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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.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sowing diversity

It’s seed-starting season, and I’m about to start my second round of annual and vegetable seeds. 

Time to plant some more seeds

With this in mind, I was eager to hear a talk this week by Randi V.W. Eckel, an entomologist and founder of Toadshade Wildflower Farm in New Jersey. She made the case for starting native perennials from seed and then offered some pointers on how to do it.

    Entomologists advocate growing native plants in our backyards, because native insects are adapted to live off them. 

Native plants feed native insects

Randi also pointed out that seed-grown plants are genetically diverse, whereas perennial plants that are multiplied by division, cuttings, or tissue culture are clones—genetically identical copies of the parent plant. In diversity, there is strength.

    My experience with seeds comes from common vegetables and flowers bought from large mail order seed houses. I was surprised to learn how different it could be to work with seeds of native perennials. Think they’ll all sprout around the same time? Think again—it’s adaptive for them to spread out their germination times so that one disaster won’t wipe them all out. It turns out that predictably timed germination is one of the characteristics our tame seeds have been bred for.

    Randi listed at least nine special requirements that seeds may have for germination, all adaptations that improve their chance of growing into successful populations in the wild. Some require periods of moist cold conditions, some dry cold, some alternating periods of warmth and cold. Some need their seed coat “scarified,” which can be done by scratching the seeds with sand paper (I wholeheartedly agree with Randi’s point that oft-repeated advice to do this with a razor blade is a recipe for losing a finger).

Seeds of blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) need scarification to germinate

     I think I know now why I’ve never been able to grow common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), although I’ve brought home seeds with their silky parachutes several times when the pods opened in fall.  

Seeds of common milkweed are equipped to travel

Although this plant is usually regarded as a weed, I like the idea of its attracting migrating monarch butterflies. Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed because it’s what their larvae need to eat. I pictured a gleaming orange and black monarch emerging from its chrysalis in my yard. Wouldn’t that be cool!

Monarchs are milkweed specialists

      Right now I’ve got a flat of unfortunate milkweed seeds mostly failing to sprout under lights in my kitchen, this time from a packet I was given by a friendly seed collector last spring. Randi pointed out that milkweed seeds need light to germinate. I shouldn’t have been covering them with soil outdoors or growing medium indoors. 

Luckily these milkweed seeds got enough light to sprout. I planted the rest too deep.

    So when I start this week’s seeds, I’ll try sowing milkweed seeds on top of the growing medium. But Randi’s talk convinced me to keep buying most of my native perennials from nurseries like hers. Let the experts provide the care the seeds and young plants need. If my native perennials succeed in multiplying in the garden, so much the better.