Italy Questions Neonicotinoid Pesticides, California Department of Food and Agriculture Loves Them

Can I report the CDFA as a pest?

Responding to concerns about the safety of nicotine based pesticides, such as imidacloprid, the Italian government, last year, banned them as a seed treatment. According to the Institute of Science in Society, Researchers with the National Institute of Beekeeping in Bologna, Italy discovered that “pollen obtained from seeds dressed with imidacloprid contains significant levels of the insecticide, and suggested that the polluted pollen was one of the main causes of honeybee colony collapse.”[1] Since the Italian government’s ban last year bee colonies have sprung back. In some regions no hives have been lost at all with the exception of citrus groves in Southern Italy where neonicotinoids were sprayed.[2]

Which brings me to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, whose love for the neonicotinoid pesticide imidacloprid I got to experience first hand. Last year our neighborhood was one of the first targeted by the CDFA for treatment in Los Angeles county after the appearance of the dreaded Asian Citrus Psyllid, a carrier of a fatal citrus disease called Huanglongbing (HLB)–see my early post about the psyllid and HLB. During a brief treatment period last fall CDFA agents and their contractors TruGreen attempted to spray every citrus tree with Bayer Crop Science’s version of imidacloprid, brand name Merit. During that spraying in my neighborhood CDFA agents and TruGreen:

1. Entered private property without warrants or permission.

2. Left misleading notices (click on image at right to enlarge) which failed to note that the treatment was voluntary.

3. Acted in an arrogant, condescending and rude manner. They also lied. When I declined treatment and noted that I was particularly concerned about the use of imidacloprid one agent offered what he called, “an alternative.” Upon further questioning he admitted that the “alternative” was a pellet version of imidacloprid–not an alternative at all, just the same insect neurotoxin in another form.

4. Ran out of pesticide. There are so many citrus trees in our neighborhood that the CDFA ran out of their precious imidacloprid tablets. They never returned to finish the job leading me to conclude that the operation was a kind of pesticide theater, a way to both justify their funding and please their friends at Sunkist.

European beekeepers would like to see all neonicotinoids banned for good. I’d like to see the same here. While imidacloprid is probably not hazardous to humans, all the oranges in the world are not worth killing our pollinating insects. And fighting invasive species this way is a losing game. I believe that HLB is inevitable. It’s just like Pierce’s disease in grapes, which is now an unavoidable part of viticulture in Southern California.

To my neighbors: I suggest we organize. Let’s resist CDFA’s attempt to spray more imidacloprid should they come around again. I’ve created a form where you can leave your email address here. I promise not to share the email addresses you provide or to send out spam. The list I create will only be used in the event we need to organize as concerned citizens. Hopefully I’ll never have to send out an email. But let’s not let CDFA treat us in a rude or condescending manner again. The next time CDFA pays a visit they may come with warrants and be even more surly. I’d love it if we had a crowd to greet them.

Nutria Trappin’ by Bike!

I like to keep up on all the “urban homesteading” trends, but bikesnobnyc beat me to this one: nutria (Myocastor coypus) trapping via bike.

“We then returned with our catch and skinned them, prepared the hides for tanning and butchered the carcass and cooked up a bit of the meat. Most folks seemed pleasantly surprised at the “chicken- like” taste of the meat.”

Read more about it at dellerdesigns.blogspot.com, “Maker of Fine Hats for Town and Country Cyclists.”

Gideon Lincecum Virtual Herbarium

–click to biggify–

(If you still can’t read it, it says “Erigeron canadensis, the common hogsweed, bruise and press out the juice from the green plant and take it in tablespoonful dose as often as the stomach will bear, for bleeding lungs, bleeding from the stomach, bowels or womb. It is a powerful agent in stopping hemorrhage from any organ.”)

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Our friend Nancy gave us some salve made up of calendula, plantain and a plant I was unfamiliar with, something I vaguely remembered her referring to as horseweed or fleabane. Actually, I mis-remembered the name as colt’s foot, and then discovered another kind of plant called fleabane, two more actually. All these plants have their uses, but the plant I was looking for had astringent properties–enough to stop bleeding in small cuts. Our salve is for thrashed gardeners’ hands, and I remembered that this …uh…horse…colt…flea…weed…plant was in the salve for that purpose.

This is why scientific names are so important–common names overlap. But thank the good lord for Mr. Google. I found the plant I was looking for: Conyza canadensis, formerly Erigeron canadensis. When I saw the picture, I said, “Oh, you!’ for it is a very common summer sidewalk weed. Recognize it?

Conyza canadensis
(image courtesy of Wikimedia commons)

And along the way I found a charming resource to share with ya’ll: The Gideon Lincecum Virtual Herbarium, a project hosted by the University of Austin, Texas.

Dr. Lincecum was a 19th-century naturalist and “botanic physician” who lived in Mississippi and Texas. This virtual herbarium includes scans of more than 200 pressed specimens of medicinal plants and his hand-written notes on each specimen. The image at top is his note on horse weed.

Here’s another card of his, this one on opium, where he not only condemns the plant, but other physicians for misusing it:


Go take a gander. But just beware it’s a real time suck for plant geeks.

Chumash Plant Wisdom

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Great news for our readers in Southern California (and parts near)! I’ve just found the holy grail of local plant guides: Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West. It’s co-authored by a Chumash healer, Cecilia Garcia and a USC pharmacology prof., James David Adams, Jr., both of whom write for Wilderness Way magazine. It features full-color pictures of plants familiar to you from hikes in the desert and the chaparral, and discusses the recommended use of the these plants from both the Chumash perspective and the western scientific perspective.

I found this book in the wonderful Green Apple book store while visiting San Francisco. It can be ordered direct from the publishers. The title link will take you to their site. It also is available in our Amazon store.

Mushroom Porn

Funny how going to a mushroom fair can enhance your perceptiveness (and not in the way some of you are thinking!). Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have noticed these beauties in my own backyard, as they were deep under a rosemary bush.

I’m no mushroom expert, so don’t quote me on this, but I think they are common blewits, Clitocybe nuda. The spore print was a very light yellow/buff. If they are Clitocybe nuda, they are edible when cooked. I’ll just appreciate them for their beauty.

An administrative note: We’re flattered to have been the subject of a comment spamming attack all the way from Cebu City in the Philippines. Hello Cebu City! I’ve temporarily turned on comment moderation until the spamming folks get the idea that most of the visitors to this blog are probably not interested in dubious investment advisers and pharmaceutical sleep aids. Note to the spammers: ship us some durian and we’ll consider an advertising deal!

Make a Spore Print


Making a mushroom spore print is a fun activity for the kidlings and it’s simple:

1. Pick a mushroom (from the wild or the supermarket) and break off the stem.

2. Put your mushroom, spore side down, on a piece of white paper (or a 50/50 split of of dark paper and white paper to check subtleties in the color).

3. Put a glass over the mushroom and wait 24 hours.

The next day you should have something that looks like the picture above. Spore prints can be used as one factor in identification. The above print is from a specimen of Agaricus bernardii that I found growing in the neighborhood and had identified by mycologist Bob Cummings at Machine Project’s Fungi Fest back in January. Agaricus bernardii is a common mushroom found growing in weedy lawns and is a choice edible according to some. My identification skills are not up to eating parkway mushrooms yet.

Speaking of Fungi Fests, the Los Angeles Mycological Society is putting on the 26th Annual Los Angeles Wild Mushroom Fair this Sunday, February 14, 2010 from 10 AM – 4 PM at Ayres Hall at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden. Mushroom celebrity Paul Stamets will be speaking at 2 p.m. More info on the website of the Los Angeles Mycological Society.

Not in LA? Spend some time reading Mykoweb.com, and excellent and entertaining resource published by Michael Wood, a past president of the Mycological Society of San Francisco.

Stella Natura: Planting by the Signs

Judging from the hostile reaction the last time I posted about Biodyamamics, we need some kind of woo-woo alert for this type of post. Perhaps an animated flash animation, like those mortgage ads, of Stevie Nicks dancing to Rhiannon. I’ll get the Homegrown Evolution IT department on it right away. On to the post:
Timing planting according to moon, sun and zodiacal cycles is a very old tradition. Farmers and gardeners have consulted mysterious almanacs for thousands of years to determine the best times to plant. There’s even some, mentioned in the Foxfire books, that are still around: the Farmer’s Almanac, Grier’s Almanac and T. E. Black’s annual booklet God’s Way are just a few.

But the one I’ve been enjoying for the past few months is the Stella Natura calendar, published by the Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, an intentional community for the disabled associated with Biodynamics and the ideas of Rudolf Steiner. The Stella Natura calendar lists moon phases, the sun and moon’s position in the zodiac, conjunctions, oppositions and other celestial events. It suggests certain days and times for planting root crops, flowering crops, fruit crops, and leaf crops. Much of it is based on the writings and research of Maria Thun.

Do I believe that planting by the signs effects the growth of my garden directly? I don’t know and don’t really care. What I like is the symbolic message, in the Jungian sense, that all is connected, all is one. Not such a bad thing to be reminded of in our fragmented times.
You can get the same planting information here online, but you’d miss one of the best things about the Stella Natura calendar, the monthly essays. This month’s, by Laura Riccardi, says exactly what I’ve been thinking of late,
“I do answer with practical, logical, agricultural language most of the time. There is plenty to talk about regarding soil building, diversity, insect and drought resistance, quality, microbial life, nutrient availability. I am beginning to feel justified and unembarrassed to speak about subtle life forces, to say that everything is connected, because I believe it is important to balance out the one-sided approach that has dominated our intellectual human landscape for so long. What we call materialism is not inherently wrong or negative. It is simply in extreme presence in our lives today. In other words, it’s already well represented in everything around us, including agriculture.”

I put the calendar up by the stove. When I’m cooking (often during the past few months with vegetables from our winter garden) I look at the calendar. It’s a nice prompt that it’s time to plan for the next planting of vegetables.

Would I use this system if I lived in a cold climate and had a very tight window for planting? Probably not. But here in Los Angeles, where we have a four month time span to plant most things, following the Stella Natura calendar is a good way of avoiding procrastination. The calendar also has a handy space for taking notes on plantings, another thing I’ve been bad about in the past.

I want to be clear that I’m not discounting empiricism. But since don’t have a lab at my disposal, gardening is an intuitive process whether I like it or not. And, as Riccardi suggests, we need to seek a balance. The cornerstone of alchemy is the expression “Solve et Coagula”, to dissolve and bind together. We’ve been good in the past century at the dissolving part, breaking everything up into individual components, but not so good at the binding together part.

Now, if I could just get Rhiannon out of my head . . .

Least Favorite Plant: Ficus benjamina

Photo by Elon Schoenholz

While Ficus benjamina, a.k.a. “weeping fig”, is one of my least favorite trees, my most favorite photographer, Elon Schoenholz is currently posting a series of ficus tree images on his blog. Schoenholz, wisely, takes a neutral stance on this hot button tree describing Ficus as,

“L.A.’s favorite underappreciated, unheralded, unfavorite curbside flora. I have no real love for these trees, per se, no sentimental attachment. They just express form and mass and scale and human intervention in a way that I enjoy, like nothing else in the urban landscape as I encounter it.”

He’s wise to be neutral. A civil insurection broke out in Santa Monica over plans to replace ficus trees with ginko trees in the downtown area. Hunger strikes were threatened and activists chained themselves to their beloved Ficii. In the end 23 Ficus trees were removed by the city.

In colder climates Ficus benjamina is strictly a houseplant. Here in Southern California it can leave the 1950s era office buildings and public access TV sets that are its normal habitat and wander the great outdoors. Once outside Ficus goes about lifting sidewalks with its massive roots and creating canopies so dense that the public space beneath them is as dark as the depths of the Amazonian jungle.
Ficus also seems to inspire what I call obsessive-compulsive topiary, so nicely chronicled in Schoenholz’s photos. Just as when you’re holding a hammer everything looks like a nail, when you’ve got a gas powered trimmer in your hand, and a Ficus tree in front of you, well, you just gotta go at it. Geometrical topiary that looks great in the gardens of Versailles, does not necessarily translate well on the sun-baked asphalt-lined traffic sewers of the City of the Angels. But Schoenholz’s photos do make a persuasive case for what could be termed “outsider topiary.”
To be fair, Ficus benjamina is not without some benefits. It’s one of the plants NASA studied for its use in improving indoor air quality. But as the horticultural equivalent of the Nagel print, perhaps it’s time to replace a few of them with its edible cousin Ficus carica.

Ficus fans and foes alike should visit Schoenholz’s Etsy store for some handsome photos of what city employees can do with those power trimmers.

Bulk Bin Microgreens

Sunflower seed germination test
An admission: both Mrs. Homegrown and I are sprout haters. We love the people who sprout, but not the sprouts. Perhaps it’s just the association with 1970s era health food restaurants or macramé. Sprout lovers out there are welcome to try to convince us otherwise, but I’ll warn you that numerous good-hearted attempts have already failed. But we’re both open to the microgreen idea. Microgreens are allowed to grow longer than sprouts and require either soil or some kind of fertilized growing medium. Usually you harvest when the first true set of leaves appear.
While we’ve never intentionally grown microgreens we’ve always thinned seedlings by eating them. And trays of microgreens are a great way for folks in apartments with sunny balconies or south facing windows to grow a little of their own food. You could also easily grow them under fluorescent lights.
Many seed companies offer microgreen mixes and seeds in bulk. Prices are reasonable considering that you need a lot of seed. But, being cheap, I was curious to see if I could germinate seeds from a health food store bulk bin. I chose my least favorite health food store, a depressing space tucked into a mini-mall where the isles are redolent with that unmistakable and unidentifiable 1970s health food store scent. Is it some chemical reaction between soy, wheat grass and carob fumes? But I digress.

For the sake of science I chose this forlorn store, which will remain nameless, since I assumed the stuff in their bulk bins has been sitting around a long time and I wanted to test seed of questionable viability. This store sells seeds for sprouting and microgreens, such as radish at around $9 a pound. The much cheaper bulk bin items, however, are all around $1 to $2 a pound. Of course, most don’t have microgreen potential, but I found a few that do and set about to perform a germination test to see how well they would work. The test consisted of putting the seeds in a folded and moistened paper towel and placing the towel and seeds into a sealed plastic sandwich bag. Here are the results:

Amaranth
I’d say above 90% of the seeds germinated. Amaranth seeds are so small that it was impossible for me to count out a precise number, but it looks like virtually all sprouted.
Popcorn
10 our of 10
Sunflower
7 out 10
Fava
A complete bust, but I will try again in soil rather than in a towel.

Good results considering the circumstances. I’m interested in hearing if anyone else has tried bulk bin microgreens, and if so what other seeds you have grown as microgreens not sprouts. If that’s you give us a shout in the comments.

Seeding Change

Lora “Homegrown Neighbor” Hall is in the New York Times this week in an article by Michael Tortorello, “Packets Full of Miracles.” Tortorello asks six gardeners to pick out their favorite seed varieties. Homegrown Neighbor chose New Zealand spinach, Nero de Toscana kale, Red orach, Sugar Ann snap pea, Crimson California poppy and Verbena bonariensis.

I’m sure Homegrown Neighbor would appreciate a reminder that if you buy seeds from Botanical Interests using the link on the right side of this blog, 40% of your purchases will go to supporting the ag program at North Hollywood High. Let’s get that chicken coop paid for! Fellow Angelino Caitlin Flanagan be damned!
It’s also a good moment to point out the reasons it’s best to grow from seed rather than buying seedlings at your local nursery. You get many orders of magnitude more selection, it’s much cheaper and you prevent the spread of soil diseases. Last year a fungal disease, late blight, infected gardens due to seedlings grown at large nurseries in the south and sold at big box retailers up and down the east coast (read more about that in an excellent editorial, You Say Tomato, I Say Agricultural Disaster) . Plant seeds and you help keep your garden disease free.
Spring is just around the corner. Time to order those seeds! Leave a comment with your favorite varieties.