Ten Reasons to Buy a Plant

Many—and perhaps most—gardeners understand that a good practice is to buy plants in the fall, so that they can be irrigated by the rains while establishing their roots in preparation for a growth spurt in the spring.

That’s a better strategy than buying plants in the spring when garden centers offer plants with fertilizer-induced early blooms and a tendency to fade in common garden soil.

Another good practice: buy plants for specific goals. Purposeful purchases will be more successful than impulse buys, which can be based on an attractive name or an effective sales display.

With these ideas in mind for early planters, here are ten guidelines for visiting a garden center or opening a mail-order catalog,

  1. Fill a specific gap in the landscape. Look first for a plant with an appropriate size at maturity, and then consider the variety of secondary factors.
  2. Provide color when needed. You might want more color in the spring, or the summer, or the fall. With a bit of research, you can find plants that will show color on the desired schedule.
  3. Feed birds, bees, and butterflies. These winged creatures benefit from, healthy food sources, and will come quickly to gardens where the right plants are available.
  4. Develop a collection of plants. Different species within a genus, or different varieties within a species, add interest to the garden. Another rose, or another fuchsia, for example, will compare nicely with the existing selections.
  5. Extend a color scheme. A white garden, or a yellow and blue garden, for example, will look even better with an additional specimen that fits the scheme.
  6. Add a needed spot of color. A well-placed and well-chosen colorful plant can enliven a too-green planting bed by bringing an eye-catching contrast (but avoid adding color randomly).
  7. Create a focal point. A specific situation might call for an interesting plant, container or sculpture to be strategically placed to attract the eye of anyone walking through the garden.
  8. Fill a container. A large, empty container, or one with a plant past its prime, can become a strong asset in the garden with a well-chosen new plant or combination of plants. For a successful project, use fresh planting mix.
  9. Protect against pests and diseases. If diseases or gophers or any of several other pests invade your garden look for a pest-resistant plant, or replace one that’s not.
  10. Add a drought-resistant plant. A garden of succulent plants and others that evolved for a dry climate will grow well during the predicted future years of light rainfall.

You might have other specific reasons for buying plants. It’s most important to know the role the plant will play when you bring it to the garden. An Internet search or a reference like Sunset’s Western Garden Book can help with these decisions. If a plant also has an appealing name or a bright blossom, that’s a plus!

Enjoy a creative and purposeful browse through a garden center or a nursery catalog!

Labeling GE Foods: New Issues

The federal requirement to label foods with genetically engineered ingredients is generating turmoil in the marketplace.

To review, a very large majority of U.S. consumers demanded labeling of GE foods, and the food industry spent a reported $400 million to defeat related legislation. The debate, which continued for over five years, resulted in late July of 2016 in the adoption of “compromise” legislation that strongly favored the food industry’s position.

The central issue in the debate has been a policy of 1992 under which the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) concluded that the health and nutrient values of genetically engineered foods do not differ from “conventional” foods and therefore do not warrant labeling.

Labeling advocates have insisted that GE foods have not been studied sufficiently by independent researchers, and federal policy ignores the environmental and economic impacts of such foods. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) supported labeling by pointing to consumers’ strong interest in knowing when foods contain GE ingredients.

Consumer groups are still a bit stunned by the adoption of what has been called “the weakest labeling law imaginable.” They continue the struggle, but have abandoned the political arena and are moving future battles to the marketplace.

The simplest strategy is buy only foods labeled as organic, under long-standing federal standards. Organic foods, by definition, do not contain GE ingredients.

The flipside of this strategy involves boycotting foods that are not labeled “organic” or “non-GE.”

A related strategy includes rejecting foods labeled as “natural.” Some consumers regard “natural” and “organic” as equivalent but current FDA practice states that “natural” foods do not include artificial ingredients. The FDA is being pressured to define “natural” in a way that includes foods with GE ingredients. We’ll see how that goes!

Another strategy is take legal action against companies that label foods as “organic” when they in fact contain GE ingredients. To date, such initiatives appear to be effective.

One group has mounted a campaign to label selected conventional foods with the “Non-GMO Project Verified Butterfly.” Such labels are becoming more used, reportedly.

One thoughtful observer, food writer Mark Bittman, has suggested that the GE labeling “cloud” has a silver lining, because the new labeling law opens the door to a new era of transparency about food products. He notes that the new law, however flawed, calls for labeling a food’s production process in addition to labeling its health and nutrient values.

Bittman lists the new categories of information that consumers should be told about a food product’s ingredients: Where are they from? Were they dosed with pesticides or other synthetic chemicals? How much water was used to grow them? Did farm workers receive fair pay and treatment? Were farming practices friendly to the environment? For food products from animals: Were the animals treated with antibiotics? Were the animals treated humanely?

Such labeling requirements might be required on a state-by-state basis, which is still permissible under federal law. State-level responses to consumer interests in such areas could force the adoption of overdue national standards regarding food production processes. GE labeling might be only the beginning of a much-needed “transparency revolution.”

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Leaf Blowers

In recent columns, I have addressed soil health as an emerging issue in global climate change, and described ways in which residential gardeners could participate in solutions to this high-level priority. The most important strategies for home gardeners in this connection include using mulches and cover crops to protect the soil from the elements; avoiding uses of synthetic chemicals, which attack the soil microbiome, and favoring regionally appropriate plants, including (for the Monterey Bay area) plants that are native to California and other dry-summer climate regions.

Today’s column focuses on uses of gasoline-powered garden equipment: leaf blowers, lawnmowers, lawn edgers and chain saws.

This equipment contributes to climate change and air pollution. The typical device uses a two-stroke engine, which, by design, does not burn the fuel efficiently, and instead emits large quantities of carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and hydrocarbons. These emissions contribute to smog formation, climate change and acid rain, and hydrocarbons in particular can be carcinogenic.

Small trucks and passenger cars also produce worrisome emissions, but gasoline-powered garden equipment emit them at much greater rates. For example, leaf blowers produce 100 to 300 times as many hydrocarbons as does a small truck or passenger vehicle. Garden equipment with four-stroke engines perform significantly better, but still far worse than car engines.

In terms of environmental pollution, these are very dirty devices.

The California Air Resources Board has stated, “Potential health effects from exhaust emissions, fugitive dust, and noise range from mild to serious.”

Fugitive dust includes organic debris and “particulate matter,” which can include a variety of potentially nasty organic and chemical stuff that people should not breathe.

Noise pollution effects include annoyance, hearing loss (particularly by equipment operators), and a range of psychological impacts.

For more information, visit the website of Zero Air Pollution (www.zapla.org). This southern California organization details the range of health hazards associated with this garden equipment, wherever it is used.

Leaf blowers sometimes are used to clear organic materials, and leave bare soil. Making nature “tidy” in this way exposes the soil to the damaging effects of the sun and wind. The regeneration of healthy soil requires maintaining cover of vegetation or mulch materials.

Here are recommendations for ecologically appropriate uses of garden equipment.

  1. Minimize or eliminate the use of gasoline-powered devices in favor of manual equipment. Use rakes and brooms to clear leaves, a push lawnmower to cut grass, a long-handled edger to trim lawns, and a handsaw to prune limbs. These tools are consistent with a contemplative approach to gardening, and provide desirable exercise.
  2. When the task requires too much time and effort for manual equipment, use electrical devices. Battery technology is advancing to enable longer operation of small garden equipment; corded devices, although cumbersome, work quite well. (My corded leaf blower moves leaves nicely.)
  3. Negotiate with your “mow, blow & go” garden maintenance contractor to use manual equipment whenever possible. This might require a small rate increase, but everyone will be better for the effort.

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GMO Controversy

I’ve been reading lately about genetically modified organisms, commonly referred to as GMOs. The preferred term is genetic engineering (GE).

There are strong feelings about whether GE technology is good or not so good for people, for the environment, or for the future of food.

These days, given the resources of the Internet, we can read a seemingly inexhaustible series of opinions about GE foods, and be tempted to escape the controversy by simply adopting one or the other extreme position.

The controversy has narrowed down to the issue of labeling GE foods. Those in favor say shoppers should know what they are buying, while others insist that there’s no reason to label GE foods, and are willing to put a lot of money into persuading voters of that perspective.

In my search for truth, I just read Steven M. Drucker’s 511–page book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth (2015). Drucker, a Berkeley-educated public interest attorney, has written and spoken extensively on genetic engineering and related topics. His book’s subtitle presents his central message: “How the venture to genetically engineer our food has subverted science, corrupted government and systematically deceived the public.”

Drucker builds his thesis with detailed and specific references to respectable sources, including highly qualified scientists and government officials. As a lawyer, he surely selects supportive sources, and presents a convincing case. Here are some of his main points.

Many scientists and government officials have advocated the promise of genetic engineering to enable commercial agriculture to meet global needs for the volume and nutritional quality of food. Still, there is literally no evidence that GE foods are more productive or more nutritious than conventional foods, despite contrary claims. In reality, GE technology has been used primarily to produce crops that can tolerate the herbicide Roundup, which kills all plant life other than the GE crops.

The advocates’ early enthusiasm for this technology led to a waiver of legally required tests to demonstrate the safety of new food products. This waiver was based on the argument that GE foods are no different from conventional foods, and are “Generally Recognized as Safe” (GRAS). But hundreds of scientists regard GE technology as dramatically different from historical methods of plant hybridization and selection, and express concerns about the safety of GE foods. While people do not immediately become ill from eating GE foods, several studies have shown that they could have long-term negative impacts on human health.

Finally, genetic engineering, which has been called a precise method to modify organisms, is really a form of crude “hacking.” Scientists have a very limited understanding of the complex interactions of genes, and, in their ignorance, they are fooling around with Mother Nature.

Drucker advocates the elimination of GE food products as “inherently high-rick” and unable to “conform to the requirements of food safety laws, the standards of science, or the protocols of information technology.” He contends that this could be accomplished by simply enforcing the food safety law of 1958. His preferred alternative is fuller development of environmentally friendly, sustainable and natural methods based on time-honored practices of organic agriculture.

As a growing numbers of food retailers and restaurants adopt “GMO-free” food products, and their customers choose organic foods (which are GMO-free, by definition), the technology could fade away. We’ll see.

A related book, “GMO Myths and Truths,” is available as a free download from the website, EarthOpenSource. This is second edition, dated 2014. The authors of this 330+ page book are John Fagan, Ph.D., Michael Antoniou, Ph.D., and Claire Robinson, M.Phil. The book is subtitled “An evidence-based examination of the claims made for the safety and efficacy of genetically modified crops and foods.”

What GE food labeling means for consumers, growers

Bill goes to state Senate next week as part of slow approval process that could end with decision in hands of governor

Almost two months ago, I traced the progress of California legislation that would require labels on grocery items that contain genetically engineered (GE) food ingredients. Today’s column provides an update of the status of that legislation, and asks what it means to gardeners and grocery shoppers.

First, the Health, Agriculture and Judiciary Committees each have approved Senate Bill 1381, so the full Senate will consider it next week. If the Senate approves the bill, the Assembly will consider it. Then, assuming both houses pass the bill, it will go to Governor Jerry Brown for his signature, which would make GE labeling California law.

This methodical sequence exemplifies the democratic process: thorough but not always fast.

The process of course includes lots of lobbying by both consumer groups who insist that the public has a right to know what is in their food, and corporate groups who prefer a cloak of darkness. Have I revealed my bias? I hope so.

What does this legislation mean for gardeners and grocery shoppers?

First, it would become effective January 1, 2016, so the legal impact wouldn’t be immediate. The practical impact, however, would be felt soon. Food providers would quickly re-design their labeling (a common occurrence, actually, not an unusual expense).

Another short-term impact would be that twenty other states (at last count) would advance similar legislation. According to the California Department of Food & Agriculture, the state’s agriculture industry revenues totaled $44.7 billion in 2012, making it one of the nation’s largest food producers. California’s action would establish the national standard for GE food labeling.

Another outcome: grocery shoppers would see the new labels, and very possibly would increase their purchases of non-GE foods, i.e., organic foods, which by federal regulation cannot include GE ingredients. This would substantially boost in the market for organically grown produce, and a statistically small but meaningful loss of demand for products with GE ingredients.

In the longer view, because GE technology typically makes crops immune to weed killers and has encouraged vast increases in uses of synthetic chemical pesticides, GE food labeling would reduce those uses and the accumulation of those chemicals in our environment.

Another longer-term impact, based on weeds’ natural adaptation to synthetic chemical pesticides, would be to slow the growth of pesticide-resistant “super weeds.” Scientists have for years predicted the emergence of such weeds, which are beginning to appear. The corporate perspective on super weeds does not foresee the loss of business for GE seeds and the related synthetic pesticides, but rather the introduction of even more toxic synthetic pesticides, such as the defoliant Agent Orange.

Home gardeners surely would benefit from a more natural environment with less contamination from synthetic chemicals. Fortunately, the evolutionary development of super weeds, which seriously impacts commercial farmers, won’t bother the home gardener because they can pull even super weeds by their roots.

Gardening helps us to avoid the usual daily stresses but politics still intrude.

More

This issue will stay in the state and national news for the foreseeable future, whether or not the California Senate approves the current legislation. Those who want to follow the issue have ample information sources on-line, and on both sides of the issue.

A good place to start would be to read California’s Senate Bill 1381, which is only nine pages long. Search the Internet for “California SB 1381.”

The arguments of opponents to label genetically engineered (GE) foods are represented well by The Atlantic magazine. The most recent article, by Molly Ball, appeared on May 14, 2014, with the title “Want to Know If Your Food Is Genetically Modified?” At last count, it had 2,103 comments by readers.

An August 20, 2013 article in Scientific American,  “Labels for GMO Foods are a Bad Idea,” also has inspired hundreds of comments (a recent response was gated May 19, 2014).

For the full picture, read these articles and at least a sample of the readers’ comments.

The advocates of labeling are well represented on consumer-oriented websites, particularly the following:

Organic Consumers Association

Center for Food Safety

Beyond Pesticides

 

Coming Attractions for Gardeners

A fine event for gardeners is the Eighth Annual Garden Faire, in Scotts Valley, on Saturday, June 22, from 9:00 to 5:00, with music continuing to 7:00 p.m. The Garden Faire is a free-admission, educational event focusing on benefits of organic gardening and sustainable, healthy living. Included will be a unique assemblage of garden goods and materials, plants and services, plus many knowledgeable speakers, interactive presentations, food and beverage, live music and plenty of activities for everyone.

The Faire’s 2013 theme, “Growing Together – Nourishing Our Community,” will explore the importance of individual actions toward building the health of ourselves, our community and our planet, implementing new ideas and techniques that will assist and enhance the growth of plants, while sustaining our earth and our environment, resulting in organic/holistic food for body and spirit.

Each year, this event presents a unique mix of practical gardening ideas, visions of sustainability and one of the Monterey Bay area’s largest, most diverse plant sales. It also offers the family-friendly, positive vibe that avid gardeners generate when they gather.

For all the information, visit www.thegardenfaire.org.

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A perfect example of the individual actions that the Garden Faire advocates is to recycle your greywater, which is water that has been used to launder your clothes. By installing a few plastic pipes from your washer to your plants, you could contribute in a small way to important goals of the community.

The benefits include reducing your water bills, participating in a wider program to conserve water and reduce energy needs, and helping your garden to thrive.

Such projects exemplify the individual actions that the Garden Faire advocates.

“Laundry-to-landscape” systems are simple, but need to designed and installed so that they work as intended and meet basic standards. Happily, free information is available for homeowners. The Monterey Peninsula Water Management District will present a Laundry-to-Landscape Workshop on Saturday, June 22, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at 5 Harris Court, Building G, in Monterey. Residents of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District service area will receive a free laundry-to-landscape installation kit upon completion of the workshop.

The workshop prepares attendees to install their own greywater system on Sunday, June 23, with help from a Central Coast Greywater Alliance volunteer, and perhaps other workshop participants, friends and family. Alternatively, one could contract with a qualified greywater system installer.

For additional information visit www.centralcoastgreywater.org. Then, for installation contractors, click on “Resources/Greywater Directory,” and for workshop details, click on “Monterey Laundry to Landscape Workshop.” Check that website in coming days for links to similar workshops in Marina and the Salinas Valley.

Your washing machine could water your garden! Wouldn’t that be great?

More

Ecology Action and the Central Coast Greywater Alliance are sponsoring a 100 Greywater System Challenge to build community awareness about code-compliant greywater irrigation systems, landscape water conservation and drought/climate change preparedness. Here’s a link to full information on the Monterey Bay 100 Greywater System Challenge. 

Touring Local Greenhouses

Next Saturday, June 15th, presents a fine opportunity for avid gardeners to satisfy their curiosity about the greenhouse business, and about growing flowers, herbs and other plants for commercial purposes.

The 4th Annual Monterey Bay Greenhouse Growers Open House provides a unique educational experience, suitable for all gardeners, from novices to nerds.

Greenhouse growing is basically a straightforward and transparent process, but even inquiring minds will find much to absorb. There will be a rich flow of practical information about large-scale propagation, fertilizing, pest control, harvesting, as well as packing and shipping for the market. Most of the growers’ efficient, science-based practices are readily applied in home gardening environments.

At another level, visitor will gain insights into the commercial aspects of the business, including trending preferences for specific plants, flowers and herbs, seasonal variations, manipulating bloom times to meet market priorities, etc. It’s all quite interesting as a glimpse “behind the curtain,” even if you have no intent to engage in that field of endeavor.

There are six quite different greenhouses to visit during the day. You need not visit them all, and you may plan your own sequence of visits, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The greenhouses are these:

  • California Floral Greens: baby eucalyptus, ivy, leather leaf, hydrangeas, parvafolia, kangaroo paw, flax, star asparagus, along with additional ornamental greens
  • California Pajarosa: 150 varieties of hydroponic roses: hybrid teas, sweethearts, and spray roses
  • Jacobs Farm: 60 varieties, including common and specialty herbs and an array of edible flowers
  • Kitayama Brothers: Cur flowers, including lilies, gerberas, lisianthus, snapdragons, calla lilies, iris, tulips, gardenias
  • McLellan Botanicals: Orchids, ranging from the popular (Phalaenopsis, Oncidium and Miltonia) to the exotic (Paphiopedilum, Cattleyas and other varieties), plus ornamental eucalyptus foliage.
  • Succulent Gardens: Over 600 varieties of succulents on display in the greenhouse and on the grounds, with many available for sale.

Also:

  • Garden writer Debra Prinzing will sign copies of her new book, Slow Flowers. She is the author of several books and numerous articles on gardening, a popular lecturer and president of the Garden Writers Association. She also will demonstrate flower arranging at 12:00 and 2:30.
  • “As the Globe Turns…” Display of the unique Succulent Globe, at the Succulent Gardens Open House. This ten-foot globe has succulent plants defining the world’s continents. Stunning! This year’s San Francisco Flower and Garden Show featured the Succulent Globe, which is now on permanent display in the Monterey Bay area.

The 4th Annual Monterey Bay Greenhouse Growers Open House is a free admission event. For all the details and a map of the greenhouses, visit www.montereybayfarmtours.org. Alternatively, call (831) 274-4008 or email tours@montereybayfarmtours.org for up to date information about the tours.

Enjoy the tour!

Exploring Edible Gardening’s Larger Issues

Gardening is usually an individual, contemplative activity. Sometimes, we engage in planting, pruning, weeding and other tasks with a friend or a group of friends.

Countless gardeners have pursued this satisfying work for millennia, unconcerned by the larger context of advances in agricultural technology, political and economic struggles and growing concerns over sustainability.

Such issues abound in the world of ornamental horticulture, but are more intense and consequential in commercial farming.

These issues are the focus of the 33rd Annual Eco-Farm Conference, which happens next week at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove. This event, organized by the non-profit Ecological Farming Association, is about educating, networking and celebrating. It combines joyful commitment to farming organically, sharing ideas and successes in the field, and exploring concerns over policies and practices that favor so-called “conventional” farming.

In fact, “conventional” farming depends on synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and employs practices that have been introduced since World War II. Many advances have made large-scale agriculture more efficient and productive, but too often those advances also generate social impacts: fewer natural food choices, declines of taste and nutrition and long-term damage to the environment.

Such alleged problems of course are debatable. We cannot treat them fully in this brief essay, but the Eco-Farm Conference supports valuable in-depth discussions.

Many of the Conference’s sixty workshops are designed for professional farmers, but here are some sessions that relate most directly to consumers.

  • GMO Labeling: Capitalizing on the Momentum of Proposition 37: That recent initiative lost narrowly by 2%, but it catalyzed a national conversation about the deceptive, untested, and novel proteins added to the American diet.
  • Teaching Farming and Gardening in Waldorf Schools: Topics include garden-based woodworking, herbal studies, growing and processing grains, and integration of classroom math and science lessons.
  • The New and Old of Organic Insecticides: Improved methods for managing insect pests using organically approved natural materials.
  • Fresh Rx: A Prescription for Improving Healthy Food Access in Low-Income Communities: Strategies to improve community access to fresh produce, including farmers’ markets in low-income areas, CSA programs, community gardens, nutrition education, cooking demonstrations, and produce distribution by food banks.
  • Preparing for Climate Change: Thinking about and preparing for climate change, water scarcity, and extreme weather.
  • Farm Bill Update– What’s In It and What Does It Mean to You?: Update on the status of the Farm Bill and the standing of key organic and sustainable agricultural programs, including conservation, organic certification cost share, and others.

The Eco-Farm Conference runs from Wednesday, January 23rd to Saturday, January 26th. For more information, visit the conference website: http://ecofarm2013.org/.

This conference presents a positive vision of the future for all consumers and home gardeners. It is gratifying that it happens in the Monterey Bay area.