Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Bee Educated

People should have a cause to fight for.  Some might be against whaling, others to save the rainforest.  Mine it seems is for something far smaller in size, but just as important, the humble honey bee. Fresh new research has caused me to get back on top of my soap box and start preaching as yet another smoking gun was found in the mysterious disappearance of the bee.  Mount evidence in this whodunit case I last wrote about in a post titled Bee Gone, is beginning to cast a grim light into the plight of the honey bee.

A recently published report in July from researchers from the University of Maryland working with the US Department of Agriculture, identified a number of deadly contaminants found in pollen samples taken from bee hives.  Although researchers are quick to point out, that the link between these contaminants and the collapse of bee hives wasn't conclusive, it does prove that bees are increasingly unable to resist infection by parasites, largely believed to be the main cause to the colony collapse disorder.

Bee hives were sampled up and down the east coast and analyzed for their chemical content. On average scientists identified nine different pesticides and fungicides. But one hive had 21 different chemicals present. The most compelling news was hives containing pollen contaminated with high loads of fungicides were three times more likely to be infected by parasites.  Fungicides have long been considered safe to use around honey bees and they were designed to attack fungal and disease issues.

The main culprit in this case is a fungicide called Chlorothalonil, an active ingredient found in products like Daconil, openly available to homeowners and professionals alike.  Although the scientists aren't ready to point fingers, the research does suggest that this chemical soup that bee's are increasingly being exposed too is collectively effecting their populations.

When I first wrote about the effects of garden 'use' chemicals, in particular Neonicotinoid insecticides on Bee's, it came with a positive ending.  The European Union took steps to suspend its use until further studies could be independently carried out to see what effects it has on honey bee populations.  Though this group of insecticides doesn't kill bees outright, it is classed as 'sublethal', making bees more vulnerable to other stressors like pathogens.  Couple this effect with the newly discovered effects of fungicides and its clear to see that Honey Bee's are no longer able to fight off attacks on their health.

Still on the subject of Neonicotinoid insecticides, Friend of the Earth also conducted a different study to determine the level of contamination in common nursery plants found in retail centers.  What they discovered is nothing but alarming.  Plants that were recommended as 'bee or pollinator friendly' were found to contain systemic pesticides at levels high enough to cause adverse effects on Bees.  Neonicotinoids were found on average in seven out of thirteen samples, demonstrating widespread use of chemical treatments in the nursery trade.  Homeowners who might of been looking to plant bee friendly gardens were inadvertently being mislead and instead provide a buffet of poisoned flowers.  Should the question now be that nurseries issue health warnings with plants, much like cigarette manufacturers have to? "Planting this flower may lead to cancer", what on earth is next!

To put some perspective on the chemical usage issue,  Environmental Health News in February highlighted the rapidly growing use of fungicides on US farms.  Their report estimated that the global fungicide market will increase at annual compounded rate of 6.7% over the next five years, predicting that the annual market will be worth $21 billion worth by 2017.  The U.S. has witnessed the highest growth during the last five years and is expected to lead the industry as farmers continue to use fungicides as a cheap way to boost crop yields. Couple this with the $2.6 billion sales recorded in 2009 of Neonicotinoids in the US alone in 2009 and you soon start to realize this is a market that will be fiercely protected.

However, just when you thought that the European Union was going to rein in the big chemical giants, they brought out their secret weapon.  Syngenta and Bayer have combined forces to sue the European Union over loss of profits during the ban.  Sadly, corporate power has grown so great that the rights of people represented by governments they elect may have been lost.  You don't need to look any further than the GMO debate to see what power the big Ag companies wheeled.  During the last presidential election, people of California voted 'against' having food labeled as Genetically Modified.  Also on the ballet, Californians voted 'for' sexual protection to be mandatory for pornography actors. I'm glad to see Californians are looking to protect the hardships of their actors, but maybe 'hardship' isn't the right term to use.  Mass marketing campaigns from Ag companies created so much confusion, that it was easier to vote to protect the health of a few while munching on herbicide resistant foods!

As governments financially struggle during this global recession, it would seem that Chemical companies have gained the upper hand to protect their assets in expensive lawsuits.  Many public representatives have come out in defense of these chemical companies, leaving many to speculate that they're in the back pockets of the defendants. America has seen the fight against corporate greed many times before, and even gained its independence by fighting one that was sucking the then fledgling country dry.  Contrary to popular believe, the Boston Tea Party wasn't created to fight the English Government, but instead to fight the enormous power that the global East India Company had over the colonist.

While arguments can be raised for the benefits of all of these chemicals, there side effects cannot be denied anymore.  It has been estimated that with the decline of pollinators, 2/3 of fresh produce found in grocery stores will vanish because of food production shortages.  In post I wrote called 'A Garden to Die For', I brought to question if America's food chain should be a matter of National Security.  Surely the pending threat of national food destabilization should be on the lips of every public official.

I know I have little power in changing what happens in agriculture, but I do expect our publically nominated officials to be the watchdogs of the nation's well being.  Theodore Roosevelt once said, "Our aim is not to do away with corporations, but to do away with any evil in them.  We draw the line against misconduct, not against wealth".  What does wealth mean when it comes at the cost of extinction of another more beneficial organism?  I for one will not be using any of these chemicals in and around my gardening, voting instead in favor of the Honey Bee!

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Monday, September 9, 2013

Figs - The Sexiest most Unsexy Fruit in the World

What fruit do you consider has all the taste of summer? You know, the kind that overwhelms your taste buds with its sweet nectar's richness that you can almost taste the warmth of the sun. Of course many will say Peaches, Nectarines and possible Raspberries, but the lonely fig sits outside of the popular circle like the new kid in school, looking to find its seat at a lunch table. Well my friends, this will not do and I'm here to stake its claim!

Ficus carica, or the common Fig, originate from the arid middle east and up into western Asia. Since ancient times they have been cultivated by people of this region for both its fruit and uses in ornamental plantings. Foliage from the humble fig has even found its way into the Biblical book of Genesis where Adam and Eve used the leaves to cover their naughty bits in shame after eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Thank God it wasn't a leaf from a poison ivy as the story might of gone in a different direction. However, as religion grew across Europe, Fig leaves became increasingly used as a form of primitive pixelation. In fact, many pieces of art were modified with fig leaves added to reduce the amount of nudity on display, even after they were created.

Unfortunately for figs they aren't the most attractive of fruits around. They don't have the rich color that mouth watering peaches do,  taking on a purplish brown skin tone.  Even the shape of the fruit hanging from the branches is said to resembles a man's scrotum. It's no surprise then to learn that this appearance has lead to the Fig being used for all kinds of sexual treatments. According to some websites, a diet rich in Figs will give you the sexual appetite of Ron Jeremy, but be careful, fruits full of edible seeds are said to make you into a very fertile partner.

Virginia may seem to be a long way from the hot arid homelands of the middle east, but some varieties have proven to do well in our variable climate. Thomas Jefferson was known to be fond this plant as well as overs from the Mediterranean and grew them very well at his Monticello Estate.  I was even excited to read online that a nearby farm in Virginia, Ticonderoga Farms in Chantilly has been pioneering their use in agriculture for the last 20 years and has mature groves of some 400 plus Fig trees.  When compared to other powerhouse fruits like Blueberries and Strawberries, Figs come loaded with calcium, phosphorous, potassium, beta-carotene, vitamin C as well as other beneficial nutrients making them a top pick.

Most of  the varieties recommended for our northern climate will mature into 10 ft shrubs with equal spread. The dark green fingered foliage provide an excellent backdrop for other plants and introduce a exotic flare when used in a mixed border. Known to be exceptionally trouble free and extremely drought tolerant their only weakness is towards temperatures that dip below those found in zone 7.  There only other requirements is for a site in full sun and well drained soil.  They loved to be basked in the sun so only location that provide 8 hours or more will produce the best results.  Figs will do well without the need for fertilizer but a balanced feed of 10-10-10 in early spring and again in early summer will do.  All figs are self-fertile and don't need a partner to produce fruit.

Below is my top picks on three of the most popular types we see at the garden center.

Brown Turkey - The King of cold hardy Figs in the Virginia area and the most asked for since I've worked at the nursery. I've search in vain to try and find the origin of the name and the best I can ascertain it reflects the country of Turkey, which is one of the largest areas of production next to Spain that leads the market. The large, dependable purplish-brown fruits are loaded with sweet tasting strawberry-pink flesh.

Celeste - The Fig that most others are measured against for flavor. If you ever have the chance to taste one you'll soon understand why it's referred to as a Honey or Sugar Fig. This flavor also holds well when the Fig is dried or preserved to extend their season well into the winter months. The skin is lighter that Brown Turkey but the pink flesh is very similar and is less likely to split. Celeste is second only to Brown Turkey for cold hardiness.

Chicago Hardy - If you're looking for the most cold hardy fig to grow then this is the top pick! Its history is somewhat shaky, but like the name suggests it originated from a garden in the Chicago area.  Because of the cold this Fig would die to the ground every winter ,but come spring every year it would grow back still produce fruit (roots remain hardy to 20 degrees below zero). Normally, Figs require the previous years growth to set fruit, so this rare trait makes Chicago Hardy a exciting discovery. In theory, for those limited with space you should be able to chop the plant back in early spring and still have a good yield of fruit by seasons end. In my own garden I've found the fruits to be smaller, but just as prolific than any other fig. The fruits of this variety share the same qualities as Brown Turkey, for which some people believe Chicago Hardy is a variant of.

Figs are not fickle like other fruits and will faithfully bare every year.  Be prepared to be inundated with a stream of fruit when they all begin to ripen.  Sadly, they don't store very well and are best eaten fresh for the tree,but figs can be dried and stored for use well into winter.  I myself haven't gotten to that stage as the honey sweet filling is too irresistible to just have one and leave the rest.

The taste of summer would be the same without Figs.  Hopefully, with this post I've won a few more hearts over to this outsider of the fruit bowl.  Viagra gave us the chemical answer to our sex life with the little purple pill, but according to some, mother nature had already given us the natural solution with this little purple fruit.  

To learn more about growing figs, click here:

Fig'uring on some loving!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Ron Finley - Gangsta Gardener

While researching for a recent post (A Garden to Die for), I kept coming across a guy who is part of a growing group of people who call themselves 'Guerrilla Gardeners'.  He is not your run of the mill granola eating, feral type looking to change the world with compost toilets and Goji berry bars.  Instead, this gardening renegade, Ron Finley, is a straight talking, regular kind of guy who is just fed up with living in a food desert, where finding healthy food is just as barren as a desert.

Ron Finley hit the headlines after he presented a talk on 'TED Talks', a nonprofit organization that gives a platform for people with ideas worth sharing.  Ron's presentation was based on his frustration of needing to drive for 45 minutes, round trip to buy an apple that hadn't been impregnated with chemicals that he could spell.  In the South Los Angeles community where Ron lives, your food options are limited to fast food or processed, low cost supermarket offering.  Childhood obesity and curable Type 2 diabetes has been on a steady rise in reflection to poor health options in low income neighborhoods.  Ron's hope was to get the message out there and bring change.

"If kids grow kale, kids eat kale.  If they grow tomatoes, they eat tomatoes.  But when none of this is presented to them, if they're not shown how food affects the mind and body, they blindly eat whatever you put in front of them" 

Although South LA (previously called South Central) is infamous for Drive-by shootings, statistically the Drive-Thru's are killing more people.  When dialysis clinics started popping up like coffee shops and wheel chairs were sold like used cars on street corners, he knew something had to give.  Ron began looking at ways to create an alternative to what had become normal and to give hope to the next generation.

To put some perspective on this, in November 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau said that more than 16% of the population lived in poverty, with 1.2% of that total living in extreme poverty.  15% of households also lived without food security, not knowing if they could afford a diet for what the government deems necessary for a healthy activity.  One sobering static put almost 20% of America's children fall into the poverty bracket with an estimated 16.1 million living in food insecure households.  Most of these statistics fall into the neighborhoods and communities of South LA.

So what did Ron do?  He planted what he referred to as food forest in a strip of land (10 ft x 150 ft) that separates his property from the street.  The problem is that the land belonged to the city, but he's required to maintain it, so Ron turned it into a productive space rather than just to grow grass.  Of course the city objected to it and issued him a citation to remove it or face being issued a warranty for his arrest.  Yep, apparently you can be arrested for planting food on city land that they required to maintain!

Of course this antiquated thinking hit the media and coupled with a 900 plus signed petition on the city sat up and took note.  Ron points out that Los Angeles leads the country in vacant lots.  The City owns 26 square miles of underutilized land that is comparable to 20 central parks.  To drive his point home he pointed out that you could grow 724 million tomatoes and help feed people in need.  Ron's fight ended up becoming his gospel and started to preach it to change the manufactured culture he saw every day.  Together with LA Green Grounds, a group he help start of like minded, pay it forward gardeners, they began to transform abandon lots to transform the food desert of South LA into food forests for everyone.

'We've got to flipping the script on what it means to garden, if you ain't gardening, you ain't a gangsta'

Ron's drive and passion to make a change is definitely infectious.  Looking at the TED Talk stats for his presentation, it has been view nearly 1.5 million times since first aired.  Couple that with You tube's 250,000 and that's a lot of hits.   His fresh approach of looking at gardening is as refreshing as as the food he grows.  He knows that to get more people caring about there health and community he needs to make gardening sexy.  When he talks about growing your own food is on par to printing your own money, it brings a rebellious edge to a pastime often disregarded by youths.  He considers this use of city land to feed the community as a defiant act and sprays it with this edible green graffiti for everyone to enjoy.  His down to earth message resonated strongly with me, let just hope the other 1.75 million who have watched him also got the message.

"My Weapon of choice is a shovel, now let's plant some shit"

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