Friday, November 15, 2019

Mosquito Control – Is There Really Such a Thing?

Guest Rant by Helen Yoest

Fall is back, and winter is near; thank goodness! This might sound odd coming from a rabid gardener and outdoor enthusiasts who would rather spend time outdoors than within my home, no matter how uncomfortable I might be. But wait, we are now finally mosquito-free, at least until their return of heat of summer next year.

In Raleigh, NC, where I garden year-round, having the mosquito season behind me is a blessing. But why should I have to wait to be mosquito-free? What can I do? Is there truly such a thing as mosquito control…without chemicals?

If you ask the barrier-spray mosquito control companies, they’ll tell you they have the answer. Indeed, their chemicals control mosquitoes, but what they don’t tell you is that they also kill everything else in the spray path and on the foliage.

Mosquitoes Can Kill

Mosquitoes are more than a nuisance; they can be deadly! If a female carrying disease goes for your blood, you could be in trouble. Mosquito-borne diseases in the U.S. are one of the deadliest in the world because of the many diseases they transmit. We have had reported cases of dengue, zika virus, West Nile virus, and Eastern and Western equine encephalitis, as well as a host of other diseases affecting you and your pets.

Thanks to the 2016 Zika outbreak, these broad-spray mosquito control companies have grown exponentially, and have set homeowners into panic mode to kill.

Trust me, I don’t like mosquitoes either, and I’d rather die of old age with a hand-cultivator in my grip than from the mosquito-borne Zika virus!

When I asked the closest Mosquito Joe location to me about their chemical toxicity, the reply was, “Our chemicals are organic, and with such a low concentration, it doesn’t affect anything else.” Hmm, maybe I just look like I was born yesterday.

When are we going to learn organic pesticides are still pesticides?

What About Our Safety?

Do we know enough about the chemical safety of these mosquito control companies? To find out more, I reached out to Dr. Michael Reiskind, associate professor of entomology (the study of insects) at NC State University. Reiskind explains, “Mosquito control companies spray an insecticide — almost always a pyrethroid — to vegetation outside your house. That vegetation is where mosquitoes like to rest, so it kills them when they go in there. But it will kill other insects that go in there to rest. We call that a non-target effect.”

These mosquito spray companies often minimize the risk of environmental impacts by saying, “The insecticides are similar to naturally-occurring substances found in chrysanthemums.” But according to Reiskind, “The synthetic pyrethroids used to control mosquitoes have been manufactured to be more toxic and to last longer in the environment.” It’s essential for all of us to understand the consequences of killing with chemicals.”

Generally, barrier spray treatments are applied where mosquitoes spend the daytime — under leaves and in shady areas. Conscientious appliers avoid spraying flowering plants, and by law, they should. But butterfly and moth caterpillars, and many other insects eat the foliage of sprayed plants. As for the birds, pyrethroids don’t directly harm birds, but birds eat caterpillars, so they are at risk as well.

These mosquito control companies also claim they have certified applicators and only spray in the shrubs and trees, never on blooms, and before 10 am, before pollinators start foraging.

Is that so? To find out more, I also contacted Sydney L. Ross, with the NC Department of Ag and Consumer Services, Structural Pest Control & Pesticides Division.

Her reply was troubling: “Within North Carolina, we allow for one licensed pesticide applicator to supervise as many individuals as he or she would like, as long as all individuals work out of the same storage location.”

So only one person in an office of 5, 10, 20, or more pesticide applicators needs to be certified; only one applicator needs to go through the arduous certification training, and be annually re-certified?

To summarize, only one person with the license needs to be available to train in the safe use of insecticide products and be reachable by phone to the unlicensed applicators on the job. That licensee is responsible/liable for any mistakes made by the person they are supervising. Please note, there is no requirement to verify in-house training. To me, that licensee is the designated felon! Would you want that responsibility?


Around my neighborhood, I’ve seen and others have reported seeing mosquito control companies spraying after 10 am. So while Ross was only a question away, I asked: How strictly regulated are the mosquito spray companies in NC? Ross replied: “All mosquito spray companies are required to hold a public health category license with the Pesticides Section. Alternatively, some hold structural pest control licenses with our other section, Structural Pest Control, which covers their mosquito applications around a structure. All mosquito application companies are subject to random and routine inspections once a year, and they are also subject to random inspections while in the field.

“Inspections generally cover topics such as personal protective equipment, products used, application method/equipment, recordkeeping, pesticide storage, and environmental conditions during the time of application. Inspections can also lead to an investigation if there is pesticide misuse.” Ross also noted her office investigates and follow up on all complaints received in their office regarding mosquito applicators, so if you see spraying after 10 am, call your local authority. In NC, that number is (919) 218-7952.

Vegetables, Herbs and Fruit Trees

The chemicals should likewise never be sprayed on or close to edible plants, including fruit-bearing trees, and vegetable and herb gardens. Structures like houses and swing sets also should be avoided; however, rules are murky about structures such as fences.

Pyrethroid insecticides used to kill mosquitoes will kill any insect that encounters it, including bees, caterpillars, and butterflies. The reality is there’s no way to entirely avoid hurting pollinators if you’re spraying for mosquitoes. More studies are needed to quantify this damage, but from experience, I am a twice-failed beekeeper. The first time I failed, I assumed it was Colony Collapse disorder (CCD). The second time, my bees were throughout the garden. I later found out one of my neighbors used a mosquito spray service. Other beekeepers have lamented to me the same experiences.

I have since registered with Fieldwatch, a program that allows pesticide applicators to locate any nearby beehives or sensitive sites and contact the site’s owner to avoid pesticide contamination/drift. Although personal gardens aren’t yet allowed to register, I registered anyway because I have over 30 fruit trees and consider my pollinator a sensitive site. So sue me 😉

Mosquito spraying is not the only reason insects like fireflies, butterflies, and bees are in trouble. But mosquito sprays can kill these species. Decreasing the amount of spraying is one thing we can do to help them.

Clean Your Garden

You diligently work to control mosquito breeding through Integrated Pest Management (IPM), right?

If this is you, be the one in the neighborhood who begins to take action!

The most important thing you can do to reduce mosquitoes in your yard is to take away their habitat through a tip and toss practice of ridding your garden of their breeding ground, which is standing water. In controlling pests with IPM, you do the least environmentally impactful things first, then progress to the point of using chemicals, or not. I don’t use them.

Reduce the number of sites available to females for egg-laying — clogged gutters, old tires, plant holders, birdbaths, and discarded containers. Use personal repellents that keep mosquitoes at bay. And when the mosquitoes get too bad, go inside! However, what your neighbor is doing may be overshadowing your efforts due to their mosquito control applications. Is keeping your yard clear of standing water enough? You need to get your neighbors on board. Mosquitoes are a neighborhood-scale problem!

Eliminating standing water isn’t always feasible; for instance if you have a pond. Bee Better Naturally recommends all-natural larvicides, which kill the mosquito larvae and truly doesn’t harm other wildlife. These Bt dunks can wipe out another chunk of a garden’s mosquito population.

On our back porch, where we often sit, we have a series of ceiling fans and another oscillating fan, which helps a lot. But still not enough of days after a good rain. So I wondered what would Doug do?

Doug Tallamy’s Recommendation

At a recent conference, I asked Doug Tallamy for his best recommendation for mosquito control.

“Simple,” he said. “In an out-of-the-way area, partially fill a bucket of water, add wheat straw or hay, let it ferment. The fermentation attracts female mosquitoes to lay her eggs. Then add a mosquito control dunk that’s specific to the mosquito larvae.” I tried it, and it works.

We all have lots of decisions to make as consumers. For some people, a mosquito-free yard is worth the cost of some “by-kill.” Not for me! At least if we decide to spray our yard we should be informed of the potential losses, as well as benefits of being mosquito-free.

Helen Yoest is Director of Bee Better Naturally, a 100% volunteer non-profit helping homeowners save the environment, one garden at a time.

Mosquito Control – Is There Really Such a Thing? originally appeared on GardenRant on November 15, 2019.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Rudbeckia Revolution

Be realistic, demand the impossible.

Che Guevara


I am waging war against frustration, and impatience is an obstacle. My struggle may take two or three years before there is a measurable outcome. This year’s brutal heat and drought nearly ground to a halt any remaining enthusiasm for my garden. While the president fantasized in August about buying Greenland, I dreamed of a cooler global climate and a little rain. Nothing worked. Greenland’s ice sheets continued to melt, and central Kentucky had the hottest and driest September on record.

So, I’m done with our garden, at least, until the early-flowering, squirrel-resistant Crocus tomasinianus hits full stride next year. At the first sight of thousands of lavender-colored March bloomers, on the nearby Ursuline Campus in Louisville, I hope my gardening mojo returns. In the meantime, I needed an autumn pick me up. I decided to launch the Rudbeckia Revolution.

But let’s be honest.

Rudbeckia triloba

I am a little long in the tooth to start a revolution by myself, so I enlisted an alley-wise, 24-year-old who came highly recommended. He had previously aced the rigorous Seed Bomber segment of the Guerilla Gardening Aptitude Test. My accomplice’s love for his garden and his will for a little tomfoolery caught my attention.

He planted his first garden this spring in a community plot in Louisville’s Germantown, while continuing to teach English online to Chinese kids. During his inaugural season, he navigated the normal ups and downs encountered along gardening’s learning curve and never flinched. (I am protecting the young man’s identity so that any urban seed-bombing in the future can remain discreet and, perhaps, even beneficial and pretty.)

Chasmanthium latifolium

We deployed seeds in lieu of bullets in two Louisville alleys on November 1st. We were caught on one site, but I explained we were sowing flower seeds.  A quick reprieve, and an endorsement, was granted. My comrade’s seed-sower disguise might have appeared alarming but he’s a good-hearted Lone Ranger, not a bandit.

Our ammo was gifted by Jelitto Perennial Seeds. Jelitto offers the best selection and quality of perennial seeds in the world. (I’m a little biased. I worked with Jelitto for 22 years. When I retired two years ago, I was given a generous lifetime allowance for perennial seeds instead of a gold watch. Who needs a gold watch when you can have all the perennial seeds you want?)

Cleaned seed of Rudbeckia triloba.

The Rudbeckia Revolution has modest goals. We don’t envision elegant plantings resembling Piet Oudolf’s High Line design in New York. There will be no fussy alley coddling in Louisville. Imagine our small-time seed bombing as the scruffy Low Line.

The revolution’s goal is simple: We are crossing our fingers that seeds germinate and a few dozen plants of black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia triloba) and northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) will establish in sun to semi-shade, in hard-packed, but well-drained clay soils.

You’re wondering: Why didn’t we seed more species? This is a skirmish, not an invasion.

Seed bombing tip: Sow perennials seeds on top of the surface in autumn. Cover with a mixed grade of fine and gritty sand. No need to scratch the soil’s surface. The sand will absorb moisture from the earth and germination will be enhanced by moist and cooler conditions in autumn and winter.

If our small battles succeed, and there is no guarantee they will, a few plants may eventually self-sow and compete with crab grass, wintercreeper, hackberry roots, poke weed, lambs quarters, foxtail, autumn clematis, paulownia and tree of heaven seedlings, and whatever worrisome uncertainties global warming throws at our hidden alleys.

I’m not sure, even if the seed-bombed alleys flourish, that anyone will notice these new pollinators and caterpillar hosts. One of our battlegrounds, in the Crescent Hill neighborhood, sprinkled with garbage cans, has a tree canopy of filtered light. Dog shit is ignored, a token of the bygone era when dogs wandered free and crapped everywhere. Deer and coyotes, Louisville’s recent arrivals, now roam with rats and cats. This alley is nothing like the closely monitored neighborhood front yard landscape, where deer feast on hostas and a security camera occasionally tags a naughty dog owner who won’t pick up pooch’s shit.

The second alley, downtown, has more sun, weeds and litter, plus a marvelous Catalpa and Osage orange, warehouses and an abandoned homeless camp.

Both alleys are passageways to a diverse and mongrel ecology.

Jean-Francois Millet’s The Sower. Walters Museum photo.

We are not overreaching. The Rudbeckia Revolution’s handbook states plainly: “A few survivors may self-sow or not.” This is not an ugly, in-your-face fight for hearts and minds.

My comrade and I don’t expect to save the world; we are only buying time until next spring.

¡Hasta la victoria siempre!

Rudbeckia Revolution originally appeared on GardenRant on November 13, 2019.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The first step is admitting you have a problem

This is the initial pile (partial view).

At this moment, two things are true. I still have 4 boxes of bulbs—maybe 250 or so total—sitting in the back room. And when I opened the door of that room and stepped outside this morning, I walked into 10 inches of pre-Thanksgiving winter wonderland.

This is also true: There probably wouldn’t have been that many bulbs left over if I had ordered a few less than 1900. Even with selling some to a friend and planting and potting all I could, I still have to find a place for a whole mess of hybrid tulips.

Some of the tulips I don’t even remember choosing. Why did I get 100 Ballerina, lily-flowered? “Few can resist her,” says the Van Engelen copywriters. I should have. I don’t like the lily-flowered types that much, and I hate calling plants “her.” What’s with the 350 doubles? Doubles can be troublesome to grow in pots. (I force many tulips and hyacinths and grow hybrid tulips mainly in pots.) Why 100 Bakeri ‘Lilac Wonder?’ It’s a decent species type but 10–20 would have been fine to mix in with the other species I have.

I must have been in some kind of late summer frenzy. It wasn’t alcohol.

I don’t know too many gardeners that get as obsessed with bulbs. Bulbs are among my earliest plant purchases; I remember choosing from the Van Engelen catalog the summer after we moved into our house and had our first real garden. And regardless of how that garden has changed over the years, with many makeovers, bulbs go in every year. It must be because they’re a sure thing. Perennials don’t always perform as expected; I am positive I’ve planted dozens that have faltered and ultimately have vanished. For at least one season, bulbs are perfect, usually even better looking than their pictures. They’re great for an impatient gardener who doesn’t really want to wait through the sleeping and creeping. And who isn’t troubled by deer. Though I know many suburban gardeners who succeed with tulips in spite of deer. There are ways.

Perhaps I focus on bulbs because they distract from the real work my garden needs. Perhaps I throw bulbs in a hole in the beds to avoid thinking about how they should be reorganized. or at least weeded.

This year, I went too far. I admit it. I won’t go cold turkey. But maybe next time, I’ll have a designated reviewer of my order before I hit “proceed to checkout.”

The first step is admitting you have a problem originally appeared on GardenRant on November 12, 2019.

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Friday, November 8, 2019

Patrick Dougherty’s Stick House at the US Botanic Garden is OPEN for Fun

If you come to DC any time over the next two years, I recommend visiting this magical stickwork piece called “Oh Say Can You See” by Patrick Dougherty, that just opened at the U.S. Botanic Garden.

On the USBG website it’s described as 40 ft X 25 ft and 14 ft high, made of “locally harvested Norway maple, cherry, and elm, plus purchased willow from Fredonia, NY.”

Then on this page we learn that the “locally harvested” plants are “saplings of invasive plants from area locations – Norway maple from the American Horticultural Society’s River Farm and Siberian elm and hybrids of non-native cherry from the U.S. National Arboretum.”

Photo of Dougherty creating this work, by US Botanic Garden.

Dougherty commented that:

Trying to imagine a work for the city congestion of Washington DC, I produced a wild scribble and characterized it as “urban scrawl.”  I transferred this “chicken scratch” drawing to graph paper and plotted the sketch in the grassy lawn on the right side of the Garden’s glass conservatory.   From this footprint, I hoped to conjure a zany three-dimensional object that viewers could explore.

The Garden boasts more than a million visitors a year, and this sculpture sits in the middle of the hubbub as visitors stream from one national attraction to another.

Oh, it’s a “zany three-dimensional object that viewers could explore” all right, something I hope this short video conveys.

There’s a cool video of kids running in and out of the piece, here on the USBG’s Facebook page.


Above, a cool time-lapse from the social-media-savvy folks at the USBG shows how the stick house was built.

I love it up-close.

This piece of Dougherty’s is SO cool and SO much fun, it’s sure to be a win for the USBG, and for visitors of all ages.

Patrick Dougherty’s Stick House at the US Botanic Garden is OPEN for Fun originally appeared on GardenRant on November 8, 2019.

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Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Groundcovers: Grand to Aggressive

This black mondo brings attention to subtly variegated plants.

Groundcovers are often suggested as solutions for sites where turfgrass won’t grow, or for places that are difficult to mow. As useful as that suggestion is, I feel like it sells them a little short. They can absolutely sparkle as contributors to overall garden design, providing the theme that pulls together a disparate collection of plants, lead you through a landscape, or provide intriguing colorful or textural counterpoints to other plants.

This bank of mondo grass does a good job of covering soil in an enclosed bed where it cannot run into infinity.

I also have to quibble a bit on a commonly held belief that groundcovers are a low maintenance solution. Sometimes they are, and often not. Choosing those that don’t run rampant is paramount. When I am asked to recommend a fast-growing groundcover, I first spill my misgivings. “Fast” choices often turn out to be foe instead of friend. They don’t know to stop covering ground where the gardener’s mission ended.

I prefer low growing evergreen plants that stay in discreet clumps or spread very slowly. It is more expensive on the front end to get full coverage, but as I grow older the more important economy concerns how I use my time and my poor stiffening body.


The other problem is that often weeds are happy to cohabitate with groundcovers, and not just during establishment. A bed of Vinca major surrounds an ancient tulip poplar on our grounds, planted decades before I started this job. Birds, defecating the seeds of their favored fruits have “planted” Virginia creeper, poison ivy (yes birds eat poison ivy fruit), wild cherry, hackberry, honeysuckle and the horrid thug Chinese privet. The only solution is to hand weed, as any herbicide that will kill them will also kill the groundcover. (It is surrounded by lawn, so at least stays put.)

This dense bed of Vinca major was happy to host seedlings of poison ivy, hackberry, Virginia creeper, smilax, wild grape and privet.

Having a thick cover of plants does reduce the number of weeds, but this bed is evidence that establishing a vigorous groundcover does not provide a situation that requires no maintenance. If weeding is necessary, it is  more interesting to use a diversity of plants that don’t run, or at least spread at a manageable creep.

An exception is the bed surrounded on all sides by concrete or other inhospitable surface. An understory of mondo grass or the running form of monkey grass Liriope spicata  will fill these areas with evergreen grassy texture. Look Ma, no mulch!  I would still avoid fast spreading vining type groundcovers in these situations, as they are wont to climb on and overwhelm taller perennials, shrubs or even trees. English ivy is famous for this and the near-equally problematic wintercreeper euonymus.

Dwarf forms of mondo grass move so slowly, using it where it is not captured by hardscape is not a problem, and the black mondo is so slow in my climate, that I think sometimes it gradually vanishes rather than vanquishes. Maybe I have yet to find its happy spot in my landscape.

This gives a good opportunity to segue into more detailed design opportunities. I fell for black mondo years ago on my travels, but few use it so masterfully as fellow Tennessean Faye Beck. She stages it for intriguing contrast under bright or bold foliaged plants. It is the dark underscore she uses to call attention to some of her most glittering treasures.

Dwarf golden sweet flag’s furry cuteness belies its durability. The size 10 peasant feet belong to me and provide good scale.

Flip that concept and use the dwarf golden sweet flag under purple heuchera, big blue hostas, or dark ninebarks. The swirled, tufted “cowlick” habit of this diminutive plant pulls me into a crouch as I simply must stroke it, and it is as soft as it appears. Soft does not translate to delicate as it is quite durable (to Zone 5) if provided shade and moisture. A wet site is necessary to support it in full sun. Bless its tiny heart, it has to be sturdy to support its giant name Acorus gramineus ‘Minimus Aureus’!

This idea of using the brighter ground covers to call out to you can be used effectively on the larger scale as well. Broad brush strokes can pull you around curves in garden paths or simply pull your eye toward a destination that warrants exploration. Please though, reconsider using them to “outline” a sidewalk, driveway or bed. I admit this use pulls a snobbish sigh from me for its predictability.

This sweep of ‘Ogon’ sweet flag pulls you on to explore more of the landscape.

Another friend that shares his clever design tricks is Jimmy Williams in Paris TN, with his tongue-in-cheek garden “Tennessee Dixter”.  Jimmy will take single clump of a common groundcover and use it as a design element with other perennials to form charming vignettes.   The ordinary liriope ‘Silvery Sunproof’ strikes grassy grace when used this way, a beauty obscured when used en masse. Less common, but another fabulous plant used singly is the golden liriope ‘Peedee Ingot’. This plant has become one of my favorites in container combinations. Somehow I must get over the feeling that I need to defend falling in love with a “monkey grass”.

A single clump of ‘Peedee Ingot’ liriope golden monkey grass stars in this composition.

Maybe you are far ahead of me in skulking the groundcover areas of the garden centers with thoughts of thrilling design elements instead of pedestrian solutions. Show me! I’m a little slow, but I’m teachable…

Groundcovers: Grand to Aggressive originally appeared on GardenRant on November 6, 2019.

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Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Young Farmers, Farm Aid, and Vermont Farm First Receive Funding to Build Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network in Northeast

Contact: Jessica Manly, Communications Director, National Young Farmers Coalition, 518-643-3564 x 722 Allen Matthews, Farm First, Jennifer Fahy, Farm Aid, WASHINGTON, D.C. (November 5, 2019) The National Young Farmers Coalition, Farm Aid, and Vermont Farm First are honored to receive $480,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s...


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Monday, November 4, 2019

Let Natives Be Natives

Throughout all of the preceding month, I’ve been mulling over a symposium I attended at the University of Connecticut on October 3rd.  Titled the “UConn Native Plants and Pollinators Conference,” it unintentionally highlighted a fundamental disconnect at the heart of contemporary gardening.

In the morning, the conference featured as a speaker Annie White, a landscape architect from Vermont who researched for her doctoral thesis the relative value to pollinators of species-type native plants versus “nativars,” cultivated selections or hybrids of native plants.  White found that sometimes, though not always, the species type plants were far more attractive to the pollinators.  I found that interesting.

Even more interesting, though, was the reaction of an afternoon speaker, a representative of the University of Connecticut faculty.  Dr. Jessica Lubell of UConn’s Department of Plant Science and Landscape Architecture  began by attacking Annie White’s data, insisting that unnamed studies had found that there was no difference in the benefits to pollinators provided by wild-type native plants and their cultivars.  She then went on to stress the importance of moving to the cultivars so that the nursery industry could continue to grow the plants – the natives now genetically identical and reduced to neat, compact mounds – in the same industrial way it has been growing exotics.  She also stressed that eliminating the genetic variability from native plants and reducing their size would enable gardeners to adopt them without rethinking at all their landscape aesthetic.  To accompany this, Lubell showed dozens of slides of emasculated natives growing as cushions and balls amid the usual seas of bark mulch.

Hydrangea arborescens nativars ‘Invincibelle Ruby’ and ‘Invincibelle Wee White’

It seems to me, given the crashing populations of birds and insects and the tidy ugliness of so many of our suburbs, that a reboot of our gardens is long overdue.  Reducing the genetic variability of the plants we cultivate directly contradicts the kind of resilience we need during an age of climate change and introduced pests and diseases.

In short, we badly need to re-examine our contemporary style of landscaping.  We need to reconsider our desire for predictable uniformity in our plants.  We need, above all, to come to terms with natural growth and not view our plants as some species of green outdoor ‘design elements.’

Credit: Rick Webb, PA
Hydrangea arborescens species type (photo courtesy of Rick Webb, PA)

Let Natives Be Natives originally appeared on GardenRant on November 4, 2019.

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