Sharing Seeds with Others to Avoid Neonicotinoid Pesticides
Although I have always known that the plants I bought from nurseries were likely to be treated with some kind of chemical, I used to think that as long as I kept my garden in an organic way and took car of the plants without pesticides once I got them home it would all be okay.
This year, however, I began work on a book about backyard beekeepers and the health of honey bees here in the Mid-Atlantic part of the US, and I became aware of just how wrong my assumption could be.
Sadly, a study done this summer found that many of the commercial growers that sell their plants via wholesale to nurseries are treating their plants with neonicotinoid pesticides – those systemic chemicals that can turn any plant deadly to insects that suck on the plants’ stems, or eat the plants’ leaves. There is scientific evidence that the floral resources – the nectar and the pollen of the treated plants – also become toxic to bees and other pollinators. (To learn more of this grim news or to see the science see: What’s Killing the Bees? http://www.xerces.org/neonicotinoids-and-bees/ ).
This has left in me in a terrible conundrum as a wildlife gardener who lives on a somewhat tight budget.
I’d like to support growers who sell certified organic plants, but certification is – I have been told – a very difficult and expensive process for a grower to complete in the US. This means that the plants may be more expensive, but also they are darned hard to find. There simply aren’t a lot of growers out there who are selling the plants I like to buy for my garden who will tell me they are organic! And now that I know that even seeds treated with neonics and plants grown in soil that has been previously treated should be avoided as much as possible, I am trying to be extra careful. I do not want to be encouraging wildlife to come for a feast in my garden if I’m actually enticing them to a toxic meal.
So this year I began trading plants with fellow growers in a huge way. I also began saving seed to share and trade with others. This helps to offset the cost of buying from organic growers and will also, I hope, enable me to find some of the plants that I want while hopefully avoiding neonics.
Saturday I attended my first-ever see swap, organized by Kathy Jentz, editor Washington Gardener magazine, which was held at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland. Kathy even got lots of local garden-related businesses to donate prizes and fill our goody bags! It was great!
Honestly, I had always stayed away from such events in the past because I really thought they were all about veggie gardening. Even though I really enjoy growing veggies I have never had veggie seeds to swap. Also, I really don’t start thinking about what I am going to grow in my edible garden until very late in the winter… so I never really was ready to think about seed swaps that took place in January.
This year, I nervously packaged up some of my Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) to give out. Why was I nervous? Well, a few days before the swap I attended a lecture where the speaker, who was giving a talk about butterfly life cycles, mentioned that although she knew the native plant was great for the monarch caterpillar and butterfly, she did not think it was a good garden plant. Too weedy, she said. Too hard to control.
I disagreed. There are fewer and fewer places in agricultural areas where milkweed of any sort is allowed to grow now, due to the heavy use of herbicides used to maximize growing potential in industrial style farm set-ups. Tidy can be nice. But a world that is too tidy for monarchs and their milkweed is not something I look forward to or want to encourage.
Its true that this is not a plant for those obsessed with tidy outdoor spaces. But its great for those obsessed with butterflies! Honestly, I’ve been growing it for two decades and I do not have a problem with it taking over. It is really pretty easy to control compared to other aggressive plants. It smells GREAT, and deer usually avoid it because the sap is so super-sticky. And it is wonderful to see the monarchs use it so readily during their migration to Mexico in the fall.
So, for the seed exchange I wrote up a little blurb warning those who took the seed that they’d need to give this kind of milkweed room to spread – either in a fake urban meadow like the one I have in my yard or maybe in back of some unused place near a garage or at the back of a property.
On Saturday, I was soooo happy when a woman stood up during the seed swap question and answer session and thanked “the person who brought the milkweed.” She was, she told the crowd, hoping more people would plant some milkweed because the monarchs need it so very badly these days. A kindred spirit! And I did notice my seeds went pretty quickly. (Take that, garden speaker who dissed the milkweed! Hah!)
I am definitely hooked on the idea of a seed exchange. Turns out there was a whole table of seeds people had brought from native plants. One guy even brought Paw Paw seeds which were snapped up almost immediately by other members of the crowd. There were also loads of great annual and perennial seeds. Who could turn down free veggie seeds in those goody bags?
And it only cost $10.00 to get into the event. A real bargain and a great way to spend the day meeting other gardeners on a cold day when our yards area all still full of snow!
About a year ago, I decided to remove all of the English Ivy which was growing in my backyard. The annoying invasive exotic plants had been there for decades, and covered the entire inner root zone of our mature red maple tree. It was a problem I inherited when I bought the place.
English Ivy — sometimes called Irish Ivy or Atlantic Ivy – can quickly engulf an entire tree and cause fungal problems in bark. Sometimes in urban areas, trees are so weakened by such vines that they become much more likely to fall in storm or on a windy day, especially if the plants add more weight than the tree can sustain.
When English Ivy is allowed to mature and form berries, it also becomes a problem on public lands. Birds eat the berries and distribute the seeds deep in the forest, and because this plant can thrive in the shade, a carpet of ivy soon grows to the exclusion of most other plants and trees. There is some evidence that English Ivy also causes an increase in flooding along slopes and that in some cases may increase mosquito populations in urban locations.
For twelve years I had tried to minimize the vines’ impact on our beloved tree by keeping it off of the trunk of the maple and making sure it had no chance to form berries. I hadn’t ever tried to remove the stuff growing along the ground, however. It just seemed too herculean a task for me to take on and there was just too much else to do on any given workday in my garden.
But when new neighbors moved in behind me and we collectively decided that the two ancient fences separating our properties needed to be replaced, I suddenly realized that the ivy should go, as well. There was no more delaying the issue, because to let the vine grow on the new fence would be a foolish waste of money. Besides, the new neighbors were also working to clean all the overgrown invasives out of their yard; if we both worked together on the problem we just might stand a chance of really eradicating the plant completely from our tiny collective yards.
It took a full month of Sundays. Well, actually, I decided I would work for only few hours each Sunday during the month of November, when cooler temperatures and a lack of other garden chores would make this a more bearable job.
I pulled and piled, pulled an piled, until all of the vines had been removed and sent out as yard waste for the municipal compost pile.
And actually, it wasn’t as hard as I had feared. The ground in November proved to be nice and soft and I was often able to pull on the vines and get long, long pieces of root up without any effort at all. Underneath I found missing baseballs, pieces of broken brick, and a few party favors lost during a particularly good pinata break a few years back. There was also a defunct yellow jacket nest in the ground at the very back — making me especially glad I had waited until the colder weeks to attempt the heaviest work — those wasps were long gone by the time I got to their home.
I was also lucky because although the English Ivy in our yard had been there for years, the roots remained small and shallow. I have seen wooded tracts where the plants have gone vertical and the roots are several inches in diameter, though. I am very glad I didn’t have to deal with anything like that on our property.
“Wow,” my daughter remarked on Thanksgiving weekend, just after I cleared the last patch of green leaves. “The yard looks HUGE!”
The kids had never liked stepping into the “Land of the Ivy.” It was icky and risky, they told me, to step into leaves when you couldn’t see what might be under foot. Thinking about the yellow jacket nest I realized they were probably right.
In the spring, we knew planting grass in the spot where the ivy used to roam would be pointless and frustrating. The generous shade of the maple and its twisty surface roots would prevent most of the seed from taking root. And besides, the tree and the grass would just compete with each other for nutrients. I should also note that we gave up raking our leaves off the shady side of the yard many years ago in order to increase the habitat potential of our yard, so really a lawn was never in the cards for that spot.
I did want to protect the root zone of the maple, however, and so we called a local arbor care company and asked if we could get some wood chips delivered. They were happy to oblige and didn’t even charge us; it seems that trips to our county’s compost facility are expensive and consume a lot of diesel, so they offer their leftovers for the taking. You just have to be able to wait until they have a load that doesn’t include poison ivy, holly or other prickly problem plants that you wouldn’t want to spread in a backyard setting. A reputable company will be honest about this — so I would actually recommend going high end when you ask around for this service since price is no object when it comes to free stuff! Its always best to avoid anyone that isn’t licensed.
(In case you are wondering if there is any danger of spreading disease from wood chips, I should also say that the evidence seems to indicate that this is highly unlikely. For more about that topic you can check out this EXCELLENT write up from Linda Chalker-Scott .)
The chips I got were from two trees that came down in a storm; from the smell and the appearance they were cedar and oak species. The company saved money and I was glad to keep one more truck off the Capital Beltway and I-270 that week.
I’m pleased to report that a year later, we haven’t had a substantial return of the ivy, and the wood chips are working out great. When we do find ivy sprouts beginning to run through either the root zone of the tree or along the fence, we pull them out before they can take hold. It only takes a moment and doesn’t demand much muscle, just a good eye that can recognize the plant in its early stages.
My only regret is that we didn’t work on that ivy sooner. If I had known how pretty it was going to look and how easy it was going to be to maintain the area after the vines was gone, I’d have spent that month of Sundays pulling the vine out a long time ago.
If you want more information about removing ivy from tree using the “lifesaver method,” check out this Oregon State University website.
If you want help identifying English Ivy, this site from King County, WA is also good.
Invasive exotic plants were taking over Patterson Clark’s neighborhood in Northwest Washington, DC. Initially he saw the need to wage a war against them. Then he found inspiration in their beauty and opportunity in their removal.
He first noticed the weeds as he walked along a tributary of Rock Creek Park. They were pulling and dragging along the trunks of the mature native trees, sometimes even killing their native host tree as they grew.
When the giant tulip trees would fall, gaps would open in the canopy, exposing the forest floor below to increased quantities of light. Hickory, holly, and ash trees would sprout and begin reaching toward the sky — only to be smothered by mile-a-minute, and Irish ivy. Much of the area was completely engulfed in vines.
Elsewhere, around chain link fences, he noticed alien trees and vines which quickly entwined themselves into the fence poles and began producing seeds by the thousands.
At first, Clark was compelled to begin battle, to wage a war against the weeds. He took training classes given by the National Park Service and learned how to remove the aggressive plants safely so that the mature trees and tiny seedlings would benefit. There were methods of cutting which could be employed to free the trunks from their ivy kidnappers, for example. And unwanted tree species could be cut down before they matured.
But something seemed amiss to Clark in the process. The aliens were a problem that threatened the balance of the forest, to be sure. But it was a dispiriting way to approach a landscape, especially for an artist.
“I came to realize that my antagonistic relationship with these plants had to change ” he told a crowd a assembled at Brookside Gardens last night, where he was giving a talk to the Silver Spring Garden Club .
After years of cutting, and discarding the stems, leaves and vines, he began to wonder instead how he could use them. His dislike of waste was matched by his love of making new, artisanal creations.
And so a harvest began. Not the kind a farmer might try, nor that of a shaman in the rainforest. It was the harvest of an artist.
For Clark, who works as a visual artist and columnist at the Washington Post, the paradigm shift provided inspiration and a strict aesthetic. He began seeking opportunities for reuse, reading the history and chemical composition of each species he removed. What they did to the forest might seem ugly, but he discovered that the plants themselves were often full of lovely properties.
And so his rules became clear and simple: he would use as much of each plant as he could, seeking to avoid waste in order to make art or food.
Some of the plants were, indeed, edible. The leaves of garlic mustard, which can create a monocrop-like carpet on the urban forest floor, can be delicious if fried up in oil like kale. They offer a tremendously nutritious complement to a main course. One simply has to be careful to avoid harvesting along the sidewalks where people walk their dogs, he said. And by harvesting, one allows other plants, including natives, to grow in the area instead.
Other invasives hold a different kind of abundance. The stems of multiflora rose – that thorny, woody vine which can occupy vast acres with its brambles — can be cut and boiled in water to form a gooey, gelatinous, red ink.
White mulberry bark can be stewed and then made into paper, or used fresh to make strong cordage.
The lumber from Norway Maple trees can become blocks for carving out wood cuts, which can then be inked and used for hand printing.
Much of what Clark does now is based on his own experimentation with each plant. But some of the result, he says, comes from learning how the different species were used in their countries of origin.
“I feel that my work is a way of remembering,” he said. If a species was used traditionally in Asia for paper, he begins to use it that way now. If a species was used for making rope, he gets out his knife and starts working on braids. When nothing is known, he takes out his cooking pots and builds a fire in his outdoor wood stove and begins to play and experiment.
There are hours and hours of work involved. Some of it sounds tedious. Some of it sounds like alchemy. Watching the slides that went across the screen felt a bit like attending a lecture given by a Zen master who studied with the witches from Macbeth. There were a lot of photos of boiling cauldrons and several descriptions of caustic chemical bi-products that should be avoided.
But even in the midst of discussing how some experiments had removed layers of skin from his fingers*, he seemed delighted, like a kid who’s just figured out that he actually has the secret ingredients needed for wizardry growing in his own backyard.
To be clear, Clark does not advocate the planting of these species. He clearly understands their destructive potential in the local ecosystem. And he still believes in and works toward their elimination from the forest.
But what he hopes is that perhaps one day his type of art will provide an “economic engine which could fund their removal.” These plants aren’t going away from our environment, he points out, and finding a way to use them might negate their destructive powers.
When I asked him about the possibility that these kinds of creative endeavors might encourage further planting of these aggressive species, he told me there are ways around such problems, if people are willing. Perhaps, he told us, a certification program could be created. Plants removed in one park could be made into postcards, art prints, inks or other materials which would then be certified as being from an invasive exotic weed removal. Proceeds generated from their sale could benefit that park, and its management.
“The idea is to make an economic engine which would could fund the removal of the plants,” he told us.
“This is my way of dealing with it and not generating sadness.”
*** *** ***
To see some of Patterson Clark’s beautiful, hand-made artisanal prints, visit his website: http://alienweeds.com
And be sure to also check out his excellent column, the Urban Jungle. It appears on an occasional basis in the Thursday science section of the Washington Post, and can be found year round in that newspaper’s archives at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/metro/urban-jungle/?tid=rr_mod
For more about invasive exotic plants, check out this website: http://www.invasive.org/
*UPDATE: Patterson Clark wrote me to say that my description of him losing several layers of skin is, perhaps, an exaggeration. ”The mild alkali used to cook plant fibers turns the surface of the outer layer of skin into soap, which can make it feel slippery. Not at all like the caustic burn from drain lye,” he explains.
(Hmmm, maybe so, Patterson. But that still sounds like a task I won’t be taking on myself anytime soon… glad you enjoy the chemistry. The results are really incredible!)
Since late last evening and early this morning we’ve been graced with the unexpected and very welcome sight of monarch butterflies drinking nectar at our zinnias.
Its been a crappy week here in DC, as the federal government’s shutdown has brought real hardship and frustration to so many of my hardworking neighbors. Its also been very hard to know that so many of the really tough environmental problems that could benefit from the important research being done by federal scientists have been put on hold, including things like Colony Collapse Disorder, the ecology of forest fires, and invasive exotic species control. I hope those in Congress get their act together soon.
Anyhow, it was wonderful to have something joyful to focus on for a few hours.
The first butterfly arrived just as the sun began to set last night. It stayed for a while, drank some nectar, and then headed off in a southern direction. Early this morning, two more arrived around 8am, again visiting the zinnias and again drinking. These two stayed for hours.
Like many people, I’ve been heartbroken to find almost no monarchs on my milkweed or along my flower tops this year; a sharp contrast to most years when we are a veritable monarch sanctuary and have dozens, literally dozens in the garden at a time. The experts tell us they are really suffering and their population numbers are dangerously low. (You can read a post I made earlier this year on the topic of monarchs here.)
I hope the butterflies who came to our plants are able to get enough needed food on the rest of their trip south to Mexico.
What a great way to end a terrible week!
Want to Know How to Feed the Birds Without Spending Money?
Let your Native Plants Go to Seed!
Although I used to love having seed feeders, I gave up using them in my yard many years ago when I was living in a little rental row home in Baltimore.
The rats in that neighborhood were so big and so fierce that I half expected one to take my keys and steal my car. Nothing scared them. More than once I stood up from weeding the garden to find one on the lawn behind me, calmly watching me work, and although I loved having birds dance around the feeders we had outside our windows I hated the idea that the rats were also getting fat on my subsidies. And those rats really loved my bird feeders.
Around that same time I became interested in native plants and realized many of my favorite flowers were chock full of seeds each fall. By selectively leaving seed heads on the plants as winter approached I could encourage birds to visit. By adding shrubs with berries we got both birds and winter color. Meanwhile, there were no feeders to clean or fill, and I saved a ton of money.
If you start feeding the birds this way, you will wonder why you ever bought seed in the first place. In some ways it feels a lot like eating fruits and vegetables that you grow in your own garden. There’s a healthy feeling to the whole thing, a sense that you are in tune with nature’s cycles and the seasons and not just a hired hand hauling 50 lb bags home from the hardware store.
I also guarantee that you will see a diverse group of birds in your yard if you take up this practice. You may not have the huge crowds of birds every day that feeders tend to bring, but it is quite exciting to discover what each species likes to eat and how they like to eat it.
In addition to the native plants, many non-natives will provide seeds for the birds. Zinnias, those colorful annuals which provide nectar for butterflies all summer, are sometimes left to stand the winter in my yard where they serve the duel role of providing seeds for birds and seedlings for next year.
I am concerned, however, about the destructive power of invasive exotic plants, and so I stay on constant vigil to make sure that nothing in my garden harbors destructive potential. For this reason I avoid non-native plants which are known to be particularly problematic. (Many states publish lists of invasive exotics that gardeners should avoid. In Maryland, for example, you can use this list from the Department of Natural Resources.)
It is confusing, I think, for novice gardeners to figure out the ecology behind invasive exotics. Some people ask why it is bad to plant something that birds like to eat, such as Porcelain-berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata). If the birds like it, how can it be bad? The problem is that a bird eats the seeds of those vines, then deposits them elsewhere in a park or wild area. In your yard that vine might not be allowed to take over, but untended in a park it becomes an aggressive monster, killing trees and destroying the places which birds need to nest or mate.
There’s another, more hidden problem in such situations, too. Birds and plants which are native to our area have evolved over thousands of years together. Because of those relationships, the plants sometimes provide certain nutrients which the animals need. When they eat non-native foods they may miss out on those nutrients and may not migrate as successfully or reproduce in abundance. They may lack defenses needed to cope with other environmental stressors, too.
That said, I do have a rather small urban lot and I have to make some judicious decisions among my native plants when autumn arrives. Like the director of a large Broadway chorus line, I have to think of the overall effect that the dying plants will have on the appearance of our tiny yard. Some of Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) don’t make the cut, for example, because they are growing too close to a path and will flop over and become ugly. Some of the Joe Pye Weed (Eupatoriadelphus maculatus) stems get cut back to the ground because their tall branches block the window, an effect we love in summer but disdain in the darker days of winter. And Liatris (Liatris spicata) is a great native plant which birds like, but would surely take over my entire yard if I let it, so once Halloween is over I cut all of its stems back.
But even the seeds which get cut do not always go to waste. They are given to friends and neighbors or swapped at various plant exchanges. Most of them are so easy to grow you don’t need a lot of gardening experience to make them work, you just clear some space, sprinkle them down and forget about them until spring.
In a future post I’ll present a photo gallery and list of good native plants to use for feeding the birds.
In the meantime, you might also enjoy:
When I was seven years old, my best friend and next door neighbor, Bruce, was stung fifteen times by wasps. He was playing hide and seek and somehow bumped up against their nest in a bush. The wasps swarmed to protect their home, and he was completely engulfed in their rage.
I’ve been thinking about Bruce’s bad day a lot lately, realizing that there are not a lot of people out there who would be willing to host these creatures purposefully. I think that convincing anyone to plant a garden to attract wasps would be a hard sell.
Even so, I have found myself really enjoying them in the garden these last couple of years. Somehow, the wasps and I have found a way to peacefully co-exist. They like to tap dance around on the tops of the flat flowers in my garden, such as the zinnias. Soon, the goldenrod will also begin to bloom in brilliant yellow and I’ll have my camera ready to take some pictures. They really love that native plant.
The wasps are fantastic creatures, busy all the time and very efficient. I like to stand in my garden and watch them while I have a strong cup of coffee each morning. It’s a pretty good relationship so far. We each enjoy our drinks and sunshine and no one gets injured.
Being so close to these predators feels a bit like swimming with sharks or petting the lions at the zoo. There’s an element of danger, but also something peaceful and soothing in the graceful way they move. I am simultaneously admiring their slender, strange, alien-like bodies, and fearful that they could turn on me at any moment. I think of my son at these times; I understand his fascination with sharks several years ago. I know where his brain was then. I’m there now, watching the wasps, thinking how their faces are permanently painted with scowls, but their wings and bodies are almost like those of ballet dancers.
According to most sources I found on the bookshelf and online, many larger wasps are not terribly important pollinators in North America. They do some pollinating while they drink up that nectar. But many species are smooth, not fuzzy like bees, so they don’t spread around the pollen that much.
They do, however, help gardeners in other ways. Namely, they feed a lot of pest caterpillars, flies and crickets to their young early in the season. They are fierce predators.
Annoyingly, by the time August and September roll around, the queens stop laying eggs and their nests start to decline. There aren’t any young to feed, and so the adults go out on what could be called a bender for sugar. In addition to the nectar of my flowers, they begin to crave sweet drinks and greasy food. They stay away from my coffee, but if I brought a soda or glass of juice out the garden in the morning there would be trouble for sure.
Yellow jackets, in particular, can really get aggressive. You can control them with some cool gizmos. Most of them involve a bottle containing a small amount of sugary liquid. The mouth of the bottle or container is small; the wasps fly in but they can’t make their way back out. Then later you put the stopper on and let them die slow deaths in the bottle.
I’ve been told these wasp traps can be effective if hung a few feet away from the food table of your picnic. I have no idea if they work, because I always forget to take them until the picnic is in progress, so mostly I stick to drinking water and try to eat with an eye on what the wasps are doing with each bite I take.
One thing I find particularly annoying at such moments: there are a lot of people who think that bees and wasps are the same. They are not. Most of the time, bees want to steer clear of humans, and stay away from their food. Bees are also incredibly important pollinators and although it is not scientific to say so, bees actually look kind of cute. Here again I think of ocean animals; if wasps are like sharks, then bees are like dolphins – almost dopey or playful in appearance. (Bees can sting… some more than others… and dolphins can bite and be aggressive, but hey… that’s a different article. Some other time, perhaps. This is exactly why I should even bring up the cute aspect to begin with…)
I’ve never actually been stung by a wasp, which might explain why I am so forgiving of their presence in my garden. I do wish the wasps would stop building nests in my favorite wooden bird house. But considering how many hours I spend with my hands in the plants and my back bent over the rows of veggies out there, you’d think I’d have been stung at least once.
I sometimes wonder if it is like that guy called the Dog Whisperer on the National Geographic Channel, Cesar Milan. He says that his calm demeanor around tough, wild dogs earns their respect. Maybe my calm demeanor in the garden makes the wasps respect me. Maybe I can get a show on that channel, too. The Wasp Whisperer.
But considering that I am rarely calm and hardly ever manage to whisper about anything, it is far more likely that I’ve just been lucky so far. After all, it could have easily been me getting stung 15 times on that day long ago during the hide and seek game. If so, this would have been a whole different piece of writing.
Photo by Alvesgaspar http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) via Wikimedia Commons