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.
Yes, it’s me again, nattering on about the cold, cold, horribly cold winter we’re having here in Minnesota—and a lot of other places too, I know. But, honestly, most of you in other states will be warm again far sooner than we will here in the tundra. So I feel entitled to go on about this a bit more and if you don’t agree, please don’t send me another email telling me that if I don’t love it in Minnesota, I should move. Move where? In with you? Awesome!
Anyway, as I was saying, a local meteorologist wrote the other day that Minnesotans are experiencing the coldest winter in 33 years. I didn’t live here then, but I believe him. Minnesotans are tough, but it’s been far below zero with mind-boggling wind chills for a long time now. Kids are bored at home because schools have been closed repeatedly. Parents are using up precious vacation days staying home with bored kids. And bored dogs wish they could go outside, but they can’t stand how cold their paws get, even with those awful booties that they hate.
We are a stir-crazy lot, motivated to do little more than lie on the couch and drink and order takeout while watching movie after movie. Or is that just me? BTW, I would highly recommend Seven Psychopaths and The Heat, but I thought Iron Man 3 was kind of meh even though I loved the first two.
What does this have to do with gardening? you wonder. Well, in an effort to stop spending so much time eating, drinking and watching movies, I recently tried focusing on spring to brighten my mood and, by golly, it worked! In addition to looking at a bunch of the garden-related photos I took last season, I also spent a few hours going through all of the seed and plant catalogs that have piled up on my living room coffee table. That was fun, especially because our sweet dog, Lily, helped by napping on me the whole time.
So if you’re bored and freezing and in need of some good cheer, I’ve posted a few photos below in the hope that they help a bit. And if you haven’t already started looking at your seed and plant catalogs, give it a go. I bet it will make you feel better to start thinking about what you’ll plant in just a few weeks or months, depending on where your live. I especially love Renee’s Garden, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds (their catalog is a work of art—just ignore the religious quotes that pop up now and then), Seed Savers Exchange, Fedco Seeds, Prairie Moon Nursery and Territorial Seed Company.
That’s it for now. Hang in there. Spring is really, seriously, surely on the way.
Well, here we are in the middle of January and what is normally an unspeakably cold month is worse this week due to what meteorologists are calling a “distorted polar vortex,” which has allowed Arctic air to spill all the way down to Florida. With air temperatures around -20°F plus wind chill making it feel like -50°F yesterday, I’ve had a few people email to ask whether our perennials here in Minnesota will survive.
I’ll give the answer I often give for any garden-related question: It depends. It helps that we have snow cover to keep soil temperatures from fluctuating a lot. And perennials rated for our Zone 4 climate should be okay down to an air temperature of -30°F (wind chill doesn’t matter). But if you put things in the ground late, as I did last year, they may not make it since they didn’t have much time to establish a decent root system. And if you didn’t water much, plants may be too drought stressed to survive.
It’s also hard to say how newer introductions will do. With so many new plants being rushed to market each year, plant trials aren’t as rigorous as they used to be. It’s possible that some of the perennials we’ve tried lately won’t be able to hack the extreme cold. And with that in mind, here is a short review of some of the new introductions I’ve tried in my gardens in the last few years. Of course, this is just my experience. Perhaps other gardeners are growing things that I’ve killed just fine. (If that’s you, please email and tell me your secrets.) And one other thing to note—I test plants in my garden for Proven Winners so there are a lot of plants from them on this list.
Rosa Oso Happy Smoothie ‘Zlesak Poly3’ PPAF
I can’t say enough great things about this rose. Bred by David Zlesak, a hort professor at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Oso Happy Smoothie has been in one of my backyard gardens for a couple of seasons now. As promised, it is a little over 3 feet tall, it was covered with dainty pink blooms all summer, has great form, no thorns and recovered nicely from being chomped on by rabbits last winter.
Hibiscus ‘Midnight Marvel’
My friend, Kathleen, bought this new hibiscus from Walters Gardens for each of us this summer and, so far, it has performed beautifully in both of our gardens—hers more than mine, though. ‘Midnight Marvel‘ didn’t yet reach its purported 48 inches tall, but it may next season, and the burgundy foliage topped with red blooms make the plant absolutely stunning.Read More»
Some of you might remember a post I wrote last year about the ethics of taking seeds from other people’s gardens. Sure, it’s hard to resist pinching a few seeds off of other people’s plants when you see something you just love and figure “they’ve got plenty to share, right?” But is that really okay? Is it stealing? What if they don’t want to share?
Haunted by these questions after reading a blog post about a gardener who got chased and yelled at by an angry homeowner after taking a few seeds that had fallen on the SIDEWALK, I decided to try hard not to take seeds without asking. (I just can’t say never, but mostly never I can do.) Anyway, I also decided to figure out a way to share seeds with other gardeners, and I’m happy to say that the Little Free Seed Bank I dreamed of has been up and running for over a month. Here it is!
This summer, my husband Mike and I installed one of those Little Free Library boxes on our boulevard. If you haven’t heard of these libraries, they’re popping up all over the country and they’re a great way to share books with neighbors. Our library has been busy ever since we put it up with people of all ages stopping by to take a book or leave a book.
While both shelves will normally be for books, we’ve reserved the top shelf of our library for seed sharing during the spring and fall. So far, available seeds include: angelica, black-eyed Susan, anise hyssop, zinnias, cleome, ‘Painted Lady’ heirloom sweet peas (love these), garlic chives and blue delphinium. Individual seed types are packaged in large envelopes and gardeners can put the seeds they would like into small coin envelopes or little plastic bags that were donated by a kind neighbor. Pencils are also on the shelf so people can label the envelopes before they forget what’s inside—I know I would. (Those who take the plastic bags will need to have good memories.)
Lots of gardeners have stopped by to take seeds in the last few weeks. I’m hoping interest in the Little Seed Bank will grow over time and soon we’ll have more seeds to share than we know what to do with. If you live in town and would like to drop off or pick up some seeds, email me (meleah at everydaygardener.com) and I’ll give you directions. The more the merrier!
As a garden writer, I read a lot of gardening blogs and articles by other writers and landscape designers and I have to say, I’m finding them increasingly annoying and depressing. So much judgment and negativity—who died and made us the arbiters of all things right and tasteful?
Without naming the writer and being a jerk when I’m trying to write about why it’s important to not be a jerk, let me just say that recently I read a blog post that pushed me over the edge. It was a short piece, posted by a writer who had a day off so she rented a bike in a nearby town and peddled around looking at gardens.
It was a beautiful blue-sky day, but she really couldn’t enjoy it because most of the homes she biked past were landscaped with predictable perennials, particularly KnockOut® roses and catmint (Nepeta). The fact that most of the roses were RED only accentuated the humdrum nature of the plants in her mind, and she posted a few pictures to bolster her point with “sophisticated” readers like us. Ugh. How can this sort of thing be helpful to anyone?
Sure, experienced gardeners or those with the good fortune to have an impermeable force field of self-esteem might read snobby comments like that and think: “To hell with her, I love my KnockOut roses.” But for many mortals trying to garden, it’s no fun to read something written by someone who is supposedly in the know that basically says you have bad taste if you plant certain things (or allow them to be planted by a landscaper) and you ought to know better. This kind of senseless garden bullying isn’t helpful or inspiring and needs to stop.
A Matter of Taste
I will confess right now that I am guilty of garden snobbery. I have written disparaging things about annual geraniums, dusty miller and other plants I don’t like. Thinking about it now, I can’t imagine how I ever thought that might be useful to anyone. Please accept my sincere apology for behaving like such a self-important turd.
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that garden writers should only write nice things about plants. On the contrary, plants that perform poorly are absolutely fair game. It’s our job to spill the beans on crappy plants that don’t bloom well, fail to be as hardy as advertised or are riddled with diseases they’re supposed to be able to resist. And there’s nothing wrong with pointing out that certain plants are being used an awful lot and suggesting alternatives. That’s information that people can use. But slamming plants based on personal preference, or nattering on about how sophisticated gardeners would never have this or that “over-planted” plant in their gardens, is on par with shaming high school classmates over their choice of jeans.
Let’s face it. Whether you’re a professional or a novice, when it comes right down to it, plant picks and gardening styles are always about personal taste. Like most gardeners, I plant what I like, and what is given to me and what I find by the side of the road with a “Free” sign on it. I know and respect many local landscape designers, and I do follow some of their advice, but I don’t want to hire one of them to reimagine my yard for me. Then, I would be living with their taste, not mine. I like the crowded, overgrown gardens I have imagined for myself and I ignore the finger-waggers who question my taste level. You should too.
A slightly different version of this post appeared recently in Northern Gardener magazine.
As you might have already guessed from the infrequency of my posts lately, the hardest thing about being a garden blogger is actually sitting down to write something in the summer. Winter is no problem. If you’re not into winter sports (and I am most definitely not) there’s nothing else to do here in Minnesota when it’s crazy-ass cold. But during our reasonably nice five months of each year, it’s hard not to spend every extra moment outdoors. Lately, I’ve been going to every garden tour I can find, large and small, and I’ve seen some beautiful, odd, innovative, lovingly tended and over-the-top landscapes. So I thought I’d share some photos. Here goes:
This year’s Tangletown Garden Tour, hosted by local Tangletown Gardens, included a stop at co-owner Scott Endres’ house, which showcased his design sensibilities and penchant for using unusual and colorful plants in fun and elegant ways.
The front porch—
And now the backyard—
Okay, so this wasn’t on any tour. But my friend Kathleen and I saw it on the way to the tour, so here it is. Wow!
A few pretty plant combos.
Photos just can’t do justice to a garden we saw in Highland Park. The couple has been gardening on four city lots for more than 40 years and their gardens are clearly tended with loving care. Vegetables, perennials, a formal area with boxwood hedges and a gorgeous wisteria archway—it was breathtaking.