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? (more…)

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…)