Saving pollinators, one yard at a time

Welcome to what will be my final post of 2022. Now that I’ve been at this a while, the pace of my revelations has slowed somewhat, but I’m still learning new things all the time. Sometimes I think might skip posting for a month, but then I happen upon something that interests me and I want to share. This happened recently with a couple articles from the New York Times. One, “They Fought the Law. And the Lawn Lost,” describes a Maryland couple’s fight against their homeowners’ association over their pollinator garden. Guess what happened? The second, “The Climate Impact of Your Neighborhood, Mapped,” isn’t about gardening at all, but is germane to my interests, and possibly yours too.

Because you might not be able to read the article without a subscription, here’s a quick summary. Janet and Jeffrey Crouch began planting a pollinator garden in their suburban front yard in the early 2000’s.  They live in Beech Creek, outside of Columbia, Maryland.  In 2012, their next-door neighbor began complaining. He couldn’t “enjoy his own property, he wrote, due to the ‘mess of a jungle’ next door.”  Nancy Lawson, who blogs as the Humane Gardener and is Janet Crouch’s sister, says the HOA’s letter criticized the “plantings which grow back every year.” The HOA demanded the Crouches yank out their garden and plant grass, so they sued. The HOA countersued. Ultimately, this led to the passage of a state law prohibiting Maryland HOAs from restricting “low-impact landscaping”: rain gardens, pollinator gardens, xeriscaping, and the like. Yay!

Text of the bill:

Read Lawson’s play-by-play about the fight here.

Photo of the Crouches’ garden from the Humane Gardener website. Used by permission.

One thought. Pollinator gardens are not going to appeal to everyone, as the Crouches’ experience shows. As this image of their delightful yard shows, they’ve incorporated many cues to care: clearly delineated beds, layered plantings, mowed paths. I continue to hope that the best way to persuade people to stop using chemicals is by showing them alternatives they find attractive, but most people like what they’re familiar with. The passage of this bill is an important step, and gives gardeners arguments to build on if they need to step things up.

How many states have passed laws like these? Sixteen, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Pollinator Health page.

Dozens of states have passed legislation to promote the health of pollinators, which include bees, wasps, bats and butterflies.

Are Kansas and Missouri included among these dozens? No. States that have “enacted legislation or adopted resolutions related to pollinator health” include California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington. “Legislation related to pollinator health” can include anything from banning pesticides to naming an official state pollinator (Texas), or creating special pollinator license plates.

States with Laws Addresing Pollinator Health 2019 © National Conference of State Legislatures

Would you look at this image? A white band of apathy spreads across the Midwest, where we find the largest concentration of neonicotinoids, a particularly harmful insecticide widely used in field crops (soybean, cotton, canola, wheat, sunflower, potato, and many vegetables). Neonics may also be found in ornamentals sold by retailers, although this article says large stores like Walmart, True Value, Lowe’s, and Home Depot began phasing out their use in 2017. This article from a Salem, Oregon newspaper does a good job explaining the impact of neonicotinoids, and how to avoid using them.

Neonics have been banned in the EU, Canada, and some states, and in the US a nation-wide ban has been proposed. That seems more significant than having special license plates, but like signs in yards, these can help raise awareness. I imagine that many people who are inclined to feel positively about pollinators still spread Bug Blaster on their lawns.  They just haven’t thought about it. Although we have lots of specialty license plates in Kansas and Missouri, I don’t see one advocating for pollinators. Maybe some of you will be inspired to write your legislator.

The second article of interest, sobering but interesting, concerns the Climate Impact of Your Neighborhood.

Above is a screenshot of Kansas City’s map. Can you see where you live? Visit the New York Times to experience its interactive features.

Researchers have discovered that dense inner-city neighborhoods have the lowest emissions per household. They’re green on the map.

“Households in denser neighborhoods close to city centers tend to be responsible for fewer planet-warming greenhouse gases, on average, than households in the rest of the country. Residents in these areas typically drive less because jobs and stores are nearby and they can more easily walk, bike or take public transit. And they’re more likely to live in smaller homes or apartments that require less energy to heat and cool.

Emission rates are much higher in the suburbs. Bigger houses require more energy to heat and cool. Residents drive longer distances, and have more of everything—electronics, appliances, vehicles.

The maps aren’t based on emissions but consumption, a combination of electricity use, driving, income levels, and more. It’s one measurement where we don’t want to be above average, but we are. If you look at the map, you can tell exactly where your neighborhood fits on this scale. This information may Influence individual choices to recycle, walk or ride bikes, things like that. It may also influence policy makers.

With that thought, I’ll conclude this final post of year I’ll be back in mid-January. In the meantime, enjoy the holidays, and thanks for reading!


Certifiable:Why you should get a sign for your garden

Here’s a headline from my internet feed: “How do I tell the new neighbors their lawn maintenance is unsuitable?” My neighbors could be saying this about me—or about the St. Peters, Missouri man fined $400 for violating his town’s turf-to flower-ratio, or about Dennis Moriarty, the Kansas City man cited for violating the weed ordinance. People often perceive native plantings as messy—gardening with weeds, a good friend calls it—but we can’t dismiss this opinion easily. If I put in a native plant garden and everybody hates it, nobody wins—not insects, not birds, not me.  

Cues to care help make the unfamiliar familiar

People are more likely to appreciate native plantings if they recognize that they’re intentional. For this reason, experts recommend presenting unfamiliar plantings with familiar elements, called “cues to care.” This term was first coined by landscape ecologist Joan Iverson Nassauer in a 1995 paper, “Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames.” Cues to care indicate that someone is taking care of this garden, and include things like well-defined edges, mowed paths, and clipped shrubs. We like things tidy. Neatness and order are a sign of intention. People might not recognize ecological function in a landscape. “Without obvious signs of human intention,” Nassauer says, “people are likely to see native plantings as neglected.”

There are things you can do to make native plantings more tidy looking,” says Alix Daniel, native landscape specialist at the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center. “Like keeping nice clean edges.”KCUR

The nice clean edges recommendation isn’t arbitrary, in other words.

Specific cues to care depend on the region and local custom. For instance, most people expect a landscape to contain trees, but in some places—the arid west, for example—growing them may require tons of supplemental water or other resources, and could contradict an environmental and conservation ethic.

I’ll have more to say about this topic as I plan a new planting in our front yard for next year. In the meantime, one thing consistently mentioned on lists of cues to care is a sign.

Why are signs important?

I was not convinced that I needed one, but I am changing my opinion.

These signs from my neighbors’ gardens come from different organizations that certify plantings. Each has slightly different criteria for certification, but all require that the garden showcase native plants, be free of invasive species, and not use chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Signs show intention. Like election signs, they convey that the homeowner espouses certain values—and that a larger community does, too. Signs may get people wondering, Why do birds need plants? What kind of wildlife lives in a suburban yard? Why are native plants important?

The small fee charged for certifying a garden provides these organizations valuable support, and the signs help publicize their work. Marketers say people need to see a message seven times before they remember it, and these signs are semi-permanent. They’ll still be here after the election is over and other yard signs have been thrown away. Maybe a Monarch Watch sign will awaken some kid’s interest in butterflies, and learning about caterpillars will motivate him or her to help save them. Maybe folks will decide not to spray for mosquitoes next year, and they’ll wear bug repellent instead!

Which certification is best?

Each of these organizations has a slightly different emphasis, but following any of their guidelines will be enough to put your garden on the Homegrown National Park map, which would be really cool.

Homegrown National Park

Perhaps you’ve heard about this initiative, co-founded by Doug Tallamy. If you’re not already a fan, you will be after viewing this video presentation, Nature’s Best Hope, about insects. I was surprised to find myself mesmerized—and it lasts an hour and a half!

This is how we were doing in my area as of yesterday.

County Name: Johnson
Land Area: 306,912 Acres
Total Planted Area: 6.266 Acres
Percent Planted: less than .01%
ZIP Code Count: 18
User Count: 37
Plantings Count: 57
County Name: Jackson
Land Area: 394,534 Acres
Total Planted Area: 1.457 Acres
Percent Planted: less than .01%
ZIP Code Count: 21
User Count: 42
Plantings Count: 76

If you like interactive maps, and who doesn’t, you’ll love seeing where these pockets of native plants are. The level of detail is amazing. The Homegrown National Park website is getting revamped as I write, but I hope to join the six people in my zip code who are on the map as soon as I can figure out how to do it. It’s easy to see how many are already on it, but not so easy to see how to add myself. I’ll keep on it and let you know.

Thanks for reading!


Dig, till, smother: How to remove sod for a new bed

Everybody loves the idea of a secret garden, but I’m not exactly sure what one is. What makes a garden secret? How is that different from private? My husband says ours is almost a secret garden because it’s in back and passers-by don’t realize we have such a profusion of flowers and wildlife back here. That’s about to change, though. My October project was digging up a new bed in front. I imagined a relatively formal border of native plants beside our driveway, something like this.

© Mt. Cuba Center

My bed ended up being…different. Shorter. I ordered plants from the Missouri Prairie Foundation’s September 17 native plant sale at the Anita Gorman Discovery Center. Here is what I ordered.

Yes, I did put them into a spreadsheet. Several vendors were selling at the sale, but this time I ordered everything from Missouri Wildflowers Nursery.

After I picked up my order, I spread the plants out on my porch to get an idea of what they’d look like. They’re small now but won’t stay that way.

Here comes the how-to portion of the post. This article from Fine Gardening does a good job describing some basic ways to prepare a new bed: digging, tilling, smothering, and spraying. Basically, I’m just going to repeat what it says.

Digging (slicing and loosening) is what I did. It’s the fastest way to prepare a new bed, but it’s hard work. Before you start, water the area. (This tip proved invaluable. I wouldn’t have been able to dig up anything if I hadn’t done this, it’s been so dry.) Using a flat shovel or pitchfork, slice around the perimeter of a rectangle about 12 inches wide by 24 inches. Then slice horizontally with the shovel blade. Peel back the grass and dust off what dirt you can. Then lift out the strips of sod. You might be able to use them in another spot.

This method is fast—it took a couple hours—and it’s chemical-free. However, it is strenuous work.

I don’t know much about tilling, but the Fine Gardening article lists these pros and cons:

Pros: Retains organic matter; is quicker and easier than digging; permits immediate planting Cons: Is difficult on rocky sites and in wet or clay soils; turns up weed seeds; propagates certain weeds
4 Ways to Remove Sod

Smothering could mean soil solarization, or simply covering the area with something to block the light. Soil solarization involves covering the ground with clear plastic. This traps heat from the sun, and can kill pathogens in the soil. However, the plastic must remain in place for four to six weeks, and the process needs to happen during a hot time of year. The location must be in full sun.

If killing turf is your main concern, not killing pathogens, try smothering the spot with cardboard, newspaper, a tarp, or even thick layer of mulch. I understand that layering on leaves or grass clippings can be helpful for areas with thin topsoil or clay. This is a long process: the turf may take six to eight weeks to die.

Spraying with glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, could be useful for large areas, but I’m determined to avoid using herbicides and so far haven’t been tempted. After spraying, the turf still needs about a week to die.

The next part of the process was the most unusual, for me.

The cleared area was a couple inches lower than the surrounding lawn. My wonderful, plant-loving neighbor Carole was moving, and gave me a wheelbarrow full of compost before she left. Composting is advanced gardening to me. I haven’t gotten the hang of it. I’ve dabbled with the idea; I have a bin full of debris that should be turning to compost, but isn’t. I’m not interested enough to investigate, plus I’m trying to follow a “know maintenance” approach, working with existing soil and conditions. And no bark mulch.

In this case, I needed a little something, so I filled the depression with my friend’s compost. It needed to be sieved, and she also warned it might have seeds and other things, but I didn’t listen carefully, I was too busy pushing clods through a piece of hardware cloth. I tossed out a few potatoes and pieces of plastic bags and spread it over my new bed.

Voilà. I made an edge out of some pavers I found lying around, put in the plants, watered once a day for a while, and it’s done. The plants are still small but I’m seeing little leaves, so I think at least some of them have taken root.  I do have lots of weeds, though, little sprouts of I don’t know what.  The seeds must have been in the compost. But it’s not too difficult to pluck them out.

And that’s the story of my October planting I predict that I will regret placing the plants so close together. Also, the area is not a border, just a plot. But it’s a start. Next year I’d like to create a bed like this post’s featured image—along the street, beneath a tree, complete with a rock—but with natives. Small ones. I will try smothering. I have plenty of time.

Can’t wait.

By the time you read this, we’ll have had our first hard freeze, and although temperatures will climb back into the eighties on Friday and Saturday, I didn’t do anything to save my plants in pots. No covering them with sheets or dragging them inside. I’m just letting them die. We’ve had a good run. It’s a shame about the dahlias because some are just getting going.  

Oh, all right. I’ll bring them in. Later in the week we’ll have a few days of warmer weather, so maybe we can coax them into final flower.


4 Ways to Remove Sod

Pollen count: ways to beat seasonal allergies

Fall planting season is underway, and I’ve ordered a passel of plants to pick up at Saturday’s Missouri Prairie Foundation plant sale–but I can barely bring myself to think about them, I’m so tired. I have seasonal allergies. Maybe you do, too? When it’s allergy season, thinking about anything else is tough. What causes allergies? Is that volunteer plant I allowed to mature a culprit? What is that plant, anyway? Is it ragweed?

Ragweed looks like this. From a drawing in ‘Bilder ur Nordens Flora’, Carl Lindman, 1901-1905.

No, no, and no, it turns out. I am not alone, according to this article in last Thursday’s Star: You’re not the only one who’s sniffly, Kansas City is hitting peak fall allergy season.” Good news: pollen counts will gradually diminish as we head deeper into fall. Bad news: our allergy season starts earlier and lasts longer each year because of climate change. Researchers report that KC’s volume of pollen has increased over the past 15 years. More CO2 in the air means bigger plants and bigger flowers that produce more pollen.

To really get obsessive about pollen levels, check Children’s Mercy’s daily pollen count page.

Today’s pollen count is high, and the mold count is very high, so no wonder I have the sniffles. I’m writing this on Wednesday, September 14, to post tomorrow, and if you head over now to check the day’s counts, you won’t find them. The person writing the daily comment will be out of town September 15-19, 2022, but will resume updating the data after that.

Children’s Mercy also gives advice about how to deal with seasonal allergies. Here’s a summary:

  • For best results, don’t wait until symptoms start to take medication
  • Stay indoors whenever possible
  • Keep windows closed and run the AC
  • Wipe pets’ feet, and maybe take off your shoes when you come in to avoid bringing allergens into your home.

I have found pretreating symptoms (over-the-counter antihistamines, in my case) to be most helpful.

Want to dig deeper into subject of Kansas City’s air quality?  This site compiles air quality measurements from cities all over the world, including ours. (Even if you don’t live in Kansas City, it may report about yours, too.) Overall, I think Kansas City’s air quality is thought to be pretty good.

Ragweed vs. goldenrod

Most people know that ragweed causes hay fever, and many know how easy it is to confuse with other plants like solidago, or goldenrod, which blooms around the same time. The internet full of good articles about how to tell the two apart, like this one from The Spruce.

My solidago is about done.

Apparently, ragweed has very fine pollen that gets carried far and wide, unlike goldenrod, which has fat pollen too heavy to be carried by the wind.

Compositae and Other Pollen

Ragweed isn’t the only problem. Children’s Mercy lists five common types of pollen that make people miserable:

Unidentified Pollen7315.34%
Compositae and Other Pollen6914.5%

Compositae refers to plants in the daisy family, like asters. Chenopods include amaranth, pigweed, waterhemp, russian thistle, lamb’s quarters, and kochia. Grass and Unidentified Pollen need no explanation. Although the weed on my patio is not ragweed (the white flowers are the giveaway. Ragweed is yellow), that doesn’t mean I’m not allergic to it. It could be boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum L. or Eupatorium serotinum), which Prairie Nursery calls a late-summer standout. Its white, furry flowers are currently delighting a bunch of bees and wasps.

Ragweed may have peaked, but for those of us sensitive to mold, problems will continue, apparently because mold spores thrive on decaying vegetation (fallen leaves). The dew that wets the grass and soaks our socks also encourages Oomycetes (downy mildews).

Rudbeckia subtomentosa (Sweet Black-eyed Susan)

My Wild Garden: How the garden grew

I still have quite a few flowers. The Rudbeckia subtomentosa (Sweet Black-eyed Susan) and zinnias are late-season brighteners, and I have rose verbena is on its second bloom.

The milkweed was fantastic this year. The recent rain made it flop, but we had at least a month of pink flowers and unbelievable wildlife activity–monarchs, swallowtails, wasps, bees. We loved watching them. I found three monarch caterpillars and hoped to write about their transformation, but I lost them. I don’t know if they survived.

Last year I was discouraged because so many of the tall natives needed staking, but this year I like them better. I relocated some, but realize they support one another when planted thickly.

Some neighbors stopped by the other day and were surprised to see so many plants and flowers in the backyard. Not much is going on in front, and most passers-by don’t realize we’ve got all this great stuff growing back here. (Is that like writing blog posts but not sending a newsletter to let people know about them?) That’s going to change after Saturday, when I pick up my plants.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Until then, thanks for reading!


Missouri Prairie Foundation Native Plant Sale 9/17/22

You’re not the only one who’s sniffly, Kansas City is hitting peak fall allergy season (KC Star)

Children’s Mercy’s daily pollen count page

It’s not your imagination; allergy season gets worse every year (Vox)

Kids and springtime allergies:  6 mistakes you might be making (Children’s Mercy)–springtime-allergies/

Air Pollution in Kansas City: Real-time Air Quality Index Visual Map

How to Identify and Avoid Ragweed (The Spruce)

Road Trips: Visiting Three Great Gardens Open to the Public

I haven’t written much this summer, but I’ve been thinking about gardening the whole time. Our travels took us north, to cooler weather, and gave us the opportunity to visit some wonderful gardens that are open to the public.

The first of these was the Allen Centennial Garden, a smallish “teaching” garden on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This garden surrounds a house, the Queen Anne-style (sometimes called Victorian or Gothic) Agricultural Dean’s Residence.

Although this is a public garden, the presence of the house gives it a residential feel, and helped me envisage how the plantings could work in a yard. The garden has six areas. Some emphasize different design styles, and “trace the origins of modern garden design, from the formal and romantic to the whimsical, exuberant, and ecological.” These include Japanese, New American, French and Italian, and English gardens. Other areas emphasize plant adaptations that allow them to survive in unusual conditions: Rock Garden, Pond Garden, Gravel Garden, and Dwarf Conifer Garden. If you’re curious, this video from a 2012 episode of The Wisconsin Gardener shows more.

Something about this segment seems dated to me, I’m not sure what exactly—although they talk about some then-trends that are now familiar, like square foot gardening. I wonder which of the practices we’re excited about now will seem dated in ten years.

Someone posted this wonderful image on Facebook in the Kansas City Area Gardening Group. Where did it come from originally? I searched Google Images but couldn’t discover the source.

Next our travels us took us to Denver, where we visited the Denver Botanic Gardens’ York Street Location. These twenty-four acres feature many themed gardens, countless collections, and millions of plants.

There’s also a tropical conservatory, worth visiting any time of year. 

Denver Botanic was my favorite of the gardens I visited this summer, but strangely, I don’t have much to say about it. It’s a mature organization, as we say about nonprofits, operating at a high level and involved in many horticultural and ecological initiatives. With so much to look at, I stopped taking notes just took pictures.

One of my favorite sights was of three friends, gray-haired women in their seventies, celebrating one’s birthday at a spot overlooking the Monet Pool. They decorated their picnic table with a Pierre Deux tablecloth, silver cutlery, and floral centerpiece, and they toasted their celebrant with rosé in Reidel glasses. Charmed, I thought of Karen Blixen arriving in Kenya with her china.

Monet Pool

Here’s a tip: If you’re thinking of visiting, be sure to reserve tickets in advance. As of this writing, tickets are not available at the door.

When we were in Vail a few days later, we stopped at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. At 8,200 feet, these bill themselves as the highest botanical gardens in the world, with 19 areas showcasing plants from alpine regions including the Eastern Himalayas, Patagonia, and the Scottish Highlands. However, the focus is primarily on the Rocky Mountain West. A gravel trail takes visitors up, down, and through the different areas, over man-made waterfalls and bridges.

I give this garden extra credit for their excellent signs, which give the plant’s Latin botanical name, popular name, and place of origin.

While we were there, the Ford Amphitheater next door hosted an “exclusive donor event,” a brunch, for patrons of the Vail Dance Festival, which took place while we were there. Former First Lady Betty Ford was passionate about dance, even serving as an understudy for Martha Graham, who called her a “very great gift to us in America.” 

A walk through this garden mimics the feeling of being on a hike above treeline, but takes less exertion. I prefer taking the hike, but appreciate the help identifying the many tiny plants that survive in those inhospitable conditions. I have a great wildflower handbook but seldom stop to consult it when hiking.

The prospect of gardening in poor soil without supplemental water is something more of us will have to face in the future. Did you seen Margaret Roach’s recent column about Crevice Gardening? It features many images from the Denver Botanic Gardens. I wonder if she took the same trip I did.

Why You Should Try Crevice Gardening: ‘This Is the Future’

Now we’re back home, and fortunately not too many plants died in the heat, although some did. This is a good time of year for my wild garden, with the rudbeckia blooming, and blue wasps, bees, and butterflies buzzing around the milkweed. I can report that Rabbit Scram did not work, but fencing off the beds did. Next up, I have big plans for fall planting season. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

Asclepias incarnata (Swamp milkweed) in my yard!

Bright spots in a tough week

Today’s post reports on two developments: how I came into more free plants and some progress fighting pests. Regular readers of this blog know I loathe spending money on annuals, so I was excited yesterday when I visited the Kauffman Gardens (where they’ve ripped out most of the mostly native bed along the north wall, I don’t know why). I discovered a bin full of discarded annuals in the parking lot.

They were pot-bound and yellow-leaved, no doubt rejected for that reason, but other than that seemed fine. I filled a flat with zinnias, salvia, and flowering vinca and—because walking across the Plaza carrying a flat of flowers seemed eccentric, even for me—came back to get them later and helped myself to a second flat.

Why should I have all the luck? Wouldn’t it be nice if there were some plan for these, some way for anyone interested to take advantage of this bounty? An announcement someplace, or a volunteer willing to provide the necessary TLC and re-home them?

I planted them in the bare patch by our front sidewalk—a spot so hard-baked even weeds don’t grow. Voilà. Instant garden! They already look happy to be freed from their little pots.

They’re not exactly the look I’m going for, but they’re better than the bare dirt. What is the look I’m going for? Right now I have the garden equivalent of a garage sale, with stuff I’ve found, stuff I’ve been given, stuff I’d just as soon throw away. I’ll have more to say about this as the fall planting season approaches.

I will say that just about everything I’ve sown from seed this year has been eaten by rabbits—which brings me to my next topic, pests. You may have read my earlier post about the reproductive cycle of rabbits. In our yard baby rabbits are like plastic balls on a trampoline, shooting in every direction. The current crop of kits are so tiny, they easily slip through the holes in the wire mesh I’ve put around everything and munch the plants down to stalks. They even ate the hyacinth bean, which was leafing out so nicely and twining around its trellis. I don’t know how they managed to get to this sunflower. They’re like Houdini.

I tried so hard to protect this from rabbits!

I’ve lost coneflowers, rudbeckia, lilies, marigolds and zinnias, phlox, larkspur, and asters. (Some of the damage may be due to chipmunks. I can’t tell.) Dousing plants with animal repellant hasn’t worked, as you can see from this photo.


Yesterday I broke down and spent $30 on Rabbit Scram.

Yes, I won’t spend $4 on full-price petunias but will fork over $30 for a bucket of Rabbit Scram.

Apparently rabbits dislike this mix of dried blood, pepper and garlic, although chipmunks, squirrels, dogs, and flies seem attracted by it.

I haven’t seen a rabbit since I put it down. They were so plentiful before, I almost miss them. Sometimes I struggle to balance my desire to welcome little creatures into the garden with my equally strong desire to see plants survive. Posts on Facebook tell me others struggle with this dilemma, too.

Last week I wrote about the misery of Japanese Beetle season, and I’ll spare you photos of ones I’ve drowned in soapy water. So far that infestation doesn’t seem as bad as in previous summers. I’m reluctant to divulge this, but I tried an experiment that may have helped. Last fall, I was dismayed by the number of grubs I was finding. Little white crescents studded every shovelful of dirt, like blueberries in a muffin. I knew what they were.

Sometimes no-pesticide resolutions can be tough to keep. This is the time of year when lawn services apply grub control, because the adult beetles feeding on our flowers are also laying eggs, and the eggs turn into grubs. I have two unopened bags of Bug Blaster sitting my garage that I don’t want to use. Looking for alternatives, I learned about Milky Spore and parasitic nematodes. I decided to try grubHALT! from Gardens Alive, which contains BTG, “a naturally occurring soil organism that is harmless to people, pets, bees and birds.” I discovered it in Joe Lamp’l’s article Japanese Beetle Prevention and Control. I am not recommending it; I’m just saying I tried it.

Did it help? I think it did. The one grub I dug up yesterday when I was planting those zinnias reminded me how plentiful they were last fall. I’m picking tens of beetles off the hibiscus, grape, and astilbe—but not hundreds. Of course, I can’t get rid of them entirely. They fly in from other places. But so far, we’re holding steady. We don’t have the turf damage we’ve had in previous years, and we still have plenty of flowers. I think trimming off any beetle-damaged foliage is a good idea because I understand that some chemical in the beetles’ saliva attracts more to the spot.

Bee on a coneflower

Wherever I’ve found beetles, I also find bees. This summer has been great for them, and for other insects. Maybe that’s a little cause for optimism? I’ve seen fireflies, hummingbird moths, cloudless sulphur butterflies, and Monarchs laying eggs. Everyone stresses the importance of accepting a few damaged plants, knowing that not-spraying saves more life in the long run. Ecology is is a long game. Evidence of changing attitudes is all around. Did you see the Rewilding Britain Landscape that won gold and the overall Best in Show at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show?

With a little encouragement, good ideas can spread.

I hope you all have a fun, safe Independence Day. Thanks for reading.


Missouri whine: meet the beetles

What I love best about June is nectarines and getting out on a lake, although here in the garden it’s a busy time. We’ve entered the pruning-watering-weeding time of year, with fabulous, abundant life existing alongside heartbreak and disappointment.

Someone on Facebook posted yesterday that he’d seen his first Japanese beetle of the year, and today I found mine. (I drowned it.) More are on the way. They turn up around the first week of July and devour, if not everything, then a lot of things. They’re kind of biblical. In our garden they prey on roses, hibiscus, and a grapevine.

That’s a grape growing along the back fence. We planted it around the same time the beetles first arrived in the area, 2014 according to the Star, so they’ve grown up alongside each other. Grapes grow well here. After eating dinner at a friend’s table beneath a pergola with bunches of grapes dripping down, we were entranced. Around that time, I was going through old issues of Gourmet, reading the articles I’d skipped originally while looking for chicken recipes, and discovered this exhaustive Wine Journal piece by Gerald Asher from April 1993.

The article and the purchase it inspired. Experts recommend aging Norton 8-10 years, so we should have drunk this 7 years ago.

This article, called “The Return of the Native: Missouri’s Vintage Grape,” deserves more comment. Asher visits Hermann, Missouri’s Stone Hill Winery and enthuses about the Nortons, saying, “I was astonished to find the wines so remarkably good. They were more meaty than fruity, with something of the Rhone about them.” Asher then recounts the history of viticulture in the Midwest, beginning in the early 1800s in Ohio, followed by the establishment of Hermann’s vineyards in the 1830s by German settlers fleeing “revolutionary disturbances.” A first, two kinds of grapes, Catawba and Norton, vied for predominance. Catawba was used to produce a sparkling wine, while Nortons are rich reds: “an indigenous American grape that might yet do for Missouri what Cabernet Sauvignon has done for California.” Winemakers produced sparkling wines from Catawba quickly, while Norton requires aging for four to five years—“as do most potentially great red wines”—so early growers emphasized Catawba to maximize profits. However, Catawba is vulnerable to mildew and rot, common conditions in our humid summers, while Norton is tougher, better suited to our weather extremes. Ultimately, Norton won out, and in the 1870s, wines produced in Hermann were winning gold medals in international competitions.

Missouri’s wine industry never fulfilled its early promise. Labor costs and the temperance movement chipped away until the passing of the 18th Amendment finally killed it. Plus ça change. Asher describes links between Prohibition and racial prejudice, showing how the movement exploited anti-German sentiment. Reborn in 1965, Missouri vineyards have continued to grow, although slowly. While it may not have the cachet of a tour of Napa, visiting Hermann is definitely a thing, as the drunks I sat with on the Amtrak during Oktoberfest can attest. Asher says this:

Tens of thousands of visitors come to the town every year, and, although they arrive expecting little more than a jolly picnic, a hop to a polka band, and a few bottles to take home, most leave with a greater appreciation of the state of Missouri; possibly with a broader feel for its history; and, especially at the time of the fall grape harvest festivals, with indelible memories of the Missouri River valley’s beauty.

(Read more about Missouri grape varietals on the Missouri Wine website. If you’d like to read Asher’s entire article, let me know in the comments and I’ll send you a pdf.)

So, what does all this have to do with gardening? Energized by this new knowledge, we bought this Vitis labrusca ‘Reliance’ at Soil Service. (These are table grapes, for eating, not for winemaking.) My husband built a trellis along the south end of our yard, we planted the grape, then sat back and waited for our vine to bear fruit.

The south end of the yard does not get as much sun as I’d anticipated, and the grape struggled. The west side is shaded by the neighbor’s oak leaf hydrangea, so it’s kind of spindly there. The east side is sunnier, so it grew in that direction. I don’t know why, but this year it found its moxie and has sprawled beyond the trellis onto the fence.

The vine is bare for much of the year, which isn’t great to look at, but it leafs out nicely every spring and big clusters of green grapes begin to form. The birds and I watch them carefully as they ripen. Then, all of a sudden, they vanish. In all these years, have never eaten a grape grown on this vine.

So much promise

This is happening now. The back fence has been twitching with birds lately, finches and cardinals. I thought the feeders had attracted them, but went out to take a look and found the great green bunches growing.

For the last two or three summers I’ve tented them with black tulle. Tulle is the net fabric used to make ballet tutus, and I bought a bolt for about twenty dollars. The holes are too small for the beetles to pass through, and birds can’t penetrate them, either. I tossed the fabric over the blueberries this week to protect them from the birds, so you can see what it looks like.

It’s not the toughest fabric and has deteriorated in the sun, so it’s shrinking in size as I cut off damaged sections. The blueberry looks like a ghost. Nevertheless, the tulle is pretty effective against beetles and birds, and if those were the only pests, I’d recommend it.

But those aren’t our only pests.


While birds and beetles bombard from above, chipmunks climb up and chow down on those grapes. A quick internet search turns up many suggestions for controlling chipmunks, so I suspect none work. We ran into this recently with Carpenter bees, which were tunneling into our porch roof. I was going to write a post saying I’d found the perfect pesticide-free remedy, but nothing deterred them. Squirting citrus oil just agitated them. Plugging the holes with steel wool meant cleaning clumps of steel wool off the porch every morning. I think if something really works, there will be a consensus. Everyone will mention it. That’s not the case with chipmunk strategies.

Besides, the grapes have another, more insidious problem. Black Rot is a fungal disease that mummifies the fruit, shriveling it and turning it black. Probably this is the “mildew and rot” Asher blames for destroying the early grape industry in Ohio. Apparently it is controllable with appropriate pruning and properly applied fungicide, neither of which I have done.

Let It Be

This morning I snipped off the clusters that had black spots, and tied paper bags around the ones that didn’t. I know, this will not work. I’ve tried the paper bag method before. The birds (or squirrels) just slash them open. The best thing to do, at this point, is nothing. I’m going to sit on my hands and watch the critters eat, enjoy the things that aren’t having problems, read up about pruning, and dream about next year.

Bed without serious problems (yet): hosta, brunnera, geranium, penstemon, Stachys ‘Hummelo’


“Japanese beetles have finally arrived in KC.” Kansas City Star. June 17, 2022.

Gerald Asher. “Wine Journal: The Return of the Native Missouri’s Vintage Grape.” Gourmet. April 1993. 42-48, 252-253.


Black Rot.

Ellis, Michael A. Controlling Grape Black Rot in Home Fruit Plantings. Department of Plant Pathology The Ohio State University/OARDC.

Late spring topics: peonies, rogue trees, and new plants

I haven’t written about my own garden for a while and I thought that, since so much is blooming, this would be a good time for an update.

About to bloom 
And exhale a rainbow
The peony! 
– Buson 

Peonies: roses without thorns

This year has been great for peonies. I was going to write a research paper-type post about them, but found this site that answers all my questions.

This blog for a nursery in Connecticut goes deep into subjects like the etymology of the name peony, peonies in Chinese and Japanese art, medicinal uses, and a list of notable of collections in the US. The list includes the tree peonies at the Linda Hall Library.

Bradford pears: “rogue” trees

Last week my semester ended, I hopped on a plane for a short trip to the Bay Area.

Proof we were really there

We came home to this.

While we were gone, this Bradford, or Callery, pear fell on our house. We’re lucky. Nothing was damaged; no one was hurt. Today we’re getting rid of the tree entirely.

I understand there have been some metro-wide (both Missouri and Kansas) programs that encourage people to chop down their Bradford pears by offering a native tree as a replacement. Called the “Callery Pear Buy-back Event,” sponsored by the Missouri Invasive Plant Council, the idea is that someone cuts down their Callery pear, submits a picture of themselves standing by the stump, and they can get a free native tree, such as serviceberry, river birch, green hawthorn, or chinkapin oak. This story from KCUR explains the program, as well as the problems associated with the trees, in more detail. (Check out the images showing how quickly the trees have spread.) They call them “rogue trees.”

I’m afraid the deadline has already passed for 2022, but this nuisance tree is still worth getting rid of, as our experience shows.

Good news: new plants

I tried growing several things from seed this year and I’m happy to report some success. These foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) aren’t native, but I stuck the seeds in some dirt last spring and waited.  They don’t flower until the second year, but here it is, year two, and they look great (although they’re taller than I thought they ‘d be). I hope I can move them after they finish blooming, as I understand the foliage looks scraggly as they go to seed.

Forest of foxgloves

I also have these experiments going: Penstemon ‘Dazzler blend,’ “a wonderful dwarf”; Verbena ‘Brazilian Vervain,’ and Salvia ‘Blue Victory.’

Here they are in real life.

To achieve rhythm and repetition, a garden requires many plants. Many plants require lots of money–unless they don’t.

One thing I’ve learned, if you have friends who garden with native plants, and if you walk by while they’re outside working, they may give you plants. This is what happened last week when I walked by my friend Richard’s. He was busy pulling an invasive pea-looking thing out of his poppy mallow and we got to talking. The natives on his property are happy, some too happy, which turned out well for me. I came home with Eastern Blue Star (Amsonia tabernaemontana), spiderwort, and Bottlebrush Blazing Star.

Richard’s plants are much more developed than the ones I bought at plant sales this spring. See how the other amsonia looks kind of sickly in the foreground? His have blooms. I transplanted them on a hot day, and they didn’t even wilt.

Then I was wishing for something tall and viney to cover a bare area along a fence when my neighbor Carole offered me Dutchman’s pipe vine (Aristolochia tomentosa). It sounds delightful but will need a stout support, so I’m waiting to transplant until I’ve built one.

I like the idea that gardening is taking place outside the domain of commerce and money, the usual ways we assign value. These gifts made me so happy, I’m resolved to pay things forward by giving away some seedlings of my own. I have Sweet Coneflower (Rudbeckia subtomentosa), which is great but tall; Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), also tall; and oregano I just can’t seem to eliminate. I’m going to leave these on a table later today at the park at 50th and Rainbow.

Tomorrow I plan to visit the Union Hill Garden Tour, one of my favorites. Perhaps I’ll see you. Thanks for reading!



A deep dive into the subject of mosquito sprays

My heart sank when I came home last week and saw Mosquito Joe signs—five of them—lining my street. I don’t blame anyone for disliking mosquitos, but I wonder if my neighbors know about the objections to these sprays. They don’t just kill mosquitos, they kill all insects, including butterflies and bees. And while we may not think of that as a problem, it is one.

Today I’m diving deep into the subject of mosquito sprays.

Many young families have moved into our neighborhood recently—we have four-year-olds on all sides—and we love hearing their voices as they play. Who wouldn’t want to protect kids from mosquitos? Mosquitos are a nuisance and carry diseases. Nobody likes mosquitos.

However, spraying for mosquitoes kills helpful insects too. These days, many people understand how important pollinators are, and that they’re disappearing. Loss of habitat, disease, loss of diversity, and pesticides are primarily to blame. This is a disaster in the making, because an estimated one-third of our food supply requires pollination.

It’s happening in front of us. For years my family has enjoyed sitting outside in summer, watching the butterflies flit above our patch of native prairie plants. But for the last two years, we’ve barely seen any, I suspect because our neighbors spray.

I feel like I set a banquet and murdered the guests.

Spraying pesticides can have unintended consequences. Remember the food chain? Now the metaphor of a food web is more popular, but the idea is the same: each creature survives by feeding on other, “lesser,” creatures. Plants support insects, which feed birds and bats, and so on.

Most people have also heard that bird populations are declining, but we may not realize the connection to pesticides. Birds eat insects. Fewer insects means fewer birds.

Yellowthroat eating a mayfly. (Photo: Andrew Weitzel, [CC BY-SA 2.0])

The poisons in sprays like Mosquito Joe’s are pyrethrins, which some companies’ marketing materials claim are safe and organic. This is misleading. While it’s true, pyrethrins are a derived from an insecticide extracted from a type of chrysanthemum, it’s not like they’re sprinkling flowers on your yard. Pyrethrins kill insects instantly. That’s the point. They’re also toxic to fish, amphibians, and cats.

But all of this has been said elsewhere. What can we do? Getting rid of mosquitos is a good goal. Encouraging butterflies and bees is a good goal, too. Can we have both?

Ways to control mosquitos without poison

Remove water sources. Mosquitos lay eggs and hatch around standing water. Eggs take seven days to hatch, so once a week, empty any flower pots and saucers, buckets, etc. Make sure your rain barrel is tightly covered.

Turn on an oscillating fan. Mosquitos like stagnant air and dark, humid areas like underneath patio furniture. Blow them away with a nice breeze and enjoy the cooling effect.

Spray bug repellent containing DEET. I know, I don’t like it either, but it works.

Maybe you’ve tried these, but they didn’t do enough. Here are some ways to level up.

Repellent Devices

The New York Times’ Wirecutter recommends the Thermacell E55 Rechargeable Mosquito Repeller. It works by emitting an DEET-free, odorless repellent, and covers about 20 feet.

“Its rechargeable five-and-a-half-hour battery lasts long enough to odorlessly keep a bedroom-sized area mosquito-free for an entire evening—as long as there’s no breeze.” (I assume wind blows away the repellent.) The cost is about $40, plus the expense of additional cartridges.

A less-expensive alternative is Pic Mosquito Repelling Coils.

At $7, they’re as effective as the Thermacell E55, but because they’re burned, they emit an odor, which some people dislike. They may be worth a try, though.


These work by emitting C02, which attracts mosquitos and then traps them in a reservoir. A friend recommends Biogent’s BG-Mosquitaire CO2 .

He lives by a creek and had a serious mosquito problem but keeps bees, so spraying was out of the question. He says the trap was effective, and that he removed thousands of mosquitos from it each week. The downside is it’s expensive, $279 on the website, plus the cost of replacement CO2. And it requires some effort to maintain: the trap must be emptied.  Other, less-expensive CO2 mosquito traps are available as well.

What doesn’t work

Bug Zappers. These are great at killing bugs, just not mosquitos, which aren’t attracted to light.

Citronella. If it seems like it works, it’s probably because of the smoke. Smoke works.

Repellent bracelets. These repel mosquitos from your wrist, but they may bite you someplace else.

Spartan Mosquito Eradicator. Some folks on Nextdoor recommended this product, and I’m sorry to disappoint them. This could definitely kill mosquitos—but not as an alternative to pesticides. The active ingredient is boric acid, a lethal insecticide. It claims to attract with sucrose, sodium chloride, and yeast, none of which do anything to attract mosquitos. This product has been accused of making false claims and has been banned in many states, including Kansas. (I verified this through a call to the Kansas State Attorney General’s Office.) This post by blogger Colin Purrington explains in more detail. It’s kind of fascinating. Apparently, people crediting it for the disappearance of mosquitos in their yards are mistaken. The real reason is that mosquitos were killed by insecticides sprayed nearby.

Talk about the passion

While researching this topic, I read about a man in San Antonio who is facing aggravated assault charges after allegedly beating his roommate over an argument about mosquitos. Clearly, this subject arouses strong feelings! It does for me, too. Seeing those signs in my neighborhood left me feeling distressed, and I hope you feel that way as well. If you or someone you know is considering spraying for mosquitos, please reconsider. Try one of these other methods first. Many of us are willing to do things to help the environment, but we need them to be easy, and we need them to work. These might be both!

Save the bees!


Catching up: the new year starts for real

This is a highly miscellaneous post about various excitements. It’s so fun to see things waking up—after four long months seeing nothing green except the fake pine tree cell tower near State Line and 79th Street. Miraculously, many of the plants from last year survived—the agastache, the achillea—although others, I’m sad to say, did not. For instance, I see no sign of life around the Eupatorium dubium ‘Baby Joe,’ which I was counting on to solve my problems: all the benefits of Joe Pye Weed but just thirty inches tall. It’s too early to despair, however. It may emerge late, like the swamp milkweed. That may look dead now but I know better.  

Spring cleanup: still waiting, mostly

I’ve been conservative about cutting down and cleaning up. In past years I’ve killed many things by being too gung-ho too early. I’m also enthusiastic about Roy Diblik’s “Know Maintenance” approach. He recommends leaving perennial beds untouched in winter and mowing them in March, I assume before bulbs sprout. He then leaves stalks on ground to decay around the plants like they do in nature. This makes sense to me. I’ve been hearing a lot about how it’s important to wait until we’ve had a string of fifty-degree days before cleaning up to protect insects overwintering in the stalks and canes. I compromised and sheared back half the switchgrass with clippers and left it where it fell.

Compromise. I just saw a white-winged moth fly out of this.

Although I have ordered some plants from Missouri Wildflower Nursery to pick up at the Kansas City Native Plant Sale on April 16, most of what I plan to do this year is move things. Tiny leaves sprouting around the bases of the rudbeckia signal it’s time to begin this year’s relocation project. I’d like to keep as many plants as possible but move them to the back of the beds—despite warnings from my knowledgeable friend, who insists this variety is the wrong scale for my yard. Rudbeckia subtomentosa reaches a height of 60”. So do I!  The late-summer blooms are fabulous. Even the stems are fragrant. To move the first one, I just dug a hole and plopped it in. I have no concern for it at all. I can see it’s going to thrive. I have probably a dozen rudbeckia plants, plus some reseeded, so I may have some to give away soon.

Only a special kind of person would be interested in these pictures.

Last summer I dug up this milkweed plant and left it sitting in a big hunk of mud on the patio for months while I tried to decide what to do with it. Finally I put it in the ground. I barely covered the roots.. It was so tenacious of life, I felt it deserved a chance. Plus, I don’t know if I could kill it if I tried.


Starting seeds: don’t do it my way

The excitement of seeing seeds sprout is hard to match. I’ve tried a bunch of things over the winter. I scattered wildflower seeds over the dirt in the raised bed, filled flats and set them in the windowsill. I even cut up milk jugs to make a homemade greenhouse thingy. From most, I got nothing. The only seeds that have sprouted were outside in the bed. They’re a green mist, almost invisible to the eye, too tiny to photograph, but so exciting. (The only problem is, I don’t remember what they are.)

Yesterday we were having some people over and as I leaned down to sweep the muddy trays of dirt on the windowsill into the trash, I noticed … sprouts.

These are salvia.

From this it looks like I’m going to have a lot of salvia plants, but I know from experience that they could still die. Usually I drown them. Here’s a question. Why did some sprout and not others?

The ones on the right sprouted. Not the ones on the left. Could it be the seed starting medium? Half are in new and half old. The new stuff from Family Tree was noticeably fluffy, soft as ash. It is also two-thirds Canadian sphagnum peat, so I can’t recommend it, as peat bogs store carbon, which digging up releases. But it’s so magical! I’ll use up this bag and promise to buy no more.  

Now for something completely different: Epicenter 2022

I recently started a new job at JCCC. (You could say I returned to working at JCCC, because I taught there in the early 2000’s.) I was excited to hear about this year’s Epicenter 2022, a free conference focusing on environmental writing. The keynote speaker is Amy Brady, Executive Director of Orion Magazine. It takes place this coming Thursday, April 7, 2022—right down the hall from where I work. It’s intended for high school students, but I asked if I could sit in and they said yes.

I don’t know much more about it other than what’s listed on the website, but I plan to go and will share what I learn.

April could be the cruelest month because of the way it gives and takes. A hard freeze could wipe out all these blossoms. But spring won’t be stopped.

Each Spring is unique, but it’s interesting to compare the years. Are we a little late this year? I passed these yesterday and thought you might like to look back at last year’s show.

Thanks for reading and happy gardening!