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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.

June 20, 2010 — Today’s Way: I’ve talked about lawns and their maintenance demands before in this blog, and that’s because the American Quest For The Perfect Lawn represents a huge chunk of the pollution pie.  Inefficient engines on lawn mowers, leaf blowers and weed whackers, extravagant water usage, heavy chemicals in the form of fertilizer and indiscriminate pesticides are just some of the offenders contributing to greenhouse emissions, air pollution, human health problems from chemical exposure and the killing off of beneficial birds and bugs, not to mention global warming.   Aside from not having a lawn at all, there are many clever and more Earth-responsible lawn-care alternatives that are every bit as effective as conventional methods.

One excellent alternative to the use of pesticides is beneficial nematodes.  Nematodes are microscopic, parasitic worms which live in almost any kind of soil and climate, and feed on grubs and other larvae that live underground for at least part of the life cycle of common insect pests, such as Japanese beetles, gnats, weevils and fleas, yet are completely harmless to humans, animals and plants.  There can be thousands of nematodes of many varieties in just one handful of soil, but you can fortify your yard with specific species of nematodes which are known to effectively control specific species of other insects, as well as some types of fungi.

Beneficial nematodes can be purchased in packets which can be stored in a refrigerator until you’re ready to distribute them.  Then, simply moisten the nematodes with water and spread over your lawn (or garden) with a watering can or sprayer.  You can purchase beneficial nematodes at your local big box home improvement store, or order them online, such as this site.

May 24, 2009 –Today’s Way: Okay, all you lawn people.  Listen up.  I know you know we’ve all been sold a bill of goods by the grass seed and weed chemical industry, but we’re intelligent individuals with the ability to think critically and independently, right?  We know that the commercials for weed & feed products showing perfect, exquisitely trim and seductively luscious green carpets, sprawling before us and lit with a brilliant sunset is an impossible dream.  They’re just setting us up for failure, with these unattainable ideas.  I mean, those lawns are not real.  We know better.  And still, there we are, every other day from thaw to frost, going over our lawns with a fine tooth comb, nit-picking and assessing, armed with hazardous chemical spray guns, shooting anything resembling a dandelion and taking names later.  We mow it.  A lot.  We water it.  A lot.  We fret over it.  We fertilize it.  We cover it with pesticides and herbicides, we trim it, we edge it and we look at it.  But how much time do we actually spend enjoying it?  We certainly can’t let the kids play on it, what with all the chemical heat it’s packing.  Nevermind that there are no birds or natural wildlife to speak of, because they’re probably dead.  But by-gum, there’s a lawn out there, and it’s green.  And, um.  Straight.  And…green?

My question is, why are we Americans striving for a perfect lawn in the first place?  Where in nature do we see anything resembling the ideal that we so mindlessly chase?  Why, especially, are people who live in the desert, mind you, spending hundreds of dollars and wasting thousands of gallons of fresh drinking water just to have a perfect patch of green surrounding them?  It’s silly, when you really sit down and think about it.  And it’s also a big environmental problem.  The mowers and all their polluting emissions, not to mention the constant noise.  The chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides which, yes, kill grubs but they also indiscriminately kill the beneficial butterflies and bees and birds as well.  All of those chemicals have to go somewhere, and that’s directly into our ground water, our lakes, streams, rivers and, eventually, into the oceans.  And for what?  Where in the world did we get this impossible ideal in the first place?

It is believed that short grasses first came to be favored by early settlers due to their ability to see potential enemies from afar.  Others believe it was the influence of the great British estates and their manicured lawns and gardens which well-to-do early Americans were attempting to mimic, and then the idea spread to the middle class and the working class and so on…and soon the sprawling green carpet of the estate was shrunk down and applied to every little postage stamp sized patch in the country.  For whatever reason, we Americans have embraced the lawn, and all of the laborious maintenance that comes with it.

Well, I’m here to stand up and declare my freedom from the lawn.  We’ve begun eliminating our grass, one island of garden at a time.  We have the wildflower meadow area (which is just what popped up naturally when we stopped mowing on the Northern side of our property and it’s quite pretty), we have the woodland gardens with delicate native wild geranium, periwinkle and lily of the valley mingling with mushrooms, ferns and wild leeks.  We have the shade garden, where columbines and bleeding hearts glow their brillant colors out from under the cool shelter of trees.  We have the herb garden.  We have the vegetable garden.  And soon we’ll have more.  Our goal is to eliminate as much lawn from our nearly two acres as possible, so that mowing will be a cinch (instead of a day-long project requiring a lawn tractor and several tall glasses of mint iced tea a couple of times per week).  And instead of a lawn—which, let’s face it, is a greedy mistress who just takes and takes—we are surrounding ourselves with beauty and reaping the bounty, in the form of fresh cut flowers, cheerful color, brilliant butterflies, singing birds, leaping bunnies and graceful deer, not to mention fragrant herbs and the juiciest of fresh vegetables.  Most importantly, we’ll no longer be slaves to the call of the machines—the buzz and roar of all those lawn mowers and trimmers and blowers that begins at dawn every weekend, and carried out by the weekend warriors.  And my yard will be one less polluting patch in a greener (not grassier) world.

Care to come along?

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.

For more mulching information, visit this site, or this one.  Your plants will thank you very mulch!

May 2, 2009–Today’s Way: It really amazes me when I see people—intelligent people—throwing food waste into a plastic bag of garbage, and then those same, intelligent, wonderful people go to the gardening store and purchase compost by the bag for their flowers or gardens.  I think that composting is still a mystery or seems too complicated or messy to a lot of folks, even though the basic principles are very, very simple:  put food waste into a pile (or bin) and it will break down into compost—that rich, nutrient-filled humus that fertilizes and enriches the soil that new plants grow in.  That’s it, really.  There are many overly-engineered composting products and gimmicky tricks to “turbo boost” the composting process, and a lot of convoluted composting “rules”  and “recipes” that are, in my opinion, unnecessary.  Yes, there are certain things to watch out for, but for the most part, stuff will break down eventually, regardless of your mix of “dry” to “wet” ingredients, or the order in which you put them.  Now, I admit that composting is decidedly easier when you have a large yard like ours, but that’s no excuse.  There are some very clever compact composters designed specifically for small or urban spaces which are good at containing any smells (a properly operating compost pile usually does not stink excessively, or barely at all) and which turn your banana peels, onion skins, grass clippings, leaves, celery trimmings, tea bags, coffee grinds and yes, even that moldy tomato soup you forgot in the back of the fridge, into glorious, nutritious compost for your yard, garden, trees, shrubs or house plants.  Some models are upright, some models have a cool spinning handle so you can pretend you’re running bingo night at the local church, some models are even self-turning and fit beneath a cabinet right in your kitchen (though I find the need for electricity to heat and turn your compost sort of an ironic case of defeating the purpose).  The point is, where’s there’s food waste, there’s a way to compost it.

Which, when you think about it, is infinitely better than throwing all of that valuable food and plant matter into a landfill, where there is no air for even biodegradable, organic substances to break down (or at least, not nearly as quickly or in the same way as it would, were it in a compost heap), and where it is mixed in with all manner of other waste which renders it useless and only contributes to the growing mountains of trash rising up on the perimeter of your local urban center.  The other problem is that, as that food waste breaks down anaerobically in a landfill, it releases methane gas which is highly explosive and contributes to greenhouse gases, which are resulting in global warming.  When food waste and plant matter is composted, however, it is an oxygen-rich, aerobic process which does not create methane gas, and leaves behind only black gold for your shrubs.  Or plants.  Or whatever other green things you’d like to enrich.

Here’s a great site devoted entirely to selling composting products and with a lot of helpful information on composting, large and small.

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.

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