I generally try to avoid writing a lot about the same issue for fear of boring people to death or seeming like a nutter who can’t stop ranting about one thing or another. In the case of neonicotinoid pesticides, though, I’ve received so many calls and emails on this topic since I started writing about it a few months back, I feel like updates are wanted and needed. So I’m going to go with that feeling and tell you more about what I’ve learned lately in hopes that this will help answer some questions you may have now that you’ve likely learned more about this issue too.
First, here’s a quick recap for those who don’t yet know about neonicotinoids. Neonics, as they are often called, are a class of pesticides that have been linked to the decline of bees, particularly honeybees, over the last decade. Because they are safer for humans than some other pesticides, neonics have become widely used in the nursery trade as a pre-treatment for annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees. They are also found in many of the common pest control products gardeners buy off the shelf and use every day for everything from Japanese beetles to emerald ash borer. (Neonic pesticides include: imidacloprid, acetamiprid, clothianidin, dinotefuran, nithiazine, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam.)
Now that studies have shown that small amounts of neonics can harm bees feeding on the pollen and nectar of treated plants while larger doses can kill, more and more gardeners are making it a point to stop using products that contain neonics and to shop for plants that haven’t been treated with the pesticides. I’ve heard from a lot of people who have called, visited and emailed garden centers and nurseries locally and nationally asking about the use of neonics.
Stories vary widely with some places eagerly sharing their plans to discontinue their own use of neonics and to seek out suppliers who will do the same. But I’ve also heard reports of a fair amount of denial and defensiveness. What you need to know is that it isn’t enough for a retailer to say THEY are not using neonics any longer on the plants that they grow. You also need to know whether the plants they get from outside suppliers are neonic free. Getting that information will take willingness and time on the part of the nursery and from what I’m hearing, it’s clear that not everyone is putting in the effort.Read More»
Of all the things in our landscape, I think the galvanized cattle troughs (also known as stock tanks) in our backyard get the most attention. Even in the winter when nothing is growing in them, their shapes and sheer size turn heads and provoke questions. We added them to what we’re now calling “our little farm” a couple of years back when we lost a huge oak, and I figured I’d take advantage of the sun to grow some vegetables. After starting with one trough, we added another last year and we’ll be getting one more in the next few weeks.
If you want to grow some food on a small, urban lot, you can’t beat these troughs for being easy to get going. You don’t have to build anything, and you don’t have to deal with turning depleted urban soil into something safe, nutrient-rich and workable enough to grow food in. They’re also affordable, durable and tall enough to be out of the way of hungry critters and peeing dogs.
People ask all the time where we got the troughs and how to turn one into a raised bed garden, so even though I wrote briefly about this a couple of years ago, I thought I’d explain the process more in-depth here since it’s the perfect time to get raised beds going for the season. Let’s start with where to buy them. Unless you are literally made of money, do not go to a boutique garden center for a livestock trough. You want to go where farmers buy stuff—Tractor Supply Co. and Fleet Farm.
If you want to grow things like tomatoes, peppers, beans and squash, get yourself a large trough. One of ours is four feet long and the other is six feet. Both are 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep, and they cost about $80 and $110, respectively. Aside from getting the things home in the back of the car, the biggest job is drilling holes in the bottom for drainage. Use a bit that can drill through metal that’s about the size of a dime of nickel. We drilled holes every few inches all around the outside edge along the bottom, and then added many more holes going across the bottom of the trough from end to end and side to side. Remove the drain plug, too, since you won’t be needing it.
Once you’ve got your holes drilled, flip the trough over and put it wherever you want it because once you fill it with soil, you won’t be able to move it around without taking most of that soil back out. We don’t like things looking all kittywampus so we used a level to make sure the trough was lined up properly once we got it situated. (You don’t have to do that unless you’re bugged by such things.) Now comes the soil part. My advice—don’t cut corners. Good soil makes all the difference when you’re growing anything.
Because these are containers, albeit huge ones, you want a mix that’s going to drain well. You also want to provide plants with some nutrients that you’ll boost over time by adding compost and fertilizer. You’ll save some money if you make your own mix by combining 1 part topsoil, 1 part compost and 1 part coconut coir or coarse sand (also known as builder’s sand). I’ve done this by combining these things in batches in a wheelbarrow and it worked well. But I’ll admit, it’s a heck of a lot less work to call someone and have a quality potting mix delivered to your driveway. That way, you can just shovel it into a wheelbarrow and take it right over to your trough and other containers.
What do I mean by a quality mix? As I’ve said in the past, I’ve learned a lot about soil and compost over the last few years and I’m now opting to go with products that are organic or at least produced by a company or farmer who is willing to explain their process so I can make an informed decision about whether to use it. (For much more on that topic, see my blog post on safe compost.
Local organic growers give products from Purple Cow Organics, COWSMO and Mississippi Topsoil high marks. Other local sources that come highly recommended are Kern Landscape Resources and Kelley and Kelley Nursery. Compost from our Linden Hills organics recycling program is also pretty good. But because it includes packaging, paper and other odd bits, I don’t use it to grow edibles. That’s just me. Keep in mind that even though it’s costly to fill your trough with quality potting mix the first year, in subsequent years (unless you get some dreaded disease like early blight of tomatoes) you’ll only need to add a bit more compost to keep soil healthy. If you feel like you’re having drainage issues, add more coir or sand. With the hard part behind you—all you have to do is keep growing.
I just want to take a minute to update my recent post, “In Search of Plants That Won’t Harm Bees.” I’ve now had the chance to talk with Bachman’s CEO, Dale Bachman, as well as John Daniels, Bachman’s vice president of production, about how the company is dealing with neonicotinoids (neonics), a class of pesticides that is harming bees.
As of 2014, while various entities continue to research the role neonicotinoids play in the decline of bees, Bachman’s has decided to take the “precautionary step” of removing all neonicotinoid products for home use from their shelves. That includes imidacloprid, a popular neonicotinoid pesticide used for all sorts of things like rose and lawn care, as well as to protect trees from emerald ash borer. (Of course, homeowners can still buy these products elsewhere and hire professionals who use imidacloprid to treat ash trees.)
They have also stopped using neonics in the production of Bachman’s-grown nursery stock and outdoor plants, which means most of their shrub roses and perennials will be neonic-free along with some annuals. As for plants from other suppliers, they are currently talking with vendors about discontinuing the use of neonics and Dale and John says the outcome may cause them to rethink some of their suppliers. Even as they said that, though, they stressed that the neonics issue is much more complicated than it may seem — a fact that becomes more and more clear to me as I interview people on this topic.
For example, in many instances neonics and other pesticides are used in compliance with regulations regarding moving plants and the potentially invasive pests they may harbor across state lines. In the case of large-scale suppliers, discontinuing the use of neonics will mean switching to other pesticides that will come with their own problems and consequences. For now, shoppers looking for neonic-free plants at Bachman’s should seek out a salesperson for help locating plants the company has grown since implementing their new policy.
Take a deep breath. Buying plants at places that many of us like to shop is going to take more work and patience than usual if we want to help bees. If you start to feel frustrated about the slow pace of change, remember that we are part of the problem. Gardeners have come to expect perfect plants on store shelves, so every entity in the plant supply chain has done everything in its power to kill every bug and wipe out every disease imaginable to make us happy. Moving away from chemical treatments that harm people, pollinators and the planet will be costly and difficult for those who care enough to do so. And we’re going to need to learn to live with more mites, aphids and other things than we’re used to. Who’s in?
In the midst of the worst winter—ever—it’s hard to think about flowers, I know. But this time of year, I normally order a few plants for spring delivery from catalogs and I’m having to spend a lot more time on that than usual because I want to make sure that the flowers I’m ordering aren’t going to kill the bees that visit my gardens. By now you’ve probably heard that many of the pollinator-friendly plants and flowers that we’ve been filling our gardens with over the last few years may actually be harming, and even killing, bees. The culprit, many scientists and researchers believe, are neonicotinoid pesticides. Widely used in lawn fertilizers and on crops and nursery plants, neonicotinoids (commonly called neonics) came on the market in the 1990s and are chemically related to nicotine.
Marketed as safer for humans than other pesticides, neonics are now thought to be at least in part responsible for declining bee populations all over the world. Let me explain why. Like all systemic pesticides, neonics are absorbed by plants after being applied to the leaves, seeds or even soil. When bees and other pollinators feed on the leaves, flowers and pollen of plants treated with neonics, they ingest a “dose” of the insecticide.
Though the makers of these pesticides contend that the amount ingested by insects, including bees, is not enough to kill them, entomologists who study bees believe otherwise. Neonicotinoids are neuroactive, meaning they block connections in the brain. Over the last several years, studies have shown that even after ingesting small amounts of neonics, bees can become confused to the point of being unable to identify food sources. Some even forget how to find their way back to the hive. Over time, without food from the hive’s forages, colonies starve and collapse.
Vera Krischik, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota, has been studying the effects of insecticide on bees for several years. She has found that large doses of neonics can kill bees, sometimes moments after they feed on a treated plant. Where are they getting these large doses of neonicotinoid pesticides? Possibly, my garden, I hate to say; or maybe yours, or your neighbor’s. That’s because it is legal to treat ornamental plants with much higher levels of neonicotinoids than are acceptable for use on agricultural crops like corn and soybeans. And because pre-treatment of nursery plants is so common these days, it’s very likely that most of us have brought home some of these plants in the last few years without realizing the harm they could be doing.
What Can Gardeners Do?
So what can we do now? Well, that’s going to take a bit of work on our part. Concern over whether neonicotinoids are harming bees is not new, and Krischik is just one of many researchers across the country. and the world, who have spoken out about the problem. As a result, some European countries have restricted or banned some neonicotinoids.
But, as is usually the case, our U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has opted to take a wait-and-see approach and has decided to look at the insecticide as part of a standard registration review. That could take years—years that bees don’t have. Though it is good news that the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and the Department of Natural Resources seem to have taken the issue more seriously since the start of the year.
For now, fellow gardeners, help must come from us, so we need to do all we can to keep neonics out of our gardens. That means growing some of our plants ourselves using seeds collected from plants we know to be untreated or purchased from retailers who don’t sell pre-treated seeds such as Seed Savers Exchange, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds and Renee’s Garden Seeds.
Shopping for plants will be trickier and in some cases, more expensive. Home Depot and Lowes may offer lower prices on ornamental plants, but so far Home Depot has indicated that they plan to continue selling plants treated with neonics until they can work with suppliers to find an alternative insecticide. I don’t know about Lowes, but I imagine that selling far fewer plants to gardeners who won’t buy anything treated with neonics might speed talks up a bit.
Before buying plants from any seller, ask them whether they use neonics or buy plants treated with them. To help, I made some calls for this article to see how various growers and garden centers are dealing with this issue. Glacial Ridge Growers in Glenwood, Minnesota, sells native plants free of neonics. Bachman’s, Gertens and Menards didn’t return calls before my deadline, so you’ll need to ask them yourselves. Mother Earth Gardens says they don’t sell any flowering, edible or fruiting plants treated with neonics, though they do carry a few non-flowering trees that have been treated with the pesticides.
Scott Endres, co-owner of Minneapolis’ Tangletown Gardens, told me that though he can’t guarantee that every single plant they sell is neonic-free, almost every single plant is neonic-free because they grow the majority of them themselves and know exactly how they are produced. When they do buy something they want to carry but don’t grow, he says they buy from reputable growers they trust, so consumers can feel confident buying plants from them. Scott also said that he thinks it’s “awesome” that more and more gardeners are insisting on plants grown “with organic principles that support a sustainable product and the earth.” He believes that people’s awareness is already creating demand that is pushing companies to think more closely about their practices. I couldn’t agree more.
Grafted tomatoes, especially heirlooms, were really hot this year. Why graft heirlooms? Well, the reasoning is that by grafting the heirlooms we love—Brandywines, Green Zebras, Cherokee Purples, Mortgage Lifters—to a rootstock that’s got, say, great drought tolerance or disease resistance, you get what amounts to a super heirloom.
The strategy isn’t new. Apple and grape varieties have been produced successfully on desirable rootstock for ages. But this is the first time that home gardeners in the U.S. are really starting to see grafted vegetables, including eggplants, peppers, cucumbers and watermelon, becoming increasingly available at the retail level. Territorial Seed Company, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and White Flower Farm are just a few of the places where you’ll find grafted vegetables.
Though I admit that there can be problems with heirlooms tomatoes, I go out of my way to plant them. So I like the idea of making them more viable and widely available. Like a lot of gardeners, I feel strongly about the importance of including heirlooms of all types in the garden and, on the whole, I think heirloom tomatoes taste better than their hybrid peers, which often have tough skins and bland flavor. (Some of my favorite heirlooms are Black Krim, Green Zebra, Stupice and Sweet Million, though I always, always, always plant Sungolds, those out-of-this-world hybrid, yellow cherry tomatoes.)
Still, I’m always up for trying something new. So I was happy to get a surprise box of grafted tomato seedling samples (some heirlooms, some not) from Mighty ‘Mato early in the season. Having a limited amount of sun to work with, I kept two for myself, an Indigo Rose and a Brandywine, and gave the others to master gardener friends to plant and report back on. During the season, I also talked with more MGs and garden writers who were experimenting with grafted tomatoes. The outcome? Impressions were mixed.
Take Indigo Rose, for example. I had been wanting to try Indigo Rose, which was introduced by Oregon State University in 2012. Their goal was to produce a tomato with high levels of antioxidants. I wanted to grow the tomato because I fell for the weird looking purple-black fruit. I planted both grafted and ungrafted Indigo Rose tomatoes so I could compare the two (and so I could justify planting way too many tomatoes, like I always do).
Sadly, though they both produced an absurd amount of fruit all summer long, I didn’t like either of them, mainly because the tomatoes took FOREVER to ripen and when they finally did, they tasted bland and watery. Also of note was the fact that I honestly noticed no difference between the grafted plants and the ungrafted plants. Most of the gardeners I’ve talked to had similar experiences with Indigo Rose, though I will say that a few thought they were tastier than I did.
On the plus side, my friend, Deb, loved Mighty ‘Mato’s grafted Indigo Ruby, a cross between Indigo Rose and a cherry tomato. The plant grew well, was free of disease and produced very tasty tomatoes all season. I heard rave reviews from other gardeners, too, though I don’t know how they compared to ungrafted Indigo Ruby.
As for grafted Brandywine tomatoes, by all accounts, including mine, the grafted plants didn’t do as well as the heirlooms usually do on their own. I did hear lots of good things about grafted Legend tomatoes—great taste, good disease resistance and a LOT of tomatoes.
What does all of this mean? Well, at this point, I’m not ready to say that grafted tomatoes aren’t worth the price, which is steep compared to regular tomatoes, hybrids and heirlooms. But I’m not ready to sing their praises either. I’ll plant a couple more varieties next summer and report back on how things go. If you try grafted tomatoes, please let me know about your experiences. I’ll pass that information on so we can all compare notes.
I am severely allergic to bee venom, so I’ve always been careful when gardening to stay out of the flower beds during the times of day when bees are most active. Sadly, that’s been easy to do this year because there are no bees in my garden, save for some tiny, tiny bees that my grandma used to call “sweat bees.” There are no honeybees or bumblebees, just a lot of large scary-looking brown wasps that, like cockroaches, look as though they could survive an apocalypse.
Perhaps we are on the brink of one now. As gardeners, we see changes in nature up close in ways that others don’t. I can tell you (and I’m sure you have plenty of stories, too) that seven years ago our gardens were filled with bees and butterflies. In that short time, both have all but disappeared. Many of the gardeners I know are saying the same thing and, without exception, our talks reflect a growing mix of sadness and worry about the future. It’s one thing to read an article about how vital pollinators are to food production and quite another to walk out the back door to find normally bountiful tomato, cucumber and squash plants nearly devoid of fruit. Leaves for dinner again, anyone?
If you have ever thought about getting into beekeeping, now is the time to start. Ordinances vary by city and state, but in Minneapolis, beekeeping has been legal since 2009 and it really took off this year in May when the Minneapolis City Council approved an ordinance making it easier for urban beekeepers to get permits. Ever since then, more and more bee boxes have been buzzing on rooftops across the city, including some at high-profile locales such as Minneapolis City Hall, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and Weisman Art Museum.
Under the new ordinance, would-be beekeepers still need to get permission from the city to keep bees. But hives can now be installed on rooftops taller than one story without approval from neighboring property owners. This is a significant change from the previous ordinance that required beekeepers to get permission from 80 percent of the neighbors within 250 feet. (To put that in perspective, in densely packed downtown, that could mean having to collect over 100 signatures.)
Honeybees are not aggressive, and backyard hives can be managed safely by trained homeowners. But rooftops are an attractive option for urban bees and their keepers because bees tend to fly up and out when exiting their boxes, lessening interaction with people down below, says Becky Masterman, who co-coordinates the Bee Squad with fellow beekeeper Jody Gerdts. Started by University of Minnesota bee expert Marla Spivak in 2010, the Bee Squad (http://beelab.umn.edu/BeeSquad/) aims to help foster healthy bee communities in the Twin Cities through education, training and data collection on the health of urban colonies.
Citizen beekeepers to the rescue
The Bee Squad’s most high-profile program is called Hive to Bottle, which allows homeowners and organizations to keep bees without having to install and manage the hives themselves if they would prefer not to. Hives at City Hall, the Weisman and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts are all taken care of by the Bee Squad. Those who want to manage their own hives can receive at-home training from a Bee Squad mentor through the Home Apiary Help program. Or, for a lesser fee, homeowners can attend training sessions at the Mentoring Apiary on the University’s St. Paul campus. (Additional information on both programs can be found here: (http://beelab.umn.edu/BeeSquad/beekeepers/index.htm.)
If you’re asking yourself whether you really need training to keep bees, the answer is yes. Masterman explains: “Keeping bees is really hard. It is both an art and a science, and there is no way to learn to do it right from a book or a weekend class. It really helps to have somebody next to you watching and guiding you as you learn.” So, for the sake of the bees, and yourself and your neighbors, please take the time to understand what you’re doing before rushing into beekeeping.