Tag Archives: pesticides

Helping bees, planting in straw bales

August 11, 2013

Skip the soil, just plant into a bale of straw! (Really!)

Quick question! What’s the difference between hay and straw? Time’s up! (Yes, I know. I don’t play fair.) Why don’t I just retrieve some information from Joel Karsten’s new book, Straw Bale Gardens: The Breakthrough Method for Growing Vegetables Anywhere, Earlier and with No Weeding:

When small grain crops like wheat are ready to harvest, the plant is cut off near the ground, and the seeds are removed inside the combine harvester via a complicated mechanism that separates the seeds from the stems…The plant stalks are flung out the back of the combine harvester and left as a byproduct of the harvested grain. Then, a baling machine goes out into the field and sweeps up the stalks, packing them into tight round or rectangular bales for collection and transport…

I wish I had a nickel for every time someone has asked me “isn’t straw the same thing as hay?” No. The answer is no, they are not at all the same thing…Hay and straw refer to different species of plants entirely, as different as a cat from a dog. Hay is usually baled grass or alfalfa and is green in color and is fodder for livestock, while straw is yellow or golden with little nutritional value but works well as bedding material for livestock. The confusion seems to increase the closer one gets to tall buildings.

Ouch! Are you talking about me? (I suspect he is.)

So, once Joel has explained the difference between a bale of hay and a bale of straw, he proceeds to spout heresy–namely that you don’t need soil to grow plants. A simple bale of straw will do…that is, if you can tell what it looks like.

While I poke fun at the guy poking fun at the non-farmers among us, his system is intriguing…and, apparently, it works. Joel lists some of the advantages:

  • 75% less labor
  • No weeding
  • Low input and start up costs
  • Extends the growing season
  • High seed germination rate
  • Impossible to overwater
  • Easy to move location
  • No crop rotation needed
  • Creates loads of A+ compost

And, hey, if the New York Times has gotten on board (and I’m pretty sure that a lot of those guys don’t know the difference between hay and straw), you know you have a good thing going.

The good thing about the book is that Joel walks you through all of the steps that will get you up and running with your own straw bale garden, including where to find bales of straw (did you even know that there was such a thing as www.strawbalemarket.com?), what to plant, when to plant it, how to water, how to fertilize, and how to deal with insects. The one thing he won’t tell you is how to deal with weeds...because there aren’t any! You’re growing in a bale of straw!

What a country!

It’s a pleasure to have Joel Karsten on the show this morning.

No puns about the “buzz”, just straight talk about our bees

It’s impossible to have any interest in our natural environment or local food issues without being stunned by the relentless parade of news stories about the death or disappearance of our pollinators, whether they are solitary like plasterer bees, leafcutter bees, mason bees, wool carder bees, digger bees, and carpenter bees or the familiar apis mellifera, also known as the Eurpoean honey bee.

Around 2006, beekeepers and researchers began talking about something called CCD or Colony Collapse Disorder. Here’s how the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service describes it:

In October 2006, some beekeepers began reporting losses of 30-90 percent of their hives. While colony losses are not unexpected, especially over the winter, this magnitude of losses was unusually high.

The main symptom of CCD is very low or no adult honey bees present in the hive but with a live queen and no dead honey bee bodies present. Often there is still honey in the hive, and immature bees (brood) are present. Varroa mites, a virus-transmitting parasite of honey bees, have frequently been found in hives hit by CCD.

This is not the first time that beekeepers are being faced with unexplained losses. The scientific literature has several mentions of honey bee disappearances—in the 1880s, the 1920s, and the 1960s. While the descriptions sound similar to CCD, there is no way to know for sure if those problems were caused by the same agents as CCD.

It wasn’t long, however, before many people began pointing fingers at the many agricultural and horticultural pesticides at loose in the U.S. and elsewhere. A group of insecticides called neonicotinoids drew scrutiny from many quarters. In particular, a member of that family called Clothianidin, which was introduced in 2003 and is widely used on U.S. corn crops, became a focus of the debate over what has been killing bees in record numbers. According to Grist.org,

On March 21, [2012] 27 beekeepers and four environmental groups filed a petition with the agency asking it to take clothianidin — the neonicotinoid causing the most trouble — off the market until a long-overdue, scientifically sound review is completed.

The EPA asked Bayer — the manufacturer of clothianidin — to conduct a study looking at its effects on bees and other pollinators back in 2003, but allowed Bayer to sell the pesticide under “conditional registration” in the meantime. Bayer didn’t produce a field study until 2007, and in spring 2010, clothianidin was quietly granted full registration. But later that year a leaked document revealed that EPA scientists had found Bayer’s study inadequate. “By that time, the pesticide was all over the country,” said Peter Jenkins, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety, the lead legal group on the petition. “We felt that what EPA did was illegal.”

Earlier this year, the Guardian reported that European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had decided to ban three neonicotinoids – thiamethoxam, clothianidin and imidacloprid – for two years. Because the groupd determinted that they posed an unnacceptable risk to bees, the three will are banned from use for two years on flowering crops such as corn, oilseed rape and sunflowers.

Yet, the use of neonicotinoids continues unabated in the United States and a number of environmental organizations here and here are convinced that neonicotinoids are the “smoking gun” in bee loss.

Not so fast. A study published this year in the journal PLOS ONE by the University of Maryland and the US Department of Agriculture (co-author Jeff Pettis from the USDA is on the show this morning), indicates that chemicals might still be a huge factor in bee deaths–but their interactions are complex, and fungicides might be implicated, which seems to have caught researchers off guard.

According to the L.A. Times:

Researchers found 35 pesticides, some at lethal levels, in the pollen collected from bees servicing major food crops in five states, including California, according to the study published online Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.

Levels for two chemicals were above the dose that would kill half a population within two days, according to the report. Pesticide residue was found on all the pollen samples, including those that the bees apparently collected from nearby wildflowers, according to the report.

The report highlights the diverse cocktail of agricultural chemicals to which domesticated bees are regularly exposed, some of which have been linked to weakened immune system responses in the insects  crucial to the world’s food supply. Most studies of domestic honey bees have examined exposure to a single chemical at a time.

“Bees are getting exposed to a lot of different products, including fungicides,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland and lead author of the report. “What’s surprising is that it seems to weaken the bee’s ability to fight off infection.”

Meanwhile, it doesn’t help that 50,000 bees in Oregon might have died simply because of applicator stupidity, or that Canada is witnessing perhaps its worst bee die-offs ever. As a result, a pair of Democrats, Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Earl Bluemenauer (D-OR), introduced the Saving America’s Pollinators Act of 2013, legislation that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to temporarily suspend the use of certain insecticides in an attempt to stop massive honeybee die-offs.

In other words, there’s a lot going on. And it’s very complex. I’m not going to pretend that I have all of the answers. That’s why I’m extremely pleased to have four people in the studio today who will attempt to make some sense of this insect crisis. They are

  • Dr. May R. Berenbaum, Professor and Department Head of the Department of Entomology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Jeffery S. Pettis, Research Leader in Bee Research, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Beltsville, Maryland.
  • Dr. Mark Whalon, director the Pesticide Alternatives lab, Department of Entomology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan
  • Zac Browning is a 4th generation commercial beekeeper and honey producer. He is a co-owner of Browning Honey Co. Inc. With his brothers, he operates over 20,000 hives for honey production and pollination in Idaho, North Dakota, and California.

Bring Your Bag Chicago: keeping the momentum going


That’s the number of single-use disposable plastic bags consumed in Chicago EVERY MINUTE. It’s obscene, really, and it’s just the tip of the plastic bag iceberg in America.

If you listen to the show, you know that I’ve been working with a group called Bring Your Bag Chicago to reduce the number of single-use plastic bags in the City. Almost surprisingly, the City Council hearing on June 18 to bring this to the attention of aldermen and citizens was wildly successful.

But that was just the beginning. The proposed ordinance to reduce plastic bag use in retail establishments in Chicao will probably be considered again soon. Meanwhile, Bring Your Bag Chicago is working hard to let people know just how destructive it is for citizens to be cavalier about the use of these bags.

Bring Your Bag Chicago has started an Indiegogo campaign to raise money to fund the cause. Please contribute whatever you can.

And on Sunday, August 11, Bring Your Bag Chicago will be represented at the Figment celebration at Garfield Park Conservatory. If you stop by, you will be rewarded with a FREE reusable, washable, 100% cotton campaign tote bag! Figment will feature 300 artists and volunteers and more than 50 projects and staged events. There’s collaborative fun for all ages and levels of participation.

Bring Your Bag Chicago organizer Jordan Parker stops by on the show today to talk more about this event and about ridding Chicago of the scourge of plastic bags.

Joe Gardener, Niki Jabbour and GreenTown Highland Park

October 7, 2012

Oh, my goodness…

I am surrounded by smart, good lookin’ women today! It starts with Cook County Master Gardener Coordinator Sarah Batka, who returns after taking a week off to escort her nephew to the zoo. (I’ll talk to her about that some other day.)

Also joining me in studio is Lisa Albrecht from Solar Service, Inc and formerly with the Illinois Solar Energy Association. You’ve heard her on Mighty House and on my show in the past. She’s going to offer commentary on green energy problems and solutions.

Then, in the second hour, I’m doing a simulcast with Niki Jabbour, who has her own radio show in Halifax, Nova Scotia called The Weekend Gardener. More on that below.

I’m going to be scrambling just to hold my own.

Joe Gardener talks tools

Well, his name is actually Joe Lamp’l, but Joe Gardener® is a lot easier to remember, even with the trademark symbol. Perhaps I should have gone with something like Mike Mulch…or Mike Manure…or Mike Mildew…or Mike Microclimate…or…Mike Mitosis. Heck, I like all of them!

Anyway, Joe is kind of a horticultural industry unto himself. Right now, his main claim to fame is as creator, host and executive producer of the award-winning national public television series, Growing a Greener World ®, which focuses on the stories of people, places and organizations that are doing good things for the planet, with an emphasis on gardening.

He’s also the author of The Green Gardener’s Guide, writes his own syndicated column, has been host of Fresh from the Garden on DIY Network and GardenSMART on PBS.

In 2011, Joe received The American Horticultural Society’s B.Y. Morrison Communication Award , which recognizes effective and inspirational communication—through print, radio, television, and/or online media—that advances public interest and participation in horticulture.

Today, he’s here to talk tools with me–with a special emphasis on the Fiskars company. I didn’t realize that they are the World’s number one pruning brand–even though almost all of my pruning tools in the garage and in the basement and in the trunk of my car and in the wheelbarrow and even lost in my backyard shrubbery are Fiskars tools. I’m especially enamored of their PowerGear® tools, which feature a patented gearing mechanism that makes snipping a lot easier than it used to be.

So it’s not surprising that many of Fiskars PowerGear® garden tools carry the Arthritis Foundation® Ease-of-Use Commendation. In fact, they are the only pruners and loppers in the U.S. to be recognized in this way. And for those of you who want to grow your lawns in the greenest possible way, you might want to give up on that pollution-spewing relic you’ve owned forever and try one of Fiskars’ StaySharp™ Reel Mowers. You’ll be doing the planet a favor.

The battle (not really) of the radio shows!

Who knew that there were other radio shows running at the same time as mine?

I’m not exactly sure how I discovered this amazing (and somewhat disturbing) fact, but I subsequently learned that a woman named Niki Jabbour hosts a program called The Weekend Gardener on www.news957.com in Halifax, Nova Scotia from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. Atlantic Time. In case you don’t have all of the world’s time zones memorized, that happens to be at exactly the same time as my radio show. The nerve of some people!

I figured I would punish her by invading her show with mine. Or is it the other way around? Whichever, Niki and I will be sharing the radio airwaves for about half an hour on Sunday morning, shortly after 10am Central Time (which is 12 noon Atlantic Time, in case you’ve already forgotten). In anticipation of the event, just as I’m blogging about her show, she’s blogging about mine.

I’m doing this just in time, because it’s Niki’s final show of the year. Never fear, however, she manages to keep pretty busy even when she’s not doing radio. She’s found time to write The Year Round Vegetable Gardener, which won the 2012 American Horticultural Society Book Award. Niki also contributes regularly to magazines like Garden Making, Canadian Gardening, Gardens East and Fine Gardening.

Here’s how she describes The Weekend Gardener:

This is season 6 of the show We do call-in’s, but it is mainly a fun show that talks about all aspects of gardening with experts and gardeners from around the world.  I’m always looking for innovative and unique ideas and perspectives We have a Facebook page – The Weekend Gardener With Niki Jabbour

I live near Halifax, Nova Scotia on the east coast of Canada. We are almost completely surrounded by the ocean here in NS and it’s zone 5. We have had pesticide by-laws since 2004 and can’t even spread weed and feed on our lawns. Initially there was a bit of a stink, but it’s totally accepted. We also have been recycling glass, paper, etc for decades and have been composting food/garden waste municipally for about a decade. No food is allowed in the garbage. It’s quite an extensive program, but remarkably easy to do for homeowners.

I have a 2000 square foot veggie garden where I grow a huge range of edibles – year round without heat. I rely on cold frames, etc.. there are plenty of photos if you scroll back on my blog www.nikijabbour.com (just click on blog at the top)

Of course, one of the best things about living in Canada (aside from their superior health care system) is that most of the country has banned so-called “cosmetic” pesticides. Niki says that there were laws passed in Nova Scotia in 2000 and 2003 that forbade lawn pesticides and herbicides. In other words: No Weed N’ Feed!

Here’s what happened, according to Niki:

First the reaction was public concern over a takeover of weeds/bad insects.

9 years later that has not come to pass.. we have gotten smarter and I think most gardeners realize that keeping their plants healthy is key.

People either compost or they use the municipal compost produced from our kitchen scraps/garden waste that is collected in our green carts and composted on a large scale by the cities/towns.

The biggest issue is lawn weeds, but there are some natural solutions – corn gluten meal for example, but we also have a new way of thinking – weed tolerance is better. Plus, many are seeding plants like white dutch clover as an alternative lawn cover.

Oh, Canada!

Green Town Comes to Highland Park

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a conference called Green Town Valparaiso. It was just one of three events scheduled for this fall in the Midwest, all of them designed to help create sustainabile communities.

In fact, they are all under the umbrella of GreenTown: The Future of Community, featuring gatherings this fall in Valparaiso, Indiana, Highland Park, Illinois and Toledo, Ohio. Believe it or not, these Green Towns have been going on since 2007 in an effort to bring together mayors and other elected officials, city managers, public works directors, park district directors, planners, developers, builders, architects, landscape architects and engineers, school leaders and many other disciplines. The over-arching goal? To engage these various people in conversations about how municipalities can plan more sustainable development.

The project is the brainchild of a5, a Chicago-based marketing and communications firm, and Seven Generations Ahead, a non-profit organization whose mission is to build ecologically sustainable communities. SGA’s Fresh from the Farm program was recently lauded by Mother Nature Network as one of the 10 most impressive farm-to-school programs in the country.

Not surprisingly, GreenTown is a zero waste, carbon neutral event.

The second stop in the Green Town tour for 2012 is Green Town Highland Park, October 18-19 at The Art Center in Downtown Highland Park, Illinois

Thursday kicks things off with the intriguing topic: Waste Not: Advancing Commercial Food Scrap Collection in the Chicago Area. It will address the question of how to increase commercial food scrap collection in the Chicago area?

Then, on Friday, there is a full day of speakers, including Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering and Gary Cuneen from Seven Generations Ahead, both of whom join me on the program this morning. The day will also feature a talk from Debra Shore, Commissioner from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, Mark Fenton, Host of “America’s Walking” on PBS, and more.

I am pleased to welcome Mayor Rotering and Mr. Cuneen, who will talk with me about the importance of green communities for the health of our planet and its occupants.

Holiday suggestions and environmental warnings

December 11, 2011

Want to give “green” this year?

Each year, I am more than a little disturbed by the obscene display of materialism that is “Black Friday” in America. Not to mention the following and equally obnoxious “Cyber Monday.” Yeah, I know I’m swimming against the tide but, geez, is this our defining characteristic as a society? Buying more stuff than we know what to do with? Really?

However, I do understand that you want to be a generous friend or relative during the holidays. In which case, I suggest that you buy “green.” Thanks to my beautiful and talented webmaster Kathleen, we’ve posted a web page that will help you find some items that fill the bill as far as sustainable and/or socially aware items go.

Of course, you can give the gift of food–and by this I mean seeds–to the ones you love…especially those who like to garden. Many of you have been following the campaign of the historic D. Landreth Seed Company , which is attempting to sell one million catalogs to keep the 227 year-old company alive. Owner Barbara Melera stops by again this morning for another update on how the mission is doing. By the way, as I mentioned last week, she donated about one hundred packets, featuring cilantro, chervil, basil and chives seeds, to the WCPT Holiday Harvest Food Drive. She’s the best.

The 2011 Chicago Gardener of the Year: Enrique Gonzalez

Last week I mentioned that the community garden on my block in the Logan Square neighborhood, Green on McLean, had won a third place prize in the Mayor’s 2011 Landscape Awards competition. I’m proud of all of the people–adults, teens and kids–who helped to transform the double lot on a drug-dealing corner from a litter-strewn eyesore to a place for families to grow vegetables and have potluck dinners.

And I’m happy to continue a tradition I’ve had on my radio show for what must be a decade or more now, of interviewing the Chicago Gardener of the Year. For 2011 it’s Enrique Gonzalez of Hoxie Prairie Garden at E. 106th Street and S. Hoxie Avenue in the Pullman neighborhood. When I read this story, which appeared in the Chicago Tribune two years ago, I realized that Enrique and his neighbors have experienced a lot of the same things that I’ve seen in my own neighborhood. My hat is off to him and to all people who take control of their lives, garden by garden, throughout Chicago and every city in America.

Our national environment under attack (mainly by Republicans); NRDC’s Josh Mogerman reports on Keystone XL Pipeline and more

For years I have worried about painting with a broad brush when it comes to politics and the environment. That is to say, it seemed unfair to say that Democrats are generally for environmental issues and all Republicans are generally against them. After further review, however, there’s no way to get around it. That statement is absolutely true. Yes, there are some Democrats (far too many, actually), who are toadies and stooges for corporate polluters. Shame on them.

But there’s really no way to say that Republicans, to any significant degree, give a rat’s you-know-what about our environment. It disgusting and terrifying, really. And if you care about our planet at all, you should run screaming from the Republican party and how, if they were given the chance, they would drain the Great Lakes and set up a big industrial park if they could. For instance, take a look at this article on the website of the Natural Resources Defense Council called Anti-Environmental Budget Riders: A significant assault on health and environmental protection is underway in Congress.

In this story, the NRDC looks at the12 spending bills for fiscal 2012 that Congress must pass to fund the government and the anti-environmental policies that some House Republicans want to push through at the same time. It’s not that those policies have anything to do with funding the government. It’s just opportunism rearing its ugly and environment-destroying head.

It is disturbing that House Speaker John Boehner has announced that he plans to hold payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits hostage to a bill that would rubber stamp approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. If you’re not familiar with Canadian tar sands oil, you probably need to tune into my show today (or the podcast, once the show is over), to hear NRDC’s Josh Mogerman wax poetic on how environmentally destructive extracting oil from tar sands really is. Or how we have been sold a bill of goods about how many jobs would be created by running a 1700 mile pipeline through the middle of the United States.

In fact, just a short month ago, when Keystone XL protestors marched around the White House and many were arrested, and then the Obama Administration decided that it would delay a decision until 2013, it seemed as if it was a clear cut victory for environmentalists. Perhaps not so much now, even though we’re pumping more CO2 into the air than ever.

I wish I could say that’s the only issue that should be on everybody’s radar. Alas, our Great Lakes continue to be in peril, thanks to zebra mussels, quagga mussels and other invasive species, including Asian carp. Unfortunately, if big business continues to get its way, there will be little in the lakes except invasive species. We’ll get to as many of these issues as possible…but we probably need more than two hours.

Don’t burn your Christmas trees in your house…for more reasons

Last week, I talked briefly about why you shouldn’t burn Christmas trees in your fireplace. The answer is the creosote build up and the danger of starting a fire. After the show, I received an email from a Dave Zaber, a listener and environmental consultant who wrote:

Just a quick caution: unless the purchaser has explicit information regarding the use of pesticides on Christmas tree farms, any number of very toxic insecticides could be used directly on the trees.  Some are even allowed to be applied up to the end of October. 

In most cases, very little is known about the chemicals that result when these pesticides (and/or other ingredients) are burnt.  In many cases, particularly when they are sprayed earlier in the year, natural processes will break down some of these chemicals before harvest.  In other cases (e.g. dinotefuran), the systemic absorption of the chemical by the tree means that  it will be spread throughout the living tissues and therefore unsusceptible to wind, rain, and sunlight. 

So, other than organic or no-spray trees, don’t burn them indoors. 

A list of neurotoxic insecticides that the State of Pennsylvania extension recommends for application on Christmas trees includes the following:

Organophosphate/carbamate anti-cholinesterase insecticides: highly toxic to mammals, birds, fish, bees.  Exposures can result in long-term central nervous system effects.

Neonicotinoids: Super toxic to bees, systemic, persistent in water. Thiamethoxam
Imidicloprid -systemic

Synthetic pyrethroids: highly toxic to fish, carcinogenicity. Bifenthrin

Here’s even more information about pesticides and Christmas trees that you might find useful. Dave joins me today to talk more about this issue. And the NRDC has information about real v. fake trees and Christmas tree care in this article: The Tree Choice: Care and Decorating Tips for the Holidays.

GreenPrints, “The Weeder’s Digest,” for the holidays

Pat Stone, editor of GreenPrints, is back on the program to talk about winning the Garden Writers Association award in 2011 for over Best Product for Magazines with under 200,000 circulation. Pat has been putting together funny, inspirational, moving and weird stories about gardening for more than twenty years into this easy to handle, easy to read publication.

This just might be a perfect holiday gift for one of those hard to please people on your shopping list. Check out the link above, where you can get a sample of what they have to offer.