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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.

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