Last puzzle of 2010

I had a few weeks’ hiatus while scrambling around for the holidays – but have one last teaser for you before the close of 2010.  This photo is reminiscent of what Christmas trees will start looking like in the next few weeks. Can you figure out what it is? 

Ignore the parallel horizontal lines – they will be explained on Monday.  And yes, the photo quality’s not great, but the reason for that will be clear on Monday as well.

Have a very happy new year, and be sure to keep reading us in 2011!

One To Go!

Just one more little holiday to go over holiday week (A week during which faculty at UMN were put on furlough — in other words unpaid vacation), but for many of you I’m sure it’s a big one: New Years.  I’ve never been one for New Years resolutions.  It’s always just seemed kind of artificial to me.  Still, some people find real motivation with the passing of a new year.  What about you?  Any great New Year’s resolutions out there related to gardening?

Annual reporting – and you can help!

As many of you know, we Garden Professors justify our existence as faculty members every year through annual reporting.  Blogging is one of the newer educational opportunities that most university systems haven’t quite figured out how to measure and evaluate.

So we’re taking matters into our own hands. I’ve created a short survey to assess our effectiveness in outreach education in the blogosphere. 

The more feedback we get, the easier it is for us to make the case for continuing this effort.  (And feel free to suggest other questions or metrics we should include.  This is a first attempt on my part to create this feedback tool.)

Thank you all for a great year!

Happy Holidays!

Relaxing at the in-laws in Ohio for the long Christmas weekend.  Hope all of our blog readers are having a enjoyable holidays.  In other words, I hope you didn’t have to fly anywhere over this Christmas weekend!

I’ve been catching up on some reading including recent articles on invasive alien plants that should be of interest to our readers.  I’ll share some thoughts when I get back on schedule next week.  In the meantime there’s still another football game to watch this evening and another plate of my mother-in-law’s cookies that need some attention.

Have a safe and happy New Year!

Unintended consequences

Unintended consequences.  When doing one thing causes something you didn’t expect. Many unintended consequence stories in biology start with introduced species. I’m going to skip those here.   I’ve been thinking about unintended consequences recently while trying to figure out what to do about my hops. You see, hops have a nasty habit of getting powdery mildew. That’s one reason why you don’t see a whole lot of hops growing outside the relatively arid Yakima Valley (75% of US production). We started research on hops this year in relatively un-arid Minnesota, and I don’t want our plants to succumb to the dreaded disease. Because we’re growing varieties that don’t have a lot of resistance, and we can eventually expect to get the disease in this environment, I want to develop a way to manage it effectively so we can still do research.  But how do we avoid powdery mildew?  A lot of growers use weekly applications of sulfur.  It’s a nice fungicide for this purpose, and it’s pretty cheap compared to synthetic fungicides.  Great, sign me up for that!  Oh by the way, using sulfur early in the season may cause more spider mite problems later in the season compared to using other, more expensive fungicides.1  Oops, unintended consequence.

One of the most famous examples of unintended consequences that I can think of (OK, other than DDT and birds, or introduced species) is from hybrid field corn 40 years ago.  Detassling corn for hybrid seed production is a hassle, so a modified corn was developed that didn’t produce pollen.  Cytoplasmic male sterility, this technology was called.  Perfect!  No need to hire droves of unskilled labor to walk every acre of seed corn production fields.  Except it turns out that a side-effect of that particular modification made corn especially susceptible to southern corn leaf blight, which damaged a large amount of the corn crop in the early 1970’s.  Unintended consequence. 


Imagine the florist’s carnation.  It’s that flower in shades of white to red that you see on boutonnieres and corsages during homecoming and prom, or alternatively, that flower dyed green for St. Patty’s or blue to match Grandma’s hair.  Before breeding for increased longevity / vase life, carnations had a noticeable smell.  When breeders ignored fragrance, or possibly even unknowingly selected against fragrance (fragrance may decrease flower longevity), they made carnations that are just kinda pretty looking, and that’s about it.  Unintended consequence.  Now researchers are trying to figure out how to get fragrance back into flowers (and even into flowers that never had much in the first place).2


Here I will steal from a somewhat confusing speech of recent past, and turn it into somewhat confusing text to fit my story.  Unintended consequences are usually a result of ‘unknown unknowns’.  We don’t know even know what questions to ask (“Yes, I’m using sulfur to kill powdery mildew.  So what?”).  Turning an ‘unknown unknown’ into a ‘known unknown’, or something that we know we don’t know but can hopefully find out, takes an open mind, a keen eye, and creativity.  Like “hey wait a minute, now that I’m using sulfur on my hops, I seem to have more problems with spider mites.  I wonder if there’s a connection…”  That’s still unknown, but at least it’s a ‘known unknown’.  Turning a ‘known unknown’ into a ‘known’ takes science, and making it widely ‘known’ takes people who keep up to date on science and are good at writing or speaking.  Hooray for research and extension!
1 Gent et al. 2009. Effects of powdery mildew fungicide programs on twospotted spider mite, hop aphid, and their natural enemies in hop yards.  J. Econ. Entomol. 102(1):274–286.
2Vainstein et al., 2001.  Floral fragrance: new inroads into an old commodity.  Plant Physiol. 127(4):1383.


Organic Honey?

As there seems to be a good deal of interest in the topic of honeybees, and I’m a beekeeper, albeit relatively novice, I thought I might continue a bit of discussion.

I’ve been beekeeping for three years, and I sold my first honey harvest this fall.  Six gallons, divided into pint and half pint-sized jars.  As a newbie, extracting the honey from the frames and getting it into the jars was, by far, the messiest thing I’ve ever done.  It’s like wrestling with a living thing…the garage and kitchen still have sticky spots.  It also took forever – honey moves through a three- pail, three-filter system (eventually removing particles down to 200 microns) like…cold molasses.  Once it was properly subdued and contained, I looked into what was required for labeling.  Very interesting. And very, very, vague.

Honeybees have been described as “flying dust mops” – there is no way, unless the beekeeper owns all the land in a several-mile radius, that one knows what they’re getting into.   Our girls’ primary duty is pollination of our four+ acres of blueberries, so their primary pollen and nectar source in late spring is our four acres of blueberries. After that, they hit the sourwood, wingstem, mountain mint, and the smorgasbord of of perennials and annuals in the garden borders. We don’t use any pesticides on our farm (the cabbage looper and stink bug invasion this year is really testing me on that one). But that doesn’t mean the gentleman next door isn’t using Sevin on his squash or pyrethrins on his potatoes. And our bees are just as likely to be over at his house as ours (despite my stern lecture to them).

Noticing the honey labeled “USDA Certified Organic” sold for a premium at both my local grocer and favorite “natural foods” store, I spent some time digging as to certification standards, and whether it would be worth it to get certified. 

I came up fairly empty-handed.  There does not seem to be any USDA National Organic Program certification standards for honey.  Apparently there are some trade-law guidelines that allow honey to be imported from Canada and Central/South America labeled as USDA organic.  Very confusing, and very weird.  But apparently some U.S. honey producers, both large and small, have gone ahead and slapped USDA Organic labels on anyway.  Along with other meaningless statements like “Superior grade” or “All natural”.  Some states such as Pennsylvania are pushing for NOP standards, noting their beekeepers are at a disadvantage, marketing-wise, if they cannot certify their honey but Canadian or Argentine producers can.  On another front, beeswax, especially older wax in frames that are in brood hives for several years, can accumulate pesticides brought in from foraging bees like nobody’s business. So I’d also look askance at claims of products containing “organic beeswax.”

Bees and Pesticides

I had the opportunity to read a disturbing post over at Garden Rant the other day about the insecticide clothianidin and how the EPA required its producer, Bayer, to run tests on the safety of using plants grown from seeds treated with clothianidin for bees.  Tests which were, apparently, never carried out appropriately.  This post sent me over to another site, AlterNet, which explained the problem in detail.  In a nutshell what happened is that the EPA asked Bayer to run some tests on how its new pesticide might affect bees. Bayer was unresponsive at first, but eventually did run some tests (which were not what you would call robust) which showed that bees did fine when flitting around in a field of plants which came from clothianidin treated seeds  – at least for as long as the test was carried out.

Then one of our commenters asked for our opinion, and heaven knows, I am always more than happy to offer my personal opinion!  So here it is.  I am extremely unhappy with both Bayer and the EPA in this instance.  They didn’t do what they were supposed to do.  It’s as simple as that.  Tests were supposed to be run to demonstrate that it is unlikely that clothianidin affects bees.  This wasn’t done in a reasonable period of time.  Period.  As long as stuff like this occurs nobody is going to trust the EPA or the chemical manufacturers.  In terms of whether the tests were sufficient (basically some hives in a field of treated plants), well, I would have liked to have seen more depth, but they didn’t seem to be bad studies.

The implication is that, because we don’t have enough testing, clothianidin could be causing bee colonies to collapse.  This goes hand in hand with the suspicion that imidacloprid is leading to colony collapse since both of these chemicals are neonicotinoids.  We know that these pesticides can get into flowers where bees come into contact with them.  The question is whether the bees contact enough to cause hives to collapse (There is no question that these chemicals, at some level, are poisonous to bees – just as almost anything can be poisonous to humans at a high enough dose – even water).

One thing that is lost in this discussion is that SEED TREATMENTS were being examined.  A seed treatment is when the seeds which are planted are treated with a pesticide (in this case clothianidin) to protect the seed itself and the young plant from insects.  As the plant grows the insecticide will break down and become diluted – And so it is probably not going to be present at high levels in pollen that the plant (which comes from the treated seed) produces.  Still, there is potential for this to happen and so it is best if the plants which come from the seed are tested – hence the EPA’s request.

Historically, there are pesticides which have clearly and unambiguously lain waste to bee hives, the most infamous of which was Penncap-M.  This was a unique pesticide because it was a microencapsulation of the very dangerous insecticide methyl parathion.  The microencapsulation process made this pesticide last longer, and made it somewhat safer to handle, but it also made the pesticide into tiny little beads – about the same size as, you guessed it, pollen.  In fruit trees in particular this stuff would become attached to the bees (just like pollen does) and you can imagine the disastrous results.  The answer was to limit the use of this poison to certain times of the year and certain situations when bees were not likely to be around.  Why wasn’t it just banned outright?  Because it worked well and, when used appropriately, it didn’t affect bees (Here I’m giving you the official line – In my opinion its use should have been even more restricted than it was).   Penncap-M is not closely related to the neonicotinoids chemically, though it does affect insects’ nervous systems as many insecticides, including the neonicotinoids, do.

You can count me as one of the people who suspect that the neonicotinoids have something to do with colony collapse.  I’m not a bee researcher — but it is easy to see how the use of these chemicals might weaken a hive to the point where mites or disease could come in.  One of the things that drives me a little nuts though are those people who think that banning neonicotinoids is going to save our bees.  It seems quite obvious at this point that these chemicals are definitely not the sole cause of the disease and perhaps not even one of the major contributing factors.  They essentially banned these pesticides in parts of Europe, and guess what?  They still have bee colonies collapsing.  An interesting side note is that historically large-scale losses of bees isn’t as odd as we might think – in fact, we might have seen this disease (CCD) before.  Perhaps even in the 1800s.  In short, it seems that the answer to this problem is not as simple as banning some pesticides (though restricting their use may be a piece of the solution).  I wish it were.

A sustainable resource? Oh, for peat’s sake!

Recently a well-known gardening blog featured a guest posting by a garden writer who made a case for using Canadian sphagnum peat moss as a horticultural amendment.  He defended his preference through “facts” provided by the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association.
This is kind of like relying on the petroleum industry for the most objective information on the environmental effects of oil spills.  Or the tobacco growers association for data on the effects of smoking on human health.  C’mon now.  We know we should consider the source of our information, right?
This isn’t to say that industries don’t have their own scientists conducting research, or that their research is unreliable.  But to depend on industry talking points alone ignores the vast body of information provided by independent university researchers.
Several years ago I reviewed the scientific literature on the topic of peat as a sustainable resource; that column can be found here as well as in my most recent book (The Informed Gardener Blooms Again).  Rather than repeat what I wrote there, I’ve conducted a quick overview of the research conducted on Canadian peatlands published in the last 10 years.
There are many such articles.  And in general the results are not positive.  Here are some of the highlights (or lowlights):

  • Peat harvesting permanently alters the hydrology of bogs so that natural regeneration is impossible
  • Sphagnum does not easily regenerate on degraded peatlands, causing the sites to become drier over time
  • Species composition of harvested peatlands is not the same as on undisturbed peatlands
  • The mulches used in peatland regeneration decompose and become significant sources of carbon dioxide
  • Natural peatlands are long-term sinks of atmospheric CO2, while mined peatlands increase atmospheric CO2 levels
  • Amphibian populations, already hampered by acid deposition, are further threatened by peat mining
  • Volunteer birch trees on abandoned peat mines accelerate water loss

If we, as gardeners, deliberately choose to use unsustainable natural resources, we need to be fully aware of the consequences.  Unquestioned acceptance of industry talking points lends nothing to the discussion.

Pure Nelida: the story of one Viva Farms participant

Nelida was born in a subsistence farming community in Oaxaca, Mexico. She escaped an abusive alcoholic household at 14 by going to live with her (soon to be) husband’s family, who took her in, then took every opportunity from that moment forth to remind her what a burden she was for them.

After marrying at 16, the young couple migrated north to the US in search of a better life where they found farm work. They toiled 12 years on commercial farms in California, then headed further north, seeking farm work in the lush Skagit Valley in Washington State.  They added children to their household until they were nine in all…plus a steady stream of cousins, brothers, nieces, nephews, uncles, and others who’d joined them in their search for the good life. With family, Nelida’s work multiplied: farm worker by day, Oaxacan mother/wife by night.  Life in Washington wasn’t exactly the American dream, but Nelida knew it was better than the nightmarish situation her relatives faced back in Oaxaca.  Then, one day, things took a turn for the worse.

One of Nelida’s sons fell violently ill. When the traditional herbal remedies she learned from her grandmother failed, Nelida pleaded with her husband to take the boy to the hospital for tests.  Her husband refused, petrified of hospital bills (he had no health insurance) and of being fired for missing work. But a man’s greatest fear is no match for a mother’s love.  She looked her husband straight in the eyes and told him, “Si tu no eres lo suficientemente hombre para salvar tu hijo, yo mismo le llevare’ al hospital.” (If you’re not man enough to save your son, I’ll take him to the hospital myself.) She didn’t have a driver’s license at the time so she carried him to the closest hospital.

The doctors diagnosed the boy with late-stage leukemia and ordered treatment immediately. They told Nelida that if she’d waited even a few more days it may have been too late. Nelida quit farming and dedicated herself to her son’s recovery. She accompanied him back and forth from Mount Vernon to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle for weekly chemo treatments. Between treatments she made and sold tamales, empanadas, pan de burro, fresh tortillas, anything friends and local Mexican stores would buy. She needed every penny she could earn for the cancer treatment, which she was determined to pay for herself.

When her son achieved remission, Nelida did not return to being a farm worker.  She stepped up the organic production like she’d always done at home. She crammed pots and trays of vegetables and herbs into her kitchen window-sills, into her tiny balcony, her front doorstep, anywhere she could put them. When a community garden was created in her farm worker housing complex, Nelida was the first to sign up for a plot.  She was delighted with her garden plot but wanted more ground. Couldn’t she just use the whole 1/2 acre, she would ask the residential director. That would be enough space to feed her family and even sell a bit of surplus.

That’s when I met Nelida. When she told me how she had transported special plants and seed with her from Oaxaca to California, tended them in the migrant camps and then moved them up to Washington with her, I knew she was an ideal candidate for the new Latino farming program I was helping WSU Skagit Extension launch in the valley.

Nelida enrolled immediately in our first bilingual Sustainable Small Farming and Ranching course. She graduated and signed up for the more advanced Farm Business Planning course, in which she developed a business plan for a three acre diversified organic farm.  She now leases 1 acre at Viva Farms (Washington’s first bilingual farm business incubator) and two acres at a second site. Her goal is to purchase 10 acres with a house, where she can live and expand her organic produce sales that now complement her already established food business.

When we met to develop a name and logo for Nelida’s one-woman organic farm and food business, I could think of only one name to encapsulate her brand personality: PURA NELIDA, like the saying pura vida but with Nelida as the life force.  I asked Nelida what symbolized pura vida* and purity for her. She thought for a moment then smiled and replied, “una cebolla blanca“(a white onion). So that’s what she is seen cradling in the logo we designed for her farm.

So to those who feel discouraged by how long it has taken for us to farm as if we love and cherish life…I offer one of Nelida’s organic white onions: let its crisp, sweet, spice and purity cure you of your ills. Soon you’ll understand why, when I stand and behold Viva Farms, I am apt to repeat “Pura Vida…” again and again, like a mantra.

For more information about WSU S
kagit County Extension and Viva Farms, please view our websites at and [Note: Nelida (via Viva Farms) is offering a weekly box delivery in partnership with Growing Washington, another non-profit that serves beginning and Latino farmers. 20 weeks, mid June-Halloween. $25/wk small share, $36 large share. It’s a great way to support the next generation of sustainable farmers. Contact to sign up.]

Don McMoran is an Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Education in Skagit County, Washington.  You can reach him at