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Zucchini Flower
Zucchini Flower deep inside the Zucchini "Bush" (c) Julie Leung

A Garden Teeming with Life (and 3 CBC Radio Check-Ins!)

I’ve been really busy the last month, so haven’t been posting as much as I want. I still plan to post about the indoor pests, and I would like to get back to what this blog was initially put up to write about — allergies, eczema and asthma!

I plan to write a summary of my ponderings and convictions about how synthetic detergents now common in our modern environments are a largely unrecognized cause of eczema, a great contributor to asthma, and because of its involvement in eczema, also connected to food allergy development. But that’ll be coming up closer to the end of the summer.

For now, here are some current pictures of my garden as well as 3 of my recent garden check-ins with CBC Radio The Homestretch. Enjoy!

Cilantro, Lettuce, Tomatoes (Including the Zombie!), Kale, and Volunteer Squash Plant from Unfinished Compost
Cilantro, Lettuce, Tomatoes (Including the Zombie!), Kale, and Volunteer Squash Plant from Unfinished Compost

4th Garden Check-In with CBC Radio: Everything Takes Off!

Potatoes that are overrunning the garden.  Once we installed drip irrigation on a regular timer, the plants just took off!
Potatoes that are overrunning the garden. Once we installed drip irrigation on a regular timer, the plants just took off!

5th Garden Check-In with CBC Radio: Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes!

2 zucchini plants that started as seedlings and just grew, and grew, and grew ...
2 zucchini plants that started as seedlings and just grew, and grew, and grew …

6th Garden Check-In with CBC Radio: Bushy Zucchini plants and New Seedlings

A Pleasant Surprise!

I was delighted to discover that the numerous flying insects buzzing around, which I feared were wasps, are actually bumble bees! They seem to be especially enamoured with this mystery shrub growing in the back of our yard. I’m so happy that my yard is teeming with life: ants, slugs, moths, caterpillars, bumblebees, even if some of them become pests and destroy some of my plants. It is a great testament to the ecosystem that we all share together, that my produce is safe (free of pesticides), and that I am supporting the very threatened bee populations with my yard. Even if some small bites on my produce has been feeding these guests, I’m OK with it. I figure it’s me playing a small part in supporting this lively, bio-diverse living space!

Bumblebees Enamoured with Flowers on this Shrub.  Go pollinators!
Bumblebees Enamoured with Flowers on this Shrub. Go pollinators!
My two kale transplants quite suddenly started having discoloured bottom leaves and dropping them.  Why?
Quite suddenly, my transplanted kale was not doing so well. What happened? (c) Julie Leung

Pests in the Garden: Reality Sets In

My transplanted kale was doing great, then bottom leaves started wilting. Other Kale in next row is fine. What am I missing?” I tweeted to Donna Balzer, the No Guff Gardener, and one of my instructors in Grow Food Calgary.

Nearby kale rows started from seed which are still healthy
Nearby kale rows started from seed which are still healthy

Across cyberspace, she took one look and made her diagnosis: “Root maggots- common in everything in cabbage family- yikes“. Over the next few hours, we conversed in 140-character soundbites across Twitter. She told me it’s a long story, but the problem starts in the soil (like everything, it always comes back to the soil!). I asked how I could fix this and prevent it from spreading to the adjacent rows of kale which were a different variety. They were doing well and I didn’t want them to succumb to the pest. Donna’s advice was that I needed to dig the entire plant and the soil around it, put it on a piece of paper to confirm the plant was infected, and toss the plant and the soil around it. There was no salvaging the infected plants; there was way I could get rid of all the eggs otherwise. I also found out that nematodes, which I’d heard about in previous Grow Food Calgary classes as a biological control that can be purchased, would have worked — but it was way too late for them now. Happily, over time, my soil would get so good that it would naturally have nematodes.

Finding Root Maggots … and Pupae

So my husband and I went back outside after the kids had gone to bed and we started digging. I figured if the wilty-looking kale plants indeed were infected with root maggots, we should deal with them as soon as possible to try to prevent them from spreading, so we could try to salvage the other kale plants a mere foot away in the next row.

Cabbage fly pupae found in the soil surrounding a wilty kale plant
Cabbage fly pupae found in the soil surrounding a wilty kale plant

We had 2 transplanted kale plants that were in differing stages of wilt. The first one, in the front, was in worse shape than the second one, in the back and closer to the fence. The first one had more wilted and discolored bottom leaves. The day before my tweet, it had dropped 3-5 leaves. They had quite suddenly turned yellow and fallen off the plant. When we dug up the one that was in worse shape, we didn’t find anything near or on the root. But we found things that looked like brown rice scattered sparsely in the soil around the root. I manipulated them between two garden spades. They were hard and felt like cellulose, bark, or plant material. They did not seem living. It was possible that they were kernels or husks of some tree which had been left in the soil. A quick look on the internet indicated these could be pupae. I pressed hard — really hard — on one of the brown-rice-like kernels between my two spades. Finally it gave way to something white, juicy and wet inside. I figured this was an indication whatever was inside had been living. These were indeed pupae.

We put that first plant, its roots, and the soil we had dug up (along with several pupae), into a plastic bag and moved onto the 2nd wilty kale plant. It looked to be in better shape. But when I got its root up out of the ground, I knew why. I found maybe 20-30 white maggots crawling in and around, all over the buried stem, roots, and clumps of dirt. It was both a grotesque and slightly stomach-turning sight, yet somewhat interesting — it felt like when you see something disgusting but for some reason you can’t turn your head away. Maybe I’m a freak, or maybe it is the biologist in me that was somewhat fascinated in watching so many of them wrapped around the stem and roots, and undulating.

Root maggots crawling on and around stem and roots from infected kale plant
Root maggots crawling on and around stem and roots from infected kale plant

Stomping in my Gumboots

We put this second plant stem, roots, maggots, and soil into a bag. Then we stepped on the bag with our gumboots over and over until we thought the maggots were squished. After all, we had decided we were not going to (gasp!) throw soil that had to have some beneficial living organisms (beneficial bacteria, etc.) and nutrients into the trash. For dumber or wiser, we decided we would spread it onto our front lawn in a bid to feed the grass, where there are no brassica family plants to destroy. We figured that should be far enough away from the garden that any maggots that weren’t stomped to death (or pupae that hadn’t had their contents squished out) could not crawl their way back to the unaffected kale.

And it was then that I understood why the first plant had no visible maggots or eggs, but was yet in so much worse shape than the second plant that was crawling with maggots. The maggots had already finished feeding on the first plant and had transitioned into pupal stage. The bulk of the damage had already been done on the first plant, and the pupae were either going to overwinter or hatch adult flies. The maggots were just getting started on the 2nd plant, and not enough time had elapsed for the full damage to show.

I May Pay for Being Loathe to Throw Away Anything

Now, I don’t know if this is silly beginner gardener thinking, but after we had mourned and disposed of our infected kale plants, we inspected the soil to look for and remove any escaped pupae, maggots or eggs. For the eggs, we weren’t totally sure what we were looking for, but we didn’t think we saw anything suspicious left in the soil. Seeing nothing, I decided to re-use the now-empty space by transplanting various tomato seedlings into the area. My reasoning was – tomatoes are decidedly not in the brassica family, so hopefully even if we’ve missed any eggs in that section of the soil, the maggots that hatch won’t be interested in feeding on my tender tomato transplants. Then again, if we’ve missed anything and they hatch and realize there isn’t kale right there, they may move a few feet over and start feeding on my healthy kale plants! Or, as per this very helpful page I found from Alberta Agriculture (a day too late), the adult maggots that may have been missed by our stomping feet in the sparse bits of soil on my front lawn may travel (up to a few kilometres!) and back to my backyard garden to find my unaffected kale plants. Oops.

Sometimes it’s not great to be a newbie gardener. But I guess this is what trial and error and learning is all about!

Record Scrrrrrrr-atch!

This Canada Day long weekend marked for me a quite blunt re-introduction to reality. In the last month and a half, I’ve been merrily lounging in my new discoveries — about “making” good soil and its benefits, planting things I’ve never planted before (kale! lettuce! shallots! radishes!
carrots! microgreen peas! dill! cilantro!) and watching in delight as they sprouted and grew, getting out into the yard and discovering the joy of tending my garden. But this weekend, it was like the needle on the record of my idyllic gardening soundtrack was suddenly yanked across the turntable and a megaphone announcing one of the harsher realities of gardening took the place of all the carefree songs. Ah yes, this is why the constant debate about pesticides still abounds, why commercial gardens (and some personal ones!) still feel a need to use them.

Next Up: Pests Get the Better of Me in my Indoor Garden

This post was about pests in my outdoor garden. In my next post, I’ll be writing about pests in the vegetable and herb plants in the house. The pests inside the house have finally forced me to take drastic measures, as I’ve harvested, reset or transplanted to the outdoors much of what was growing inside. But in and among the “pests” indoors, I discovered an ally. More on that soon!

zombie_tomato
Top of tomato plant that was sheared off by wind, back to life in new soil - the Zombie Tomato! (c) Julie Leung

Hilling Potatoes, Flowering Shallots and the Zombie Tomato – 3rd CBC Radio check-in

Here’s the link to my 3rd in-garden check-in with CBC’s The Homestretch.

This time around, we talked about something called “hilling” potatoes to encourage greater numbers of tubers, I had a question about whether I should pinch off the stalks on my shallots that looked like they were going to flower, and we talked about how the transplanted tomato which was blown clear across the yard, came back to life thanks to my husband. It has affectionately been termed by Tracy Fuller as the “zombie tomato”.

pinsdaddy-herbicide-sprayer-clipart_850_600

Are “eco-friendly” herbicidal soaps as innocuous as they sound?

Regular readers of my blog know that I’m convinced that synthetic detergents are a largely unrecognized cause of eczema and are implicated as a likely environmental toxin that has contributed to the increase in rate of chronic allergic manifestations like asthma and food allergy (by its involvement in eczema). When my family learned to differentiate true soap from detergents and removed detergents from our household personal care and cleaning products, we saw dramatic health changes with respect to allergies. This included both kids’ eczema clearing without any further need for steroids or constant moisturizing, my asthma clearing without drugs, and my chronic dry skin healing. (See Part II of Our Story: Results After Switching to Soap).

This experience prompted me to re-evaluate every product I used to think was safe, and to read product claims and labels written by marketing people with a much more critical mind. Even a decade before I had found solveeczema, I was concerned that standard herbicides, most commonly containing glyphosate and 2,4-D, were possibly carcinogenic. (See my post The Temptation to Spray for more background). So, many years ago before I found solveeczema and became convinced that detergents are causing more ills to all living things on the earth than most of us have realized, I saw alternative herbicidal products on the shelf labelled “herbicidal soap” — and thought they might be less toxic than those containing glyphosate and 2,4-D. After all, “soap” sounds innocuous. It’s what we use on our skin, right?

My First Experience with an “Herbicidal Soap” Product

A few years before I found solveeczema, I purchased an “herbicidal soap” product. It was intended to be a replacement to a glyphosate-containing herbicide and I wanted to use it to kill weeds on my paths and among the landscaping rocks on the sides of my house leading to the backyard. I hoped it would do the job without being quite as toxic. It did indeed cause all the weeds growing among the paths and rocks to shrivel up and die.

The summer that we implemented the solveeczema detergent removal, I started becoming more cautious about what I was applying to my yard for weed control. Faced again with the weed problem among my rock paths and on my lawn, I looked through my small collection of varied bottles of weed killer and happened again upon the herbicidal soap I’d used in seasons passed. Because of my experience using the solveeczema website and reading countless labels in search of safe, non-detergent products, I knew that products labelled “soap” do often signify detergents, that “natural” doesn’t have a standard or meaningful definition, and that “less toxic” doesn’t necessarily mean harmless. I had to examine the ingredients more closely to know for sure.

My bottle said ingredients were “ammonium soaps of fatty acids”. To my best knowledge, this is another name for a quaternary ammonium compound. (For a quick step-through of my logical rationale for this, which would bore most people, see the footnote at the end of this post). I’ve blogged about these compounds before — they were the seeming cause of a chemical burn experienced by a child in Ontario from a disinfectant used in his school washrooms. These compounds are nicknamed “quats”, and are very strong detergents. The Wikipedia entry on quaternary ammonium compounds indicates they are detergents and highlights their efficacy as antimicrobials. The section on health effects is both fascinating and frightening.

Concerning Symptoms Reported to Health Canada

Even just based on the active ingredient in these “herbicidal soaps”, I would have concluded they’re probably not innnocuous. But don’t take my word for it. Just Google a alternative name for the active ingredient I found on my bottle — “ammonium salt of fatty acids” — and one of the early search results is a summary of Incident Reports on the Consumer Product Safety section of Health Canada’s website. These are presumably incident reports that the manufacturer of products with active ingredient “ammonium salt of fatty acids” have received from the general public, and have reported to Health Canada.

Reading these incident reports is like reading a “who’s who” of “familiar reactions I’ve seen in my own and others’ children in reaction to detergents”. In reading through the reports, we have several people who accidentally made skin contact with the product and reported symptoms varying in severity, but mostly involving red, irritated skin, rash, itching, and in a few cases, something approximating a burn. The symptoms were bad enough that physicians were consulted in some cases. Most of the reports of skin irritation were made around 2 days after contact, and in general took anywhere from 2-5 days to get better. One person reported she developed a cough while applying the product which spontaneously stopped once she left the application area, but started again when she re-entered the application area. Unfortunately, this caller was told that these symptoms could be experienced by “sensitive individuals” who can react to the “perceived aroma of herbicides and pesticides” with respiratory irritation. I don’t believe this to be correct, because, much like my theory of why my own asthma has been impacted by detergents, I think this caller was probably experiencing respiratory irritation caused by the inhaled detergent increasing the permeability of the lung membrane and increasing allergen penetration into the lungs, thus causing inflammation, irritation or wheezing. Nothing to do with “perceived aroma of herbicide”. What kind of pseudo-fakey-fake answer is that?

Perhaps most concerning, though, was a report from a mother about her son who was helping her apply the herbicidal product. Within 2 days, he developed hives and a rash from “head to toe”, as well as itchy eyes. He was brought to a physician who said his reaction indicated an allergic response to some unknown antigen. Symptoms persisted for 3-4 days. The caller was told this was an “unexpected response” to the product, but knowing what I know about detergents, I think his response was completely within the realm of reasonable expectation. It is unfortunate that this mother was told otherwise, and that at time of routine callback, the mother was still not sure what could have caused such an extreme reaction.

I am not surprised at the type of reactions these people reported, and I don’t think these symptoms are “in their head”. These reactions are consistent with what we’d hypothesize from understanding the solveeczema theory and what someone like me, who has seen what my children’s skin did when we were surrounded by detergents in our home environment vs. how their skin healed by itself and without ongoing drug intervention when detergents were removed from our environment, would guess would happen.

Conclusion: They’re Not As Harmless As They Sound!

My conclusion is that this is another example of how detergents really are everywhere, they affect every sphere of our lives. We must be cautious, careful, and critical in what we choose to use and surround ourselves with. While these compounds may arguably be safer than compounds that are carcinogenic, I don’t believe that these are innocuous by any means. They may not be as toxic, but they are toxic nonetheless, and, I believe, cause harm. Use with caution, or better yet, find natural or mechanical methods for dealing with weed growth or insect manifestations that do not require chemical spraying.

Footnote:


See the Wikipedia entry on ammonium where it indicates ammonium is a general name for quaternary ammonium cations, and later indicates the ammonium cation is “found in a variety of salts” in the Ammonium Salts section.

2nd_CBC_interview_twitter
The Homestretch's Tweet Announcing Second In-Garden Check-In

Wind Troubles & Garden Envy – 2nd CBC Radio check-in

I’m a little late to post, but here’s a quick entry with the link to my second in-garden check-in with The Homestretch on CBC Radio.

It aired last Friday. We talked about wind troubles (what was the fate of my tomato plant with the weakened neck?), garden envy and the conundrum a newbie gardener is sure to face in having difficulty differentiating between seedlings and weeds when the green stuff starts coming up in the garden.

CBC The Homestretch's tweet of our first check-in segment

In-Garden Interview with CBC Radio’s The Homestretch – First Check-In

Tracy Fuller, the Director and an Associate Producer of CBC’s The Homestretch, came out to visit us in our garden and do her first check-in of the season.

We’re currently working out our summer schedule for future check-ins, but it looks like they’ll be trying to connect with me bi-weekly, and check in with Chelsie Anderson on the opposite weeks.

Speaking of Chelsie, here’s her interview from last week with tips on getting started with gardens in and around the May long weekend timeframe.

Covered Transplants, All Cozy in their Beds!
Transplanted Tomatoes (c) Julie Leung

The Tomato Transplant and Near-Beheading

At our last Grow Food Calgary class, Donna showed us a method of transplanting tomatoes by cutting almost all the side branches off, and laying them on their side in the garden bed. From what I gather, this is not a typical transplant method and she encouraged us to try it with the tomato plants she gave each of us. Apparently, once laying in the soil, a root system will sprout all along the bare stem.

Plastic Sheeting and Metal Stakes
Plastic Sheeting and Metal Stakes

Donna also talked to us about the benefit of using plastic sheeting against the soil where the tomatoes are planted, to keep the soil warm and increase the chances of success for the tomato plants. She had brought a sample of some red sheeting with perforations that let in moisture, and metal stakes that keep the plastic down. I recall that the red plastic is useful because it reflects appropriate wavelengths of light that are helpful to the plant.

Tomato Transplanting in 5 Easy Steps

This is how we did our tomato transplant!

Step 1: Clip the Side Branches Off

Carefully cut side branches along the main stem off, leaving the top section intact.

Cutting off Side Branches in Preparation for Transplanting Sideways
Cutting off Side Branches in Preparation for Transplanting Sideways

For us it was fairly easy to identify what to cut and what to leave, because the plants were both starting to flower at the top.

Cutting Nearly to the Top
Cutting Nearly to the Top

My understanding is that adventitious roots will grow from every part of the buried stem, and that each branch draws energy away from the flowering portion at the top, so I decided to cut off nearly every side branch and only leave a little bit at the top.

Of course, I happily put the cuttings into my compost!

Step 2: Soak the Root Ball

Tip the tomato plant upside down and gently get the plant out of its starter pot. Dip the root ball (the clump of dirt that used to be in the pot) in a bucket of water to thoroughly wet it before transplanting, to give the plant a good start once in the bed. Embarrassingly, we forgot about this step! I only remembered once I looked at my notes from class, before typing up this post.

Oops! Insert “Bad Newbie Garden Blogger” badge here!

Step 3: Lay the Plant into Garden Bed Sideways

Dig up a space for the tomato plant in the garden bed the same length as the height of the tomato transplant.

Remove the tomato plant from its starter pot, and lay it sideways down into the garden bed, like it is reclining in its comfy soil bed.

Laying Tomato Plants Down Sideways in Garden Plot
Laying Tomato Plants Down Sideways in Garden Plot

Cover the transplants with soil, being careful to gently bend the tip up above the soil surface.

Tomato Plants Looking a Bit Like Beachgoers Buried in the Sand!
Tomato Plants Looking a Bit Like Beachgoers Buried in the Sand!

Step 4: Prepare the Plastic Sheeting

Cut an appropriately-sized section of the plastic sheeting. We decided to try to cover the entire surface of soil where the stem was buried.

An "X" for the Slit
An “X” for the Slit
Cutting a Slit into Plastic Sheeting
Cutting a Slit into Plastic Sheeting

Cut holes in the plastic sheeting to allow the tips of the transplants to come out. Make sure you cut an “X” instead of just a slit. Donna mentioned that if you just cut a slit and put the plant through, whenever there is wind, the slit can act like a little guillotine slicing into the plant stem.

Step 5: Lay Sheeting on Soil Surface and Stake

Lay the plastic sheeting against the soil surface, and carefully bring the top / exposed part of the transplant through the “X” slit in the plastic. Stake the plastic down. Here we are using 2 metal stakes that Donna gave to us for the back (these work really well!) and the popsicle stick labels that came with each plant, to stake the front.

Covered Transplants, All Cozy in their Beds!
Covered Transplants, All Cozy in their Beds!

The Near-Beheading

At this point, both our plants were happy. I didn’t notice until the next day that I think some of that guillotine-like action occurred on the transplant on the right (the ISIS variety, which produces a yellow cherry tomato). I think it occurred during our watering time right after transplant and staking the plastic down. The tip had made its way into the bottom left portion of the “X” slit, and we allowed our son to water the garden and the new transplants while we tidied up. We usually set the nozzle to something gentle, but I think our son was a bit overzealous, and likely the pressure and motion applied to the exposed stem caused it to move around the slit in a guillotine-like action.

The stem is quite weakened, like it was partially snapped. However, it’s still connected and will be unless and until the top portion dies. I am still holding out hope that in its zeal to live, the plant will heal itself, or if the tip gets disconnected, it will form roots into the soil or the existing stem will grow a new tip.

It may be wishful thinking, but I’ve seen some pretty determined plants who have a surprising will to live!

The Near-Beheading of one of my Transplants.  Will the weakened stem heal itself?
The Near-Beheading of one of my Transplants. Will the weakened stem heal itself?

Penance

Just in case, I’m doing a form of penance by having started 2 tomato seeds (seeds from Donna Balzer that I “cleaned” during our first session) in the starter pots that these two transplants vacated. Those pots are at my “inside garden station” on the heat mat now! They’ll be transplanted to the garden after they become strong seedlings, and hopefully won’t suffer the same absent-minded newbie gardener fate!

Dandelion
Dandelion on My Lawn (c) Julie Leung

The Temptation to Spray

I have been battling with dandelions for nearly 20 years, since I first became a homeowner. My approach has evolved over the decades from unreservedly and liberally using herbicides to various shades of manually managing them by pulling, mowing, or otherwise “natural” methods of controlling them. We moved to our current house when my son was a baby and have mostly tried to control the dandelion weed population by natural methods here.

Over the years, I have amassed many different dandelion pulling gadgets, but this one, handed down to me by family friends of my parents, remains the simplest and typically most effective.
Over the years, I have amassed many different dandelion pulling gadgets, but this one, handed down to me by family friends of my parents, remains the simplest and typically most effective.

Every year, I struggle with the temptation to spray the lawn and be done with it. And every year, I instead opt to try something new in my quest to manage my dandelion problem without using harsh herbicides. This reluctance is shared by a growing number of people, as we discover that the “quick and easy” chemical solutions our parents were sold on actually have underlying and often long-standing and extensive consequences or that “Better Living Through Chemistry” is not always true. My journey to this conviction was no different.

What’s My Problem With Herbicides?

2,4-D and glyphosate are arguably the most commonly-used herbicides (marketed under a number of trade names). 2,4-D is commonly used for dandelion control because it is selective to broadleaf weeds but leaves grass alone. The mechanism of action for 2,4-D is death caused by uncontrolled growth. Um, that’s basically the definition of cancer. The mechanism of action for glyphosate is inhibition of the synthesis of 3 amino acids which are needed for protein synthesis and synthesis of compounds necessary for cell replication and metabolism: very basically, inhibition of processes necessary for life.

Yet, the research is contradictory. Even amongst international agencies, there is disagreement. In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as “probably” carcinogenic to humans and 2,4-D as “possibly” carcinogenic to humans. Other branches of the WHO later ruled (2016) that glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer in humans through diet, and the EPA had earlier (2007) ruled that existing data do not show a link between 2,4-D and cancer. There are also arguments that these compounds affect plant biochemical pathways only and don’t have the same effects on mammals. Fair enough. But not having the same effects does not necessarily mean not having any adverse effects.

My thought process about the dangers of herbicidal sprays is much simpler and goes something like this:

Stated simply, something that does not naturally occur in nature and significantly alters the biochemical pathways of a living thing to the extent that the living thing is killed, cannot be good for humans.

When I look through the discoveries made even in the past 40 years, for example, time and again we have discovered that something we once thought was safe and had no effect, actually has long-standing and serious consequences for animal populations and ultimately us. Look at what we have discovered about PCBs, DDT, and Dioxins. About pesticides we once thought only impacted animals (and who cares about them, right? sigh) but had no deleterious effects on humans. About the impact on aquatic life (and, if you follow my blog, ultimately on humans too!) of seemingly harmless compounds like detergents and phosphates. About all the things that work in fine balance in our ecosystem, that are disrupted when even just one thin arm of that ecosystem is taken out. And in my specific case, given my convictions about the negative and largely unrecognized effects of detergents, I am particularly hesitant to spray herbicides because they often contain detergents to break the surface tension of the liquid and help spread the spray.

And Yet, I’m Still Tempted to Spray

After having said all that, I admit that I am still tempted to spray. Every year, at around this time when the dandelions are at their busiest; when I spend an hour of back-breaking (literally, my back and knees ache after I’m done) work picking dandelions, and come back the next morning to discover even more dandelions have now flowered, like I made absolutely no dent in them; when I dig a big, thick dandelion and discover an indentation in the ground where it is growing and realize I’ve dug this same one year over year and it made no long-lasting difference; when I stand up after an hour thinking “that’s enough for now, I need to move on with my day” and can still see dozens of untouched dandelion bodies that haven’t flowered yet; when I finish in the front yard and then realize I still need to tackle the back yard; when everyday in May and early June my precious spare time is spent digging dandelions rather than tending my garden, writing my blog, or enjoying time with my children; when I cannot shake the growing feeling that I’ve been doing this “natural thing” all wrong and am probably making the dandelion problem worse with my actions … I am tempted to spray.

So many dandelions on my lawn.  This patch is particularly bad because it was poorly dug up by me in the past.  My heart sinks after I spend an hour meticulously pulling weeds only to see several more flower the next day.
So many dandelions on my lawn. This patch is particularly bad because it was poorly dug up by me in the past. My heart sinks after I spend an hour meticulously pulling weeds only to see several more flower the next day.

Maybe I can just spray one year to once and for all kill all the buried taproots, and then go back to my natural solutions, I think. Maybe I can just spray at the end of the season when the kids aren’t on the lawn, I think. Maybe I can just spray the front and never let the kids play on it, relegating them to our backyard, I think. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

This year, I haven’t given into my temptation to spray yet. Like every year past, this year I have decided to step up my natural efforts and, armed with better knowledge, see if this is the year that I will get the advantage over these dandelions in a safe, natural way.

All The Natural Approaches I’ve Tried

Just a recounting of all the approaches I’ve tried in the past is dizzying:

  • Merely plucking the heads off the dandelions so at least they don’t go to seed and spread
  • Mowing frequently so the dandelions don’t get a chance to go to seed
  • Spraying them with various concentrations of vinegar
  • Spraying them with some combination of home-made vinegar, salt and detergent solution
  • Digging them
  • Digging them, filling the indentation with soil, re-seeding with grass
  • Attempting to outcompete the weeds with grass by improving grass health: leaving lawn clippings on the lawn after mowing, re-seeding the entire surface of the lawn with grass seed
  • Spreading corn meal gluten all over the lawn as a pre-emergence treatment (prevents seeds from taking root)
  • Adding fertilizer to the lawn early in the season and at the end of the season in an attempt to strengthen the lawn to outcompete the dandelions
This year, instead of making a homemade vinegar / salt / detergent spray, I thought I would try to boil down leftover pickle juice to make a super-concentrated spray.  Did you know that pickle juice has vinegar and salt, and yes -- even detergents (polysorbate80) in it?  I squirted this into the hole leftover after I picked some dandelions, but I'm not convinced it is strong enough to kill the taproot.  The next day, some of the grass around the dent was yellowed, which tells me it's working on some level -- just maybe not the level I need!
This year, instead of making a homemade vinegar / salt / detergent spray, I thought I would try to boil down leftover pickle juice to make a super-concentrated spray. Did you know that pickle juice has vinegar and salt, and yes — even detergents (polysorbate80) in it? I squirted this into the hole leftover after I picked some dandelions, but I’m not convinced it is strong enough to kill the taproot. The next day, some of the grass around the dent was yellowed, which tells me it’s working on some level — just maybe not the level I need!

I Realized I Was Inadvertently Making the Problem Worse!

This year I’ve been working on my dandelion problem with a bit more knowledge under my belt (both from concepts discussed in our Grow Food Calgary class and reading on my own). That knowledge combined with continuing to see that I’m digging the same old places year after year, and that some of the biggest, most gangly dandelions come out of the same old places, I now actually think my past actions have made the problem worse. Here’s why.

  • When I merely plucked the heads off before they seeded, or relied on mowing to control the dandelion problem, I was actually dead-heading the dandelions. Just like we would dead-head our basil plant to encourage more bushy growth, I was pretty much doing this to my dandelions. No wonder there are many that are just so thick, wide, and have so many flowering heads!
  • When I dug them, I often did not dig deep enough to get the entire taproot out, so in subsequent years, the dandelion came back in the same place, with an increasingly stronger and more extensive taproot to support it
  • When I used homemade sprays or very concentrated vinegar solutions, all I ended up doing was killing the grass around the dandelion too. I don’t think these sprays are strong enough to get to the root to kill it, so I was just leaving a dead spot ready for new dandelion seeds to take root, in addition to the re-emergence of the old plant from the left-over taproot
  • When I dug them and filled the dent with soil and then reseeded grass seed, I filled with very poor quality, dead dirt. It was the cheapest stuff we could find at the store and had big chunks of unbroken woody bits. The fact that I’ve usually left the taproot in the ground and tried to grow grass seed on top of that, and in dead dirt that doesn’t support growth, to boot … is it any wonder this didn’t work?
In the past, I didn't dig deeply enough to get the whole taproot out.  In past years, I thought getting out something like the dandelion on the right was enough, but in fact the taproot goes much deeper, as seen in the dandelion on the left.  I've changed my approach recently, but my I'm disappointed and a little desperate when a dandelion breaks off like on the right, and I know I've left a big root in the ground.
In the past, I didn’t dig deeply enough to get the whole taproot out. In past years, I thought getting out something like the dandelion on the right was enough, but in fact the taproot goes much deeper, as seen in the dandelion on the left. I’ve changed my approach recently, but I’m disappointed and become even a little desperate when a dandelion breaks off like on the right, and I know I’ve left a big root in the ground.

What I’m Trying This Year

So this year I am going to try to actually dig out the full taproot. This takes a lot more time and effort, and many times I worry that I’ve left small branch offshoots or even the very end of the taproot in place. When the root comes out and I see the white latex-like bleeding from parts of the root, my heart sinks. I think there’ll be another dandelion there next year, just hopefully smaller.

A recent pull where I could see the bleeding latex-like substance from the root and know I've left some of the root in the ground and that there will be another dandelion coming up in the same spot next year, just hopefully smaller.
A recent pull where I could see the bleeding latex-like substance from the root and know I’ve left some of the root in the ground and that there will be another dandelion coming up in the same spot next year, just hopefully smaller.

Earlier in the season, I thought to squirt some of my concentrated pickle solution down the hole. I’m not convinced this actually helps, and then I’m also putting detergent on my lawn where my kids play and killing lawn around the hole, no matter how carefully I squirt this stuff. I probably won’t continue with this.

My next step will be to cover the indents with corn meal gluten to prevent seeds from taking root in the exposed dirt/dent. After some time and this has broken down a bit, maybe I’ll re-seed the dent with grass seed — only after putting some good quality soil into the dent first! I’m not actually sure whether I should prioritize putting down the corn meal gluten or soil/grass seed. I’m not sure how long to wait after putting down the corn meal gluten to try to re-seed, either.

From what I’ve learned in my gardening class, theoretically I should also be able to encourage a healthy lawn by sprinkling good quality soil, finished compost, worm castings and maybe even the compost liquid from a worm farm, onto the lawn and then reseeding with grass seed. I’m not ready for that yet because I need to prioritize using those amendments for my garden soil first.

And Yet, Back to the Temptation to Spray

But before all that will really work, I think I need to get the existing dandelion problem with all the thick and extensive taproots that are already in place below ground, under control first! Now that I’m hopefully not making the problem worse by dead-heading the dandelions and leaving large chunks of taproots in the ground, will it eventually get better and better every year? Will it be another several years of back-breaking work before I gain the upper hand on the dandelions? Sure makes me consider spraying — just once, just one year. Then, I think, I can start with a clean slate. The internal debate just never ends!

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Tomato and Chive Plants from Grow Food Calgary's 2nd Session (c) Julie Leung

Exciting new seeds and plants!

I’ve just returned from our 2nd Grow Food Calgary session. Through the next weeks, I’ll be blogging short snippets of the ways I’m putting into practise what we learned.

For now, just wanted to send a shout out to the Wildrose Heritage Seed company for their donation of 3 seed packets to each of the participants in Grow Food Calgary!

Seed packets donated by Wildrose Heritage Seed to Grow Food Calgary participants
Seed packets donated by Wildrose Heritage Seed to Grow Food Calgary participants

I first saw their seeds when I was at the store Garden Retreat last week. I had a couple choices when I was looking for cilantro seed for my windowsill indoor herb planter. Wildrose’s beautiful foil packaging with the printed labels just drew me to take a closer look at their display.
Their boast of being a local, heritage seed that is GMO free sold me. I’ve planted their cilantro indoors and it’s coming up already.

Cilantro seeds I planted in my indoor windowsill herb planter
Cilantro seeds I planted in my indoor windowsill herb planter

Today we also each received a tomato plant (various varieties) from Donna, and onions from Shelley’s garden. For the tomatoes, I chose the Juliet variety which is a roma grape tomato, and Gideon the Isis variety which are yellow cherry tomatoes (our daughter especially loves yellow cherry tomatoes so we figured we wouldn’t go wrong with this variety). I had heard that tomatoes can be hard to grow for beginner gardeners and hadn’t planned on trying (especially not from seed) outdoors this year, but now that I have plants given to me, I have to try! I will blog later about how we’re going to transplant these tomatoes into our outdoor plot with a technique I learned today.

Tomato plants and chives from our class leaders, destined for transplant into our garden
Tomato plants and chives from our class leaders, destined for transplant into our garden

Now I have 3 different varieties of kale: 2 plants from Chelsie that I’m “hardening” over the week and will be transplanted soon, seeds from Donna that I’ve already planted directly, and the Wildrose Heritage seeds. It will be interesting to grow all 3 kinds and see how they look and taste different. It will also be interesting to plant the Wildrose carrots alongside of some carrot seeds we received from Hellman’s (yes, the mayonnaise people) of all places, and see how they compare.

My Indoor Cove for Seedlings and Microgreens
My Indoor "Garden Station" for Seedlings and Microgreens (c) Julie Leung

The First 2 Weeks of Newbie Gardening

It’s been a busy first 2 weeks in our garden since our first Grow Food Calgary class on April 22. In the first 2 weeks since the class ended, I’ve created a small indoor garden area in front of 2 large west-facing windows in my kitchen where I’m nurturing 2 kale seedlings destined for transplant outdoors, experimenting with pea shoot and wheatgrass microgreens, and growing basil, cilantro and dill. My kids have 2 sunflower seedlings also growing in the window sill which are destined for transplant outdoors, too.

We have created a second garden plot along the north side of our backyard which is south-facing and gets lots of sun, as well as livened up the soil in our existing garden plot on the south wall of our house by mixing in some nearly finished compost, topped it up with garden soil, and covered with leaves and grass clippings. We’ve planted some shallot sets, garlic, carrot seeds, beet seeds, jerusalem artichokes, and Linzer Delicatess fingerling potatoes in our existing plot, and a few rows of lettuce seeds in our new plot. We have 2 Root Pouches on the rocks beside our new garden plot which contain Blue Mac, Agria and Russian Blue potato varieties.

Our 2nd garden plot, created within the last 2 weeks using cardboard, browns from our yard, finished compost, worm castings and topsoil
Our 2nd garden plot, created within the last 2 weeks using cardboard, browns from our yard, finished compost, worm castings and topsoil

Our First Class

All of this activity was spawned by the things I learned in my first Grow Food Calgary class. In this post, I’ll talk about the concepts that influenced me the most.

We received a number of goodies at our first class which I’ve used in this first 2 weeks: Renee’s Lettuce Babies seeds, seed potatoes from Eagle Creek Farms, Root Pouches, Donna Balzer’s No Guff Gardening book, starter size of Worm Castings from Chelsie’s Gardens, transplanted pea and basil plants, 2 starter kale seedlings, kale, lettuce and tomato seeds from Donna Balzer, and a small container of planted pea seeds that I am trying to grow as microgreens.

Goodies from first Grow Food Calgary session
Goodies from first Grow Food Calgary session

Soil vs. Dirt

In the first session, we learned to differentiate between dirt and soil. Soil is living, full of beneficial microbes and nutrients and minerals. Without living, beneficial organisms, we simply have dirt. A lot of “soil” mixes sold at stores say they are sterilized, which means that they have been treated in some way to kill off all the living things in the soil. These types of “soil” would not support as successful growth as a living soil that has had biological matter such as finished compost and worm castings (worm “poo” which contains beneficial bacteria and nutrients). The main message I heard during this session was that we should focus on feeding the soil and making it better and supportive for plant life, instead of focusing on feeding our plants. I learned that any soil can be amended to make it better, supportive of the living things growing in it. So we can start with soil that is less than optimal (theoretically we could even start with dirt!), and through careful treatment like adding finished compost, adding worm castings or compost tea (the liquid drippings from a worm compost), and even planting green manure (sort of “throw away”) plants on the off-season that concentrate sugars in their roots and sustain microbes already in the soil, or fix nitrogen, and can be tilled into the soil to function as organic matter, we can incrementally make the soil better.

It became very clear what a difference healthy soil can make on plant health and growth. Chelsie showed us photos of plants from last season grown in different soils. Two of the same type of plant had been planted on the same day and subjected to the same environmental conditions. One was grown in Chelsie’s regular garden soil that had been continually amended while the other plant was grown in a commercially-available “gardening soil” purchased from a large garden supply outfit or a big box store. The plants in the commercially-available gardening soil had thinner stalks, were paler, and one type of plant didn’t even fully develop by the end of the growing season when compared to the plants grown in Chelsie’s amended soil.

We talked about Chelsie’s concept of “natural gardening”, and there was a focus on how it is unnecessary to use chemical treatments and additives (like fertilizers, as an example) to make a garden successful, and that many of the horticultural methods we have come to believe are necessary, were only made so when large-scale farming became the norm. In our personal gardens, it is possible and optimal to utilize natural methods of feeding the soil to grow healthy plants. This way of thinking is really opposite to the way most of us have been socialized. Even yesterday, a friend told me she felt it was time again to change out the dirt in her garden pots and planters because the dirt had been exhausted and was not longer supporting good growth. I told her I’d learned that instead of continually throwing out the base and replacing with totally new soil, she could instead focus on amending the existing soil to restore life to it, and make it more supportive of good plant growth.

Our existing garden plot, now amended with our own nearly-finished compost, worm castings, and cover of browns from our yard
Our existing garden plot, now amended with our own nearly-finished compost, worm castings, and cover of browns from our yard

True Reuse and Recycling!

One of the repeated themes through the first session and in the reading I’ve been doing in Donna’s book is the value of finished compost for amending soil. Typically, browns (grass clippings, leaves) need to be mixed in with compost in order to make finished compost. Unfortunately, because I have an inefficient outdoor composter that is hard to “turn” and freezes solid in the winter thereby arresting all biological activity for more than half the year, I was always hard-pressed to use up our many leaves bagged every fall and spring.

I want to find a way to create finished compost faster, so that I can constantly feed my soil. The allure of becoming totally “self-sustaining” with little need to continually buy more “product” from the big box stores, is extremely attractive to me. I could create finished compost faster by purchasing a better composter (one that can be turned more easily, though these can be expensive), or adding more beneficial microbes such as worm castings (but these are also expensive unless I produce my own by starting a worm farm). Speeding up the rate that I produce finished compost would enable me to consume my fallen leaves or grass clippings faster, and thus use up everything that my yard produces — with much less organic matter going to waste. I am considering setting up an indoor vermicompost (a worm farm) later in the summer so that I can more quickly work through the organic “wastes” (vegetable and fruit peelings, egg shells, etc.) that leave my kitchen, have this working even through winter when the outdoor compost is frozen, and produce worm castings to boot. I was heartened by a story Donna told about how she was going away for 5 weeks and was concerned about feeding her worms. She said they are not like “regular pets”, so it’s hard to explain to a housesitter how to care for them. So, in partial desperation and partially as an experiment, she decided to put a whole turkey carcass that had already been boiled for stock, and the mushy vegetables (mire poix) that accompanied it, into the vermicompost. When she returned 5 weeks later, the worms had faithfully devoured everything: only 1 bone could be found untouched!

Sobering Observations on Effects of Even Minute Amounts of Herbicides

Donna showed us a picture of a deformed tomato plant that she grew in soil that she was forced to conclude had traces of the selective herbicide clopyralid, which is used throughout rural Alberta. I cannot remember the exact details, but I believe that the soil had been amended with finished compost, where the browns (e.g. straw, hay) input to the compost was the likely culprit that had contact with this herbicide. It was sobering that traces of this herbicide had made it both through biological breakdown during composting and being diluted with existing soil, and yet could still deform the tomato plants growing in that soil. Donna later told me that soil tests measure herbicides in parts per million, so soil tests may not show an herbicide presence, whereas plants respond to concentrations of parts per billion. This was a very sobering illustration of the hidden dangers of herbicide and pesticide residues, and that even trace amounts can be carried upwards in the food chain.

Creating Our New Garden Plot

I had wanted to learn how to best create additional garden plots in our yard. I wasn’t sure if we should build a large wooden frame to contain my new plot. What I learned was it’s not necessary to build a planter, and that the best and simplest way to create a plot is to allow the garden plot to eventually “connect” with the soil on / under the lawn. It was suggested to me to lay some wet newspaper or cardboard on the section of lawn that I want to create the plot on, which would function as a barrier to the grass (basically kill the grass underneath the plot), but still eventually biodegrade and allow the garden soil to connect to the soil under the lawn. On top of this cardboard, layer on 6-8 inches of browns (leaves, grass clippings), followed by 1 inch of finished compost, then 2-5 cm of topsoil. I could add worm castings as desired to inoculate the mixture with beneficial microbes which, along with the finished compost, would help with the decomposition of the browns. The first year, we would plant only shallow-rooted plants like lettuces, beans, and kale (no root vegetables), and the plot would become rich, living soil over time, the thick layer of browns eventually decomposing to become part of the soil. In the second year, we should be have enough depth to plant root vegetables or otherwise use this plot as a “regular” plot.

Laying down cardboard for the base of our 2nd garden plot
Laying down cardboard for the base of our 2nd garden plot
Laying final layer of topsoil on top of compost and browns
Laying final layer of topsoil on top of compost and browns

We needed to buy topsoil, and decided to source some Black Garden Soil from Eagle Lake on Chelsie’s recommendation. These are the “Big Yellow Bag” people. I purchased a bag of worm castings from Chelsie, and used up nearly all of our compost from our outdoor composter. It wasn’t 100% finished compost, with the odd egg shell or orange rind still showing, but it was close enough, and the beneficial microbes in it and the worm castings would, I hope, continue working and breaking down through the summer. It felt really good to be able to nearly empty our compost pile that has been breaking down more or less for 3 years. Now, just to move my future piles along more quickly!

Microgreens Experiment

The last very interesting endeavour I am working on is an tray of microgreens. I had pea shoots growing from seed that had been sowed during our first class, as well as a few lone seedlings that Donna had started and we had transplanted in the first class. Pea shoots are a delicacy in Chinese cuisine, and it is hard to find truly fresh, young, tender shoots. I decided to try to grow a thick layer of pea shoots in a new tray. I even purchased a heat mat to try to speed the germination of these peas. It took only about 1-2 days for germination with my heat mat. I am hoping to grow enough in my new tray to be able to actually make a dish of stir-fried garlic pea shoots. So far, I’ve only harvested some smaller bits from the original shoots from class for my lunch. Half of this sandwich was from conventional, store-bought ingredients and half from my own little indoor garden or local farmers (eggs are from free-run organic chickens and farmers we’ve known for 5 years). I think the lunch tasted extra delicious because I had grown a portion of it myself!

First Harvest of the Season: Pea shoot microgreens in my lunch pita!
First Harvest of the Season: Pea shoot microgreens in my lunch pita!

Second Class Coming Up!

Our second session is this coming weekend. I am looking forward to reporting my progress back to my teachers and my class, and getting additional feedback and questions answered, as well as learning new things. Onward!