You know me: I often write about the prevalence of bad gardening advice so, hey, here I go again. This time, let’s talk about how often we gardeners hear stuff that’s either dangerous, or stupid or both. Got a tree stump you need to remove? “Pour gasoline on it,” I’ve heard more than one gardener advise. PLEASE don’t do that. Need to get rid of moles? “Stuff Juicy Fruit chewing gum in their holes,” advise ill-informed people who believe the story that the gum, lord knows how many sticks, will cause intestinal blockage. It won’t, but even if it did, don’t do this either.
And here’s another thing you ought not do—use mothballs outdoors. (Honestly, though, who wants to wear sweaters and use blankets that smell like mothballs either?) Anyway, I have no idea who first started running about telling gardeners that mothballs are great for curtailing outdoor pest problems, but the strategy has been around a long time and is still going strong, according to my latest Google search. The trouble is, though it does work, it’s a federal offense to use mothballs for an off-label reason such as animal control. And there are a lot of good reasons for that.
Regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, mothballs are pesticides capable of harming all living things, including children and pets who may mistakenly eat them thinking they’re some kind of treat. Mothballs are also harmful to the environment because, as they deteriorate, they contaminate groundwater, soil and plants (the pesticides in mothballs bind to soil and are taken up by plants).
Labeled for use to kill moths and other pests that destroy fabric, mothballs are supposed to be used only in airtight containers. That’s because the vapor from their active ingredient, usually naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene , is toxic. As the fumes build up inside a closed container, the pesticide reaches a level that kills the moths.
When we smell the terrible stink of mothballs, however, we are the ones breathing in the pesticide fumes. And those fumes can affect our health in truly sucky ways, depending on which active ingredient the mothballs contain. Adults exposed to naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene vapors for short periods, for example, may experience nausea, dizziness, headaches and/or vomiting. Longer exposure has been linked to the development of hemolytic anemia, as well as kidney and liver damage. Naphthalene, according to the World Health Organization, may also cause cancer.
Young children exposed to mothballs containing either pesticide can develop fever, diarrhea and abdominal pain, especially if they have eaten them. Dogs who ingest naphthalene mothballs may become lethargic or experience diarrhea or tremors. Paradichlorobenzene mothballs have been linked to kidney and liver damage in pets.
If you want to learn more about the health effects of mothballs, go to the National Pesticide Information Center’s website.
It’s nice when something gross turns out to be useful (like how sheep sweat, lanolin, makes chewing gum softer). So I’m happy to report, in answer to a reader’s question some time ago, that, yes, Eurasian watermilfoil harvested from area lakes can be used in helpful ways, including as a soil amendment, fertilizer and even mulch.
First, though, if you’re not sure what Eurasian milfoil is, it’s that stringy, slimy plant that those big, blue boat harvesters remove from the lakes every summer. First detected in Minnesota in Lake Minnetonka in 1987, it is an invasive aquatic species that has spread to waterways across the state. The plant produces thick mats on the surface of the water and tangled stems and masses below, making it difficult, if not impossible, to swim and boat enjoyably. It can also disturb aquatic ecosystems by displacing native aquatic plants.
Acres of watermilfoil are removed from Minneapolis’ Chain of Lakes annually by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s mechanical harvesters. The machines usually cut off the top 3 to 4 feel of the plant, which can grow up to 15-feet long (super spooky to swim through). If you walk the paths around the lakes, you’ve probably seen (and smelled) piles of it onshore or at the boat launch.
Too Much Trash
Rachael Crabb, the Park Board’s water resources supervisor, says that once the milfoil is harvested, it’s dumped in small piles in a designated spot to dry out. Though terribly unwieldy when wet, milfoil is much easier to handle once it shrinks and composts down a bit. Until recently, the Park Board stored drying milfoil at a site at Fort Snelling. This worked well for the forestry division because whenever they needed to add organic matter to a soil mix, they could just take some from the piles.
The only problem, says Crabb, was—trash. In the lakes, all of that tangled milfoil acts like a magnet for all manner of garbage that winds up in the water in one way or another. Trying to separate the trash from the drying piles was time consuming and inefficient. So, last summer, the Park Board started looking at other options and found that the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum was happy to take the milfoil off their hands. “It’s a trek out there, but it’s the best option we have right now,” Crabb explains, adding that the first delivery is scheduled for later this year.
Soil Building and Mulching
As it happens, the arboretum has been using milfoil from the Lake Minnetonka Water Conservation District as a soil amendment for about a decade. “After it dries and turns into a nice compost, we usually use a manure spreader to put it on the research fields in November,” Peter Moe, director of operations and research, told me. In addition to supplying a bit of nitrogen, the milfoil makes a good amendment because the organic matter helps loosen the arboretum’s clay soil, improving its water-holding capacity and fertility.
In addition to being a good source of free organic matter, Moe says milfoil harvested from area lakes is desirable because it doesn’t have any weed seeds in it. “It’s such a valuable material, even if there is some trash to deal with, we would be very happy to have whatever the Park Board delivers,” he explains. “Our soils here in Carver County are very difficult to plant in if you don’t have enough organic matter, especially in the spring.”
It’s not a pretty sight, but Eurasian milfoil can be used as garden mulch (if you don’t mind the fishy smell as it dries). While researching this story, I talked with several gardeners who’ve tried it successfully. But here’s the thing, because it is an invasive species, it’s not a good idea for all of us to go running down to the lake to collect Eurasian milfoil for our gardens. Seeds and fragments could easily end up in waterways and spread the problem. In fact, Crabb pointed out that the interconnected storm sewer network could even transport milfoil to lakes that aren’t yet infested with it.
While it would of course have been best to keep Eurasian milfoil out of our waters, now that it’s here, it has proven to offer a few benefits. Even where there are thick milfoil mats on the surface of the lake, there are areas where native plants with low light requirements can grow intermixed with the milfoil stems below. Eurasian milfoil also helps make lakes clearer by keeping sediment settled out and using up dissolved phosphorous that would otherwise become food for algae.
And although native plant communities are always preferable to an abundance of Eurasian milfoil, thick milfoil growth can provide good habitat for young fish, as well as protection from large predators. “Milfoil has a more difficult time dominating where a diverse community of native aquatic plants is growing,” says Crabb, who, as part of her job, does aquatic plant surveys of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board lakes. “We found 10 or 15 native species in Lake Calhoun a couple of years ago, so there are still a few areas in the lakes where native plants have been able to thrive, which is really amazing and a good sign that the lake is healthy even though we have Eurasian Milfoil,” she says.
It’s spring in Minnesota and that means male frogs and toads are out singing sweet songs to all the ladies. My husband Mike and I were fortunate enough to come upon a wetland filled with song the other day while on a walk with our dog, Lily. We recorded what we heard and posted it so you can enjoy it too.
Ever wonder why your nose runs like crazy when it’s really cold outside? My husband Mike asked me if I knew why in the heck this happens just the other day. We were walking our dog, Lily, who was tired of being patient while we waited for temps to rise into at least the low teens. As expected, we were just a few steps down the sidewalk when our noses turned into leaking faucets. (Tip: always buy washable winter gloves.)
I had no idea why noses run in the cold, and I forgot to look it up to see if I could find out. But last night I was reading Do Sparrows Like Bach?: The Strange and Wonderful Things That Are Discovered When Scientists Break Free, and there was the answer. There is no answer. Scientists don’t quite know what causes “cold-induced rhinitis,” which is what doctors call faucet nose. According to the book, which was put out by New Scientist magazine, researchers suspect that the autonomic nervous system may be involved.
Here’s an interesting tidbit on how to stop the faucet from a chapter in the book called “The Yuck Factor”: “Nerves belonging to the autonomic nervous system, some of which connect to the nasal glands, use a neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine. Fortunately, there is a quick fix.” That fix, the book goes on to explain, is two squirts of ipratropium bromide, an inhibitor of acetylcholine, in each nostril 45 minutes before heading out into the cold or before eating spicy food.
What is this miracle product? I wondered. So I did a quick Google search and found that doctors often prescribe ipratropium bromide inhalers for allergy sufferers and people with more serious issues like asthma, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Inhalers, which are sold under a variety of trade names, can be purchased inexpensively as generics. But first, I’d be inclined to weigh the pro of not having snot on my mittens against the cons, which include this list of common side effects: dry mouth, cough, headache, nausea, dizziness and difficulty breathing.
Heck, snot’s not so bad, right?
Many, many thanks to everyone who took the time to send kind notes and words of wisdom after reading my last blog post about my broken teeth. I’ve already put some of your suggestions into practice and, I have to say, I’m feeling a little bit more relaxed already. In fact, I got the idea for this post the other day while sipping tea and looking out the window at the heaps of snow and ice in our backyard rather than running all around doing whatever it is I do all the time.
Yes, fellow gardeners, as the magazines tell us, tis the season for enjoying all that “winter interest” we’ve created by following advice to plant things like colorful red-twigged dogwoods and unusual evergreens in a landscape bedazzled with sturdy structures and planters overflowing with cute pinecones and twigs and whatnot. Everything looks so lovely in those glossy photo spreads. But we who garden in parts of the country where actual snow falls, not just a fairy dusting but, say, 10 inches or so, fairly often, followed by icy rain and slush, know the truth about winter interest. In the absence of photo stylists, props and camera crews, it simply doesn’t exist.
Don’t get me wrong; snowy gardens are beautiful, just not in the way magazines portray them. But let’s pretend for a minute that there is a magazine willing to run a winter story that tells it like it is. Articles could offer tips on things like how to spread fresh snow around the yard to obscure all those frozen yellow dog pee circles. A short sidebar might be: “3 Strategies For Chipping Frozen Poo From Snowbanks.” I’m sure a lot of us could submit photos that readers could relate to. Here are some of mine, and I’ve even written captions.
Have you got some “winter interest” photos to share? If so, please email them to me and I’ll post them!
Ever wonder why in the world we carve pumpkins for Halloween? I did, so I went looking for the story and here is the abbreviated version. We have European immigrants to thank for bringing Halloween to America. Back home, they carved scary faces into turnips, potatoes and gourds, which they lit with candles or just placed in windows and doorways to keep malevolent spirits at bay during “All Hallows Eve.”
The only trouble was, those vegetables were scarce when they arrived here in the mid 19th century, so those clever new Americans (and Canadians) carved the most plentiful, practical thing they could find: pumpkins. Clearly, we should all be glad for this change. But don’t you want to know what it’s like to try carving a turnip o’ lantern? I mean, turnips are frightening enough with their lumps and bumps and scratchy tufts of weird hairs. It can’t take too much carving to turn them into something downright hell-raising, right?
I’ve got to try it. And if you’d like to too, Makezine has a great how-to piece that takes you through every step. You’ll find that here. It was written by Diane Gilleland, the writer behind the fun CraftyPod blog and podcast in which she teaches people how to make all kinds of stuff.