Reincarnation For Plastic Plant Pots

Plant pots offer years of useful service

Zero Waste Says Reduce, Re-use, Recycle

This weekend we held an Ice Cream Social at the Senior Center. Sadly, the day was rainy and cold but happily, lots of people showed up anyway, some with youngsters in tow. I was sitting near the door with a friend who was facilitating the trash/compost/recycle bins. She had set up clever signs with clothespins to hold specific examples of what could and could not be recycled at this specific event. The display was charming and very clear yet she had to keep jumping up to guide people’s decision making. I wondered if she really needed to be so hands-on, but as I watched the interplay, it was startling to see how many people ignored the large, obvious signs attached to the various bins and just tossed without looking.

It was especially heartening to notice that the kids, from little ones to highschool students, all took a moment to look or ask for help deciding what was recyclable and what was trash. Moms were also careful to comply, and so were most of the older women. Sorry, guys, but men were definitely less apt to pay attention to where they tossed what or even look at the signs. Sigh. My friend belongs to Zero Waste, a movement that began in the mid 1980s , when Bea Johnson, living in Berkeley, where a recycling business called Urban Ore had begun the salvage-and-reuse movement that morphed into Total Recyling, a credo that spread to various other countries without really catching on in the US. In the early 2000s, Bea Johnson, a French Canadian woman living in Berkeley, started her blog, Zero Waste Home, and kicked off a domestic movement largely embraced by moms and kids (clearly still a thing!).

What Does That Even Mean?

Zero Waste may not be truly achievable, but we can all take steps to reduce our impact on this weary world. The five main ideas are: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Rot and Recycle. Refuse is about not buying a bunch of stuff we don’t really need, rejecting items that are unsustainably made and/or with excessive packaging, and refusing to buy fast fashion toss-away clothing and single use plastics, among other things.

Reduce asks us to be creative and tireless in creating less waste in our households and lifestyles, from eliminating unnecessary purchases to consolidating errands and making fewer car trips and limiting discretionary travel. It also includes things like replacing old lightbulbs with LEDs and unplugging devices and chargers when not in use, etc.

“Waste is man-made. Nature produces no waste; whatever is consumed is returned to the whole in a reusable form. Man fails to utilize appropriately the bounty of nature.”
George Washington Carver, botanist and inventor

Reuse is one of my favorites, including make-and-mend techniques like sewing on a button instead of tossing out a shirt, sharptening knives, mending broken furniture, and reinventing outdated or outgrown clothing, and upcycling, finding new uses for what would otherwise become trash.

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”
Annoying New England mantra (I love it)

Rot is all about composting, either making it yourself or using whatever local green waste recycling option is available to you. Every gardener knows the value of compost and many communities are also providing more and better green waste recycling options. If yours doesn’t, try rounding up a bunch of gardeners and putting some pressure on your local officials.

Recycle is at the bottom of the list because at this point, most North American communities have a long way to go to achieve significant recycling efforts. In my region, recycling rules change often, which can be very confusing, but they aren’t arbitrary, they’re based on what materials can actually be reused, which depends on local/regional technology. Be aware that many items, especially food packaging and products in single use plastics, that claim to be recyclable are actually not. That’s because lots of companies practice “greenwashing”, pretending to be much greener than they are and offering vague and unsubstantiated claims for redemptive practices that are intended to offset their continue use of plastics.

Nursery Pots Abound

Every spring, we gardeners go wild, bringing home carloads of lovely plants and finding space for them. Though the planting is pleasant, dealing with empty plant pots can be challenging, especially since most nursery plastics are not recyclable in many communities. Fortunately, there are quite a few good ways to put them back into use and keep them out of the garbage stream. As-is uses abound, from twine holders and button sorters to hanging planters for homegrown green walls. I keep a pair of round quart pots around for spreading baking soda on mossy walkways (stack two pots of similar size so the bottom holes don’t quite line up. Fill with baking soda and shake over the moss to get nice, even coverage).

Since I’m involved with many plant projects, I try to keep a few hundred 4-inchers around. That way, I can pass them along with packets of seeds when inviting both kids and adults to help with keeping local play parks and other public places full of edibles and flowers. Early in the year, I visit each group, explain the project in detail, then ask for their help in growing seedlings and planting them in public places. Such groups might include 4-H, scouts, school classes, garden clubs, the Senior Center, or the local affordable housing community. When planting time rolls around, arrange for a planting session in a park, at the library, the new community housing site, or wherever the need is.

Large scale projects can result in a plethora of pots in many sizes, none of which are recyclable. If clean and sorted according to color, type and size, some nurseries will take back 1- and 2-gallon pots, though more often they’ll accept 3- and 5-gallon pots and tree pots. Nursery flats are also happily received at most nurseries, since they generally pay the growers a fee for them. This can be as much as a dollar per flat, so do your local nursery a kindness and return any plastic or wooden flats you may find in the shed. (Clean them out first, please.) Local specialty nursery plant growers may be interested in reusing 4-inchers, quarts, and 1- and 2-gallon pots, especially in early spring.

I often take a bag filled with clean, sorted pots to the local farmer’s market where some venders are happy to take them. Garden clubs, Master Gardener groups, and grassroots nonprofits such as land trusts and native plant societies often run seasonal plant sales as fund raisers and willingly take clean pots. If you finally run out of options, take your (clean, sorted) pots to the nearest Lowe’s and ask where they keep their empties. In my area, local Lowe’s stores have a big outdoor swap bin where gardeners can leave and take home plastic pots. If yours doesn’t, ask if they might consider starting such a service. I’m told by store staff that the pots come and go quickly and only broken ones end up being tossed. Onward, right?

Posted in composting, Gardening With Children, Health & Wellbeing, Planting & Transplanting, Recycling Nursery Plastics, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Teaching Gardening | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Join The No Mow May Movement

Pollinators love a lively lawn

Stop Mowing So Much And Let The Lawn Come To Life

If the cold wet spring has kept you from lawn mowing, that’s great news. Bee City USA would like us to observe the month of May as a No Mow time, allowing common lawn inhabitants to bloom freely, getting early pollinators off to a strong start. In Europe and the US, lush green lawns have long been a symbol of wealth; those who could afford the wasted acreage and the paid labor needed to keep it pristine were clearly well to do. These days, keeping a lawn mown and weed free is more reflective of conventional cultural ideas about good citizenship (upright, orderly, hard working…). Anyone whose lawn is weedy is clearly a nogoodnik, a slob, or maybe even a subversive radical. No joke: there continue to be lawsuits about the right to maintain a lawn and garden according to their own taste, from growing vegetables in the front yard (horrors!) to having tapestry lawns, and not all cases are won by those who want to aid the natural world. No matter the root cause, the effects of lawn-itis are genuinely disastrous and this ecologically costly affectation needs reevaluation, STAT.

As human activities continue to devastate our beautiful planet, we gardeners have an opportunity to make a change that can have far reaching positive effects. Turning resource-wasteful lawns into planted areas, whether ornamental borders, native plant groves, or pollinator meadows, can potentially restore some 40 million acres to useful life in the US alone. That’s almost 2% of the entire country. Not impressed? Consider that lawns are essentially the largest irrigated crop in America, using obscene mounts of water. Lawns are also among the most heavily polluted areas, from mower fumes and electricity use to toxic weed-and-feed products, much of which end up polluting waterways. That’s because a mown lawn sheds water almost as effectively as a cement sidewalk. Really.

Promoting Pollinators Instead

The main no-mow benefit for pollinators is access to early spring blooms that flower despite inclement weather that may retard garden flowers (dandelions never quit!). Not mowing in May also allows us to enjoy spring bulbs we can plant liberally in our lawns, from snow crocus and snowdrops to early daffodils, anemones, aconites and more, all of which will also delight early pollinators. If their foliage gets mown before it ripens, the bulbs will stop blooming and eventually dwindle, but if allowed to brown off naturally, they can spread into sheets of early color that go dormant by late May. Of course, such bulbs can also be planted in pollinator meadows, which only get mown once a year in late January or early February (if at all).

Be A Healthy Lawn Booster

Some lawns do serve a purpose, but many of these purposes might be better served by other means. If the expanse of green is meant mainly to set off beds and border, swaths of ground covers can achieve the same end without needing to be fed and cut in half every week while providing some food and shelter for birds and beneficial insects. Where lawns are needed for active play space, rugged lawns of low-mow grasses don’t require the resources of a manicured, toxic lawn. Tapestry lawns that include pollinator friendly wildflowers need less water and no fertilizer. Pollinator meadows are a highly beneficial choice for lawns of any size, as a surprising number of tiny critters can be nurtured even in a very small yet natural area. Even allowing a few vegetables to bloom can support pollinators as well as encourage self sowing of heritage food crops.

Kale will prevail!

We can all also be activists, encouraging local schools, churches, parks and businesses to switch away from toxic lawns and overly manicured plantings to become pollinator friendly places. Often, the main obstacle to this idea is a lack of understanding of both the benefits and the transition process. That’s where gardeners come in; we can help organize classes and public programs about natural care and backyard habitat, offer help with hands-on workshops, give talk and demos at schools and parks, presenting Seattle’s Natural Lawn Care, a program that’s effective and easily adapted, resulting in healthy lawns that don’t need chemical boosts. We can meet with local golf course owners and introduce the Audubon Society’s excellent program for converting sterile, toxic golf courses into living environments where wildlife is nurtured while the human need to hit little balls is also met. One good talking point is that more natural courses are far more similar to the original courses along the rugged coast of Easter Scotland than today’s highly artificial ones, thus offering a more traditional game. Since over a million acres of our country are dedicated to golf courses, that’s a chance to make a significant positive impact one tee at a time.

Pollen Season Got You Sneezin’? Plant For Pollinators

If the heavy spring pollen season has you sneezing or feeling woolly headed, take a moment to thank your local pollinators that the effects aren’t even worse. One great reason to plant pollinator patches is to support their pollen removal and storage efforts. Every grain of pollen transferred or collected by a bee, a bug, a butterfly, a bird, a bat, is one less allergen for susceptible humans to deal with. If converting a large lawn seems daunting, one great way to get started is by transforming a useless lawn one strip or patch at a time. Cut strips of turf and compost them (stacked with green sides together is the fastest way to go). Cover the exposed soil with a few inches of compost and a layer of wood chips (not bark!). Dig only the holes you need for plants, and scatter seeds of wildflowers and native perennials.

If you aren’t familiar with native perennials, check out a few regional native plant ID books from the library and take them into the garden with you. As you get to know the weeds from the wild things, you can leave native volunteers in place or edit them if need be-not every fir sapling chooses the best place to grow! In sunny areas, sow Clarkia, California poppies, columbines, lupines, self-heal (Prunella) and Baby Blue Eyes. I love Poached Egg Plant (Limnanthes douglasii) and its kin, Meadowfoam (L. alba), both attractive to people as well as many native pollinators. Onward, right?


Posted in Annual Color, Birds In The Garden, Butterfly Gardens, Care & Feeding, Climate Change, Easy Care Perennials, Garden Design, Garden Prep, Gardening With Children, Health & Wellbeing, Native Plants, pests and pesticides, Plant Diversity, Planting & Transplanting, Pollination Gardens, Pollinators, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Teaching Gardening | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hummers & Butterflies Love Hardy Fuchsias

Hardy Fuchsias reviving after deep freezes

Coming Back After Cold

Where winter froze the bones of tender garden favorites, it’s always wise to wait a while before deciding if a beloved plant is truly toast. Judging by readers’ questions, hardy fuchsias were especially hard hit, notably those that were exposed to wind and/or morning sun (water in frozen plant cells tends to explode if thawed too quickly by direct sunlight after freezing nights, while plants that get direct sun later in the day and thaw more slowly generally survive and regrow from the roots, though top growth may be killed). This is one reason why we plant hardy fuchsias a couple of inches deeper in the ground than they were in the pot, as it takes soil longer than air to reach freezing temperatures, offering a bit more protection to the roots. Most of the hardiest fuchsias are upright shrubs that can take quite a bit of frost and still rebound from the base. If the roots are well established, new stems will shoot up and be producing blooms by mid summer. Indeed, many gardeners routinely prune back hardy fuchsias in mid to late spring to encourage sturdy new growth and avoid the twiggy tangles that can disfigure unpruned shrubs.

Hanging basket fuchsias are generally spillers and sprawlers that are less hardy than the upright types, and if they experienced the deep cold when their soil was bone dry, they’re probably history. If their pots or baskets were protected in a garage or sunporch and kept moderately moist during their hibernation, even the less-hardy fuchsias are likely to be showing some buds at the base of each stem, if not already leafing out. Bring the survivors out into the light, trim the dead stems back to an inch or so above the swelling buds, and keep their soil moist but not saturated. Top off the pots or baskets with an inch or two of compost mixed with garden soil, and give the recovering plants half-strength fertilizer every couple of weeks to help them replenish their top growth and form flowers. By mid to late June, start feeding at full strength and continue every two weeks until late September, when most of them will start to go dormant again.

Pollinators Love Fuchsias

When you pack your garden with fuchsias, as I do, you notice that though honeybees aren’t drawn to their dangling bells, quite a lot of pollinators do appreciate them (at least the single-blossom types: tightly packed double blooms are impenetrable by insects and even the hummingbirds tend to ignore them in favor of more accessible blooms). Both mason bees and bumblebees eagerly visit the earliest fuchsias to flower, along with hummingbirds, which probably have some sort of racial memory for these South American super nectar producers. The first fuchsias were introduced to Europe from the Dominican Republic in the late 17th century, and by the Victorian era there were hundreds of UK hybrids, from bitty miniatures to strapping, 10 foot high hedge plants. Most of the oldest garden favorites are forms of Fuchsia magellanica, hailing mainly from mountainous regions of Chile and Southern Argentina. These hybrids and selected forms range from the dainty cream and baby pink bobbles of Maiden’s Blush, on stems that can stretch 8-10 feet high and wide in mild winter areas, to the fiery little red-over-purple rockets of F.m. Thompsonii, a semi-evergreen, 3-5 foot shrub popular in English gardens since 1840.

My little garden is full of hardy fuchsias, especially compact forms that thrive in partial shade. There are quite a few tiny fuchsias, with teeny leaves and minute flowers, but since I’m gardening as much for the birds and bees as for my own pleasure, I focus mainly on garden forms that produce large, showy blossoms that bring in the hummingbirds. One of my favorite little ones is Tom Thumb, which gets 18-24 inches tall, with showy red skirts (tube and sepals) over purple underslips (petals). This extremely free flowering shrublet dates back to 1850 and was named to honor Charles Stratton, an American proportionate dwarf who toured extensively with P.T. Barnum’s celebrated circus, performing as Tom Thumb. Another sweet shortie, Lady Thumb, is a more recent hybrid (1966) and equally free flowering. She tops out around 18”, with carmine pink skirts over pink-veined, white petals. Both live happily in the narrow, shady bed atop our northern retaining wall, keeping the limited space cheerful with bright blossoms all summer long.

Long Bloomers & Lovely Leaves

Another among the longest bloomers is Lady Boothby, introduced in 1939 and named for the first president of the British Fuchsia Society (who was hand picked by Queen Mary). This compact, vigorous shrub gets about 3 feet high, with ember red tube and sepals over smoky, dark purple petals. The profuse flowers attract numerous pollinators, including moths, butterflies and hummingbirds. Similar in size, Mrs. Popple produces masses of slender blooms with narrow rose red skirts over slim, violet slips from early spring until late autumn, often opening a few belated blossoms through the winter. I don’t usually cut this one back hard because those late blooms keep the hummingbirds coming and it’s apt to be blooming already by the time I’m trimming my other fuchsias.

Some of the loveliest fuchsias have stunning foliage as well as pretty flowers. Glowing, gilded Genii is a real show stopper, combining bright golden yellow leaves with ruby-over-purple flowers on 2-3 foot stems. Those marvelous leaves can scorch in afternoon sun but shine boldly in light shade, especially if the shrub gets a few hours of direct morning light. Another favorite foliage fuchsia is Autumnale, a stunning prostrate subshrub with wide-spreading arms decked with golden foliage tinted with copper, bronze, and ruddy cinnamon. The flowers are rose and soft purple, definitely outshone by the leaves but attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies nonetheless. This one is on the tender side and even in my (usually) mild winter region survives most reliably when grown in a pot and overwintered under shelter or in my unheated sunporch. As far as I can tell, it hardly matters which fuchsia you choose; the pollinators will enjoy them all!

Hardy shrubby fuchsia making a comeback

Posted in Birds In The Garden, Butterfly Gardens, Care & Feeding, Easy Care Perennials, Health & Wellbeing, Planting & Transplanting, Pollinators, Pruning, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Winterizing | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

How Herbicides Contaminate Compost

by Robin Bachtler-Cushman

The Pea Test reveals the presence of Clopyralid

Of Horsetail and Herbicides

A troubled reader writes: “Horse tails have been in the front portion of my property for three years now, but they are now popping up in my side yard which is currently just lawn. I do have the dream to get rid of most of my lawn and replace it with native ground cover and shrubs. Should I accelerate this plan in order to remove the horse tails? What is your opinion on the product Crossbow? I heard that it potentially kills horse tails.”

Sadly, there is no simple solution to getting rid of horsetail, but it can be done (read on to learn how). It’s important to know that no herbicide, however toxic and persistent, will completely kill long-established horsetail, which has deep roots that penetrate at least 6 feet of soil (and can go far deeper in some circumstances). It’s most vulnerable in situations where it arrived recently with plants or topsoil, but even there, I’d never use Crossbow. It’s a soil-persistent herbicide, able to damage or kill seedlings and young plants for at least a year after application. It’s non-selective, meaning it kills everything susceptible in its path. Its main targets are woody and broad leaved evergreen trees and shrubs. Though the label has very few warnings, Crossbow combines 2,4-D ( a potent hormone disruptor banned in numerous countries) and Triclopyr, a skin-absorbent toxin that harms animals (including humans) and kills aquatic critters from frogs to fish even when diluted in rain and runoff. So no. Just no.

Compost Contamination

It’s hugely important to recognize that many supposedly safe herbicides and pesticides are both toxic and persistent. That they often carry few label warnings reflects successful industry lobbying over concern for public safety (surprise!). About 20 years ago, West Coast states had outbreaks of “killer compost” that wreaked havoc in gardens. The main culprit was Clopyralid, another persistent herbicide that remains effective indefinitely and at concentrations as low as 2 parts per million (no joke). Compost facilities began testing for it with bioassays (aka pea tests) and once it was banned for homeowner use, Clopyralid contamination hadn’t been a problem. In 2020, however, the Oregon Department of Agriculture reported compost issues traced to Clopyralid again and last year, at least one Washington facility produced compost that stunted tomato plants, probably due to Clopyralid presence in horse bedding straw and fodder. Like other herbicides, Clopyralid contamination causes foliage distortion and often death for many plants and beneficial insects; International Organization for Biological Control testing showed that Clopyralid exposure killed between 30-80 percent of control groups of ladybugs, lacewings, and many others.

Before that killer compost fiasco, it wasn’t known (or acknowledged) that even tiny amounts of this persistent herbicide could kill mature ornamental plants, because all research was focused on agricultural production. As gardeners’ reports poured in, research began: damage from Clopyralid-contaminated compost resembles moderate to severe herbicide exposure, with yellowing, twisting, and malformation of foliage. Initial growth on affected seedlings might look fine, but the second set of true leaves (not including the baby or seed leaves) displays damage. However, not all plants would be affected to the same degree, even in the same family.

Pea Test To Recognize Contamination

The main families affected by Clopyralid are the composites (artichokes and cardoons, asters to zinnias), the legumes (peas, beans), and the nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, petunias). Damage may be variable: Cardoons and zinnias planted with contaminated compost usually die, while asters may persist but weakly. Of ten kinds of beans I planted with contaminated compost, only two sets looked normal but flowered sparsely and didn’t produce any beans. Tomato seedlings died after a few weeks, while healthy tomato starts were too damaged to flower or set fruit.

If you fear your compost is unsafe, try this simple pea test: mix the compost with potting soil and plant several kinds of peas and beans. If they produce at least three heathy sets of true leaves, there’s no residual Clopyralid. If the plants wither and look sickly, use the compost on lawns, shrubbery, and woody landscaping that doesn’t include annuals and perennials. Also, let the supplier know what you discovered, so they can follow up with the source facility.

Why Is Horsetail So Stubborn?

Horsetail (Equisetum) has been around since the dinosaurs’ day, with fossil records dating back over 300 million years. It’s a prehistoric survivor and not surprisingly ranks among the most challenging weeds to manage. The best initial strategy is CUT DON’T PULL: pulling the stems triggers a flush of new sprouts from deep root tubers, while clean cutting doesn’t. Repeated cutting slowly depletes the storage roots, but where horsetail is long established, that can take years. Even so, it’s a good practice and makes a useful moving meditation technique as well. Breathe, cut horsetail, breathe….

Our second strategy is to improve drainage and soil quality by scattering granulated humic acid, adding several inches of (clean) compost, and topping it off with wood chips (not bark chops). If you don’t like the look, cover the chip layer with more compost, and the resulting sandwich will help heal the soil. If improving soil quality seems counterintuitive, remember that heavy, moist, acidic soils that are low in oxygen favor horsetail while open, rich, pH neutral and well drained garden soils do not. Compost is a natural pH buffer, moderating soil acidity slowly but steadily. That’s how lasting change works. Onward, right?

Posted in Birds In The Garden, Care & Feeding, composting, Garden Prep, Health & Wellbeing, pests and pesticides, Soil, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living, Tomatoes | Tagged | 2 Comments