Archive | March 2018

Poison Spring: The Secret Story of Pollution and the EPA by E. G. Vallianatos

Book Review by OCMGA Master Gardener Karen DesJarlais

9781608199143We’ve all seen him; the guy who is spraying chemicals on his lawn or sections of a yard dressed in flip flops, shorts and a tank top. Proper attire would be something closer to a hazmat suit. But this casual dress and the attitude it reflects toward the toxins is no less calloused than the agency which is charged with protecting our air, water and health–The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

We should shy away from blanket statements and generalizations but in this author’s view, well, just realize that the chemical companies run the EPA and they get what they want. The agency relies on industry “testing” to support junk science to avoid restrictions on chemicals. For decades the EPA has been complicit in allowing industry big profits from poisoning the planet. They intimidate scientists whose reliable studies show endocrine disruption or other toxicity caused by a chemical.

Author Vallianatos worked at the EPA from 1979 to 2004 in their office of Pesticides Programs and was able to save documents which give credibility to his premise of corruption at the agency. He says the EPA is really a polluters’ protection agency. His focus is mostly on pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals used on farms, in homes, lawns and forests. Diverting from the depressing anecdotes about the revolving doors from industry to EPA administrators and back, there are relevant eye opening facts that apply to gardeners. Maybe I’m the only one who thought that on any label, “inert” ingredients meant fillers like maybe sawdust, sand or other harmless stuff which were meant to make the active ingredients more effective or easier to use. Wrong. Inerts (about 1800 of them) can be up to 99% of an individual pesticide. They can include benzene, acetone, formaldehyde, naphthalene and the famous cancer causer, petroleum distillates. These poisons show up all around us and can be more toxic than the active ingredients.

If you needed any more urging to bring your reusable bags to the grocery store, realize that your paper grocery bags are contaminated with piperonyl butoxide, a carcinogenic inert. Atrazine (still used by 75% of corn farmers) aldicarb, dioxin, fracking chemicals, 2-4D, glyphosate (Roundup) Monsanto, Union Carbide, Dow Chemical; these are poisons we know and companies we know. All of them are guilty of poisoning life on this planet.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the USDA are no more responsible than the EPA in regulating the substances or the companies. Apparently risk is not measured by the harm to human or animal health but only the economic loss. The cost of illness is rarely included in an economic “assessment” when considering industry products.


The author introduces us to several competent scientists who issue warnings about overuse of chemicals and one of the more frightening ones is glyphosate. Heavily targeted is Monsanto who leads the way in genetic modification. Roundup ready corn and soybeans have a pathogenic virus which reproduces itself. It’s been found in livestock feed and has caused spontaneous abortions in pigs and cows. Evidence that glyphosate promotes soil pathogens and disease is well documented. So this calls for more chemicals. Sounds like an addiction doesn’t it?

Another scientist chronicles the inefficient and dangerous use of pesticides that reach only minute amounts of their targets. In bean fields, no more than 0.03 percent of the sprayed insecticides hit aphids. On cotton farms, an absurd 0.0000001 percent hits the heliothis caterpillars. The rest ends up elsewhere; on helpful insects, birds, fish, poisoning our soils and washing into our rivers, lakes and blowing in the wind. This is true of most of the hundreds of millions of pounds of agricultural poisons.

We’ve all heard about the startling decline in the number of pollinating honeybees. Parathion neurotoxins sprayed on farm crops are destroying hives. One example of this is a California beekeeper who drove his bees by the truckload south to pollinate a corporate farmer’s crops. “I’d return home always with a third of my bees dead. The farmer’s pesticides would kill my bees,” he sadly reported.

This book explains that neonicotinoid insecticides act by blocking receptors in an insect’s central nervous system. Any insect that feeds on the plant dies but bees and butterflies that collect pollen or nectar are poisoned. The damage is cumulative. With every exposure, more and more receptors are blocked. Worker bees neglect providing food for eggs and larvae and their navigational abilities breakdown. With just a small quantity of exposure, entire colonies collapse. You can thank Bayer and Dow Chemical for this and the EPA for letting them do it.

So here are my big questions. If chemical companies put profits before any health consideration and if the EPA has been aiding and abetting for decades this poisoning of the planet, what will they eat, drink or breathe? Don’t they have families and loved ones who will also be poisoned by their greed? Do they live in a protective bubble separate from the rest of us? Is there any wonder that there is a cancer epidemic in this country?

What to do? Read Poison Spring. Let the EPA know that you know and demand that they stop selling out to chemical industry bullies. Buy your food at the farmers’ market. Grow your own. Boycott these death dealing companies and their poisons. Let them know that you know. And try to stay healthy.


Poisonous Garden

We often hear of people trying to make gardens safe for children and pets. However, there are so many potentially toxic plants that, if you were determined to eliminate every edible hazard, you wouldn’t have much of a garden. In addition to plants like nicotiana and oleander, which are poisonous in every part, there are some plants that have both edible and toxic components, such as tomato and rhubarb. The tomato fruit is safe, as are the red rhubarb stems. But eating the leaves of these plants can cause nausea, convulsions, coma, and in extreme cases, death. Similarly, apricots, peaches, and plums are fine, but their seeds are not, and the bark and leaves of the trees that bear them can be dangerous, too.

Potentially dangerous parts of ornamentals include daffodil bulbs; clematis leaves; the leaves and flowers of mountain laurel, rhododendron, and azalea; leaves and stems of wild black cherry (Prunus serotina); chokecherry (P. virginiana), and pin or wild red cherry (P. pennsylvanica).

Also on the list are English ivy berries; the corms and seeds of autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale); the stems, flowers, and leaves of monkshood (Aconitum spp.), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), and Jerusalem cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum); the leaves and flowers of tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), and truth to tell, several hundred more.

Instead of trying to keep poisons out, we should focus on teaching your children not to put random pickings from the garden — or anywhere else — into their mouths.


And, speaking of poison, did you know that you can get a poison-ivy rash in the winter? Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a native North American trailing or climbing vine, and occasionally a shrub. Every portion, including roots and stems, contains an oil called urushiol, which is capable of producing a nasty dermatitis even in winter.

Although in winter the plant is without its distinctive three leaflets, the bare vine can be recognized by the hairy appearance of its brown, leafless stem, which can scale trees to great heights. The numerous dark rootlets and fibers make it look fuzzy.

Urushiol from the stem and rootlets can remain on tree bark even after the vine has been removed, so if you get the rash and can’t remember seeing any likely cause, the problem may be your firewood.

Poison ivy’s garb at other times includes a handsome crimson leaf in fall (often tempting unwary flower-arrangers), tiny green flowers in spring, and white grape-like berries in late summer that may linger through winter. This fruit is a valuable food for birds, which, unaffected by its oil, help spread the plants when the seeds pass through their system.

Victorian Clock Garden


Floral Clock, Queen Victorian Gardens, Melbourne, Australia

Before modern distractions, everyone who lived with flowers recognized that some of them opened or closed at about the same time each day. Linnaeus, the father of modern plant classification, was one of the first to publish a list arranging common flowering plants in an order that could be used as a clock. After all, sundials do not work on cloudy days, and mechanical timepieces were expensive in the eighteenth century.

Floral clocks work in any weather because the photo-sensitive plants that reflect day length actually take their clues from the length of the night, not the day. But no one understood this until much later, and Linnaeus’s list happened to include some day-neutral plants, such as dandelions, which couldn’t care less about punctuality and which change their schedule throughout their blooming season. Most of Linnaeus’s timekeepers are weeds, but his interest was in getting people to work on time, not in having them admire the clock. Whether you want bindweed, thistle, and hawkweed (5, 7, and 8 a.m. in Uppsala, Sweden, where Linnaeus lived) in your garden is up to you.

The summer sun rises earlier and sets later the farther north you are, and flowers open and close earlier, too. Unfortunately for the Victorian-era gardeners who were using his plant lists, Linnaeus lived farther north than all of Britain, the United States, and most of Europe. Consequently, floral clocks rarely produced useful results. Many Victorians ended up including sundials, simply arranging their plants according to whether they opened in the morning or afternoon. Perhaps if Linnaeus had lived in Geneva with the rest of the clockmakers, his list might have been more useful.


Counting Sunny Hours

Cherub584A sundial makes a charming garden accent and, like a birdbath, actually serves a purpose beyond mere ornamentation. But whether it is a common horizontal type (meant to be mounted on a pedestal) or the less common perpendicular form (for wall mounting), a sundial must be placed with care.

  • It seems obvious, but make sure the spot gets unobstructed sun all day.
  • The sundial will be a focal point no matter where you put it, so put it where a focal point makes sense — in the (wide) intersection of two paths, for instance, or at the end of a long axis.
  • The mounting spot must be level, and it must be accessible; if you put the sundial in the middle of a flower bed, nobody will be able to read it.
  • Don’t forget about daylight savings time when you set it up. The sundial should tell the true (sun) time, even though it’s likely to be used mostly in the summer.
  • To avoid mistakes, place the sundial provisionally, without affixing it to the spot, and check it every few hours for a couple of days.
  • Just in case you’re fond of crossword puzzles, the part that casts the shadow is called the gnomon.

Basement Nursery

In an effort to improve seedling production in the spring, you might consider moving your seedlings from a sunny window (that may or may not be sunny every day) to an area where you can install fluorescent lights. Moving seedlings into an environment where the light can be controlled, and the day and night temperatures won’t fluctuate wildly, cries out for a heated basement. Even the sunniest windows rarely offer more than a few hours of really bright light each day, and that doesn’t count the losses because of cloudy days or a light covering of dust or dirt on the window glass.

dbe19db223bbfa992e50b92fe1b12023--a-frame-plant-standsBut even with the fluorescent lights on for 18 hours, seedlings don’t really get enough light. While a fluorescent light looks bright to us, it is a poor substitute to a seedling expecting to bask in the sun. To provide enough light, use two 4-foot-long, two-bulb shop fixtures (available at any hardware store), suspended just 2 to 6 inches above the seedlings.

Special grow lights aren’t magic. Often, there is just a blue coating on the inside of the tube. The overall amount of light is reduced, and the seedlings think they have sunglasses on. A mix of warm white and cool white tubes will give the right kind of light, and more of it.

A small fan is needed nearby to move the air, helping to prevent fungus diseases and to flex those little seedling stems, enabling them to grow stronger and thicker (just like going to the gym). But don’t get carried away trying to make little Arnold Schwarzenpeppers.

Most seedlings like it comfy — temperatures in the 60s and room to grow. If they are too crowded, or if that furnace is overheating them, they will become stretched and spindly. Perhaps they are trying to grow up quickly and get away!

Buy your seeds early while there are lots of choices, but don’t start them too early. Look on each package for the right timing, and mark your calendar.

Earlier posts on seed starting: