Archive for the ‘Environmental Issues’ Category

Marigolds Attract Pollinators

Saturday, October 29th, 2016
Marigold and Bee

Marigold and Bee

About five years ago I bought a flat of marigolds at a garden show in Rockford, Illinois. The flat cost only five dollars. I presumed the marigolds were neither organic nor open pollinated, but they looked strong and there were a lot of plants for the money. I thought I would stick marigolds at the ends of the raised beds to add some easy and quick color.

Marigolds in the Beds

Marigolds in the Beds

This was in June. The plants performed well and bloomed until hard freezes came. They put out seed heads with lots of viable seeds meaning they were open-pollinated, not a hybrid variety. On a whim I saved some seed and replanted it the following spring. Marigolds are slow to germinate and the germination rate on these seeds wasn’t great, but I still got a lot of new plants from which I’ve continued to save seed and replant.

Marigolds Everywhere

Marigolds Everywhere

Both the seeds and the plants I’m growing now seem more vigorous than the first ones I planted. Marigolds are adaptable, which means they improve their hardiness over time in a new environment. I went overboard this year and ended up with several hundred seedlings, most of which I replanted all around the garden.

Bee and Marigolds

Bee and Marigolds

The marigolds are proving to be great for their ability to attract and feed pollinating insects right up to and through the early frosts. They continue to provide heavy blooms offering pollen and nectar as well or better than just about any garden flower this late in the season. Marigolds are also touted as having beneficial properties when grown alongside tomatoes and other vegetables and their roots are supposed to be soil cleaning, eliminating certain bad root nematodes.

Bee on Marigold

Bee on Marigold

Moth on Marigold

Moth on Marigold

I found numerous articles on the Internet claiming marigolds are a bee repellent and not attractive or useful to pollinators, but there are even more articles debunking the “bad marigold” claims. While there may be some hybrid or double blossom marigolds which may not attract or be useful to pollinators, I can attest that bees love marigolds as do numerous other insects. I have often found the blossoms swarming with various flies, moths and butterflies.

Bumblebee on Marigold

Bumblebee on Marigold

Marigolds are very useful when used as an herbal and they are edible. So why not grow some? They’re too good and too easy not to.

It’s National Pollinator Week!

Friday, June 24th, 2016
Fly on Cilantro.

Fly on Cilantro.

National Pollinator Week is a USDA sponsored event with the main focus of improving the health of pollinators, primarily, honeybees.  I appreciate their efforts, but if the USDA really wanted to improve pollinator health, they would get out of their agri-business practices that are most responsible for loss of pollinator friendly ecosystems.  Anyway, celebrating pollinators is a good thing, so we’ll contribute by featuring some of our local pollinating friends.

There are a lot more pollinators out there than just honeybees.  The home gardener, particularly, can get along just fine without ever having a European type honey bee, the kind used by the agricultural industry and the honey industry, visit their property.  We see quite a few European honeybees, I presume from hives in the area, but most of my pollinators are the wild type.  I rate bumblebees as our number one friend.  Bumblebees are prolific here, with many varieties showing up, but I’ve chosen to show off a few other creatures that also do their part.

At the top is a fly on some flowering cilantro.  I’ve found cilantro to be an excellent attractor to pollinating insects, so I let it bolt and flower as often as I can.

Ant on Cilantro

Ant on Cilantro

Ants are important pollinators.

Cabbage Moth

Cabbage Moth

I don’t like this guy at all, but almost all moths and butterflies do contribute to the pollination of garden plants.



There is discussion on whether damselflies and dragonflies are important or possibly negative in the pollination scheme.  They do contribute a little to pollination, but they probably eat up more pollinating insects than their pollinating efforts offset.  They eat a lot of bad bugs, however, and they sure are cool looking.

Wasp on Cilantro

Wasp on Cilantro

Wasps are very important pollinators, but watch out, they don’t make good pets!

Wasp on Sumac

Wasp on Sumac

Wasp on Wild Aster

Wasp on Wild Aster

I like the wild aster, I’m not keen on sumac, but flowering weeds support a lot of insects.

Small Bee on Potato Blossom

Small Bee on Potato Blossom

We get a lot of bees that are not your typical honeybee.  Here’s a little bitty bee on a potato blossom.

Bees do It

Bees do It

Love makes the world go round.

Bee on Cilantro

Bee on Cilantro

My, what big eyes you have!

Bee on Mustard

Bee on Mustard

A metallic blue bee.

Small Bee on Cilantro

Small Bee on Cilantro

We see numerous varieties of small bees along with many other pollinating animals.  We try to provide plants they like, and having a National Pollinator Week to get people to understand the importance of pollination is actually a very good idea.

Fresh Garden Salsa

Sunday, August 17th, 2014
Fresh Garden Salsa

Fresh Garden Salsa

Judy made this season’s first salsa yesterday.  It’s about as local as you can get. Everything in it is from the garden except the lime. Here’s the recipe:

2 cups chopped cherry tomatoes – red, yellow, orange – most any tomato will work, but the cherry tomatoes, especially the orange Sungolds, give it a particular zing.

¼ c. chopped red onion

3 cloves garlic – chopped finely

1 T. hot pepper (or to taste) – chopped finely

½ c. cilantro – chopped

1 lime – juiced

Mix all together serve in a bowl for dipping.

Good Food from Wisconsin

Good Food from Wisconsin

I enjoyed this with blue corn chips and beer and here the local story continues. The bowls in the pictures are from Cambridge Wood Fired Pottery, owned by our good friend Mark Skudlarek and just 2 miles from home.

The blue corn chips are from Blue Farm Chips in Janesville, produced about 37 miles from Cambridge.

And last, but certainly not least, the beer in the picture is Moon Man Pale Ale from New Glarus Brewery in New Glarus, Wisconsin, 45 miles from home.

We try to eat local and enjoy good food here in Wisconsin, and a snack like this should rate us a gold star.

Making Native Bee Nesting Logs

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

Today I finally built some nesting logs for native bees.  I got inspired by the frequent postings of Gail Eichelberger about native plants and native polinators on her blog Clay and Limestone.  I then used some instructions from the Xerces Society (PDF), grabbed some old oak logs and got to work.  Most native bees build solitary nests.  Some nest in the ground and others nest in holes in wood or other cavities.

According to the Xerces Society, holes for wood nesting bees should be 3/32″ to 3/8″ wide and at 3-4″ deep for holes less than 1/4″ in diameter.  And they should be spaced about 3/4″ apart.  Since I had a 3/16″ drill bit on hand, that’s the size that I chose.

Oak logs ready to be drilled for bee habitat.

The logs before drilling. I peeled off some of the bark so that I could get the holes deeper into the wood. Note that beetles have already made some pathways.

Drilling holes in oak log to make nesting site for native bees

Holes are about 3/4″ apart and should be at least 3″ deep.


Oak log with multiple holes drilled in the top for native bee habitat.

The holes are drilled in the upper portion of the log. The lower portion will be buried to mimic a rotting tree trunk.

I dug three holes in my front yard garden near the pink skullcap.  Then I buried the lower portion of the logs deep enough that they would be stable, with the holes facing Southeast.  The holes are only in the upper portion of the logs.

Oak log drilled with holes for native bees placed upright in garden near pink skullcap, Scutellaria suffrutescens

Finished log placed upright by pink skullcap, Scutellaria suffrutescens.

I’ll find out over the coming months if any bees decide to take advantage of these logs.  As an added bonus, the logs add a decorative element to the garden.


Worm Free Cabbage Crops? Check out Neem Oil

Monday, August 6th, 2012


I’ve done battle with the caterpillars of the small white and yellow cabbage butterflies for as long as I’ve gardened. The most destructive caterpillar, known as the Imported Cabbage Worm, is from a white butterfly native to Europe called the Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae).  These insects have only been in North America since the 1860’s, but they like it a lot on this side of the ocean and are a truly destructive pest.

The small green caterpillars of this butterfly will decimate unprotected cole crops.  Their presence is very easy to see.  They eat huge holes in the leaves of the brasiccas, they like to burrow into the center core of cabbages, and they leave trails and piles of frass wherever they occur.

A lot of gardeners use BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) as an organic control.  BT is widely used but I’ve left it alone mainly because of issues relating to its use in genetic engineering and several other possible problems, an overview of which you can read about here:

My best success has been using floating row covers of agricultural fabric.  The row covers have some problems, however.  The fabric tears easily and the moths find their way into and under the covers through the holes and any edges that might not be secured closely to the ground.  The covers are a pain to maintain and keep in place.  And it gets quite a bit hotter and more humid under the row covers than in the open air.  Brassicas prefer it cooler and drier.

Neem Oil

Then we found neem.  I’d heard about neem oil over the years.  Three years ago at a Garden Writers Conference in Oklahoma City, Geoff and I attended a presentation where the origins and insecticidal properties of this natural product were explained in depth.  And two years ago, at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Geoff met Usha Rao of The Ahimsa Alternative,  and we obtained a supply of neem oil to test in our own gardens.

Neem oil is a vegetable oil pressed out of the fruit and seeds of the neem tree, Azadirachta indica, a fast growing tree of the mahogany family that is farmed in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as well as throughout a lot of Africa.  All parts of the tree have useful properties and many people in India regard the tree as sacred.  Within the oil is an active ingredient Azadirachtin, which disrupts the digestive and molting processes of insects that feed on leaves where the oil is present and they eventually die after ingesting the neem.

I’m using a mixture of one tablespoon neem oil, 3/4 tablespoon of liquid horticultural soap, and one tablespoon of seaweed extract in a gallon of water.   The seaweed is there to help the neem mix better with the water and stick better to the plant leaves.  And it also has its own beneficial properties in the foliar feeding of plants. After the initial spray, I spray after rains or after I have to water the plants.  I’m presuming rains and watering may wash away the neem’s effectiveness.  The solution needs be thoroughly mixed.  Concentrated neem oil can burn plant leaves, and the neem oil will coagulate in colder water.

Also, while generally the neem is safe in use around beneficial insects, you should not spray it directly on them, so avoid spraying it when insects are pollinating squash flowers, for example.


I am happy to report that the results appear to be excellent.  I’ve got uncovered brassicas of all types almost totally free of insect damage and I’m pretty sure I’ll get to harvest all without any major insect losses.  It’s interesting, because the butterflies are present, they lay their eggs, the eggs hatch, but then the life cycle ends soon after the caterpillars start feeding.

Neem is supposed to be an all-around useful insecticide, but I haven’t figured out how to make it truly work well on all my cucurbits.  It appears to be quite effective against squash bugs, but I lost several plants to vine borers, which I can understand, as the vine borer caterpillar is protected inside the stem of the plant.  The neem spray seemed to do  nothing to protect against early damage from cucumber beetles, which destroyed several melon and squash plants almost as soon as I transplanted the seedlings into the beds.

Neem seems to be a very useful approach to a lot of garden pests, however, and the upside is that it is very low in toxicity and potential environmental concerns.  I’m going to keep working with it.  If it only gave me good, worm-free cole crops, it would be well worth its cost.

Overhead Irrigation System for a Backyard Garden

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

Watering the Garden

We have not had significant rainfall for six weeks.  I was told that June was the driest recorded here since they started keeping records.  Today and tomorrow will be among the two hottest days in south central Wisconsin since the weather service started logging meteorological data.  103 was reported as a high today, highest ever for July.  The all-time high temperature record here was 104 in August of 1988.   Tomorrow may be hotter yet.

In most of the 26 years I’ve lived here, I’ve not had to worry much about watering my garden.  Rain just fell with enough regularity to count on.  Not every year, for sure, but mostly the rain has been there when we needed it.

This year is different.  Hotter and drier than anything we’ve ever seen.  So I have no choice but to water regularly.  I’m quite happy with this simple system I use to get water down pretty much where I want it.

Overhead Irrigation System

Components, in addition to hoses with quick-connects, are a plastic milk crate, an oscillating sprinkler, and metal spring clamps.  I got my sprinkler at my local Ace Hardware (Ace is the place!).  I really like the design of the new oscillating sprinklers.   Precise control of the arm movement is super easy.  The newer models have thumb tabs to control the arm movement and one can lay down a water pattern with precision.

I’m watering frequently and the garden is looking good.  It’s easy for plants get stressed in these unusual weather conditions, but so far, with my slick overhead irrigation system, all is well in our garden.





It’s Wisconsin. It’s March. It’s Summer!

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

The average March high temperature where I live is 42 degrees.  The average minimum is 24, with an average mean temperature of 32 degrees.  Today, a high of 82 is predicted.  We’ve had highs of upper 70’s to over 80 for the past week.  The lows have been just below 60.

I don’t know if this portends oncoming climatic disaster, but the warm weather is sure making it easy to get a jump start on a lot of this year’s preparation tasks in the garden.  I’ve been taking advantage of the warm weather to clean out my beds of last year’s growth.  It is something I’d have to do anyway, but it’s more pleasant working in a T-shirt.

In the past week I’ve pruned and cleaned out the raspberries, cut back all last year’s asparagus fronds and weeded the asparagus bed, pulled out all the corn stalks from last year’s two beds of corn, and cut down all the stalks in the Jerusalem artichoke bed.  Yesterday, I hauled most of the debris to this year’s new compost pile and worked in the contents of one of the 55 gallon drums of household compost that will fire up and help break down the new pile.

Cold Frame and Compost Piles

But before I went to work on the compost, I moved my cold frame and seeded it with a mix of salad greens.  I first had to harvest the greens that had already sprouted in the frame, left over from last fall.  There was more than enough for Judy and I to enjoy a very nice spring salad of spinach, arugula, mache and lettuce.

After moving the frame to the new area I that had cleaned and raked up, I seeded it with several mesclun salad mixes, various lettuces, spinach, arugula, endives and mache.  I watered it down, and with luck, we’ll be harvesting greens in a few weeks.

Old Compost - New Compost Pile

My new compost pile will reside where I had a three year old pile that was almost used up.  I had previously sifted 6 five gallon buckets of compost to empty the old pile and cleaned out and raked flat the area.  I laid down several inches of stalks and dry material and alternated layers of stalks with a couple 5 gallon buckets of the sludge from my compost barrel.

I’m getting much lazier about diligently following any rules for my compost piles.  I rarely even turn the piles any more.  I now have three piles:  the new one, last year’s, and a pile two years old that is pretty close to being mostly broken down without ever being turned.  I’ll sift that one into buckets and anything that won’t go through my one inch screen gets will get tossed back into the new pile.

As the year progresses, I’ll keep dumping green  material, mostly weed harvest, onto the new pile.  I always have a supply of compost if needed for adding to a bed or for making some soil mixes.  I know my method is not perfect for killing weed seeds because I don’t get it to temperatures hot enough, but I live with my weeds.  I believe that weeds are actually a very good thing to have in the garden and you have to control them just enough so they don’t get the upper hand.

Early Riser

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012


Here’s a snowdrop that’s shown up over a month early.  A lot of snowdrops and crocus have sprouted with our unseasonably warm weather.  I’m going to drop some leaves over them to see if I can help them hang on until their normal blooming time later in March.

Early blooming due to warm spells can be a real problem.  Tender new growth can be frozen when the temperatures return to really cold.   I worry about my fruit trees where new buds that come out too early may get frozen.  That could eliminate fruit production for the year.   As I’ve mentioned before, a warm winter is not necessarily all good.

Climate Change Brussels Sprouts

Friday, January 6th, 2012

January Sprouts

The weather in Wisconsin has been super freaky.  With highs of 50 yesterday and again today following a December with no snow and exceptionally mild temperatures, a lot of the locals are saying, “what the hey, this ain’t all bad!”  I have to say yes and no.  It’s kind of scary, and from a gardener’s perspective, in most ways not so good.

I love a deep snow cover on my garden beds.  The snow offers insulation and moisture.  And too many frost-free days can force perennial plants and trees to bud early.  If a cold snap does come after plants put out some tender new growth, serious damage can follow.  So while I’m enjoying the unusual warmth, I’m actually hoping things get back to normal.

An unexpected bonus of the warm weather was a January harvest of Brussels sprouts.  I’d given up for dead the mangy looking plants in the picture, but when I was checking things out in the garden this afternoon I found a nice harvest of sprouts in very good shape.  It did get down to six degrees a couple nights ago so I thought the sprouts would have succumbed to frostbite, but tonight we’ll enjoy fresh sprouts in January.  Hooray for global warming?

Burning with Boss

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

Our Woods

I posted recently about leaf burning and why I don’t think it’s such a great idea, even if it is allowed, but I was careful to mention that I’m not at all opposed to fires.  Being a relative land baron out here on my almost rural four acres, I would have some major disposal issues if I could not burn prunings, deadfall, and  other natural debris.

Just a little over half our property is wooded.  You can see a neighbor’s house to the east of us in this picture, but if the leaves were still on the trees you wouldn’t know the house was there.  The woods are a great screen from the traffic that goes by on our front road, which is a US Highway and the commuter route between Madison and the town of Jefferson, about 9 miles east of us.

I won’t earn any merit badges for forest management.  I do minimal work in the woods, but I do have to take down any dangerous dead or dying trees, and the deadfall into the lawn area is significant.   I’m also waging constant war against the forest as it encroaches into the yard and garden area, so there are always plenty of pruned branches to be disposed of.

Burning with Boss

So several times a year we have small to large fires to dispose of the trees, branches, and prunings.  It was cold and damp today and a good day for a small fire.  I kept feeding the fire for about an hour while Boss the cat gave me a lot of help. Tomorrow or the next day, when  the ashes are cold, I’ll shovel them up and mix them into  the compost pile.