A New Food Labeling Faceoff

The California Senate Health Committee recently approved Senate Bill 1381, which would require the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. This action is triggering new flows of facts and opinions by interest groups.

This bill renews the long-running debate between consumer groups and pesticide corporations and large-scale food producers. Californians for GE Food Labeling, representing many consumer groups, claims that grocery shoppers need to know what they are buying. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, representing the food industry, claims that labeling GE foods would be expensive and misleading.

This debate dates from 1992, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that GE foods were “substantially equivalent” to conventionally grown foods and therefore do not require labeling.

Ten years later, Congress created the National Organic Program (NOP) under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The NOP ruled that GE foods do not meet NOP standards and could not be labeled as “organic.”

According to SB 1381, more than 90% of members of the public want labeling of GE foods. Maine and Connecticut have passed limited laws requiring GE food labeling, and 20 other states are considering similar laws. Voters in California and Washington have considered GE food labeling measures, but the food industry waged massive campaigns opposing the measures and both failed by very small margins.

Sixty-four countries already have laws mandating labeling of GE foods.

Two other Senate committees—Agriculture and Judiciary—will debate SB 1381before the full Senate votes on it. While the bill moves through the California Senate, the California Assembly could consider a similar bill. Both bodies would have to agree on some version of this legislation before it could become law in California. This process could be lengthy, with vigorous arguments for and against.

At the federal level, a year ago, Senator Barbara Boxer and many co-signers introduced The Genetically Engineered Food Right-to-Know Act, but it hasn’t advanced at all.

The FDA has proposed regulatory guidelines for voluntary labeling of GE foods. Consumer groups have dismissed this approach as not helpful.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association recently recommended federal legislation that would allow voluntary labeling of GE foods, allow describing them as “natural,” and preempt state laws that have different requirements.

Meanwhile, grocery shoppers could either buy only certified organic foods, or simply ignore the issue. Home gardeners could buy seeds from “Safe Seed Pledge” companies (listed by The Council for Responsible Genetics) and grow their own non-GE foods.

Food policies have become complicated!

More to come.

Apples Without Worms, Part Two

Codling moths are serious insect pests of apples. If your apples have “worms,” you probably have codling moths.

Life Cycle of the Codling Moth

The codling moth’s life cycle has an important stage in the soil or organic debris around the base of your apple tree. The full-grown larvae of the moth, in silken cocoons, overwinter in this environment, and develop into adult moths around mid-March to early April.

The moths fly into the tree to mate and deposit their eggs on the leaves, spurs or immature fruit. They are one-half to three quarters inch long, with a dark band at their wingtips.  They can be difficult to spot because their colors blend with the tree’s bark, and they are active for only a few hours before and after sunset.

The eggs hatch in early to mid-May, and the young larvae tunnel into the core of the fruit and eat their fill, leaving behind reddish-brown frass (insect waste).

After they develop fully, the larvae drop from the fruit and tree to continue their life cycle in the soil or debris at the base of the tree.

A second generation often occurs in cooler coastal environments such as the Monterey Bay area, with the new group of young larvae attacking the fruit in mid-July.

Management of the Codling Moth

Organic pesticides for home gardeners are CYD–X Insecticidal Virus, which infects and kills the larvae of codling moths, and Spinosad, which is a nerve and stomach poison derived via fermentation from naturally occurring bacterium. These products might be found in a garden center; or can be ordered from GrowOrganic.com or other online sources.

Apply insecticide sprays as the eggs hatch and the larvae begin to attack the fruit and make the first “sting” (a tiny mound of frass on the fruit, marking a larva’s entry).  Timing can be tricky, because temperature and other factors affect the moths’ schedule. For example, mating occurs only when sunset temperatures exceed 62 degrees Fahrenheit.

A Good Reference

The primary source of information for today’s column is the University of California publication, “Codling Moth: Integrated Pest Management for Home Gardeners and Landscape Professionals.” For additional approaches to management of these pests, download this free publication at www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn7412.html.

Managing an established population of codling moths will require both insecticide sprays and additional methods. For example, sanitation, always a good practice, involves promptly removing infested and dropped fruit.

Eating a fresh apple from your own tree can be delightful, but you might have to compete with the wildlife.

More

Here is one of several Spinosad products that have been formulated and packaged for home gardening. This products is available in gardens centers and online from Peaceful Valley ,

Monterey Garden Spray Concentrate – Spinosad (Pint)
$19.99 + $9.99 shipping

pbi800-aSpinosad for home gardeners Use on vegetable and fruit crops, ornamentals, and turf to control caterpillars as well as beetles, leafminers, thrips, Colorado potato beetles, fire ants and more! Use 4 Tbs/gal water. Spinosad insecticides are nerve and stomach poison derived via fermentation from naturally occurring bacterium Saccharopolyspora spinosa. New chemistry represents an alternative to Bt for worm control and offers excellent control of targeted pests and low toxicity to non-target organisms, including most beneficial insects. Low mammalian toxicity, helps conserve beneficials.

Apples Without Worms

Each year, around now, I plan to spray my four small apple trees and indulge my optimistic vision of harvesting apples that are beautiful, tasty and—most of all—free of worms.

My apple trees include a small Fuji, a Gala espalier, a second espalier with eight familiar varieties of apple and my prize: a dwarf Cox’s Orange Pippin, originally from England. Here is Wikipedia’s description:

“Cox’s Orange Pippin is highly regarded due to its excellent flavour and attractive appearance. The apples are of medium size, orange-red in colour deepening to bright red and mottled with carmine over a deep yellow background. The flesh is very aromatic, yellow-white, fine-grained, crisp and very juicy. Cox’s flavour is sprightly sub-acid, with hints of cherry and anise, becoming softer and milder with age…One of the best in quality of the English dessert apples; Cox’s Orange Pippin may be eaten out of hand or sliced.”

The worms that ruin these great apples annually are the larvae of the codling moth (Cydia pomonella).

My usual plan of attack has been to spray the tree three times with horticultural oil, before it sets buds, to smother insects as they hatch. I have never accomplished this task in a timely and thorough manner, and never had satisfactory results.

This year, I learned that horticultural oil treatment can eliminate aphids, but has no impact on codling moths or other pests that attack the fruit. A fruitless strategy!

I mentioned my concern this week to a member of the California Rare Fruit Growers, who said he has a detailed regimen for treating the soil around his trees, has never sprayed and has no pest problems. At the moment, I couldn’t write down his method and it seemed like a long-term process anyway, so I researched the issue.

Valuable advice is available from Michael Phillips’ highly regarded book, The Apple Grower: A Guide for the Organic Orchardist (2nd edition, 2005). He advocates treating the soil to promote the development of fungi that help trees to deal with pests and diseases. This might be the method practiced by my CNGF contact.

Apple farmers use two effective new organic products: Surround, a spray that coats apples with insect-repelling kaolin clay, and Entrust, based on Spinosad, a poison that is derived from naturally occurring bacterium. These products are sold in commercial quantities for licensed users.

Spinosad is also available in smaller quantities for usage by unlicensed home gardeners, in Captain Jack’s Dead Bug Brew, Green Light Lawn & Garden Spray with Spinosad 2, Monterey Garden Insect Spray and other products.

More

Entrust, a Spinosad product, is available only in larger quantities for commercial fruit growers. Here is an example of one such product, Entrust.

Entrust 80 WP – Spinosad (1 LB) – PBI400

 

Entrust - Spinosad

$599.00  This product qualifies for $9.99 flat rate shipping in the Continental US.

This is a special order item. Please call 888-784-1722 to place an order.

This product is not registered for sale in the following states: PR

Pesticide ID # is required for all CA commercial growers AND all Nevada County, CA residents

Spinosad insecticides are nerve and stomach poison derived via fermentation from naturally occurring bacterium Saccharopolyspora spinosa. New chemistry represents an alternative to Bt for worm control and offers excellent control of targeted pests and low toxicity to non-target organisms, including most beneficial insects. Low mammalian toxicity, helps conserve beneficial insects.

Dry formulation of spinosad labeled for cole crops, corn, cucurbits, fruiting and leafy vegetables, pome fruits, potatoes, stone fruits, strawberries, bushberries and cranberries. Controls caterpillars, certain beetles, thrips and leafminers, including many pests prone to resistance problems such as diamondback moth, cabbage looper, fall armyworm and Colorado potato beetle. For Colorado potato beetle, use only every other year to help prevent resistance.

Apply .5 – 2 oz per acre.

Note: At the recommended application rate, one pound of Entrust would be enough for on treatment for between eight and thirty-two acres of crops. Other information sources indicate that multiple treatments may be required, because the coating can be rubbed or washed off easily.

Happily, Spinosad products are available in both commercial quantities and smaller quantities for home gardens. See the following essay: “Apples Without Worms, Part 2″

***

Surround, a spray based on kaolin clay, seems interesting for commercial fruit growers, but appears not to be available (yet) in quantities that are appropriate for small orchards in a residential garden. Here is an example of a commercial product:

Surround WP (Kaolin Clay)

$37.50/25 lb. bag at Planet Natural.

Made from modified kaolin clay, Surround WP Crop Protectant is sprayed on as a liquid, which evaporates leaving a protective powdery film on the surfaces of leaves, stems and fruit. Controls a long list of insect pests on vegetables, fruit trees, ornamental plants s and more. OMRI Listed for use in organic production.

Surround works to protect plants and deter insects in three specific ways:

  1. Tiny particles of the kaolin clay attach to insects when they contact it, agitating and repelling them.
  2. Even if the particles do NOT attach to their bodies, the insects find the coated plant/ fruit unsuitable for feeding and egg-laying.
  3. The protective white film cools plants by up to 15° Fahrenheit, which can help to reduce heat and water stress. Many fruits show improved color, smoothness and size with less russet, dropping, sunburn and cracking.

DIRECTIONS FOR USE:        Application rates are dependent on the amount of foliage
that needs to be covered. Mix 1/4 to 1/2 lb. per gallon of water (25 to 50 lb. per 100 gallons of water per acre). May be applied up to the day of harvest.

Active Ingredient:            Kaolin ….. 95.0%
Inert Ingredients:              5.0%

***

Surround WP Kaolin Clay – Insect Repellent

Description         Surround W. P. is made from 95% kaolin clay, a naturally occurring mineral. When applied to fruit trees, crops, and other plants, it forms a white film. Surround suppresses a wide range of pests, especially those that damage fruit crops including pears, apples, grapes, berries, and some vegetables. It can be applied up to day of harvest and is easily rubbed off when the fruit or produce is ready to eat.

Surround can help control pests such as: pear psylla, cutworms, pear midge, pear slug, apple sucker, climbing cutworm, eastern tent caterpillar, gypsy moth, Japanese beetle, June beetle, grasshoppers, green fruit worm, leafrollers, lygus bug, Mormon cricket, cicada, stink bug, tarnished plant bug, thrips, fabria leafspot, apple maggot, codling moth, plum curculio, rose chafer, aphids, naval orangeworm, husk fly, blueberry maggot, blackberry psyllid, flea beetles, orchards, grape leaf skeletonizer, bean leaf beetle, Mexican bean beetle, powdery mildew, cucumber beetle, boll weevil, armyworm, black vine weevil, and fruit flies.

How it works      Insects are repelled by Surround. It sticks to their body parts and encourages them to move on elsewhere. At harvest time, the white film can be removed simply by rubbing off.

General usage:     Use in orchards, fields, vegetable gardens.

  1. Directions for use:           Using a backpack sprayer:
    Mix 1/4 to 1/2 pound (approximately three cups) of Surround WP per one gallon of water. If your sprayer is not easy to shake, premix in a container and pour the mixture into your sprayer
  2. Add the powder slowly to approximately 1/4 of the water you will be using, stir and mix well by shaking vigorously for 30 seconds.
  3. Add the remaining water and shake for an additional 30 seconds.
  4. Shake the sprayer occasionally during application.
  5. When finished, spray until the sprayer is empty and flush the system. Leftover mix can be used within 2 weeks to avoid spoilage. Rinse the sprayer before the next batch.

Advisories          Do not apply directly to water, or to areas where surface water is present or to intertidal areas below mean high water mark.

Application rates    General rate varies between 25 – 50 pounds per 100 gallons of water. Amount of water used will depend on amount of foliage to be treated.

Apple half-treated with kaolin clay

Apple with Kaolin Clay

 

 

Monarch Butterflies in Decline

At this time of the year, the Monterey Bay area—and especially Pacific Grove—hosts many Monarch butterflies during their annual winter hibernation.

The butterflies arrive in stunningly large numbers, but we in the Monterey Bay area see only Monarchs that live west of the Rocky Mountains—five percent of the total population.

The larger numbers flow between north Central United States and Canada in the summer and Mexico in the winter. The number of Monarchs has been declining alarmingly. Counting the individuals in a vast flight of Monarchs is quite impossible, so scientists measure them by the area they occupy, measured in hectares (2.47 acres), and then estimate the number of butterflies per hectare. In their prime years, some 450 million Monarchs roosted in Mexico. This year, lepidopterists have estimated that three million will arrive in Mexico.

The decline in the Monterey Bay area’s Monarch population has been less than that of the larger population, but still disturbingly great.

Several factors contribute to this decline, but the principal contributor appears to be loss of habitat. In particular, the loss of the milkweed plant that constitutes the source of both the principle food for Monarch caterpillars and the alkaloids that make the Monarch unpalatable to most predators. Large-scale farmers are using Monsanto’s Roundup® herbicide to wipe out a variety of weeds, including milkweed.

The decline of Monarch butterflies means we have fewer opportunities to see them in our gardens and other natural environments but the Monarchs are also an important source of food for some birds.

In the larger context, the impacts of commercial farming on the Monarch population are being repeated by impacts on a range of beneficial insects. The decline of honeybees, for example, has been attributed to a class of agricultural chemicals.

This is a large-scale problem that the public and private sectors, working together, should address over the long term. Meanwhile, home gardeners can support Monarch butterflies in two easy actions.

First, provide nectar sources for the adult butterflies by planting brightly colored flowers that are native to the Monterey Bay area.

Second, provide milkweed plants for Monarch caterpillars to feed on. The genus Asclepias contains about 140 milkweed species, including Asclepias californica (California Milkweed), which is native to most of this state.

To learn more, visit the Pacific Grove Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary (Off of Ridge Road near the Butterfly Grove Inn) for a docent-led tour, and attend the free Monarch Butterfly Talk at 1:00 p.m. at any Saturday, November-to-February.

More

To learn even more about Monarch Butterflies, visit the Monarch Butterfly Website,  and MonarchWatch.org, where you will find fall and spring migration maps.

Monarch Fall Migration map

Monarch Spring Migration Map 

The website for the Center for Food Safety illustrates the areas in which the agricultural chemical glysophate is being applied in the Monarch’s migration path.

Monarch – Glysophate Maps

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.

***

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!

Attract Pollinators to Your Garden

Synthetic chemicals have a variety of garden uses: adding nutrients to the soil (or directly to plants), discouraging/killing harmful insects and other small pests, and protecting plants from viruses, fungi and other scourges.

These benefits, however, come with downsides, including destroying microorganisms in the soil and beneficial insects, accumulating salts in the soil, and harming (or worse) pets and gardeners themselves. And there’s more, too much to review in this column.

Our present focus is on the harm that synthetic chemicals bring to insect pollinators: honeybees, native bees (which are different) and butterflies. Concerned scientists and citizen scientists have recorded significant population declines among these pollinators, and have pointed to pesticides as the likely cause of these declines.

Our gardens need these pollinators. They are essential in sexual reproduction of plants, including the development of fruits, vegetables and berries, all of which bear seeds, and both natural and human-directed hybridization of plants.

There are also asexual forms of plant reproduction, to be sure, but we’re concerned here with the pollinators.

The first priority in attracting pollinators to your garden is to adopt organic gardening methods, i.e., no synthetic chemicals. Safe organic products are available to address any gardening need, and integrated pest management (IPM) strategies work better and cheaper in the long run than the quick fixes of synthetic chemicals.

The next important priority is to plant more flowers as food resources for bees and butterflies. An excellent resource this subject is The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a non-profit organization. The Society offers reliable information on all aspects of attracting pollinators.

The Society’s guidelines for California gardeners get to the point:

  • Use local native plants (bees prefer them);
  • Choose several colors of flowers (blue, purple, violet, shite and yellow are good; pink and red not so much);
  • Plant flowers in clumps (a four-foot wide clump of one flower is much better than a scattering of the same number of plants);
  • Include flowers of different shapes (bees come in different sizes and different preferences);
  • Have a diversity of species flowering all season (both the bees and you will appreciate having flowers for most of the year).

Another helpful resource is The Melissa Garden: A Honeybee Sanctuary, which is located in Sonoma County. The owners offer an extensive list of plants that attract bees, and offer tours and classes in beekeeping, attracting pollinators, and related topics. “Melissa” is from the Greek word for honeybee.

Visit ongardening.com for links to The Xerces Society, the Melissa Garden and other resources for attracting pollinators to your garden, as well as for information on organic gardening and integrated pest management.

As you add flowering plants to your garden, choose some for the bees and butterflies.

More

The Xerces Society

Melissa Garden

Attracting Pollinators to Your Garden Using Native Plants

Organic Gardening: There are many books and magazines on this subject. A classic in the field is Maria Rodale’s Organic Gardening: Your Seasonal Companion to Creating a Beautiful and Delicious Organic Garden (Rodale Press, 1998)

Integrated Pest Management The University of California’s Integrated Pest Management program is a valuable resource for California  gardeners. Another useful resource is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s webpage on IPM Principles.

 

 

Gardening for the Future

During a period of cold and rainy days, and holiday season attractions (and distractions), it may be difficult to focus on gardening priorities and attend to necessary tasks. On the other hand, this could be a very good time to plan future directions.

In this column, we consider resolutions for the coming year.

Our resolutions often address immediate needs, e.g., weeding in a more timely and consistent manner, upgrading the landscape design, removing a tree or shrub that has evolved from asset to liability, or installing a long-overdue drip irrigation system.

Each avid gardener could develop his or her own list of resolutions that are certainly worthy and not to be dismissed. Today’s goal is not to discourage productive actions but to suggest the importance of the long view.

This column is inspired by a recent report that chemical pesticides are used more extensively in the United States now than ever before. See below for a link to “Pesticides: Now More Than Ever,” by Mark Bittman, New York Times, December 11, 2012. The author cites research evidence of the link between pesticide exposure and certain cancers and other health problems and negative impacts on the environment, and states that genetically engineered crops are leading to dramatic increases in the use of pesticides.

These data are particularly troublesome, given the recent defeat of a state proposition to label genetically modified organisms (fruits, vegetables and meats). This proposition lost 47% to 53%, when multinational food corporations spent $46 million in a campaign that claimed falsely that the proposition was “flawed” and would be costly to consumers. The Organic Consumers Association, an advocate of that proposition, points to several similar initiatives in other states, begins preparing for another vote in California, and insists it is only a matter of time before GMO labeling becomes law.

Residential gardeners can resolve to support reduced uses of chemical pesticides by applying only organic methods in their own gardens, buying organically grown groceries and supporting the labeling of GMOs, when another vote is scheduled.

So-called “conventional” gardening, which relies upon chemical fertilizers and pesticides, was introduced in the early 1940s, during World War II. Americans are only beginning to recognize its threats to human health and the environment.

Organic gardening methods originated hundreds or even thousands of years ago. These methods are attuned with nature, inexpensive to apply, and proven to be effective.

For more satisfying gardening in the short term, a good resolution is to bring new-to-you plants into your garden regularly. Countless options are available in garden centers, catalogs and websites. New horticultural treasures can add learning opportunities and rewarding experiences to your gardening activities.

More

If you think that pesticides are simply a good thing in the garden or the agricultural field, read “Pesticides: Now More Than Ever,” by Mark Bittman, New York Times, December 11, 2012.

For a good introduction to organic gardening methods, read Organic Gardening magazine which is available from magazine stands or the Organic Gardening website. This publication has been a leading advocate of this natural approach to gardening for decades. It offers its magazine, online information and several authoritative books from various publishers. Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening is a classic in the field.

Guidance in purchasing organically grown foods is available from The Daily Green, which lists “The Dirty Dozen” (foods with the highest pesticide residue), beginning with apples. When these foods are grown with so-called “conventional” methods, they will have relatively high concentrations of pesticides. If you want to eat these foods, buy only  produce that has been certified as organically grown. Federal regulations require that foods that are labeled as “organic are grown without the use of pesticides.

Consumer demands to label genetically modified organisms are sure to continue on a state-by-state basis, until such initiatives force federal requirements for such labeling.To follow the political battle, visit the website of the non-profit Organic Consumers Association. This is one of several organizations that are pressing this issue, with determination to succeed in the long run.

The Organic Consumers Association seeks to persuade the Natural Products Association to stop calling GMOs “natural.” The term “natural” when applied to foods has no federal definition or standard and should not be mistaken for “organic” foods.

Gardener’s Gold

If you have deciduous trees in your garden, you might be fretting these days over the task of raking and disposing of the fallen leaves. You might instead welcome this form of nature’s bounty, because your trees have contributed the raw material for an excellent natural resource for your garden: leaf mold.

Leaf mold, which is simply partially decomposed leaves, can be used as a mulch to discourage weeds, retain moisture and insulate the roots of plants from the coldest weather. It can also be used as a pH-neutral soil amendment, like compost, to retain moisture, improve soil texture, add nutrients and support the growth of beneficial soil organisms of all kinds.

The question, then, is how to convert the fallen leaves to leaf mold.

The raking can’t be avoided, but the rest of the task could take any of several forms, depending on the gardener’s patience and available space, and the kind of leaves. Some leaves, including oak and holly, contain relatively high levels of cellulose and are slower to break down.

The easiest conversion of leaves to leaf mold is to pile the leaves in an out-of-the-way location and let them decompose on their own schedule. This process could require a year or more, but could be hastened in several ways, singly or in combinations.

  • Leave your leaf pile in a shaded location, or cover it with a plastic tarp. This helps to retain moisture, which supports the decomposition process, which depends upon the work of fungi.
  • Water the leaf pile occasionally, to maintain a damp (not soggy) condition.
  • Turn the pile occasionally, to expose the contents to oxygen.
  • Shred the leaves. Smaller pieces have greater exposure to the air and moisture, and therefore break down faster. Run over the leaves with a lawn mower—almost any kind would do—or put them through an electric leaf shredder or leaf blower-vacuum. My American Sycamore’s big leave tend to block my blower-vacuum, so they have to be roughly shredded first with the mower. For smaller quantities, place the leaves in a trashcan and shred them with a weed whacker.
  • Add nitrogen. Old dry leaves are almost all carbon, so the addition of nitrogen will speed their breakdown. Add green vegetation or nitrogen-rich fertilizer. Dry chicken manure has twice the nitrogen content as horse or steer manure.

The leaf mold is ready when it has become soft and crumbly. Use it to mulch your plant, spreading it about three inches deep (not too close to the base of the plant). Or dig a similar amount into the soil; this could be easiest when preparing a new bed, and is particularly helpful for improving soil that contains an excess of clay or sand. Leaf mold also could be included in containers to lighten their weight.

Enjoy gardener’s gold in your garden!

Mulch for Much Easier Gardening

Mulching represents a gardener’s not-so-secret strategy for achieving the universal objective: a low-maintenance garden.

If your garden is time-consuming, frustrating and disappointing, it probably needs mulching.

Several other possible causes should be considered: nutrient-poor soil, lack of irrigation, inappropriate plant selection, etc., but let’s focus for the moment on mulching.

A three-inch deep layer of an organic mulch between plants discourages weed growth, conserves water and, in time, breaks down to add nutrients and texture to garden soil.

We should not ignore the downsides of mulching. For example, a larger garden will require several cubic yards of organic mulch, leading to significant charges from a landscape supply company for the material and its delivery. In addition, distributing the mulch within the garden, while not difficult, consumes time and energy.

One more downside: organic mulches decompose in time, so the time and expense will have to be incurred again. Finer mulch materials break down faster than coarse materials.

Some organic mulch is free, e.g., disease-free wood chips that tree services will dump on your property, upon request (to avoid landfill charges), or seaweed harvested during low tide. Wood chips might be regarded as less attractive than finer mulches, and seaweed, although excellent in nutrient content, often is troublesome to gather, buddy and smelly.

A landscape supply company will offer a variety of organic mulches in bulk, e.g., redwood sawdust, shredded cedar, fir bark and gorilla hair (shredded redwood bark, really), in a range of sizes and prices.

Another option is cocoa shell mulch, which is available in bags of two cubic feet for about $5.00. This material looks good, emits a nice fragrance and breaks down slowly, but contains theobromine, a natural compound that if eaten is highly toxic to dogs and cats.

The gardener could consider each of the available options, and perhaps try a sample bag in the garden.

Home supply stores offer organic mulches in bags of two cubic feet of material. These can be appropriate for smaller beds, but for larger projects will be more expensive than bulk materials. To move one or two yards of mulch, it’s good to have a friend with a pickup truck.

Gravel mulch might be preferred for a rock garden or succulent garden. For a rock garden in particular, gravel mulch simulates scree, the debris of broken rock seen on mountain slopes.

Like organic mulches, gravel mulch discourages weeds, conserves moisture and looks better than bare soil.  Gravel is much more expensive per cubic yard than organic mulches, but a one-inch layer should be enough and gravel doesn’t decompose. Gravel mulch is difficult to remove, so for practical purposes treat the installation as permanent.

Enjoy your mulched garden.

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Estimating Mulch Needs

To decide how much material you will need, estimate the surface area of the garden bed(s) to be mulched: length times width (in feet). Multiple by the intended depth of the mulch layer: for a three-inch layer, multiply by .25. Finally, convert cubic feet to cubic yards by dividing by 27.

Example: a 12 feet x 18 feet garden bed has a surface area of 216 square feet. For a three-inch layer of mulch, .25 x 216 yields 54 cubic feet. Divide by 27 to determine a need for two yards of mulch.

Seaweed Mulch

An interesting article, How to Use Seaweed to Mulch Your Garden, is available on the website for Eartheasy: Solutions for Sustainable Living. Gardeners who live close to the beach might wish to try this mulch material, but it seems too smelly and buggy for my taste. It also decomposes into slime rather quickly.