How to Start a Garden – The Ultimate Guide

Post from our friend Jen Reviews

I have gardened for many, many years and have many, many books ranging from communing with nature spirits to controlling pests with their natural enemies.

What are the most important lessons I have learned over the years? How would I advise someone to begin for guaranteed success?

People garden with different objectives in mind.

Some are seeking a serene oasis, a time they can spend alone in nature, even if it is just a tiny plot on their urban lot. Many do not know of the serenity gardening brings until they have one.

Some simply want an ornamental garden, pretty landscaping to admire.

Some people just want tomatoes and basil for spaghetti sauce.

A widowed mother with three young children my primary goal was to grow fresh organic food we could eat during the growing season, enough to store for the winter, herbs to heal our illnesses and injuries and flowers to fill the house.

I didn’t have extra time on my hands to be weeding the garden every evening, which may be a peaceful mantra for some after a day at the office, but was a disastrous waste of time in my book.

Nor was I interested in scouring plant leaves for camouflaged sacs of insect eggs and pulling slimy caterpillars from tomato plants they were devouring at alarming speed.

So I read and experimented, experimented and read. And after many years I came to understand what it takes to start a garden that yields the crops I want with minimal effort.

Garden with Nature

The first rule is to garden with nature, not against it. What type of soil do you have? Is it sandy or is it clay or is it a mix? What is the acidic level? How long is your growing season? How hot does it get? How cold does it get? How much rain do you get?

You will want to select plants that thrive in your soil in your climate.

It’s not hard to do. There are thousands of plants out there. It is nothing to be bemoaned if for, example your soil is clay and you cannot easily grow potatoes, which prefer sand. Well, then grow corn, cabbage, squash, echinacea, and black-eyed susans.

Most leafy greens prefer a good rich soil and the clay stays cooler longer than sand so it extends the growing season for this cool-weather crop.

Too, there are many different purposes you can grow plants for apart from beauty and food. I have grown plants for natural dyes and fibers.

I have grown plants for making gifts like sunflower wreaths, table centerpieces or raspberry liqueur filled chocolates.

I have grown plants to make insect repellent, set broken bones, heal sprains and clear congestion.

So when you are considering the plants you can grow in your area, broaden your horizons.

A good place to find out what grows well in your region is your extension office. This is what they do and they are paid tax dollars to do it, so don’t hesitate to stop by or call them.

I had an extension agent spend an afternoon on my farm discussing the site I had in mind for my vineyard. It would have taken two years of college classes and many growing seasons to learn what I learned from her in one afternoon.

Be aware, however, that many of the university agricultural departments in part subsidizing extension offices are themselves subsidized by large agricultural corporations that profit from the sale of fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides.

Here, for example, is the 2017 Midwest Fruit Pest Management Guide which recommends extensive spraying of pesticides on the very fruit you will be eating.

It is worth opening just to the first page to give you an idea of how much the university agriculture departments contribute to the knowledge base of extension offices.

Their advice may be skewed toward priorities antithetical to a sustainable view of the planet. Take what you need and ignore the rest.

Check around. There are probably co-ops of sustainable and organic farmers in your area happy to help as well.

Pick up a farmer’s almanac too.

Back to your soil. We will talk about the beauty of compost fertilizing your soil and breaking up dense clay clumps that deprive roots of needed oxygen and drown them in mud.

Compost can also augment your sandy soil with some substance so that water doesn’t just rapidly drain through the soil leaving your plants thirsty only moments after it’s rained. Although there are many varieties of potatoes: red, gold, white and blue, perhaps you don’t want to be eating potatoes until your ears fall off.

You can add sandy soil to clay soil and clay soil to sandy soil, but the truth is unless you change the soil’s ecosystem, which happens over time when you shovel in compost, the soil will probably ignore your efforts and return to its natural state.

So unlike many guides out there, I am not going to advise you to believe that you can actually do much to permanently change the soil by adding amendments.

I have heavily compacted soil around my side door that seems to have served as a construction debris dump when my cabin was built. Attempts to change the clay by adding some of the sandy soil from other parts of the yard proved futile.

I didn’t want to use my compost, reserving it for the garden. At last I found gypsum, renowned for being nontoxic and for breaking up clay. Although touted as natural and nontoxic, I am a mistrustful soul.

Still, I did not intend to grow a food crop there, so I wasn’t terribly concerned about an unknown negative effect on the soil. I figured the soil would heal itself once I got some healthy growth activity going.

The immediate results looked promising and some plants were able to struggle through, but the results were, as with all of the other soil amendments I have tried short of compost, short-term.

Our focus on composting will be to add nutrients to the soil, which is always good as plants will deplete the soil of nutrients as they grow.

Consider a forest floor. Fragrant with the aroma of decaying leaves, it is replete with nutrients. Rain and wind have worked to bring down twigs, leaves, and nuts from the trees and pummel them all back into the earth along with animal scat. Fungi and bacteria feeding on the plant life further the decomposition.

The forest floor becomes even richer and will yield fiddleheads and morel mushrooms for a divine Spring breakfast. Where the tree canopy is not too dense, berry bushes will take over in the summer.

Nature regenerates itself and that is what we will emulate in the garden.

Follow the Sun

Where are you going to place your site? And how large should it be?

First, what are you hoping for?

If this is an ornamental garden, go with the contours of your land. An excellent book to assist you here is Ann Lovejoy’s Organic Garden Design School, published by Rodale in 2001.

My advice here is going to focus on the small home garden that includes herbs and vegetables for the kitchen. I say small because that is how you should start out.

You can easily expand it once you know how much effort it is going to take and have identified what else you might like to grow in a single season.

Go out to your proposed site and take a look at where the sun is in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. Bear in mind that if it is winter, the arc of the sun is going to be a bit different than in the summer.

What you are trying to determine is where any trees might be in relation to the sun that might block your garden for periods of the day. You can use this to your advantage.

I like to plant leafy greens where they only get morning and evening sun and the blazing midday sun is blocked by a copse of tall evergreens. Direct sun makes lettuces bolt, that is, the center core shoots up to reach the sun, to the detriment of the tasty leaves that would otherwise grow.

If you have the luxury of a lot of land, by all means take a shovel and dig up the soil at a few different sites to see what you’ve got. The best soil is a mix of clay and sand, a rich loamy silt that will hold water and nutrients, without forming into hard clumps of mud. The acid level should be a pH between 5.5 and 7.5. It probably is, but a simple soil test kit from the garden center will conform this.

Do not at any cost choose a site humans have contaminated with poisons of any sort. That includes Round-up, termite spray, and debris from a burn pile. If you wouldn’t eat it by the forkful, you don’t want to grow edible plants in it. Plants absorb nutrients from the soil and they will absorb toxins as well.

Consider too, who might be living near your garden. You won’t be able to keep them out, but if you have rabbits living nearby, at least make them have to cross a broad open field if you can. This is something they are reluctant to do as it makes them visible to hawks and other predators.

To save work, you will want the garden near your compost and your kitchen and reachable by a water hose.

Don’t Try to Keep Out what you Can’t Keep Out

You might mistakenly believe the woodland creatures or those in the shrubbery of your suburban neighborhood to be of lower intelligence but trust me, they were actually born highly psychic and are greedily contemplating the abundance from your garden even now as you are indoors innocently planning it.

There are gadgets and gizmos and wives tales of many a fix to deter animals, but save your money and just nod kindly at the neighbor telling his tall tales. The scarecrow with the banging pans, the sensor flood lights, the hose blasting shots of cold water, the fox urine, the Irish Spring soap, the locks of cut hair… these things may cause a deer or groundhog to hesitate once, but the second time they will simply ignore it.

You might try a kinetic sculpture like one of these. You could strategically place bells on it to further terrify the foraging beasts.

Then even if it doesn’t work to deter deer or groundhogs, birds or rabbits, you will still have a cool piece of artwork to console you.

A lot of the advice about deterring animals appears to have a solid premise, but don’t be seduced. I have an entire book on deer proofing my garden by planting only plants that deer don’t eat.

But I have seen them eat them.

The other premise is that deer don’t like to be near plants with a pungent smell because it will mask the smell of any predators they are on high alert for. But I have seen them linger near the mint as they demolish the corn.

And I have seen them leap over posts freshly smeared with fox urine.

With much effort, I erected a slant fence around my vineyard upon the advice of a USDA pamphlet, indicating that tensile wire a foot apart at seven levels spanning a 75 degree plane confused deer. They wouldn’t jump it.

One of my gun-slinging neighbors showed up drunk one evening itching to shoot into the horde hovering patiently on the hill across from my vineyard waiting for me to finish my chores and leave.

In a deep Southern slurring drawl he argued, “But deer don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no optical illusions.”

Turns out he was right. Or if they did know anything about optical illusions, it was how to ignore them.

I do plant dark orange and gold French marigolds around the perimeter of my garden in the belief that the fragrance discourages rabbits. I don’t know if it does or not. This is the first year I have had a lot of rabbits, but the ground hogs beat them to the feast.

French marigolds do deter whiteflies from tomato plants though, and after they are fully established, they control nematodes, so along with their burst of color, they are welcome in my garden.

Your best defense against warm-blooded pests is a good fence and a smart, frisky, hunting dog that keeps vigil around the garden.

Your best offense is a catch and release trap. Or, uh, so I am hoping.

Turns out that the ancient androgynous groundhog who has been content living alone under the smokehouse these past sixteen years up and gave birth to a litter of strapping lusty sons.

Did you know that young groundhogs become teenagers and move out before their first summer is over? And that they each strike out and build a summer home and a winter home and multiple exits and entries to each?

And that throwing hot peppers and rocks down these holes does not discourage them at all? They just toss them right back out.

I can personally corroborate the veracity of much of Michael Pollan’s results in his war on woodchucks described in his garden manifesto, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Garden Press, 2003, available through Amazon.

My farmstead is now littered with piles of rocks surrounding holes leading to long tunnels under each outbuilding and my cabin. It was after I was startled by the scratching awfully close to my dining table that I bought the trap.

I was already a bit put off that the ground hogs did not spare any of the five varieties of squash I had planted.

I had been particularly inspired by the previous summer’s crops of acorn squash and winter squash. They were tasty and lasted well into the winter months. So I got carried away and ordered five varieties.

I don’t mind sharing ten percent of the garden with my woodland neighbors, but I lose my will to share beyond that. Maybe if they helped with some of the work on the farm, I’d feel differently.

But when I heard that unnerving scratching, I mean how does an animal bury beneath a cellar? That ‘s when I started seriously shopping for a catch-and-release trap to be delivered as soon as Amazon could get it to me.

I caught that fat sucker too.

First thing I read when I was reading about how to trap a woodchuck was how much they like watermelon and wouldn’t you know, for the first time ever, I had a watermelon growing? Indeed it was tiny, but it was perfectly formed and showed tremendous promise.

It was growing just outside his door, the entry to the long sandy tunnel running beneath my house. He would have to step over it until he felt like eating it.

This perpetual threat was eating at me and I threw the juiciest produce I could conjure into that trap and set it immediately outside his hole.

I caught him not long after I set out the trap. Nervous that somehow the door would open, I put him in the back of the car and drove him to the abandoned farmstead in the hollow a couple miles down the road.

I drove pretty fast. The sun was setting behind the mountain and my imagination was at its peak.

Next I caught a possum. That scared me a bit as well.

He kept his very sharp teeth bared as he looked at me. His fur was matted with goo and blood and he had a wild look about him that made me uncomfortable.

The trap I bought is supposed to be humane. I’m not sure what happened, but there was some bloody hair pasted to the bottom piece of metal.

I don’t mind possums around, but I drove him out to the abandoned farmstead too, for practice and to rule out possibilities of revenge.

The next day when I woke it seemed like maybe the skunk and one of the groundhogs had got in a standoff during the night. This got me to thinking: what if I caught a skunk? What if I caught a skunk?

I couldn’t leave him in there and I had no idea how I’d get him out. I still don’t.

But it’s winter now and I’ve been traveling, so I am just going to have to ponder this one and redouble my efforts in the Spring if I want to reap the bounty from my garden.

It’s All in the Soil

Healthy soil hosts a web of life from tiny one-celled bacteria, fungi and protozoa to the more complex nematodes and small arthropods to earthworms, insects, and small vertebrates.

These organisms interact beneficially with plants.

By-products from growing roots and plant debris feed soil organisms. Soil organisms help plants by decomposing organic matter, cycling nutrients to make them more available to the plant, enhancing soil structure and porosity and controlling the populations of soil organisms, including crop pests.

Healthy soil means healthy plants.

The way to healthy soil is to add compost and not till the ecosystems, the webs of life, to shreds.

Buddhists, who do not believe in killing sentient creatures, manually crumble soil, so that earthworms are not killed.

Farmers use tractors pulling tillers and most gardeners use rototillers to turn the soil. I use a shovel rather than till.

Compost is just earth that has been made from decayed organic matter. It is called black gold because it is a sure-fire medium for producing healthy plants.

Nothing is more valuable to a gardener and it’s free. It solves the problems of what to do with dinner scraps and yard debris and it helps everything grow abundantly.

I have a pretty big compost pile that should steam but it doesn’t. Because I travel, I do not have animals, whose feces would go along way to heating up the pile, but eventually, I suppose the enormity of the weight helps a good deal, it creates lovely compost.

The compost pile requires turning with a pitchfork, the romance of which appeals to me whereas the actual doing it, does not. I highly recommend a compost tumbler.

This is a good video on how to make compost. The tumbler makes it even simpler.

I try to till and compost in the Fall, so that the soil is open to receive the compost and the compost is open to the winter snow and sun which help integrate it into the soil.

You will have to turn over the soil in Spring. Turning the soil aerates it. You need only shovel down about six or eight inches or till across the garden two or three times to get it to the consistency where it will allow germinating seeds to poke through. You can turn the compost into the soil again in early Spring.

Organizing the Garden

I would recommend a garden no larger than 25 x 30 feet to begin.

Most gardeners plant in neat rows as it is easier to weed.

Habitual walking (and of course driving heavy machinery) across the soil compacts it and makes it pretty much useless for growing anything but plantain, called by Native Americans, “white man’s footsteps.”

On the subject of weeds, you should understand the following.

Soil organisms are not distributed evenly about the soil. Each species exists where it can find the right amount of space, nutrients and moisture. This is generally around organic matter.

Thus, my sandy soil is as sterile as the desert away from plants.

But around roots there is a region called the rhizosphere where bacteria feeds from old plant cells and proteins and sugars released by the roots. Protozoa and nematodes feed on the bacteria. They cycle nutrients and help retain beneficial ones, change the structure of the soil to help the plant better access water and nutrients and suppress disease by feeding on pathogens and excreting metabolites toxic to them.

Gardeners weed to remove the competition for nutrients. However, root systems can interact in a synergistic way, providing nutrients for each other.

Tall weeds can also provide welcome shade to plants sensitive to the relentless rays of a midday blazing sun. So unless the weeds are blocking needed sun or overtaking my plants, that is, the weeds are strong and healthy and my plants weak and stunted, I let them do their thing.

If you are not going to use a rototiller and you don’t care that much about weeds that will grow among the rocks, you are not bound by the rules of symmetry and can plant in circles if you wish. You can make a rock or brick path in your garden to walk on. You can build rock walls or mounds of rock that retain moisture so crickets and small toads can live. They are priceless predators of insects who would otherwise forage your plants.

Lately I have been allowing narrow grass aisles to grow between my plots, but you do have to keep the grass down or it will attract too many grasshoppers. They will quickly devour a number of plants.

If you are more comfortable with straight rows and weeding as much as you can, by all means go for it.

Some say that a man’s footsteps are all a garden needs for fertility. Along the same line, a friend told me of an old man she knew with an abundant garden who took only one cup of water to feed his garden each evening. The point is, follow your passion and it will yield good things.

I like to intersperse flowers, herbs and vegetables and to follow companion planting suggestions.

Planting too much of a single crop creates an ecosystem vulnerable to pests and diseases of that crop and eradicates the natural system of checks and balances of a diverse ecosystem.

Over time, growing a single plant will also deplete the soil of the nutrients that plants needs. Farmers alternate their crops, often planting a cover crop that will add back in the nutrients the former planting has taken.

Certain pests like certain plants.

In your garden too, you should not plant the same crop in the same area. Last year’s pests are waiting.

Buying Seeds, Starters, Bulbs and Seedlings

I can’t say definitively where to buy seeds. I feel like I’ve had good luck and bad luck with every place from which I’ve bought.

And that’s not to say it was a problem with the seeds not germinating. It could be that birds ate the seed. Or that I pulled up the seedlings thinking they were weeds.

It’s an odd thing, and just one of many spellbinding revelations you will discover watching the world up close and personal, but almost identical plants will grow next to the seedlings you’ve planted.

After awhile, you can get cocky and think you know which one is which and before you know it, you’ve got a bitter weed growing rampant where the arugula would be if you hadn’t yanked it.

By the way, don’t be yanking plants. When you are old you might end up with very painful elbows on cold, damp days. Move as a dancer, with thought and balance.

I did grow a notable crop of amaranth, an edible red grain the Hopi also used for body paint from seeds I bought from Seeds of Change.

I also grew some very pretty Peruvian chili peppers a couple years in a row that glimmered like jewels in my garden. They were very hot and kept well dried for many years.

I think they were Peruvian. Maybe they were Bolivian. But they don’t carry them any more so it doesn’t matter.

I have also got some very cool sunflower seeds from them and good broomcorn seeds.

I like Peaceful Valley Seeds because they carry organic seeds.

I have a soft spot in my heart for Johnny’s Selected Seeds, but I think it’s just because they carry a xylene-free weatherproof marker, which is something otherwise impossible to find.

It’s a good idea to have a diagram of your proposed plantings before you start, but sometimes I also mark off the seeds as I plant them by writing their names on a popsicle stick and placing them at the edges of their little plot.

I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t have a xylene-free marker. Xylene gives me a spinning headache that makes me believe it is probably not a substance I want the rain to wash into my garden soil.

I’m not obsessive-compulsive, just circumspect. You will find if you breathe deeply and are open to sensing the world around you while you are gardening, you will become sensitive to the rhythms of the earth. You will feel rain approaching.

The reason the farmer’s almanac advises against planting root crops while the moon is waxing is because the moon is pulling the earth’s water closer to the surface during that phase, and root crops like depth and dryness. Plant them when the mood is waning and them gravitational forces are weaker.

The moment of their planting, as in astrological signs, makes an imprint upon their lives and influences their growth.

Biodynamic farmers also believe that the earth is part of a single organism, a living universe. They, too work with the energy fields of the planet for abundance, mixing plants in their compost known to have synergistic properties and making a fertilizer of compost tea at a particular favorable time in the earth’s rotation.

Back to seeds. I like to look through the catalogs with the cheesy graphics that come in the mail starting around January when it is cold and stark outside.

I have no idea how many times I have ordered and tried to plant a “crimson carpet.” Maybe I never did. I don’t have any.

I hope to this year.

I love the idea of heirloom seeds and get lost for hours on the websites for heirloom seeds thinking I will plant this or that.

Looks like there is a whole cult of people dedicated to preserving species, which is a pretty cool idea and makes me want to accept the few they divvy up to me and responsibly grow them and harvest their seeds.

But I also want to be an astronomer and a physicist and an enologist and a traveler and, well… you get the picture. I’m afraid I would not follow through and disappoint them.

Although I am truly afraid to ask anything about their origin, I can generally trust that the seeds I get in bulk at my farmers’ co-op will grow.

They are very practical farmers. I also trust in whatever seeds they have decided to stock in regular-size packets.

Their prices tend to be less than online stores too.

Chances are good there is a farmers’ co-op near you. Don’t be intimidated. You don’t have to wear overalls to go in there. You can tap their knowledge about a lot of things too.

They will generally only carry sound seed potatoes and onion sets that are going to grow well in your area.

So shop around and buy a good variety of seeds. If seedlings don’t come up in the time it says they will on the back of the package and you haven’t had super crazy out-of-season weather, then just plant something else there.

Epictetus, a Greek Stoic philosopher born in A.D. 55, said, “Neither should a ship rely on one small anchor, nor should life rest on a single hope.”

True now as it was then. Have back-up seeds.

Some plants, like lilies and rhubarb, grow from bulbs. You can get these, as well as seedlings, at the farmers’ co-op or a nursery.

You will want to buy seedlings for crops that require a longer growing season than you have or for crops you want a head-start on. Seedlings can grow in a greenhouse before the ground outside warms up enough to allow anything to sprout.

When you buy your seedlings, you will need to “harden them off,” which means to help them acclimate to the cold world so they don’t just freeze to death.

Plants by their nature need to be planted in the ground and do not like a lot of change. They easily die of transplant shock, so it is important to try to keep as much of the old soil on them as you can and introduce a similar environment if possible, added by a bit of fish emulsion or liquid B-12.

Keep them watered and out of the wind at first. Hardening off involves setting them outside for progressively more hours each day until they have been able to weather a few of the coldest nights you are getting.

Once they have proven strong enough to endure that, you can plant them in the garden.

Ask around and check customer reviews to learn about your local nurseries for buying seedlings.

Once you have been gardening awhile, you will learn to recognize an unhealthy plant and to look for certain types of pests hiding on them, but until then, you’ll just have to go to a reputable place and ask the person near you.

It’s not exactly easy to find organically grown seedlings. You can of course grow your own seedlings indoors. But unless you are around 24/7 or have greenhouse conditions in your home, it is a ridiculous amount of work.

I buy what I can get and hope the soil and sun detoxifies whatever the plant’s previous owner has done.

While we are on the subject of buying plants, if you don’t know I should explain the difference between annuals and perennials now.

Annuals are plants that you have to plant or grow from seed every year. If you leave annuals in the ground and let them grow long enough to produce seeds and those seeds drop to the ground, take hold and sprout the next season, you can let them grow there of course and that’s great.

But don’t count on that happening.

You can also collect the seeds from your annuals and try to use them the next year, but again, until you learn to recognize when seeds are ready to harvest and ideal storage and nurturing conditions, don’t count on this as a money-saver.

Perennials are plants that will weather your winter and just keep on growing. They may go dormant, that is, fall into a deep sleep during the winter months and look quite dead, but they will perk up in the Spring and sprout buds. Don’t dig them up.

This is true of a lot of herbs, like rosemary and marjoram, some flowers like lavender and all of the bulbs that I can think of.

Research what you want to figure out what to do. Bulbs multiply at their roots and can be pulled up and divided in the Spring. Replanted them with more space around them and, ta-da, you’ve got many more.

Companion Planting

When I am considering the year’s plantings, I usually look through an old thumbed-through book called Carrots Love Tomatoes written by Louise Riotte and published by Storey Communications in 1975. It is based upon observations of plants that grow better together, due to the nutrients their root systems exchange and because the pests they naturally attract are pests that control the population of pests of their companion.

Because they are healthy, they are less vulnerable to diseases too. Disease happens when a healthy plant is compromised, generally from insect attack or lack of nutrients.

Plants can be compromised from temperature and humidity or arid extremes. Disease comes looking then. A good companion plant can bolster strength in troubled times, so it’s a no-brainer to follow these principles and a lot of fun.

Anyway, that’s how I recommend beginning your plantings. After a few seasons, you will formulate your own conclusions about invisible interactions happening. You may find that chickweed likes lavender.

Or you may feel a little splash of color would be delightful between the meadows of basil you have planted and the garlic.

This video explores the beneficial effect of interspersing your food crops with flowers.

You will appreciate that you have cast dahlia seeds when you are mesmerized by the swan-like curvatures of the garlic, with their long needle-noses, astounded to find they are having dancing parties behind your back. They freeze in their new graceful positions when you turn to look.

You take photo after photo on the cell phone you should never garden with. And these photos you show your friends, though barely capturing the thin arc of the garlic are replete with colorful dahlias.

Many gardeners subscribe to companion planting principles.

When do you plant? Look in your farmer’s almanac. It will tell you what you can plant in your area when.

Cold weather crops that can be planted early include onions, potatoes, radishes and beets.

You can follow up with planting seeds for hardy greens and then the more delicate greens.

About then, the soil will have warmed up enough for the rest of the seeds to germinate and to accept your transplant of seedlings.

That’s not to say a late killing frost doesn’t come along and undo what you’ve done. Measures can be taken to save plants if you have warning. This might be something you want to research in advance.

Recommendations range from spraying a preparation with valerian to warm the plants to erecting a row cover.


Annuals – Plants that die off at the end of a growing season. They must be planted anew every year
Companion Planting – The practice of planting sympathetic crops next to each other to improve crop yield.
Compost – Organic matter which has decayed and turned into rich soil
Perennials – Plants that live through the winter, though they often appear not to.
Seedlings – the first shoots of a plant’s growth. They are often grown in small cells until they are large enough and strong enough to plant in the garden.
Weeds – plants you are not intentionally growing.


You need very little, apart from a composter and seeds or plants to garden. A good shovel, possibly a hoe, a trowel and good pruners are essential.

Take good care of your tools and make sure they are always clean. Be sensitive to what you are doing. If you cut off a diseased leaf, clean the shears with soap before you use them on another plant or you are likely to spread the disease. Keep them sharp so that your cuts are clean, not sloppy and tearing, thus weakening the plant.

It is important to be comfortable. I once only wore Japanese farmer pants, which were loose and made of light but durable cotton and had pockets in the knees where you could slide knee-pads, but I can’t find them for sale anymore.

If you find some, buy enough for the rest of your life.

Dirty as you are going to get it, I highly recommend the full coverage of a long-sleeve shirt. Not only does it protect you from the sun, but it will spare you the nasty sting of sweat bees if you dally in the garden a little too late in the morning.

So now that you look awesome and have a cool compost tumbler in your back yard, grab your shovel and trowel, maybe find a straw hat and head out to create a magical garden.

The Importance of Harvesting Mason Bee Cocoons

Mason Bee on a Dandelion

Why Harvest Bee Cocoons?

People often ask why harvesting mason bee cocoons is important.
Here's a helpful analogy? You wouldn't get a new puppy, buy him a comfy pillow, and then put him in a dog house infested with fleas. If you did that your puppy would suffer, loose vitality, scratch endlessly, and can become very ill or worse. Instead, you would do whatever is needed to protect your puppy. Pollen Mites Inside a Nesting Tube
In the same way, mason bees have many natural enemy pests that claim countless numbers of bees each year.
The photo shows a cell filled with mites and mite poop. The orange is mostly droppings. The mites are numerous but they are somewhat clear colored. You will not find a bee larva in the cells with numerous mites. The mites destroyed the bee egg.

While the bees have few defenses against them, we can save them from the agony of defeat.

How Nature Works

Here's how it happens. In nature, wild mason bees find holes left behind by wood boring insects or look for hollow stems to use as nesting tubes. Pollen mites collect on the bee when foraging for pollen. While the female is building the cells inside the holes some mites drop off in the pollen pile.

The mites multiply rapidly numbering hundreds or thousands in a short time. The bee egg within those infested cells are killed. In the spring, the emerging bee must crawl through the wall of mites and immediately cling to the bee's body. The blossoms and tree leaves get infested with mites that are sctatched off by the suffering bees. Other bees pick up the mites. When the bees enter a new nesting hole, the mite invasion starts over again.

What You Gain From Harvesting Cocoons

Harvesting mason bee cocoons frees the bees from having to crawl through the mites in the spring. The generation that emerges is stronger and healthier. You are actually increasing bee populations and helping ensure the health of future generations. You can keep track of the total number of cocoons. If you set out additional bee houses your bee numbers and cocoons will increase dramically each year.

Smaller Male Cocoon and Larger Female Cocoon

You will know the male to female ratio (male cocoons are a third smaller as shown in the photo). The ratio should be about 50/50. Too many males means your tubes are too short.

(Photo courtesy of Dave Hunter)

You can have an increase of fruit or flowers with the increase of pollinators. North American native bees excel at pollinating North American trees and plants. Refrigerating the cocoons keeps then in hibernation and allows you to put out the cocoons when you need them in the spring. Refrigeration avoids the often ill-timed fatal releases that can occur in unseasonably warm spring weather before the trees are in bloom. Without pollen and nectar from blooms, the bees will quickly die. It's fun and your children can learn about the life of bees. Many commercial growers and resalers will purchase your healthy bee cocoons above what you need for your garden or orchard. You become an environmentally aware, socially responsible person seeking to advance the cause of native bees. Since most people don't even know we have native bees, you will be the neighborhood native bee expert.

Other Methods of Protecting Your Bees

To prevent other pests from preying on the bee larva, gently remove the nesting boxes shortly after the bees stop flying. This is sometime around the first of May in most areas. Place the box in a net bag, i.e. BeeGardian Net Bag.You can use hose stockings of you prefer.

Place the net bag in a well-ventalated corner of the garage. This keeps the paracitic wasps, carpet beetles, and other insects from entering the nests.

In the fall you can harvest the cocoons and place them in a small humidity box (plactic container with vent holes and a damp paper towel). Make sure the wet towel is not touching the cocoons.

Do not havest the bees too early or they will be underdeveloped and die. November is a prime month for harvesting mason bee cocoons.

Cleaning Your Mason Bee Cocoons

Method One - Washing the Cocoons

This method involves washing the mason bee cocoons in a bleach and water solution. Don't worry, the cocoons are tough and will not be hurt. This does not kill the mites, but washes them off. The mites are extremely hard to kill, even with bleach.

Get a bowl of water and add a small amount of bleach to about a 5% solution. Place the cocoons in the bleach water for about 3 to 5 minutes stirring them around. Remove the cocoons and rinse them thoroughly with fresh water. Lightly pad them dry with a paper towel. Do not store them in the refrigerator wet. Do not use hot water or it may cause the larva to awake and think it is time to emerge. Use cold water and store in the refrigerator before they heat up to room temperature.

Method Two - Using sand to Clean Cocoons

This method was developed by Hutchings Bee Service, British Columbia.

Get a mesh screen with small holes large enough to allow sand to flow through, but not the cocoons. Farm stores often have a variety of screens sizes. You can make a simple sifting box if you like. The most simple method is to form a cup with the mesh or lay the mesh flat over a bowl. Put the cocoons onto the mesh and carefully pour clean sand over the cocoons. The sand will brush off the mites as the sand passes over them. The mites are smaller than the grain of sand and pass into the bowl. Pour sand over the cocoons several times to ensure pollen mites are gone. You can reuse the sand in the catch bowl to clean the mason bee cocoons. However, once the cocoons are cleaned throw the sand away in a place some distance away from any bee pollen source.

After Cleaning Cocoons

After cleaning the mason bee cocoons, put the clean cocoons in a breathable sealed container and place them in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. Place a damp paper towel in the container near the cocoons to provide humidity. Do not place the cocoons directly on top of the wet towel. Storing them in the refrigerator is the best method because you can keep them in hibernation until you are ready for them in the spring. An important caution if storing cocoons in a non-heated garage during the winter:

A second option is to place the mason bee cocoons in a non-heated garage or shop building. If you experience several days of unseasonably warm weather, the heat may warm the cocoons enough to trigger an emergence. If that happens, but is followed by freezing weather, or if you have no blossoms yet, you will lose your bees. For this reason, it is better to keep them in a controlled environment.

Artificial Connection to Nature

Many years ago, humans and nature coexisted in a harmony that has been missing in the present day. We did not live in the technical and sophisticated way we do now. We needed to connect to nature on a much more personal level because it was integrated in our very existence. However, it all changed with the invention of technology. Our scientists developed technology that has revolutionized the way human beings interact with the nature and with each other. For good or for bad, technology is present in virtually every activity that we do; from walking to taking a shower, there is always a technological invention present in front of our eyes. Technology is advancing everyday in such a fast speed that no human being could have imagined. Although such advancements are thought to improve human quality of life, it is without a doubt true that some elements of human interaction with nature have been severely affected. No longer are men or women exposed to nature as their ancestors were. As a result, we start to wonder the extent of which this outrageous advance in technology has entailed a loss of connection with nature. Technology is developed with the objective of facilitating life to human beings. The invention of Internet, robots, cars and phones has been technologies developed to help human have a better and easier life, making them happier and more productive. As Schumacher states in his book “Small is Beautiful,” the primary task of technology is to lighten the burden of work man has to carry in order to stay alive and develop his potential” (Schumacher 157). An example of how technology has made human life easier is the invention of emails. No longer does a person have to wait a week or so to get important mail. It can be sent at any time and delivered within seconds in any part of the world. Although this immediate communication is very effective for business, it has also affected the way human being interact with each other, making communication less personal, faster, and sometimes less effective; these technological advances have changed the very natural characteristics of communications. In other words, we have faster communication, but we are starting to forget how to interact with others in the real world.
Although technology has indeed made human life easier in some areas, it has also complicated human life since it “tends to develop by its own laws and principles, and these are very different from those of human nature or living nature in general” (Schumacher 155). In other words, technology’s development is sometimes incompatible with the laws of nature. Technology does not have a self-limiting point, which is something that nature has. One of the most known examples, a major threat to human existence nowadays, are nuclear weapons. These weapons are the most dangerous weapons on earth. One of these weapons is able to destroy a complete town or city, potentially killing millions of civilians, and jeopardizing the natural environment and lives of future generations through its long-term catastrophic effects. The very existence of these weapons is a risk that is already present just by having them. Although nuclear weapons have only been used twice in warfare—in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945—about 22,000 reportedly remain in our world today and there have been over 2,000 nuclear tests conducted to date (UNODA). Human beings have developed a technology that is capable of destroying the earth within seconds, just by the push of a button. It is hard to believe that something that was created to “improve human life” can also be its major threat. In this case, nuclear technology has become more powerful than nature itself, putting in danger its existence.
Technology has helped industries produce objects at speeds never seen before. In order to satisfy the endless wants of human beings who are part of a consumer society, industries have develop technologies to replace human work, making manufacturing processes faster than ever, and therefore, increasing the number of products. This technique, however, is of great benefit only for those who own industries. Workers are severely affected since their work is not valued. As Schumacher believes, “modern technology has deprived man of the kind of work that he enjoys most, creative, useful work with hands and brains, and given him plenty of work of a fragmented kind, most of which he does not enjoy at all( Schumacher 74).” People do jobs that they do not want to do because the work place has been modified in such a way that working has become an unpleasant task. After all, it is not enjoyable to spend eight hours or more in front of a computer, or to look after a machine. In addition, those jobs that involve any kind of physical work are looked down. As a result, farming, a job which promotes direct contact with nature, is no longer appreciated.

It is not surprising to think, as a result of this switch from jobs involving nature to jobs involving computers, that human beings pay more attention to technology than to nature. After all, they spend more time with technological devices than with nature. This is what has lead to what, in my opinion, is a big problem in our society: we are more concerned about how to fix or enhance a device than how to fix environmental problems. Nowadays, people prefer to find ways of getting extra money to buy air conditioners than to find ways of diminishing our impact in the environment and therefore, not contributing to global warming, which is the term used to describe a gradual increase in the average temperature of the Earth's atmosphere and its oceans, a change that is believed to be permanently changing the Earth’s climate. While many people in the world view the effects of global warming to be more substantial and more rapidly occurring than others do. For example, people in the tropical countries or in the Middle East, the scientific consensus on climatic changes related to global warming is that the average temperature of the Earth has risen between 0.4 and 0.8 °C over the past 100 years (LiveScience). The increased volumes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released by the burning of fossil fuels, land clearing, industrial agriculture, and other human activities related with the use of technology, are believed to be the primary sources of the global warming that has occurred over the past 50 years. Due to this lack of exposure to nature, human beings have come up with the idea that nature is not as important as technological advances are, so people get more excited when a new version of iPhone is released than when some area becomes a protected national park.

As discussed before, advancements of technology in manufacturing industries are related to a larger number of goods produced in a shorter time. That is exactly what most companies are trying to get: more products in a shorter time in order to be able to supply the demand of products. As economy theory dictates, “the plans/desires of consumers are embedded in the concept of demand and the plans/desires of producers in the concept of supply” (“Supply and Demand”). If that company is not able to have enough products, they will lose a considerable amount of customers because there is always another company that will have similar products available. For example, people get really mad when an iPhone is released and Apple does not have enough units available. As a result, they might get an Android device instead of the iPhone just because Apple Inc. was not able to produce as many devices as its costumers demanded. This is a clear example of the importance of fulfilling demand and customer satisfaction for giant companies.
Something that these companies do not take into account is, however, that this overproduction of items leads to several environmental issues. Companies are not concerned about the environment; their objective is not to care about the environment but their profit. As a result, they will produce as many items as they can sell without being concerned about the environmental implications of such actions. One of the most dangerous effects of this economic strategy is the overuse of non-renewable resources such as water, oil and other raw materials necessary for the development and production of technological devices, but also vital for human life. The amount of natural resources extracted for the production of goods and services is steadily increasing at around 60 billion tons each year, humans extract and use about 50% more than only 30 years ago (Friends of the Earth Europe 9). However, it is fundamentally important to understand that none of these materials are going to recover from the exploitation. As a result, we are going to run out of such materials at some point.

As can be inferred from Fig 1, the number of natural resources in the globe has increased dramatically, affecting the earth equilibrium in an unprecedented way. In the same way minerals, metals, and fossil fuels are extracted; the over-exploitation also applies for some live species such as fish. “Up to 32 percent of the world's fish stocks are over-exploited, depleted or recovering, they [researchers] warned. Up to half of the world's mangrove forests and a fifth of coral reefs that are fish spawning grounds have been destroyed” as a result of the exportation that takes place in our oceans in order to over supply food (Zelman). Although big food enterprises are the direct responsible of such destruction in the sea, consumers preferences and attitudes are also part of this problem. As Jacqueline Alder, head of UNEP's marine, coastal and freshwater office, said “People don't want to eat the little anchovies anymore when they can eat a nice snapper or grouper – much nicer fish, shows much more of your wealth” (Zelman). If people did not have this preferences, and did not fish was not demanded in such overwhelming quantities, fishing companies would not be destroying such species.
The widely influential and characteristically modern belief of both the desirability and the possibility of indefinite increase in material production and consumption has been and continues to be a powerful driver of human appropriation of the environment, meaning that human beings believe to own nature instead of being part of it. There is no doubt that technology has made human life easier and more productive. However, Has technology really improved human’s lifestyle? Is it really worth having an easier life knowing that your future generations will have to suffer the consequences of your easy life? If we want to change share our quality of life with our children, we need to change our economic system dramatically. Capitalism and all its implications are not the way to go if we want to inherit a healthy planet to our kids. However, in order to achieve this change, we need to start looking for ways to connect with nature as our ancestors did. We are part of nature; if we fight against nature, we are fighting against ourselves.
Works Cited
"Supply and Demand.", n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.
Friends of the Earth Europe. "Overconsumption - Our Use of the World's Natural Resources." Foeeurope, 1 Sept. 2009. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.
LiveScience. "Global Warming: News, Facts, Causes & Effects." N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.
Schumacher, E. F., and Bill McKibben. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as If People Mattered. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2010. Print.
UNODA. "Nuclear Weapons Home." UN News Center. UN, n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.
Zelman, Joanna. "World Fish Stock Being Destroyed By Rising Wealth And Subsidies, UNEP Warns." The Huffington Post., 24 Jan. 2012. Web. 29 Apr. 2013.

Organics No Better Than Chemical/GMO/Sewage Sludge-Soaked “Food”?

Organic or Natural?

Whenever I peruse the grocery store for food, I am often dumbfounded by the robust use of vague terminology by the food industry. Often conflicted to buy natural or organic food, I have alas done my research to see 1) what is the difference and 2) why should I care.

The Difference

Natural foods is assumed to imply foods that are minimally processed and do not contain manufactured ingredients.
Organic food is certified to not involve modern synthetic inputs such as synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
Organic foods are also not processed using irradiation, industrial solvents, or chemical food additives.

Artificial Flavors ?

What are they?
Flavorings are chemical formulations that mimic the flavors and smells of foods
What are some examples?
fruit flavored drinks, teas and yogurts
What are the health risks?

Controversial - A number of studies have shown a relationship between artificial coloring and hyperactivity. On the other hand, some studies do not show any effect of coloring on children's behavior. (National Institute of Health)

Fun Fact
Castoreum (which is extracted from the anal glands of a beaver) is used to make artificial raspberry flavoring. Yummy!

Call me biased (and I am)...but it would seem to be common sense that regular food, real food -- i.e. food not pruned in a lab, or coated with chemicals, or doused in sewage sludge -- as is so-called "conventional" food -- would be cleaner, stronger, healthier. After all, take the food out of conventional food and all you're left with is a pile of chemicals, toxins, pesticides (poisons), sewage. Want some chemicals for breakfast, Billy? But no. A "ground-breaking" UK study just found that...surprise!...chemical-grown GMO-lovin' food shipped 1500 miles to your plate is just as good as local, organic, as-God-intended-it chow.

Here's Whole Foods Market's response, via Facebook.
We are optimistic that improved support of organic nutrition research -- including the increase of organic research funding in the 2008 Farm Bill, and the work of organizations like The Organic Center -- will show that nutritional advantages are another reason that organic agriculture is better than conventional. Our shoppers choose organic food for many reasons -- to avoid synthetic pesticide residue, because it is often fresher and better tasting, and because organic farmers grow in earth-friendly ways that support the environment. Nutritional quality is one of many potential variables related to the advantages of organic food, but for us, there are already plenty of well-documented reasons to choose organic.The authors of this study examine the abstracts of 50 years of nutritional studies, looking for differences in nutrition between organic and non-organic foods, and conclude that there aren't any major differences. They don't rule out the possibility that there could be nutritional advantages, but acknowledge that none has been demonstrated so far. This isn't a surprising finding, since until very recently, there has been very little governmental or non-profit support of academic nutrition research focused directly on organic agriculture. In general, most nutrition research has not differentiated between organic and conventional crops.

Organic vs Conventional

I'm in London and today's tabloid Daily Express has a headline in type two inches high: "ORGANIC FOOD NO HEALTHIER." The article begins, "Eating organic food in the belief that it is good for your health is a waste of money, new research shows." Really? This surprising statement is based on the conclusions of a lengthy report (pdf) just released from the British Food Standards Agency,Comparison of composition (nutrients and other substances) of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review of the available literature. This report, done by excellent researchers at the prestigious London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, looked at the results of 162 studies comparing organic to conventionally grown foods for their content of nutrients and other substances. Although it found higher amounts of some nutrients in organic crops, it found higher amounts of others in conventional crops, and no difference in others. On this basis, the report concludes:

There is no good evidence that increased dietary intake, of the nutrients identified in this review to be present in larger amounts in organically than in conventionally produced crops and livestock products, would be of benefit to individuals consuming a normal varied diet, and it is therefore unlikely that these differences in nutrient content are relevant to consumer health.

In a statement accompanying release of the report, the Food Standards Agency says:

The Agency supports consumer choice and is neither pro nor anti organic food. We recognise that there are many reasons why people choose to eat organic, such as animal welfare or environmental concerns. The Agency will continue to give consumers accurate information about their food based on the best available scientific evidence.

Fine, but do animal welfare and environmental concerns not matter? The authors of the report summarize their findings in a paper in theAmerican Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The paper concludes:

On the basis of a systematic review of studies of satisfactory quality, there is no evidence of a difference in nutrient quality between organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs. The small differences in nutrient content detected are biologically plausible and mostly relate to differences in production methods.

Oh? I thought that's what organic foods were about -- production methods: no antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, irradiation, genetic modification, or sewage sludge. I thought better production methods were the precise point of organic foods.

Read more here, at The Daily Green. Here's a new one just in, via my friend Steve Hoffman, an organic/natural products expert, at The Organic Center:

Letter from the Director

The Organic Center Challenges New Study Results; Defends the Nutritional Superiority of Organic Foods An advance copy of a study appeared yesterday that will be published in the September edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The published paper, "Nutritional Quality of Organic Foods: A Systematic Review," was written by a team led by Alan Dangour at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The study, commissioned by the U.K. Food Standards Agency (FSA), claims that there are no differences in nutritional quality between conventional and organic foods. The Organic Center's chief scientist, Dr. Chuck Benbrook, has written a strong response questioning the methodology and challenging the findings of this study, and we wanted to let you know where you can access it, as you may be responding to media and other inquiries in this regard. Click here to see Dr. Benbrook's full response to this controversial study. According to Dr. Benbrook, the U.K. research team reported finding statistically significant differences between organically and conventionally grown crops in only three of thirteen categories of nutrients. Significant differences cited by the team included nitrogen, which was higher in conventional crops, and phosphorus and titratable acids, both of which were higher in the organic crops. As most scientists regard elevated levels of nitrogen in food as a potential cancer-causing agent, this finding of higher nitrogen in conventional food favors organic crops, as do the other two differences. Despite the fact that these three categories of nutrients favored organic foods, and none favored conventionally grown foods, the London-based team concluded that there are no nutritional differences between organically and conventionally grown crops. However, a team of scientists convened by The Organic Center (TOC) carried out a similar, but more rigorous, review of the same literature. The TOC team analyzed published research just on plant-based foods. Results differ significantly from the more narrow FSA review and are reported in the study "New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-Based Organic Foods," which is freely accessible on the TOC website ( The TOC findings are similar for some of the nutrients analyzed by the FSA team, but differ significantly for two critical classes of nutrients of great importance in promoting human health -- total polyphenols, and total antioxidant content. The FSA team did not include total antioxidant capacity among the nutrients studied, and it found no differences in the phenolic content in 80 comparisons across 13 studies. For more information, visit

Big data’s vital role in solving urgent food safety problems

The analysis of large volumes of data collected from fields, warehouses, trucks – and even animals’ stomachs – may be key to preventing widespread hunger in the coming decades.

Agricultural Production Index
The world's population is projected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations believes that food production will have to increase by 70% in the next 35 years to prevent widespread hunger.

But the increasing use of farmland for biofuel production means that there is less land available for food, and about half - or two billion tonnes - of the food that is produced is wasted, according to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Technology and data analysis could help improve the situation.

Cloud farming

Big data analysis can also increase crop yields by helping famers make better decisions about when to plant, manage and harvest their crops.
A US farmer checks the latest hyper-local weather forecast on his tablet computer
For example, the Climate Corporation, a company founded by two ex-Google employees and acquired by agriculture giant Monsanto in 2013, operates a cloud-based farming information system that takes account of weather measurements from 2.5 million locations every day.

It processes that data, along with 150 billion soil observations, to generate 10 trillion weather simulation data points. Using this information, the company claims it can provide US farmers with temperature, rain and wind forecasts for areas as small as one-third of a square mile (about 200 acres), for the forthcoming 24-hour and seven-day periods.

Accessed from a web browser, this information enables farmers to work out when best to spray large areas of farmland, because they can ascertain when the land is dry enough, when the wind speed is low enough to permit spraying, and when there is a long enough time window before the next rainfall to ensure that the spraying is effective.

The system also uses daily weather data from the past few months to provide farmers with yield estimates for their crops in individual fields, and it allows them to explore historical data from the last thirty growing seasons to provide an accurate estimate of the value of fields they may be considering buying.

War on waste

But even if crops, dairy products and meat can be produced more efficiently by making use of big data, it's a major undertaking to get it from the farm or abattoir to the dining room table. That's because most food has to be transported hundreds or even thousands of miles on pallets in containers loaded on to trucks, ships and even aeroplanes, stopping at warehouses and distribution points on the way.

Changes in temperature, humidity and even oxygen levels in the containers can all affect the condition of the food when it arrives at its market destination. About 10% to 15% of food that is transported chilled spoils during transport, according to some industry estimates, costing around $25bn. Food worth billions of dollars is spoiled in transit each year before it ever reaches our plates

Food worth billions of dollars is spoiled in transit each year before it ever reaches our plates

Tech Mahindra, an IT service company based in Bangalore, India, offers a system called Farm-to-Fork which aims to monitor containers centrally, sending alerts out whenever the conditions in a container deviate from their ideal ones.

Sensors in each container measure temperature, humidity and other parameters, communicating over mobile data networks while the containers are in transit, and via wi-fi when they arrive at distribution centres. Global positioning system (GPS) data also keeps a track of where the containers are.

In some circumstances problems can be rectified automatically, according to Mahesh Vasudevanallur, a practice head at the company. For example, if the sensors indicate that oxygen levels in the container have fallen too low, more of the gas can be released from an on-board tank.

If automatic adjustment isn't possible, humans can intervene. "For a ship on the high seas, an alert message goes to a technician to see what action can be taken," Mr Vasudevanallur says. "With a truck, a driver can go to the nearest depot to get things fixed rather than driving on to his final destination."

All this recorded data can be used to improve food transport conditions, he adds.

"Big data scientists can do freshness and nutrition analysis at each part of the value chain to improve food longevity. That will do wonders getting the products to stomachs instead of being wasted."

Bees are dying in droves. Why?

Leading apiarist Dennis vanEngelsdorp looks at the gentle, misunderstood creature’s important place in nature and the mystery behind its alarming disappearance

Dennis vanEngelsdorp is Acting State Apiarist for Pennsylvania's Department of Agriculture, studying colony collapse disorder — the alarming, worldwide disappearance of worker bees and Western honey bees.

Why you should listen

"Imagine if one of every three cows died. The National Guard would be out." It's a grim premise, but a favorite of Dennis vanEngelsdorp, who in 2008 watched the same percentage of bees vanish in North America. A leading apiarist, vanEngelsdorp knows the disturbing consequences of the bee die-off. Colony collapse disorder (its official name) is complex and mysterious, driven by pesticides, toxins and disease, and threatens not only the existence of the insect but also the food they pollinate -- a third of what we eat.

But vanEngelsdorp is not a pessimist, however worrisome the situation. Since finding his love for bees in an undergraduate beekeeping course, he's steadily chewed through new degree programs, becoming an outspoken bee crusader, generating global buzz -- sorry -- for the fascinating critters: their workers' dance, their convenient chronic case of static cling ...

To fight recent losses, he's now advocating urban beekeeping and honeymaking (sadly, illegal in some cities), drive-by-night repopulation programs, and emergency queen bee delivery by express mail (legal -- really).

Pesticide linked to three generations of genetic damage

Pesticide linked to three generations of genetic damage

The Verge
By Russell Brandom on July 24, 2014 02:00 pm

No one's used the pesticide Methoxychlor for more than a decade — but according to a new study, it may be harming people for generations to come. A group of researchers at Washington State University have discovered new effects from the pesticide that reach into a subject's epigenome, affecting children and even grandchildren of the initial subject. That ancestral exposure can contribute to adult onset kidney disease, ovarian disease, and obesity in later generations.

Published today in PLOS ONE, the study is part of the growing field of epigenetics, which studies how the body chooses which genetic code to read and which to ignore. Methoxychlor doesn't alter the genome itself, but after exposing rats to the toxin, researchers discovered the subjects' descendants were more likely to express the harmful genes. The effect was particularly pronounced in the female germ line, indicating Methoxychlor is particularly harmful for the descendants of female subjects.

But beyond a single pesticide, the results suggest that ancestral exposures may be a more powerful factor in a person's health than the medical community had previously realized. "The idea that your ancestors' exposures influence your disease has not been seriously considered in our ideas of how disease develops," says Michael Skinner, a WSU professor who led the research team. "Now we need to start considering that as a factor."

Plan Your Space

How to start

Urban gardens

City gardens have to tick lots of boxes, providing outdoor space for planting, relaxation, play and entertaining. Usually in a relatively small area, they need clever designs to make them work well. Most urban gardens become either functional spaces or plant-filled havens into which you can escape hectic city life. They often feature minimal design and repeated patterns for maximum effect.

Wildlife-friendly gardens

Wildlife-friendly gardens feature plants and structures that attract native wildlife, such as birds, beneficial insects and small mammals. Log piles, hedgehog boxes, bee hotels and more all help to bring wildlife that is interesting to watch, and which will help the gardener by keeping down pests such as slugs and aphids. Many plants are attractive to pollinating insects and you can have a wildlife-friendly garden however big or small your outside space is.

Cottage gardens

Abundant planting that spills over onto narrow pathways, masses of colour and scented flowers, this is a quintessentially English style. Originally, cottage gardens came about as a means for people to grow lots of fruit, veg and flowers in their countryside plots, but their romantic style captured the hearts of city dwellers, and this style can certainly be easily adapted for an urban garden.
The traditional simple, rectangular layouts are softened by the profusion of plants. However, cottage gardens still need the discipline of repeated colour and planting, with hedging to provide a framework.

Visit Royal Horticultural Society
Visit BBC Gardening Advices

Food Transportation Cost

Food study reveals hidden £9bn costs of transport

Felicity Lawrence, consumer affairs correspondent The Guardian, Friday 15 July 2005 02.40 BST

Food "miles" have risen dramatically over the past 10 years, are still rising, and have a significant impact on climate change, traffic congestion, accidents and pollution, according to a report published by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on Friday 14 July 2005.

Food miles increased by 15% in the 10 years to 2002. The average distance we now drive to shop for food each year is 898 miles, compared with 747 miles a decade ago. Food transport accounts for 25% of all the miles driven by heavy goods vehicles on our roads. The use of HGVs to transport food has doubled since 1974.

The dramatic increase has resulted in a rise in the amount of CO2 emitted by food transport: 19m tonnes of carbon dioxide were emitted in 2002 in the course of getting our food to us, a 12% increase on 1992, the report says. Airfreight, the most polluting form of food transport, is growing fastest.

The report also attempts to put a cost on the social and environmental impacts of food miles. Taking into account the time lost to traffic congestion, wear on the roads, ill health caused by air and noise pollution and accidents caused by food transport, its authors suggest the cost of food miles is £9bn a year to the UK. This is greater than the total contribution of the agricultrual sector to GDP (£6.4bn) and half the total value of the food and drink manufacturing sector (£19.8bn).

Researchers identified the factors driving the rise in food miles as increased global trade, concentration of power in the hands of supermarkets with centralised systems of distribution, greater car use to shop (particularly in urban areas), and a rise in packaging and processing.

The study shows that the concept of food miles is more complicated than just the distance food travels. What sort of transport is used and how food is grown make a difference.

Local sourcing helps as long as transport for local food is efficient. Organic food reduces environmental damage, but does not deliver a "net environmental benefit" when flown in from abroad. In simple energy terms, out-of-season British tomatoes needing artificial light and heat produce more emissions than those trucked from Spain.

Launching the report in London, the food and farming minister, Lord Bach, said the government would work with the industry to achieve a 20% reduction in the environmental and social costs of food transport by 2012.

He added that the report offered clear pointers to consumers: "Internet buying and home delivery can reduce road congestion and vehicle kilometres. Organic and seasonally available food can reduce environmental impacts, but these can be offset by the way they are transported to the consumer's home."

Tim Lang, who coined the phrase food miles in 1992 as part of the Safe campaign for more sustainable food, and is now professor of food policy at London's City University, said: "This report confirms that our so-called efficient food supply system is grossly wasteful. If the government doesn't take action to tackle this, all its proposals on climate change will be so much nonsense."

The Food and Drink Federation, which represents manufacturers, said it was concerned about the focus on food miles in the government's strategy for sustainable food.

"As food miles eat into profit, companies have already created an extremely fuel-efficient supply chain, and will therefore find it difficult to make further reductions," it said. Andrew Opie, the policy director of the British Retail Consortium, which represents leading supermarkets, said: "A sustainable policy on this issue is one that balances the demands of consumers for a broad range of all-year-round, high quality, affordable foods with any impact this may have on the environment through transport."