Saturday, January 31, 2009

Bees' Buzz May Be Protecting Your Plants

Researchers in Germany say that honeybees seem to provide a protective buzz to plants in gardens. Writing in the journal Current Biology, a team of biologists led by Jurgen Tautz at the University of Wurzburg found that foraging honeybees flying around in test garden plots deterred caterpillars from eating away at the leaves of pepper plants.

In the plots with bees, caterpillars ate only about one third of what they consumed in the areas where bees were eliminated.

Susan Milius in Science News reported it this way:

“So far Tautz has tested the idea only in a strictly controlled setup. He and his colleagues put up a pair of tents housing an array of plants. In the various runs of the test, researchers used bell pepper plants, once with and once without fruits, as well as soybean plants. A bee hive opened into the one tent, and some 50 bees at a time buzzed over the plants on the way to collecting sugar water from feeders in the corners.”

Army worms (Spodoptera exigua) were then added to the scene. They can be a real nuisance in gardens, eating some 50 kinds of plants, but they have been known to stop moving and even fall from leaves if wasps fly by. This may be because wasps are known to eat caterpillars. Tautz, the researcher leading the tests, says that the caterpillars have small hairs that can sense wasp wing movements.

Bees and wasps differ in a few major ways, not the least of which is diet. Bees do not eat caterpillars. But to the pest worms, the sounds may be the same and cause the same reaction.

The team would like to do more research on this interesting cause and effect relationship, but say that it may simply bee a nice side benefit to pollination.
Reading over the press releases and stories written about this research, I couldn't help but wonder if native bees (like the one in my photo, above) provide the same protection. Also, I think this proves that there are huge advantages to planting nectar rich flowers near your fruits and vegetables that go beyond pollination.
And hey, now I have one more reason to tell people that they shouldn't hate the bees.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Shine a spotlight on your favorite CSA

Today's Washington Post carried the following announcement: On Feb 4 the Food section will publish a list of Washington area farms that still have 2009 Community Supported Agriculture for sale. If you know of a farm that might want to participate, tell them to email: by this coming Friday. They will need to include: farm name, location and county, contact person, phone number, website if possible and prices for full and half shares, number of weeks in the season and pick up locations.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

It is NOT too cold to play outside

A lot of times people are surprised to find out how much I like winter. Maybe because I am such an avid gardener, people expect me to hibernate somewhere until the warmth returns.

But winter is one of my favorite times to hike. You see things in winter you don’t see any other time of the year. There’s a feeling of standing backstage at a big opera; everything is quiet and still and hushed, and the bare branches are like open stages where nature’s more reluctant divas cannot hide.

One of the best hikes I ever took was a lone winter walk I made one January afternoon outside Irvine Natural Science Center in Baltimore County almost a decade ago. I left my office and the stuffy, hot air of the indoors behind and felt the cold burn at my cheeks as I walked past farm fields full of stubble and frozen mud to find the woodland trail along a favorite creek. Foxes ran alongside the trail a few feet ahead of me at one point, and as the sun waned along the horizon, I watched an enormous silent owl as it glided through the branches over my head. I had never seen one before, and I was the only person there to witness its silent beauty that day. When I returned to my car, snow began to fall and I felt as if I was the only person alive on earth watching it fall from the sky.

We don’t get snow here very often, and the past few winters we’ve had almost none at all. I think this lack of flakey white stuff leads people to think that there is nothing to see in the woods during winter, and no reason to go outside, maybe because snow lends itself to all kinds of fun times like sledding and cross country skiing.

Finding things to do in brown, cold woods is a bit more challenging. But even if we don’t get snow this winter, there are good reasons to get out and get some cold, fresh air along a trail in the woods.

“I like to take people out and explore what’s happening now and in the moment,” says Tina Stachura, who leads nature walks at Brookside Nature Center in Wheaton. “There’s not enough of that these days.”

A lot people, Tina says, have the mistaken idea that everything goes to sleep here in the winter, and her winter hikes are sometimes scavenger hunts designed to prove this notion false to kids. Early this month, she’ll encourage hikers on one of her walks to find evidence of animal activity in the woods, such as feathers, fur, scat (a fancy naturalist word for poop), and tracks in the mud. She’ll also ask kids to look for berries that are unusual colors, old birds’ nests left behind from the warmer months, and places where bucks have rubbed their antlers against tree trunks. She’ll get kids on her hikes to think about what is and is not happening in the woods during the colder months, in order to explain what the seasons mean to other animals.

“The key is, just because everything looks dead to us, things are still happening in nature,” she says.

Even if you can’t attend a walk at the nature center this month, you can still find ways explore on your own with your kids when its cold, and you don’t have to be an expert naturalist to find fun things that will nudge your kids’ curiosity.

Sometimes I play games with my kids to get them thinking and exploring. We hunt for things that are different colors, for example. My kids will start out thinking that they can’t find anything bright red or purple, for example, and then are surprised to see bright berries and purple leaves hanging all around.

You can also read some great books to your kids before you start. A family favorite at our house is Jan Brett’s The Mitten, which the Nature Center even adapted into a puppet show. We also like the picture book Keep Looking, by Millicent Selsam, which as beautiful illustrations about what happens on a farm in winter. We also like Snowflake Bentley, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin. This beautiful book is full of fantastic wood cuts that tell the story of a man who was so passionate about snow he made documenting its beauty into his life’s mission. There’s a wonderful theme here for kids that illustrates the glory of stopping to slow down and notice even the small details of life.

When you can’t get out to the woods, you can try doing science experiments with your kids at home in your own backyard.

My kids never get tired of making ice, for example. If the weather is warm one day but the forecast calls for a sudden freeze the next morning, I invite my kids to make outdoor ice cubes. We search the house and yard for funny containers that we can fill with water, such sand box toys shaped like different animals. We fill put them out by our swing set, and then check them the next morning when the frost is still on the ground. As the day goes on we see if we can dislodge the ice, making funny sculptures that can be decorated with grass, or sticks or whatever strikes their fancy. We check our thermometer to see how warm it before the ice animals to melt away to nothing.

We also check to see which is colder: the freezer in our kitchen, or the air outside. Sometimes my son gets very interested in this game, and walks all around the house and yard with the thermometer, checking to see if every place he goes has a different reading.

If you want to check out a winter program or take a hike at any of the county’s nature centers, you can visit their registration booklet in PDF format online at Look under the nature center section. This same booklet is also available at most of the county’s recreation centers and libraries.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Farmer, There's a Hair in My Salad...

File this one under “Ewww, gross.”

Researchers say that human hair could potentially be a great addition to our compost piles someday. Studies conducted have shown that the hair, which is readily available as a waste product from barber shops and beauty salons, may provide high levels of certain kinds of nutrients which could be used to enrich soils.

Apparently, the stuff has already been made available to some farmers. But one day in the future we may all find the stuff for sale at the garden center.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at Mississippi State University and published in the journal HortTechnology, was designed to assess whether commercially available non-composted “hair waste cubes” would support plant growth. Their tests involved using the cubes as a sole source of nutrients for four crops: lettuce, wormwood, yellow poppy and feverfew. Results suggested that hair waste could not be used as a single source for fast growing plants, but that the stuff could provide sufficient nutrients to container-grown plants in a manner similar to the way conventional commercial fertilizers are now used.

The team notes, however, that there are health concerns associated with using this kind of product, and it is unclear if hair cubes would be a viable option as fertilizer for edible crops. It also seems that the hair takes a really long time to break down, and so there fore it takes a long time for those nutrients to become accessible to the crops.

Ugh. This is terribly gross, and I am not a person that is easily grossed out! Perhaps it is unscientific of me to say so, but YUCK!

This takes having a hair in your salad to a whole new level. I am picturing tumbleweeds full of tangles rolling across drought-afflicted fields… although that might not be accurate I have to say that is what comes to mind. Also, I can’t help but wonder what kind of run-off would come from hair that had been color-treated or straightened using strong solutions, or curled into perms. Those are some powerful chemicals. How would hair waste contaminated by that stuff get filtered out, I wonder? I suppose those are the health concerns they are talking about….

The complete study and abstract are available at the American Society for Horticultural Science HortTechnology electronic journal website.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Garden Photo Contest Announced

Washington Gardener magazine wants your garden photos.

They are looking for all kinds of garden pics, including ones taken in backyards and public gardens.

This contest offers an opportunity for all photographers to present their best shots of gardens in the greater DC area. Contest entries will be judged on technical quality, composition, originality, and artistic merit. More than $500 in prizes will be awarded. Deadline for entry is 1/21.

For the full details, visit their website or send an email to