my garden would likely have succumbed to this toxic mix, along with many of its fellows. Instead, thanks to air pollution standards, New England forests rebounded. 

    Back when America was “great,” lead from gasoline routinely accumulated in garden soil. Our lot is small; no part of it is far from roads and car exhaust. If it weren’t for the EPA’s phase-out of leaded gas, we might not be able to eat vegetables from our own yard without risking brain damage from lead poisoning.

With lead in soil from exhaust, we'd have to skip the home-grown tomatoes

    I can thank the EPA for keeping me in shape to garden. Mental health used to be a smoky job, with many of our patients chain-smoking. EPA insisted on the link between secondhand smoke and cancer, lung and heart disease. Clinical encounters are now smoke-free. If I’d breathed secondhand smoke for 40 years, would I still be able to wield a shovel or a rake?

    The EPA has banned or restricted toxic chemicals we formerly used in our landscapes, starting with DDT. In 1972, many bird populations were dangerously low, poisoned by DDT as it concentrated up the food chain. Now bald eagles are back, and healthy native birds visit my yard.

Bald eagles chicks, safe without DDT

    Businesses chafe at EPA regulations that prevent them from exploiting our natural resources and sticking the rest of us with the externalized costs in money, health, and environmental damage. That seems to be the motivation for Pruitt’s long career of suing the EPA and his current mission to destroy it.

     Now more than ever, we need the government scientists who’ve been supplying the data on climate change that the Trump team plans to ignore or shred. I can only imagine how sad and infuriating it would be to see your life’s work heading for the electronic recycle bin.

Berkeley data hack saving NASA and DOE research--photo by Jamie Lyons

Because of that data and much more from climate scientists around the world, the previous administration forged ahead on regulations like the Clean Power Plan, which restricted carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, directing us toward renewable energy sources. 

     If climate change continues to accelerate, gardeners can expect more extreme weather and increases in flooding and drought. For the sake of our gardens and our life on Earth, I hope we’ll benefit from the EPA’s protection for many years to come.