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It All Adds Up…or…Plants of the World, Unite!

I think one of the best things about life on earth is the NY Times. I’ve been reading it daily–and fairly closely–every day since I was a teenager.

There is so much information in every issue that it can make my brains hurt. And since there is not enough room in my cranium (please no remarks) to store all this written material, I am compelled to share the paper’s good and fascinating information with…you. From time to time, that is. I won’t pester you with doomsday too often, promise.

Here’s some recent good stuff that relates to gardening, which relates to conservation, and animals, and minerals and health and capitalism and government and, well, to my life. And to your’s.

For example, an example of animal conservation. You will recall, no doubt, that our 19th and early 20th century cowboy ancestors thought the Prairie Chicken so delicious that they shot dead one million birds from the tallgrass prairies that lined the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana and Texas. They probably killed ’em all in just one day. Or maybe two. Anyway, it’s 2015 and now a TOTAL (!) of 104 birds struggle to survive at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge in Eagle Lake Texas. Despite the best efforts of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, the chicks that they had carefully and fairly recently hatched were dying.

Why? Because, the NYTimes tell us, an invasive species–red fire ants–“were decimating the insect population of the prairie. While adults eat plants and insects, the chicks dine primarily on insects, [so] the chicks were starving to death”. The good news is that “exterminating the fire ants and adding more plants that attract insects in the refuge has helped.” Last year, 60% of the chicks survived. Sadly, though, “a storm dumped more than 10 inches of rain on the refuge and the new chicks drowned or died of exposure”. Can you spell, “climate change”?

Next, the NYTimes leads us to the war between organic companies and the Monsanto regarding GMO labeling on the food we eat. The Federal government requires any product labeled “organic” to be free of ingredients produced from GMO seeds. On the flip side of that coin, Monsanto hires many professors to testify against the labeling horror in states that might want to follow the Federal  effort with their own labeling legislation. [Since consumers now doubt the profe$$or$, Monsanto’s advertising is soon going to feature more believable “mommy farmers”, but I digress.] But since the “organic movement” doesn’t feed the world or make billions in profits, the Agriculture Department in 2014 “approved GMO soybeans and cottonseed designed by Monsanto and treated with Dow-produced herbicide”.

Let’s keep going here. While the Feds or states don’t make most food companies disclose what’s actually in our food, the Federal government will now allow companies to say “made without ractopamine”, a chemical given pigs and chickens and some beef so that the animals can gain muscle weight while using fewer calories. Did you ever know about this practice before today? (I didn’t.) You want to know just how bad this stuff is? The Chinese won’t let us bring pigs or chickens into China because they don’t trust it. The Chinese! Now that explains why the big boys, like Tyson, are all of a sudden eager to have the Feds create a “made without ractopamine” label…they want to sell their animals to China (and to the EU and Russia and all the others that ban ractopamine.) So it was really not the organic crowd that got this label labelled…it was the mega-ag fellas.

Stay with me here. Can any of my readers imagine CROPS (ie plants) that don’t die after being (accidentally) sprayed by RoundUp? Well, okay, it’s old news that we eat soybeans and corn which are genetically engineered to withstand RoundUp. The new news is that the Ag Dept has approved corn and soybeans that can withstand spraying with 2-4 D. 2-4 D? OMG, do you remember Agent Orange?! Here’s the grim facts and “government speak” of this craziness:

“The Agriculture Department, in its environmental analysis, predicted that approval of the crops would lead to a 200 percent to 600 percent increase in the use of 2,4-D nationally by 2020. But it said analysis of the effects of that increased use was the responsibility of the E.P.A. The Agriculture Department said ITS [emphasis mine] approval depended mainly on whether the crops would harm other plants.” 

EPA is whether humans are poisoned. Ag is whether plants are poisoned. This is why people hate government.

Now, just in case you worry about human trafficking or slavery or child soldiers, as the State Department does, the NYTimes tells us there is a 356-page disclosure rule via Dodd-Frank that requires our companies to disclose “conflict minerals” in their products (like frozen shrimp from Thailand sold by Costco or tin that gives Party City’s balloons their sheen).

So, here’s an idea. If we can require such an onerous disclosure rule that probably has little real impact on slavery (compared with, say, paying decent wages), can’t we know that the food we eat was made with seeds resistant to the chemicals that kill the insects that kill the Prairie Chickens or the milkweed that feeds Monarch butterflies or the herbicide that killed people that lived or soldiered in Vietnam? Just sayin’.

Gardening these days requires a lot of thought.##

PS Here’s some good news: McDonalds, which uses 2 billion eggs annually, wants to let their hens be cage-free. This will take ten years to accomplish, but hey. Free the hens! Free the hens!





Butterflies, Bees and Trees: What’s Your Legacy?


Yesterday I was ferreting through a pile of my husband’s “paperwork” and came across a lost treasure: a faded pamphlet of “The Man Who Planted Hope and Grew Happiness”, written by French novelist, Jean Giono (1895-1970) and first published by Vogue Magazine in March, 1954. This is the most precious and inspirational true story you could ever read. I read it first on a sunny summer afternoon when I had the honor of being able to visit the Wisconsin farm of the late landscape architect, Alfred Caldwell. I found the little booklet on his bookcase. It was just about the only thing on his bookcase. Intrigued, I hid for a time and devoured the story. I’ve never been the same since.

So this morning I sat down and re-read the story, which in subsequent American re-printings was retitled, “The Man Who Planted Trees” (a far less compelling title, n’est-ce pas?). The tale is so simple and lovely. And then–I just LOVE when “synchronicity” happens–I switched to email and opened one from the McHenry County Wildflower Committee. It contained the following link:

Which was really crazee to see because the article was written by Jim Robbins, author of The Man Who Planted Trees, a book which I have not read (I ordered it) but which apparently starts with the story of “The Man Who Planted Hope and Grew Happiness”.

Full circle, oui? I implore you to read the NY Times article and make an early New Year’s Resolution to be the person who saved the bees and butterflies…to be the person who planted hope and grew happiness. Please plan to plant an oak tree and some milkweed next year or if you are “property challenged”, to plant some parsley to feed the caterpillars. Think of it as your legacy. Or simply your first donation to the food pantry of starving animals.##

PS Ironically, the ‘Jean Giono’ Rose is a lightly scented tangerine color beauty. It will do nothing to feed a bee, but it is lovely:



Do Deer Like Milkweed?

“Do Deer Like Milkweed”?

Do Deer Like Milkweed?

Do Deer Like Milkweed?

This is a query received from a Weedpatch reader named Patti S. I LOVE questions from readers because finding answers is my way of avoiding working on any essential tasks (like earning money or calling the health insurance company). Very oddly, the question reminded me that I had recently bought a used book, The Hidden Life of Deer, by naturalist/anthropologist, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, but had not yet read it. So, now’s the time, right? Honest to God, I randomly opened the book to page 186 and immediately saw the word, “Monarch”. Could I really have an answer so quickly? Well, no, but I did read four riveting pages of Thomas’ observations of a Monarch caterpillar on a Milkweed leaf. Which left me with the question, “Do caterpillars shit only on leaves they don’t nibble”?

But I digress. Next, I googled. Whereupon I came upon a lot of other people looking to answer the same question, but also found my new favorite website,, which appears to be about as blue state/red state in its opinions as Americans can be. There I read comments claiming that Milkweed is “a noxious weed, just like kudzu” and how best to eradicate it with 2-4D but followed by polite suggestions from obvious blue staters like, “couldn’t you leave just a little bit for the butterflies?”. I also read how Grandpa considered Milkweed to be his cash crop during WWII cuz he sold the waterproof and buoyant floss for stuffing in life jackets and flight suits (methinks Grandpa did not get rich but this CSM article about its WWII uses is REALLY interesting). Then I read that Milkweed “never bothered the cattle”. And that Milkweed should be planted by the front door because it draws bees but the bees “keep the door knockers away”. The same commentator, “Alleyyooper”, answered Patti’s question this way: “Deer like it like a horse eats oats”. H’mmm…

But methinks that Alleyyooper is wrong about the grazing deer. “Milkweed” is MILKweed for a reason (actually, let’s rename it “Silkweed”, much more attractive name). Milkweed refers to its “white juice, which is a kind of rubber”. (Recall that Thomas Edison tried to use it to replace rubber in making car tires. True.). Here’s more from a 1911 book, Handbook of Nature Study, (buy it!) recommended to me by botanist Jerry Wilhelm:

“The most striking peculiarity of the milkweed plant is its white juice. Let a drop of it dry on the back of the hand, and when we try to remove it we find it quite elastic and possessed of all the qualities of crude rubber. We can see that the hollow of the center of the stem has around it a dark green ring, and that outside this is a light green ring. It is from the dark green ring that the milk exudes. The juice will soon fill and heal the wound we made. This milk is not the sap of the pine; it is a special secretion, and is very acrid to the taste. Milkweed is seldom eaten by grazing animals…”.

milkweed stem

I tested the Milkweed myself, including trying to sniff for its “strong odor” which I thought might deter the deer. I couldn’t smell any odor, although I thought I detected a soft vanilla scent. Deer cookies? Anyhoo, this is what I think. If you were a deer grazing in a salad bowl of vegetation, you might bite off a Milkweed occasionally, but if you got a mouthful of white sticky latex on your tongue every time you would definitely prefer to eat something else. Like a hosta. So, dear Patti, plant the milkweed and watch to see what the deer do to it. Get back to us, okay?

And to alleyyooper–if a horse eats too many oats, a horse gets sick. Same with Milkweed and deer. Please plant milkweed. Make a butterfly come alive.##



Got Milkweed?

If you are reading this, doubtless you know the Golden Rule of Biodiversity: plant milkweed. Please. No, I take back the “please”. Just do it. Even if you garden on only a balcony, grow some milkweed in a clay pot. However you manage it (ie “float” its diaphanous seed in the parkway or the alley), be a guerrilla biodiversifier and…plant milkweed.

You know why I am pushy about this plant: because its leaves are the only thing that Monarch butterflies can eat. As noted entomologist Doug Tallamy says, “To have butterflies, we need to make butterflies. To make butterflies, you must use a native species that serve as a host for butterfly larvae [Ed: that’s a caterpillar] as well as a supply of nectar for adult butterflies. Butterflies do not lay their eggs on any old plant. They lay their eggs only on the plant species to which their larvae are adapted”. And that means…Milkweed.

You even have choices when it comes to which milkweed, but three species are commonly available in garden centers or via seed packets:

The Common milkweed [Asclepias syriaca], which has husky leaves, roots that grow to China, and a handsome dusty rose globe of a flower. [If you are worried about this being too aggressive, look for its cousin, Sullivant’s milkweed, which grows slowly, albeit by rhizomes, which means its good in tough-to-grow-anything-else spots. Nonetheless, I like the Common milkweed in gardens–it provides a tall, solid, almost tropical contrast although you might have to tie it up with a strong shoelace.]



Common Milkweed

The Butterfly weed [Asclepias tuberosa], which has flowers the extravagant color of a Navel orange, does well in dry, “crappy” soils, and makes a great bouquet;

1-P1060073 butterfly weed



The Red or Swamp milkweed [Asclepias incarnata] has a two-toned pink flower, narrow leaves, and a pleasing way of gracing a moist spot–especially nice en masse if you have a lake edge to landscape.

Swamp milkweed [Asclepias incarnata]

Swamp milkweed [Asclepias incarnata]

And if Monarch’s weren’t good enough for you, at least 11 other species of butterflies and moths reproduce on milkweed as well. Goldfinches eat the insects that get trapped in the flowers and also use milkweed seed “down” for nesting material, and you may see (good) beetles on the plants as well. Biodiversity can be easy if you try!

Milkweed pods and the seeds that float on the air...

Milkweed pods and the seeds that float on the air…

Okay, I’ll be nice again. PLEASE plant milkweed someplace on your property. Or your balcony. And now I won’t be nice: if you work for a municipality, we gardeners expect to see milkweed growing everywhere around town. It’s the law.#