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.


A Perennial Life – Life Lessons from the Garden

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

51qZttaFqmLI love annual flowers. They’re quite impressive, blooming continuously throughout summer, providing lots of color and garden interest. They grow quickly, mature fast and provide nearly instant gratification. They’re attractive, eye-catching and beautiful. However, they are fragile. Annuals will perish easily at autumn’s first frost. They’re also more high maintenance, preferring lots of water, care and fertilizer to perform best.

Perennials, on the other hand, are unfazed by harsh winters and months of lying dormant beneath a blanket of snow. Many can tolerate drought, prairie fires, withstand storms, heat, wind, cold and other environmental abuses. The ups and downs of life make them stronger and they persevere. They aren’t concerned with a momentary display of beauty to impress passers by; they’re concerned with sustaining a life that’s in it for the long haul.

I want a perennial life. I want to live a life that withstands the harsh realities, the cold winters, the storms, the droughts, the abuses of this world. I want my roots to go down deep and to hold on tightly to a foundation that can sustain me through tough times. I want to live my life so that its impact continues on for generations, not just for a season. I want to be reliable, strong, determined, unfazed by death or darkness.

I don’t want to be like an annual; a flash in the pan, a brilliant display for a moment in time, high maintenance. I don’t want to merely impress with my outward appearance, knowing that it will all fade away at the first sign of opposition or hardship. I don’t want to be constantly screaming for more – more nourishment, more water, more attention. More, more, more!

But here’s the problem … I want the results of a perennial life, but I don’t want to endure the painful, tedious and difficult process. I would just as soon not go through all the hardships. I’d much prefer an easier life, a prettier life. Admittedly, my human nature wants to be known as beautiful, alluring and desirable, and for people to not notice my character flaws and selfish ambitions. My human nature wants be impressive, colorful and noticed. See me. Notice me. Tell me what I want to hear. But an annual life is a selfish life.

But there’s another side of me … a side that longs to put aside and not care what other people think of me. I long to be known as a person of integrity, reliability, humble confidence and unwavering character. I want to be known as someone whose life impacts future generations and the world. Even more than just to be known as those things … I want to be those things. I don’t want to exist just for my own selfish ambition or glorification … for more, more, more, shriveling when opposition comes my way. I prefer a perennial life, lived one painful season at a time.

I Love, Love, Love Lavender!

With visions of Heathcliff on the moors gathering fragrant bunches of heather and lavender, I’m swept up every time I use one of my lavender-scented soaps or walk through my garden and brush against the fragrant blooms of my lavender plants. I didn’t always have success growing the lavender, though. For a while, I had one as a houseplant until I overwatered it and sadly had to add it to the compost pile. Then, I had a couple in my garden that lived but didn’t thrive until I finally decided to do some research on why I was failing so often with this beloved plant.

Enter ‘The Lavender Lover’s Handbook’, a badly needed and now heavily well-worn gift from my daughter-in-law who knew of my love for the plant. This book, by Sarah Berringer Bader, has been a primary reason for the turn-around of my plants from surviving to thriving.

First of all, though, let’s talk about why you should include lavender in your garden:

  • it’s absolutely beautiful with foliage that ranges from various shades of green through gray-green to silver. The flowers come in shades of blue, purple, pink, and white so versatility is huge!
  • the fragrance is incredible and, when dried, the flowers last long into the winter
  • grown in the right spot, very little to no care is needed. As long as the spot has full sun, good drainage, and plenty of room to spread out, you can focus on plants that require your attention. Lavender will take care of itself, thank you very much!
  • lavender attracts a range of pollinators — the good ones that not only pollinate your garden but also eat the pests you don’t want! Watch carefully on a sunny day and you’ll find bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies, ladybugs, and praying mantises drawn to this delightful plant.

There are many, many lavender plants from which to choose so you’ll want to do your homework to make sure you’re ordering or buying a plant that will thrive in your growing zone. Because lavender is exceptionally drought tolerant, it’s a great addition any area of your garden where watering is a problem. Consider combining it with other drought-tolerant plants like Achillea millefolium (yarrow), Echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower), Gallardia grandiflora (blanket flower), and Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed Susan). The purple / yellow combination of these plants will make a beautiful garden area.

Lavender and roses love growing together as well (see prior blog post here) and makes less work for you! While roses attract aphids, lavender attracts aphid-eating ladybugs. Roses do want more water than lavender, however, so you’ll want to mulch the roses to retain water. The flowers from both lavender and roses can be gathered and dried, but here’s where my skills leave me — utilizing the flowers for teas, soaps, baking, sachets, and crafts. However, with both purple and white lavender in my garden along with some beautiful yellow roses, I’m planning on learning these skills!

by OCMGA Master Gardener Vicki Schilleman

Authors in our Midst and at our Garden Conference – #2

Author Stacy Tornio

Stacy Tornio was my inspiration to become a Master Gardener. At the time, she was the editor of Birds & Blooms and a Master Gardener herself. Since then, she has branched out to pursue her goal of being a published author — and has been wildly successful. With 15 published books currently available on amazon, Stacy was the keynote speaker at our Garden Conference several years ago and a vendor this year.

Stacy’s most recent book, Plants You Can’t Killwas written with an eye toward inexperienced gardeners but there’s a wealth of information in the book for those of us who can’t figure out what we’re doing wrong! Loaded with beautiful photographs, it’s a book that should be in every gardener’s library.

From the amazon page:

“I kill everything I plant.”

Does this sound like you or someone you know? Give yourself a pat on the back because admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. And lucky for you, you can easily turn your brown thumb into a green one with the help of Plants You Can’t Kill.

Seriously—it doesn’t matter how many plants you’ve killed in gardens past. It’s time to put those experiences behind you and finally grow something in your empty and bare spots. This is the only gardening book you’ll ever need with more than 100 plant picks for every situation. You want veggies? We have ’em. You need to fill a big space? We have shrub ideas for you. You just want something pretty? We have plenty of that, as well.

The plants in Plants You Can’t Kill have been vetted by an amazing and famous panel of horticulture experts (this is just a fancy way of saying they went to college for gardening), so feel confident you’re not wasting money on yet another gardening book. These plants will actually survive your well-meaning, yet sometimes neglectful ways.

Ready for the most resilient, hardcore, badass list of plants known to gardeners? Find them and grow them with the help of Plants You Can’t Kill.

by OCMGA Master Gardener Vicki Schilleman

Authors in our Midst and at our Garden Conference – #1

Master Gardener and author Tammy Borden

One of our Master Gardeners, Tammy Borden, is also a published author and accomplished singer. Tammy was the emcee at our recent Garden Conference, as well as the Chair of the committee that planned and executed the event. She’s a giving and spiritual human being. From the amazon page showcasing her book:

Every soul longs for purpose and new life. But when we’re in the midst of a cold, dark winter with no hope on the horizon, it can feel like life is futile and spring will never come.

Broken dreams, loss, addiction, betrayal, fears, guilt, and haunting reminders of our past can overwhelm our souls. We dream of a day when we can break free from the bondage and silence the toxic voices that play over and over in our minds, convincing us we’re failures and that things will never change.

So we search. We try more. Pray more. Read more. Thinking we just need to believe more. Yet the peace and joy we desperately seek continue to elude us, and it seems as though God does, too. We’re left feeling more alone and empty than before.

In A Perennial Life, Tammy Borden invites you to newly discover who you are and, more importantly, who God truly is so you can let go of past regrets and experience the abundant life you’re meant to live. Through heart-gripping true stories, playful humor, raw confessions, and transparent admissions of life’s deepest longings, she’ll help you embrace and redeem your own story — your seasons of life — so you can transform, grow, and unveil the significant purpose your heart longs for.


by OCMGA Master Gardener Vicki Schilleman

Agatha Christie, Zombies, and Deadly Nightshade

“Belladonna is a poisonous plant with a long history of use by humans as a beauty aid, as a medicine and as a murder weapon.” So begins the second chapter (Chapter B) in the book A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup.

As gardeners, it’s fun when our passion for plants intersects with other areas of our daily life. In my case, that means books and reading. This particular little volume got my attention because, as an admirer of Dame Agatha Christie and her many novels, I’m always intrigued by the inspiration and ideas of great writers. The book contains a chapter on each of 14 poisons that are used extensively in the Agatha Christie novels — nine of which come directly from the garden. The other five are chemical compounds.

Each chapter describes the poison in question, how it’s obtained, the effects on the human body, and medical applications. There are also descriptions of real-life cases of murder using the poison and, of course, instances when the poison has been used in the Agatha Christie books. It’s particularly fascinating to read about people using many of these poisons as dietary supplements and for cosmetic purposes.



Belladonna is a member of the family Solanaceae, which also includes mandrake and datura. All of these plants are well-known in the world of witchcraft, but their gentle family members (potatoes and tomatoes) are more well-known to the rest of us. The mandrake may be the most famous of the evil side of the family, mentioned in the Bible and, more recently, in the Harry Potter books.

Datura’s poisons are found primarily in the flowers and seeds, and has a variety of common names like thorn apple (because of appearance of the fruit) and moonflower (because it’s flowers open at night). The datura strammonium, known as jimsonweed, was responsible for a mass poisoning of soldiers in Jamestown, Virginia. In Haiti, datura is known as the zombie cucumber, and the book takes some time to describe the two-step process in creating a zombie.

Some of the other plant-based poisons in the book:  hemlock, opium, digitalis, monkshood, and ricin. It’s a fun read and will give you a greater respect when handling those lovely plants you find in your garden and nature.

Jimson Weed flower

Jimson Weed flower

Jimson Weed seed pod

Jimson Weed seed pod

“The Forgotten Garden” (book review)

imagesBook Review by Master Gardener Karen DesJarlais

It’s hammock season and this book will make you forget that you wanted to thin those perennials or move that shrub. If it’s horticultural enlightenment that you seek, this is not the book for you. It was published in 2008 so if you missed it, it’s worth going back to pick up. The story crosses three generations beginning with a four year old girl named Nell on a ship traveling from London to Brisbane, Australia. Curious thing is, she is alone. Near the very end we find out why. Over the time span of almost a century, we search for her roots along with her granddaughter Cassandra who travels to London to investigate the family tree. Growing metaphors aside, you’ll want to keep track of the year noted at the beginning of each chapter. Mystery abounds in many directions as we follow the back and forth of Nell. The unintended sting of finding out that she was left on the dock, brought home and raised by a kindly dock worker and his wife, her eccentricities, and the distance that she feels not knowing her origins weave a secretive and gripping tale. Cassandra learns more about the origins of her grandmother Nell after her death when she realizes that she has inherited Nell’s cottage in London. It takes a while for her to discover the garden. It is truly forgotten and the estate which housed it has plenty of its own secrets which are chilling and heartbreaking at the same time. Certainly our gardens have history, but hopefully none like this one. You’ll like the characters Morton has created, well most of them anyway. Sweetness, bitterness, selfishness and love make these 550 pages fly. Make sure your hammock cradles you for The Forgotten Garden.