Archive for July, 2011

Beware of bringing outside inputs into your garden!  I began to hear about problems with persistent herbicides in compost that were causing crop damages when gardeners applied it to their gardens in 2001.  It used to be that good organic gardeners gleaned compost materials from everywhere they could.  They took in leaves and grass clippings from their neighbors and gladly hauled stable bedding from wherever they could find it.  Even if these materials had been produced by conventional methods, rather than organic ones, it was thought that whatever residual chemicals might be left would break down in the composting process.  Not anymore.

There is a 21st century problem of herbicides that can survive the composting process and still be active enough to cause herbicide damage on your vegetables.  These herbicides target broadleaf plants and are used to produce weed-free lawns and weed-free hay and grain.  If you used grass clippings or hay and straw from treated areas as mulch, you could find yourself with herbicide damage to your garden.  Furthermore, if an animal ate the hay from a treated field and the manure was composted, that compost would still contain the active herbicide.

The first chemical I heard about was clopyralid, marketed by Dow AgroSciences.  By 2004, the label had been changed to try to keep the clippings from treated turf out of the compost stream.  Until 2007 I was reading about places far from my home.  Then the September 2007 issue of Growing for Market published the article Contaminated hay ruins crops.  The folks at Waterpenny Farm in Sperryville, VA had experienced herbicide damage on their tomatoes and squash as a result of applying hay as mulch.  They had bought second quality hay, as usual, from a farmer they’d been dealing with for five years.  Unfortunately, that farmer had begun using an herbicide containing picloram on the fields he cut.  The herbicide salesman did the application and the farmer never saw the label, which stated not to use the hay from a treated field as mulch.  At that time, September 2007, we were deep into working on our video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden.  I had long since stopped using outside sources for compost and mulch materials as I concentrated on GROW BIOINTENSIVE  methods.

cover crops in winter

cover crops in winter

If I did not already have that knowledge of how to use cover crops, I would have felt completely helpless.  I was very sad to learn what happened at Waterpenny, knowing it would also be happening to countless others.  On the other hand, our new video would show people how to raise their own compost and mulch materials as part of building their soil fertility.  I was happy to be able to offer a solution.

For some updated research for this post, I headed to the library at the Western Campus of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College where I used to teach.  That library has the best selection of sustainable ag books I have ever seen.  It also has BioCycle magazine.  Sure enough, the June 2011 issue of BioCycle had the article  Dupont Label Says “Do Not Compost” Grass Clippings  by Dan Sullivan.  It seems that this problem is never-ending.  DuPont now has the herbicide aminocyclopyrachlor which has been marketed as Imprelis to the landscape industry–people who need a pesticide license to apply it.  However, Scotts is going to be adding it to a product for homeowners– people who don’t have a pesticide applicator license.  Watch for it in some of the Scotts Miracle-Gro weed control products in a garden center or big box store near you!  Aminocyclopyrachlor will replace 2,4-D and atrazine in these products.  Just two weeks ago, Barbara Pleasant wrote about aminocyclopyrachlor for Mother Earth News at http://www.motherearthnews.com/grow-it/imprelis-killer-compost-zb0z11zrog.aspx, including problems of Imprelis with trees and shrubs.

These companies know of the damage that can occur when these chemicals persist through composting and end up in your garden.  They feel they are doing their part to keep them out of your gardens by including on the label instructions to not use what is taken off the fields or landscapes in compost or as mulch.  In the real world, however, these things DO end up as compost or mulch.  To protect yourself you would have to be able to go to the farmer and ask what has been applied to the field and search the label yourself.  The feed store that you get your hay and straw from may have run out of their local supply and brought some in from far away.  The place you got that truckload of compost from may have many input sources.  Good luck!  If you already have a problem with contaminated soil, learn all you can.  You will have to play a waiting game for a few years for the herbicide to no longer be effective, but you can grow grass there.  Barbara Pleasant reports a way to test for these chemicals by soaking the materials and using the water on pots of beans at http://www.motherearthnews.com/ask-our-experts/simple-compost-test.aspx.  For more information on this issue, google  “killer compost”.

You could forget about those other sources and only use what you grow yourself.  Besides, bringing materials from outside your boundaries depletes the soil where they are grown.  What is going to feed back that area?  We have to look at the whole picture–the complete cycle.

make compost IN your garden

My video Cover Crops and Compost Crops IN Your Garden takes you from March through November in my garden and shows you how to manage those crops using only hand tools. My video Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan shows you how to plan those crops into your rotation.  Choosing the right crops and planting and harvesting them at the right time takes some practice.  My blog will give you help along the way with posts such as Cutting a Rye Cover Crop at Pollen Shed and Grains in Your Garden.

It appears there will be persistent herbicides with us for quite awhile.  Rather than try to learn the chemical names and the products they are used in, it is best to avoid any herbicide use altogether.  Think of your property as one living organism.  Whatever is done to one bit of it affects the rest.  Learn to manage your soil fertility with cover crops and you and your garden will be much healthier.   Happy cover cropping! 


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bees on their porch-BLOG

bees on their porch

Beekeeping seems to be all the rage these days.  Bees are a really important part of our ecosystem and people are beginning to realize that.  Actually all insects are important, it’s just that bees are more noticeable and you can “keep” them.  This is the fifth year I’ve had bees.  When I started, I was really a newbie.  As much as I know about growing vegetables, I knew little to none about having bees.  I had to pore over the Dadant catalog and read the beginning beekeeping books.  Just as gardeners can get loads of good information from seed catalogs, new beekeepers can learn much from the beekeeping supply catalogs.  A friend loaned me a series of video tapes that helped. I still have a lot to learn, but four things I would pass on about beekeeping are:

1. Whatever they are selling the honey for at the farmers market is probably a bargain, compared to getting set up and producing your own.

2. Provide a watering hole for your bees or they will become unwelcome visitors at your neighbor’s pool or fountain.

3. Join a bee club.

4. Find a mentor or friend to go through the experience with you.

three hives-BLOG

Cindy's three hives

Getting started with bees is not the same as adding a few chickens to your backyard.  You could make any sort of shelter out of found materials for your hens.  Bees, on the other hand, need special housing if you want to manage them easily for a honey harvest. In the wild, of course, they do well on their own without our interference.   The regular box hive is what most people associate with beekeeping.  It was refined about 1850 by Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth with his concept of “bee space” making it easier to remove the frames.   New thinking is going the way of top bar hives.  I know a few beekeepers who have started using a top bar hive, but I don’t know if they’ve extracted honey yet.  I understand that you have to destroy the comb to get the honey.  That leaves you with plenty of wax to make into candles, but the bees have to produce that much again for a place to store their honey.  With the Langstroth hives, the frames with comb and honey can be spun in an extractor to take the honey and leave the comb intact.  There are pros and cons for both hives.  If you want to learn more about those top bar hives, there will be two people speaking about them at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA in September.  Their websites are http://www.goldstarhoneybees.com/  and http://www.beelanding.com/.  I’ll be there as well.  

I started with one hive, buying a beginner kit, plus the coveralls, plus whatever additional equipment I needed for the one hive from Dadant.  Adding the bees(which might cost about $75), I probably spent about $350.  Since the first year the bees are building their home by producing comb in the two brood boxes and storing their winter food, they generally don’t have honey to spare.  I was looking forward to extracting some for myself the second year.  My bees, however, didn’t survive the winter.  There are so many reasons that may happen.   They can have food in the form of honey or sugar water in the hive and if it’s not right next to them, they’ll just crawl into their little cells and starve.  The weather is a big factor and even if they look great at the beginning of March and you pat yourself on the back for getting them through the winter, a cold rainy spell could take them out two weeks later.  I found out after I started with one hive that it’s recommended to start with two.  That would make the cost be about $500 to get started.  So while you’re learning if you even like to use honey on a regular basis, what you can buy at the farmers market is a bargain.

Providing water for my bees is something that took me by surprise.  Luckily,we  have great neighbors who welcomed them at their fountain, which is right next to their door.  Thanks Willie and Joyce, for being so nice to my bees!  When I realized that was happening, I put out a bird bath and keep it filled.  Now, they spend more time at home in our yard.  Some of my beekeeping friends have neighbors who are not so welcoming.

Joining a bee club in your area is a good idea.  You will meet others who really know what they’re doing, along with people who are just learning like yourself.  Bee clubs have speakers and often sponsor classes.  Some clubs own equipment such as extractors that members can borrow.  I joined the Central Virginia Beekeepers Association–East and have made many new friends in the process.  Besides learning much from what goes on in the meetings, one of our members, Paul Hodge, puts out a monthly to-do list for us.  It was through his encouragement and guidance that so many of us have divided our hives and started a nuc this year to raise new colonies.  Thanks Paul! 

Hook up with a mentor and/or friend for this journey.  You can most likely find one at the bee club.  Sometimes they have a list of members who have volunteered to be mentors.  Just ask.  A mentor can take you through the initial steps of knowing what to do and can be a resource to call on for help.  A good friend is someone who will join you regularly working your hive and extracting honey.  A local mentor in my area was Mr. Mac, who passed away the year I got started in bees.  I never met Mr. Mac, but I’ve sure learned a lot from him through those that he mentored over the years.  “Mr. Mac always said…..” peppers many conversations.  Thanks Mr. Mac, for teaching so many people, so that they can teach me!

jarring honey-closeup-BLOG

straining honey into the jars

This year I have three hives.  One is a strong hive that made it through the winter,  one is a split that I made from that hive this spring, and the third is from a package that I ordered in December for April delivery, not wanting to assume my bees would overwinter.  I have honey this year!  It is the first appreciable amount from my bees that I’ve had.  That strong hive filled two supers of honey for me.  My bee buddy, Angela, and I extracted it recently along with a super from her bees.  Until now, I may have had a few frames of honey from my bees that I extracted by cutting off the cappings and leaving the frames upside down in a picnic cooler so that the honey would drain out. I put canning jar lids down as spacers to hold the frames off the bottom of the cooler.  I have gotten together with Angela before to extract honey and we uncapped it over canning pots to capture the wax.  This year I splurged and bought an uncapping tank from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm.   This tank is actually called a multi-use straining system in their catalog.  Angela owns the extractor we use. 

bee cleanup-closeup-BLOG

bees cleaning the uncapping tank

Uncapping requires a long serrated knife and special ones are made for that job.  A five gallon plastic bottling pail is good to have.  Even the years I didn’t get any honey from my bees, I still had honey when another bee buddy, Freda, gave me her surplus.  The extractor has to be drained periodically during the process and you have to put it somewhere in a hurry.  You bottle it from that bucket.  A strainer that fits over the top of the bucket is good to strain out the bits of wax and bee parts that may come off the frames.  I have such a strainer, but couldn’t find it when we extracted, so in the picture you see it being strained as it goes into the jars.  I much prefer straining it as it goes into the bucket.  When you’re done, just leave the sticky equipment outside for the bees to clean up. 

There is so much to learn about beekeeping and I hope you decide to jump in and be part of it.  Go ahead and join a bee club even if you don’t know when, if ever, you will get bees.  Older beekeepers are probably looking for volunteers to do some heavy lifting for them while tagging along in the beeyard.  That could be you!

For those who are local, beginning today I am giving a series of talks for three weeks at Midlothian and Bon Air Libraries in Chesterfield County.  I’ll present Feed Your Family from Your Own Backyard, Part 1 (GROW BIOINTENSIVE), Part 2 (garden planning), and Part 3 (cover crops)  Tuesdays at Midlothian and Wednesdays at Bon Air.  Contact the library for more information.  Attendance is free, however registration is recommended.  See you there.

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