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June 22, 2010 — Today’s Way: Okay, I have a very liberal attitude toward wildlife and even insects. I feel that we are all here for a reason, and that we should be able to share this planet as part of a harmonized ecosystem. I do not kill spiders in my house. Instead, I enter them into them into the Witness Relocation Program, and move them safely outdoors. I have been known to relocate many creatures and critters that most other people would think nothing of dispatching, but sometimes, a line is drawn and preemptive action must be taken.
For instance, in the case of yellow jackets building their nest in the gas tank door of my car. Usually, I’d wait until it’s cool and they’re lethargic enough to knock the nest away with a stick, but in the summer, they stay too active to mess with. Rather than using a chemical insecticide sprayer, I have discovered a totally safe and effective alternative. Dish detergent and water. Yup, that’s it. Add about 1 part ordinary liquid dish detergent (or better yet, a nice organic castile liquid soap) to about 10 parts ordinary tap water, mix well, and put into a bottle with a sprayer that can be adjusted to a fine stream. Alternatively, a squirt gun works, too. Good aim is necessary.
My technique follows thusly: Get within a safe but accurate shooting distance, take aim, and fire. Then run away.
Although dish soap is safe for us, it sticks to the insects and disrupts the permeable membranes of their respiratory systems located on the shells of their bodies, killing them quickly. I should point out that this is a very concentrated formula to ensure that dangerous stinging insects are disabled immediately, but it could burn plants if your aim is not on target.
If you want to eliminate other soft bodied pest insects, such as aphids, spider mites, white flies or mealybugs in your garden plants, you will want to use a higher dilution of about 5 tablespoons liquid soap or detergent per gallon of water, and cover the entire plant with the broad mist of the sprayer. This will kill the offending bugs and their eggs. However, once the soap solution dries out or if it is rinsed away by rain, you may need to reapply once or twice to ensure total annihilation. Be sure to rinse the entire plant after about 24 hours. This solution will keep indefinitely, and it is much cheaper and safer for both our health and the health of our planet than the chemical alternatives.
May 3, 2009–Today’s Way: If you garden, or even if you take a rudimentary interest in your yard, you might want to consider the labor and water saving benefits of mulching. Mulches such as wood chips and bark not only make an attractive complement to the flowers or foliage above them, but they are a natural weed control, enrich the soil as they break down over time, encourage beneficial earthworms and other soil amending insects and of course, mulches conserve water by trapping moisture that would otherwise evaporate quickly in hot, sunny weather. Mulching is a great idea for trees, shrubs, flower beds and even vegetable gardens. You can make your own mulch from grass clippings, or depending on where you live, you may even have access to exotic mulches made from coconut fiber, buckwheat hulls or pine needles, though you must be careful with pine because it acidifies the soil (which some plants love, but others do not). Gravel works as a mulch as well, though it does not break down over time the way that organic matter does. However, it’s a great water conservation option for drought-prone areas.
And if it’s not just about keeping up appearances, you can mulch with ordinary materials like newspaper and cardboard–we like to use both in our vegetable garden between plots and rows to keep weeds down and retain moisture. Newspaper and cardboard naturally break down into compost over time, but in the meantime, it also helps to keep our feet drier and cleaner in the garden.
May 1, 2009–Today’s Way: Water is our most precious natural resource and we cannot live without it. Luckily, there are lots of things we can do to conserve and protect our fresh water, and we all should, whether you live in the parched desert or the abundant Great Lakes. One really simple one is to save the water you use to boil or steam vegetables with, and then water your house or garden plants (or trees, or shrubs) with it once it’s cooled. The nutrients in the form of vitamins and minerals that were released into the water from boiling the vegetables will in turn nourish other plants and fortify the soil, instead of simply going down the drain.
April 11, 2009–Today’s Way: Mid-March is when I start dreaming of my garden…it’s when the weather first tantalizes us Michiganders with the scent of moist earth after the thaw, and actual green stuff begins to ever-so-slowly return. By April, it’s time to make choices about what I want to grow in my garden, and I pore over the seed catalogs, imagining the scent of my lavender plants as I brush past them, or ripe, juicy, swollen, red tomatoes hanging low on the vine. Even though we now have a couple of acres, my first garden was on the little concrete patio of an apartment many years ago. I had snapdragons and lupines, pansies, lavender, thyme, sage, oregano, rosemary, chives and even a cherry tomato plant. I just planted my little seeds and seedlings into containers and they grew, despite the small space. Running my own business has certainly cut into my gardening time, but after a couple of years without one, I realized just how much richness it brings to my life, and I refuse to live without a garden again. On a recent trip to Italy, I was struck not only by the beauty of the buildings and the art and the landscape, but also that, everywhere I looked, there were gardens. Big gardens, little ones, gardens rolling down hillsides, tiny gardens of fresh tomatoes and eggplants and herbs spilling over apartment balconies. The Italians know the great freedom that comes with walking outside into your own yard (or patio, or windowsill) and harvesting the fruits of simple labors…it costs so little time and effort in relation to the plentiful bounty and joy it brings. If you’ve been wanting to start a garden but keep letting year after year slip by because of lack of space or time, make this the year you do it. Just start small–don’t overwhelm yourself with more than you can really enjoy. You can start a few little seeds in trays indoors as long as you have a bright window, then plant them in containers on a patio or porch. Watching a plant sprout from a tiny seed is extremely satisfying, and highly motivating. The First Lady broke new ground this spring by starting an organic vegetable garden on the White House grounds, and you can, too. If we all grew even a few of our own vegetables and herbs, we would save incredible amounts of energy simply because those items are not being transported (and often refrigerated) by truck from 10 states away to sit on a grocery store’s shelves before finding their way to our dinner plate. We would also be saving ourselves from the tons and tons of pollutants and heavy chemicals that are released into our water and soil and air from the heavy industrial farming where most of our food is produced. The cost of growing your own food is mere pennies on the dollar when you start from seeds, or even buying organic seedlings. The greatest benefit, though, is biting into that crisp, juicy snowpea, or chopping green, savory chives to flavor your soup, or sinking your teeth into that first sun-warmed tomato right off the vine.
Whether you garden big or you garden small, plant some seeds for change today. In fact, Seeds of Change is one of my personal favorite suppliers of organic seeds, as well as Seed Savers, a non-profit organization specializing in the exchange of heirloom flowers and vegetables for every growing zone.
April 6, 2009–Today’s Way: April showers bring August flowers; when you have a rain barrel, that is! The world’s most precious resource, fresh water, is still plentiful and free for many of us, yet every day, we watch it go literally down the drain. Whether you garden or not, a rain barrel is a great idea. Anyone with a lawn knows how the dog days of summer make greenery—well, brownery—as you watch your summer water bill rise in relation to the mercury. Happily, you can have a barrel installed in just one day with minimal tools and modifications…it’s best if you can locate and repurpose old industrial barrels to recycle (just be sure its former purpose was not to hold toxic chemicals), but you can find new, ready-to-install barrels at the big box home improvement stores as well. As water rolls off of the large surface areas of roofs (either the house, the shed, the garage or the barn), it is collected in gutters and, with just a minor rechanneling of a down spout, right into your rain barrel, to which you can attach a hose or spout in order to access the water when you need it later. Gravity does all the work for you! Whether you live in the Great Lakes or the Arizona desert, a rain barrel just makes good sense. Your rain barrel will save you lots of green, while keeping your greenery lush and healthy–and of course, conserving and preserving our precious water as well.
You can find free instructions and plans for rain barrels all over the web, including here.