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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, January 29, 2017

Seeds of change

Now is the time for what Steve calls the “hot stove league.” In baseball, that’s sharing happy visions of your team’s coming season. In gardening, it’s paging through seed catalogs full of beautiful pictures of vegetables and flowers. The photographers and graphic designers for these alluring publications can make even a humble cabbage or carrot look like a must-buy.

    This year I’m planning a new direction for seed buying. I’m going organic. I’d never thought it was important to start with organically produced seeds. I was not going to apply pesticides to my seedlings, so why did it matter? 

     Now I’m aware that commercial seeds may be treated with neonicotinoid pesticides that could be stored in plant tissues and kill pollinators all summer long. That’s motivated me to put aside my favorite catalog purveyors in favor of seed houses that use organic methods.

For the pollinators' sake I'll plant organic seeds

    For my insectary garden, I’m going to start cosmos, celosia, monkey flower, sunflowers, and black-eyed susans from seed. For cutting, I’ll add zinnias. For growing in containers, I usually buy coleus, torenia, browallia, impatiens, and other long-blooming annuals that catch my fancy. I’m less familiar with starting these at home, but if I begin early and give the seedlings reliable attention, I’m hopeful that I can do it.

Monkey plant (Mimulus guttatus) offers bees early browsing

     This year I’ll also have time for succession planting. That’s planting new rounds of favorite vegetables every couple of weeks, avoiding the usual boom and bust pattern of my vegetable garden. By frequently planting very short rows of lettuce, sugar snap peas, and green beans, I hope to enjoy these vegetables over longer periods and avoid wasting produce that’s too plentiful for our household of two to eat. 

Can I spread out my basil crop by planting a little at a time?

     After all, what’s sustainable about ordering seeds that are shipped from afar, starting them under lights, and watering them with purified drinking water, only to leave them un-harvested and then throw them on the compost pile? I’m sorry to say that’s been my pattern in past years.

    To get a jump on the growing season, I’ll plant seeds indoors using Organic Mechanics peat-free seed-starting mix or my own non-peat potting blend, both containing coir (coconut fiber). I mix four parts potting mix with one part warm water and fill the cells of seedling six-packs I’ve saved from last year’s purchases. 

Waste not, want not--reusing six-packs from last year

I poke a hole in the mix with a pencil and plant three seeds in each cell. The labeled packs fit into trays filled with capillary matting—that’s spongy synthetic material that holds water to keep the potting mix moist from below.

     I wrap the trays in clear plastic (old dry-cleaning bags) and set them under grow lights.

African violets under the grow lights

     Until they germinate, the most desirable seeds may get bottom heat from a thermostatically controlled mat that fits in the bottom of the tray. 

Capillary matting lies on top of the heating mat

This gives them their start. Most of the seeds do germinate, especially if they’re new, not saved from previous years. Then it’s up to me to help the little plants grow bigger until planting time.

Home-grown cucumbers are worth the effort

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A reprieve for bees?

The clouds may be parting for gardeners who have been unknowingly poisoning bees and other insects. The bad news is that many of the flowers we buy to help pollinators may be treated with pesticides that poison them. The good news is that a campaign to stop this practice is bearing fruit.

This cosmos attracted a bee to my garden

     In 2014, Gardeners Beware, a report from Friends of the Earth, showed well-documented proof that insecticides called neonicotinoids (“neonics”) were present in more than half of bee-attracting commercial nursery plants bought at a broad sample of garden centers and big box stores in the United States and Canada.

     At commonly used concentrations, neonics kill bees. At lower levels, they cause neurotoxicity. Picture a bee that can’t remember how to get back to her hive. Friends of the Earth concluded, “. . . the chance of purchasing a plant contaminated with neonicotinoids is high. Therefore, many home gardens have likely become a source of exposure for bees.” 

Poisonous for bees?

     Growers treat annuals and perennials with the neonics in order to display plants unmarked by insects. The chemicals persist for years in plant tissues, including flowers, pollen, and nectar that bees touch. 

    I take this very personally. I don’t buy pesticides or spray them on my annuals or perennials. It’s upsetting that plants I used to create my insectary bed could have been killing insects rather than providing them with safe food as I intended.

I planted black-eyed Susans to feed insects, not poison them

    The good news is that thanks to pressure from activists, some major retailers have agreed to phase out neonics and plants treated with them. BJ’s Wholesale Clubs was the first major United States outlet to respond, requiring that its suppliers label plants treated with neonics and stop using them by the end of 2014. Home Depot has committed to stop selling treated plants by 2018 and Lowe’s by spring 2019. These retailers are way ahead of the Environmental Protection Agency, which still hasn’t put a moratorium on use of neonics while it reconsiders their registration for use in the US.

    Predictably, the chemical companies that make these pesticides, including Bayer and Ortho, blame the drastic bee population decline on diseases and non-native pests. The burden of scientific evidence now indicates these are less serious problems for bees than neonic toxicity. Restrictions on neonic use in France, Germany and Italy have sharply curtailed bee colony losses.

    I don’t know whether I’ve been buying neonic-treated plants at my favorite garden center. That will be my first question the next time I’m there.

     Marigolds, which I buy every year, tested positive at three quarters of the Massachusetts sites in the Friends of the Earth study. 

Marigold seedlings are fun and easy--but are they safe for bees?

Young annuals change hands several times from germination to sale. If any one of those handlers treats them with neonics, my bees are in trouble. 

    If I can’t get full assurances that plants I buy are safe for pollinators, I’ll have to go to Plan B (so to speak). That will be to buy only organically grown plants or seeds until this issue is fully resolved.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What Not To Wear, for shrubs

I can still remember my first down parka. Back then we were suffering through winter in uncomfortable wool coats. During the energy crisis of the seventies, I was walking to class early mornings in Cleveland. I was cold!

    A friend steered me to a new kind of coat, sold at a wilderness outfitter. I tried one on when I came home to Boston for the holidays. It was huge, dull blue-gray, and gloriously warm. The maker had dubbed it, “The Yeti.” 

A friendly Yeti

It wasn’t flattering, but that parka changed my winter experience.

     My neighborhood is dotted with swaddled shrubs, apparently wrapped up by soft-hearted owners who are trying to keep away the cold. But unlike me, plants don’t need the Yeti when temperatures are cold. 

Nice thought, but not necessary

     Plants don’t hold in warmth like us warm-blooded mammals. There are two putative reasons why wrapping shrubs could make sense. First, a windbreak can prevent loss of moisture. Desiccation is particularly a problem for plants that hold their leaves through the winter, such as the rhododendrons, Japanese andromedas, and mountain laurels that are so common in foundation plantings around town. 

Challenged by dry winter air

Second, support from wrapping the shrubs and tying them up with twine might prevent branches from being bent down by snow.

Heavy snow may bend shrubs temporarily

     My first objection to this practice is aesthetic. Why plant ornamental shrubs and then cover them in ugly wrappings for four or five months of the year? It seems to defeat the whole purpose of choosing broad-leafed evergreens. The reason we plant these shrubs with such monotonous consistency is precisely because they lend a bit of green and a sense of life to the winter landscape.


     On a more practical level, the wrappings don’t really help the shrubs much. The plants have evolved to deal with dry winter air, and branches that bend in the snow gradually resume their upright position in spring. 

Better looking, but still not necessary

Rather than wrapping, the better approach is to plant in the right place. A rhododendron likes a sheltered woodland spot with acid soil, not a windswept steppe of lawn where is has no cover from arctic winds. 

Rhododendrons prefer shade and shelter

     If the plants go into the winter with plenty of water, they’ll be able to hold on through the season despite the cold, drying air. 

     Last summer’s drought was very tough on our shrubs and trees. Despite recent rain and snow, we’re still way behind. Logan Airport recorded 33 inches of rainfall in the Boston area in 2016, compared to the annual average of 44 inches.

     The dry conditions took their toll. I notice dead branches on my own shrubs and some neighborhood evergreens that have finally turned completely brown, succumbing to long-term water deprivation.

Drought casualties

Perennials are tucked away underground at this season, storing everything they need for next year in their roots. Evergreen shrubs, on the other hand, have to keep their leaves and needles alive year round. Instead of winter coats, they should get priority for fall watering to help them stay hydrated through the winter.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Love the soil you're with

I’ve got sandy soil, and the sooner I accept that, the happier my plants and I will be.

Swamp milkweed seems to like the sandy soil I can offer

Conventional gardening wisdom used to dictate that all good soils were the same. We all aspired to develop and maintain rich black loam, not too acid or alkaline and loaded with organic material.

     This old point of view is exemplified in a recent Fine Gardening Garden Photo of the Day blog post. The creator of a mountainside retreat in Tennessee writes, “. . . the first thing we did was to totally create a garden area…beginning with bringing in the best dirt!” Actually, bringing in good dirt is an idea we need to get over

If it were truly possible for us all to create identical soils, we’d achieve a boring consistency within climate zones. We’d be likely to grow the same plants across the country. Mainstream horticultural production already conditions us to buy a short list of highly prized perennials (hellebores, anyone?).

Hellebores are having their 15 minutes. They do brighten early spring.

 It’s depressingly like passing a Staples, a Barnes and Noble, and a Starbucks at every mall.

            Fortunately, nature doesn’t allow us to change our soil permanently to match some imagined ideal. You can knock yourself out, for example, trying to turn your acid New England soil alkaline to suit your delphiniums or hydrangeas. Once you stop pouring money into the ground in the form of additives, the soil will revert to what local conditions provide.

Some hydrangeas bloom pink in alkaline soil

            A better approach is to plant for the soil you have, instead of the soil you wish you had. I’ve learned the hard way that some plants just aren’t happy in my soil. Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) ‘Husker Red,’ for example, looked great in the catalogs but dwindled quickly in my garden. The Husker soubriquet probably should have tipped me off that this was a prairie native that wouldn’t appreciate New England soil conditions (nor the climate or the less-than-full sun exposure that I provided).

'Husker Red' prefers the wide open spaces

            I started out trying to match my garden to glamor shots of English-style perennial borders in the White Flower Farm catalog. “Living landscape” designers such as Rick Darke, Claudia West, and Thomas Rainer have recently opened my eyes to the truth that a garden exists in a particular place. These pioneers are showing how we can gain a deeper understanding of our local ecosystems and distill their essence when we choose plants and design gardens. It’s better for the environment, as well as making for more interesting yards.

Bloodroot is a New England native that's at home in my yard

            I haven’t thrown away my prized purchases of hellebores, peonies, balloon flowers, or day lilies. I still love them, even though you can see them all over the country. What I hope to do going forward is to channel the spirit of my specific natural surroundings and move toward a garden that has a more local inspiration. That will include embracing my sandy loam and what likes to grow in it.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

What does sustainable mean?

Happy New Year! For 2017’s first post, I’m going back to basics to clarify what I mean by sustainable gardening. 

Composting is key, but there's more

The term “sustainable” gets such broad use these days that it’s losing meaning.

     For example, did you know that Poland Spring water is “sustainably sourced from local Maine springs?” That’s what it says on the bottle. There’s a lot the label doesn’t say.

     It doesn’t say that Poland Spring has been owned for a number of years by the Nestle Corporation, an international bad actor that came to attention in the 1970s for causing infant deaths in the Third World by marketing infant formula to mothers who didn’t have access to safe drinking water. The babies could have lived safely with breastfeeding. 

    The label doesn’t address the impact of the the huge Poland Spring operation on Maine towns where Nestle extracts 800 million gallons annually from aquifers and ships it out on a fleet of heavy trucks. 

                          2013 Press Herald File Photo/John Patriquin

    Perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t say that plastic water bottles are some of the most environmentally problematic products we use. 

     Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog for the Hudson, offers some eye-opening statistics about bottled water. The one that really got to me was this: “The energy it takes to transport the water to market, to chill the bottles, and collect the empties is the energy equivalent of filling each bottle a quarter of the way with oil.”  

There's no "away" for plastic water bottles

Whatever Poland Spring means by “sustainable,” it’s not what I mean. 

    Getting back to the garden, my definition of sustainable gardening is that it:
•    imitates natural processes
•    emphasizes cycling of materials
•    minimizes waste and energy use
That’s easy to say, but real gardening choices depend on weighing very local considerations.

    Say I’m choosing garden structures such as the tuteurs I bought last summer from Terra Trellis (my talented sister-in-law Jennifer Gilbert Asher is the designer and proprietor).  

I upgraded to an elegant steel tuteur like this one

The wooden structures I’d been using for vines such as cucumbers held out for a while, but as untreated wood will, they eventually began to rot and fall apart. 

The wooden trellis didn't last

The new ones are made of powder-coated steel.  That means they’ll last for the rest of my gardening life. But it also means that more energy went into their manufacture.

     Would it have been more sustainable to buy wooden ones every few years? That would depend on such factors as where the wood comes from, how it’s harvested, and what processes are involved in building the metal and wooden structures, all unknowns to me. 

     Perhaps most sustainable of all would be to build trellises from local scrap wood or straight branches pruned off my trees. That would tax another finite resource, my time and energy.

     I don’t think there’s a single correct choice. In each situation, we have to weigh our priorities and find the best solution for our time, place, resources, and stage of life. If we do our best to make informed choices, I believe we’ll gradually progress toward more sustainable practices.