Archive for the ‘garden’ Category

Myth: Green Thumbs Are Born, Not Made

Posted by Daisy Simmons on

Step 1 to Garden Glory: Admit to Dragging Soil Through the Mud

In the dog-eat-dogwood world of gardening, plants get all the glory, while soil has, well, something of a reputation problem. Many of us think of soil as a dull means to an end—that is, if we haven’t already written it off as just plain dirty. Plants, on the other hand, are a grand reward for a job well done, or so it seems, for the happy few that were born plant whisperers.

Dark and crumbly, soft and earthy-smelling...ah, healthy soil. (NRCS)

Dark, crumbly, and soft–now that’s some good soil! (NRCS)

It’s time we give soil a reputation makeover—in truth, because the mind-boggling complexity of the stuff deserves our respect. Another solid reason to crush on dirt: Recognizing what’s beneath our feet as interesting, even wondrous, is your best bet for developing a green thumb and turning soil into the pretty flowers and tasty veggies we crave.

Why not just pour some nice fresh soil in the ground and leave uncovering its secrets to the pros? To root out the answer, we called on Bryant Scharenbroch, PhD, soil scientist with the Morton Arboretum and Liam Heneghan, PhD, a soil-loving ecologist with DePaul University. (more…)

Myth: Monarchs and GMO Foods Are Unrelated

Posted by Daisy Simmons on

Why North America Is Losing in the Monarch Games

Wanna talk Olympic pursuits? Every fall, monarch butterflies in eastern North America embark on an epic journey. Putting in 50-100 miles a day, they travel up to 3,000 miles from the U.S. and Canada to the fir forests of Mexico’s Neovolcanic Mountains, where they settle in for a few months of subtropical sun before winging it back north in March.

Monarchs cluster on fir boughs in central Mexico (Sweet Briar College)

Monarchs cluster on fir boughs in Mexico. (Sweet Briar College)

Ground zero for scientific study on this more than 10,000-year-old migration is Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage site, where an estimated 95 percent of the eastern monarchs spend the winter, making it, as UNESCO puts it, “the most dramatic manifestation of the phenomenon of insect migration.”

This winter, though, monarchs are occupying the smallest area they have since scientists started measuring 20 years ago, according to a new report by the World Wildlife Fund-Mexico. (more…)

Myth: Winter Wildlife Don’t Need Our Help

Posted by Daisy Simmons on

Mirror, Mirror, Should We Help Backyard Animals?

You probably know that feeding wildlife is for the birds (literally!). In polar vortex-y times like this, though, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the non-homo-sapiens among us, who don’t have the luxury of modern heating or funny YouTube videos to keep them cozy on cold wintry nights.

Little guys like this could use a little extra love in the suitable habitat department. (NWF)

Little guys like this could use a little extra love in the suitable habitat department. (NWF)

Sure, animals can handle a little chill in the air. It’s not like this is their first winter ever. But when you consider the other factors at play (heigh ho, habitat loss and climate change), it makes sense that animals could use a little extra love right about now.

If offering up our bread crumbs and last night’s leftovers is off the table, though, what are wildlife well-wishers to do?

To find out how to help local animals without disturbing the peace, we turned to the pros: The Nature Geek, aka David Mizejewski, of the National Wildlife Federation, and Bill Zeigler, senior vice president of animal programs at Chicagoland’s Brookfield Zoo—who both agree that helping animals who live outside your home can be a very good thing, as long as you take your cue from Mama Earth.

A Grimm Tale of Reduced Habitat and Extreme Weather

You may be wondering why wildlife need our help, when the whole point is they’re well, wild (read: they live their lives without our intervention). Well, we humans have been populating the world for so long now that it’s easy to forget how much we can alter the environment by building a neighborhood—from home-building itself to the way we so often replace native trees and shrubs with non-native plants and turf grass. The result of our tinkering is often a reduction in their food supply as well as sheer physical space for wildlife to hide, sleep, and raise their young.

That shrinking habitat is compounded by the “trickle-down negative effect of climate change,” as Mizejewski puts it, with extreme weather consequences like fire, drought, and severe storms adding extra pressure to already declining wildlife populations. So even though animals are indeed adapted to live in different seasons without our assistance, he and Zeigler agree that survival is just plain harder when we’ve removed the natural shelter and food sources from a given area, and extreme weather only makes what is available even scarcer.

The good news: The solution is strikingly simple, when you think about it. The NWF’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program recommends providing animals with natural sources of food, water, cover, and places to raise young.

Whistle While You Work…to Plant a Good Habitat

Have a nice tidy lawn? Chances are it’s not exactly a haven for wildlife. Making room for a few natural features can give wild critters “the potential for shelter and food, and ultimately improves the environment in our own backyards,” advises Zeigler.

WalkingtheTalk-BrookfieldZoo-EcoMythsStep one: “Take a look at the environment around the habitat that hasn’t been disturbed,” he suggests. Try to mimic it with things like native shrubs and brush, which create micro-niches, aka good habitat, during the winter. “A good example,” Zeigler mentions, “was last month’s minus 40-degree wind chill, when those micro-niches were especially important for wildlife survival because they helped keep them from being directly exposed to the wind.”

The key, according to both experts, is to provide your services naturally—and the simplest way to do that, is to start at, ahem, ground level…

Yes, a huge part of the solution comes down to the plants you have or can get. According to Mizejewski, tree cavities are a major shelter, so, if you have a dying tree or one that’s snagged with nooks and crannies, do what you can to save it. Got a wooded lot you’ve been meaning to clear out? Try to keep some trees in place for shelter.

Similarly, many native plants serve as great natural fences; try meadow or prairie flowers, and dense groups of shrubs. If you’ve got ‘em, keep ‘em. If you don’t, start shopping for spring plantings. “Living fences can provide cover in a natural way,” remarks Mizejewski, “and if you pick the right species, you can provide food, berries, or nectar for wildlife at the same time as cover and shelter.”

Why native plants? If you have a landscape that is mostly planted with native species, Mizejewski points out that you could end up with 60 percent more beneficial insects than conventional American lawns and yards that are planted with non-native (i.e., exotic) species…which is a good thing, he adds, because upward of 95 percent of birds rely on insects as food.

Some of the Midwest's natural beauties (Chicago Botanic Garden)

Some of the Midwest’s natural beauties (Chicago Botanic Garden)

If you’re not sure how to determine if something is native, Zeigler suggests learning your climate zone, which can help you identify plants that are indigenous to those regions. He also urges exotic-plant fans to open their hearts and minds to mixing their colorful imported plants with native species. “If you take the time to learn about them, there are a lot of native species that can give you a yard with as much color and cover as you like.” Another bonus, he adds, is that once they’re established, native plants typically require less money and maintenance time than non-natives. This is because native plants are acclimated to the local environment and are accustomed to growing there without human help.

Once Upon a Frigid Time

What’s that you say—you wanna act now but can’t exactly plant anything in frozen ground? Here are a few ways to achieve near-instant gratification in the helping wildlife department:

  • Try brush piles, which Mizejewski says are a great way to offer shelter for wildlife. His handy how-to book has instructions on how to build them with little chambers, maximizing space inside for different kinds of wildlife.
  • Pile up rocks or branches and sticks in a corner of your yard to give critters like chipmunks a place to get out of the elements, or leave a pile of fallen leaves for insects to burrow under.
  • Leave some leaf litter or ground cover in your lawn, advises Zeigler, to provide moisture for amphibians.
  • Fill bird feeders with seeds and thistle, which Zeigler says are good energy and nutrient sources for cold, tired birds.

Supplying water is a trickier topic. The simplest way to check this off your NWF certification checklist is to put out a birdbath. To keep it from becoming a mosquito breeding ground in summer, dump any pooled water and fill with fresh water every three to four days. For more water-related tips, visit NWF’s habitat-certification page.

Charming Overload?

For anyone worried that helping animals will make them too dependent on us, both Zeigler and Mizejewski agree it won’t—as long as you’re helping them naturally by increasing habitat in the ways listed above.

Ahem. Still got your Christmas tree? Zeigler recos setting it up in the yard to add temporary shelter for birds, especially if your yard doesn't have any evergreens. Psst: same applies next year if you're already tree-free.

Still trying to figure out what to do with your Christmas tree? Zeigler recos setting it in the yard as temporary shelter for birds, especially if evergreens aren’t already growing there. Keep it in mind for next year if you’re already tree-free.

“It’s not making them dependent to make your outdoor space friendlier to wildlife,” explains Zeigler, “it’s just duplicating what happens in the natural environment when you see shrubs, hedges, and deadfall protecting wildlife from the wind and creating spaces where snow may not be as deep.”

A big caveat: It can definitely be harmful to provide wildlife (other than birds) with artificial food. “Never feed wildlife,” warns Mizejewski. “Let them find food naturally. Help them instead by restoring their natural habitat and putting native plants back in.”

Things are a bit different when it comes to feeding birds, which we’ve previously learned is a-okay. “The correlating myth is birds will die if we stop feeding them,” notes Mizejewski. “But that’s not the case. They rely on natural food in the landscape, so if you stop feeding them, it’s no different than if a shrub produces its berries all at once and an animal eats them all, then moves on to its next food source. If you go away for a week or two and feeders are empty, it doesn’t mean you’ve killed all the birds.”

In addition to the fuzzy-feel-good experience of helping animals, adding more plants to your yard, especially trees, offers big benefits to us. For one, it helps us all have cleaner air, points out Zeigler. And supporting a diversity of plant and animal species helps bring the whole ecosystem into balance.

PersonalSide-NatureGeek-EcoMyths“There are lots of thing you can do when it comes to how you manage your own little piece of the environment,” enthuses Mizejewski. We have a choice. We can create communities with thriving biodiverse ecosystems right in the middle of cities and towns.”

EcoMyth Outcome: Myth Busted

You can help wildlife make it through the long cold winter by making your yard a healthy habitat.



Myth: Fresh Cafeteria Food Is an Oxymoron

Posted by Daisy Simmons on

A Fine Mess: The Case for a Healthier School Cafeteria

As the old saying goes, no school lunch is complete without a serving of deep-fried, mechanically-separated meat substance; a processed-cheese-drenched side; and a partially-hydrogenated-oil-stuffed dessert…Though time-honored, such cafeteria staples are exactly why VIPs like Michelle Obama and Jamie Oliver have made it a mission to revolutionize school lunch programs.

The big idea is that integrating school gardens and increasing the use of whole, locally sourced, and organic ingredients will enable students to eat healthier, as well as to better understand food systems. Indeed, a sea change is afoot in school systems across the country, and it’s enough to support the position that serving fresh food in cafeterias is more than a pipe dream—it’s a necessity. (more…)

Myth: Leaving Grass Clippings on the Lawn Causes Thatch

Posted by Daisy Simmons on

The Lawn Ranger: What Happens When You Leave Grass Clippings on the Lawn?

It’s time for a showdown…between law-abiding homeowners and the grass clippings running rampant on their lawns. Could these outlaws be contributing to the dastardly thatch threatening to destroy their turf? Find out in this action-packed installment of EcoMyths.

First, let’s tip our hats to today’s info-wielding heroes: Professor Peter Landschoot, PhD, who directs Penn State’s Center for Turfgrass Science, and Aaron Patton, PhD, a professor of agronomy at Purdue University and Purdue Turf Tips blogger. Short story is, both are shooting straight from the hip when they urge us to let grass clippings lie.

Lifting the Mask on Thatch

For those lawn-owning folks lucky enough to have never heard of thatch, here’s a quick primer. In addition to being a cheeky nickname for a certain former British prime minister, thatch is an intermingled layer between the turf surface and the soil beneath that’s made up of stems, root material, and other slow-to-decompose plant parts. It can affect turfgrass virtually anywhere. (more…)

Myth: All Bees Sting

Posted by Daisy Simmons on

Buzz-kill: Afraid Bees Are Out to Sting You?

It’s criminal—every day, in yards, picnic areas, and outdoor cafes across the country, scary bees stalk unsuspecting humans, slap-happy with sting power and thirsty for blood. Or…at least that’s how lots of people think of bees. Who among us has not frozen in cartoonish fear at the sound of a nearby buzz? Bug scientists, however, say we’re wrong to give bees such a bum rap.

A little sniffing around shows the odds of getting stung by bees are pretty slim. Experts report that virtually all bees one is likely to encounter flying from flower to flower are non-aggressive, and only 50 percent (i.e., only the females) have the capacity to sting in the first place. In fact, most stings don’t come from bees at all—they’re much more likely to come from yellowjackets, or, to a lesser degree, hornets or paper wasps.

Moreover, bees are a critical part of our food chain: They pollinate one in three foods we eat, after all. (more…)

Myth: Only Government Agencies Can Manage Stormwater

Posted by Daisy Simmons on

Does It Take a Rain Surgeon to Maximize Stormwater?

It’s easy to agree that protecting our region’s water supply is a worthy goal. But, with water management agencies paid to do just that, it can be equally easy to assume there’s no role for individual action.

So let’s start with a little flashback…You’re in grade school, looking around your classroom (nice haircut, by the way), and your eyes settle on a poster on the wall. Puffy rain clouds, a cheerful sun, and a few big words like “transpiration” indicate that this is the Water Cycle poster, an iconic diagram that most of us saw at least once in grade school. (Here’s a classic one to jog your memory.) Bright arrows show water falling as rain, nourishing plants and filling in rivers, lakes, and oceans, then heading back into the sky to start the whole shebang over again.

The U.S. Geological Survey breaks down the Water Cycle like so…

Now look for the bit where the rainwater runs off our many impermeable surfaces (think concrete and building roofs), floods sewers, then causes crap (literally) to enter and pollute our waterways. Don’t see that in the cartoon diagram? Overflowing sewers may not have featured prominently in the lesson plan in those days, but today, there’s no ignoring them.

Thankfully, there are urban engineers, civic officials, and government agencies who have made it their mission to address those stormwater challenges. But with century-old sewer systems still in use across the country, there’s just not enough money to pay for complete system overhauls. And that’s where we, the nature-loving kids-at-heart, come in. (more…)

Myth: There’s No Special Benefit to Growing Native Plants

Posted by Daisy Simmons on

So You Think You Can Plant: The Native Gardening Routine

When it comes to plant shopping, competition is stiff. Thousands of varieties vie for your attention, wooing you with color, texture, hardiness—whatever it takes to please the judge, aka, you. These plants have to be both visually pleasing and succeed in your space, be it a sun-drenched yard, shady garden, or sheltered porch container. It’s a tall order for any seed, especially when you’re not sure if you should bother going native.

To shed some light on the benefits of native plants, we chatted with three of the area’s foremost experts: Liam Heneghan, PhD, an environmental science professor at DePaul University, Andrew Hipp, PhD, plant systematist for The Morton Arboretum, and Gerould Wilhelm, PhD, co-author of Plants of the Chicago Region. Let’s dig in. (more…)

Myth: Feeding Birds Is As Problematic As Feeding Other Wildlife

Posted by Daisy Simmons on

Hunger Games: Bird Feeding Edition

We all know we’re not supposed to feed wild animals (for those who don’t, here’s why)…but do the same rules apply to birds in our backyards? We chatted with a couple of Chicagoland’s foremost ornithologists for their take on using bird feeders, and turns out, they both give them a thumbs up. Read on to find out why it’s A-okay to share the edible love with our feathery friends.

First, let’s get the elephant out of the room: both of our experts, Jim Steffen, senior ecologist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, and Doug Stotz, senior conservation ecologist at the Field Museum, have bird feeders in their own yards. That’s because a.) they’re big-time bird lovers and b.) they agree that the benefits of the practice greatly outweigh its potential negatives. (more…)

Myth: Pesticides Only Kill Bad Bugs

Posted by EcoMyths Alliance on

“Do not draw your sword to kill a fly.” ~ Korean Proverb

Whether you’re wrangling with Japanese beetles munching on your flowers, slugs eating holes in your vegetables, or caterpillars feasting on your trees, it’s tempting to use pesticides to solve the problem. And it’s easy to forget that there’s more going on in your backyard ecosystem than meets the eye.

We often resort to pesticides to deal with garden pests. But pesticides don’t just control unwanted beetles and slugs. They often kill more than just the target nuisance, including beneficial natural predators like lady bugs. If a pesticide gets into your soil, it may also harm soil organisms that help to keep your plants healthy. There are many ways to control pests before resorting to pesticides. Know the story and explore your options. Dig deeper below. (more…)