Straw in the Garden: Be Careful!

by Sandy Swegel

Straw bales are one of my favorite garden tools.  They are useful to the gardener in so many ways.  All nicely tied up, straw bales are like giant Lego blocks that can be stacked to make so many things. I’m using the term “straw” bale, but old “hay” bales have the same great features.  Three bales make a great compost bin.  A row of bales makes excellent walls that double as sitting places.  Open the bales up and you have the perfect mulch to keep strawberries or squash off the ground or to make a path protected from mud.  Give the chickens one bale and an hour later they have spread it evenly over the coop floor in their pursuit of worms or food in the bale.  A square of bales with some plastic thrown over is an excellent cold frame.  And I haven’t even begun to touch on the usefulness of bales as a fort.

So it was distressing this week to be reminded that we can no longer just trust the wonderful bales that we scavenged in the past because modern agriculture has rendered hay, straw, and even the gardener’s best friend, manure, unsafe for growing food.

This conversation came up because tomatoes are very sensitive to herbicide damage.  The most common cause of herbicide damage extension agents used to see was from “herbicide drift” where chemicals sprayed nearby go airborne and are spread by the wind onto your garden.  But my experience this week was with tomato plants, a very susceptible plant – sort of the canary in the mine.  After considering dozens of diseases from virus and fungus and bacteria that might be stunting a friend’s tomatoes and keeping them from setting fruit, we had to face the likelihood that the culprit was last year’s straw that was liberally mulched throughout the garden.

Hay and straw become hidden poison bombs in the garden when farmers use the new generation of weed killers (that are very effective on weeds) like Milestone or Forefront or Curtail.  Milestone is aminopyralid it is a very persistent killer of broad-leaf plants.  Farmers like it because it kills weeds and because unlike other weedkillers, they can feed treated pasture to their animals without any waiting time.  The label says clearly that while animals can still feed on the pasture, the herbicide survives being eaten by the animals, and it survives composting.  So even year old hay that you’ve composted or nice old manure from free-range animals on pasture still has enough herbicide in it to kill your tomato crop.

The bottom line is you can’t just get straw at the feed store or old hay or manure from a neighbor’s barn to use in your garden unless you know how the original pasture was treated this year and last year.  It’s another sad but true example of the destructive environmental impact even small actions such as applying some weedkiller can have. And it’s not even just the farmer who has to take care.  Grass clippings are a gardener’s favorite mulch…and some of the new weed killers or weed and feed products contain these long-lasting poison time bombs.  It’s easy to want to kill some thistle…but you have to read the very tiny small print to see if you are destroying your own garden by using the organic practices of mulching with grass or hay or straw that generations of gardeners have sworn by.  It’s not your father’s straw bale anymore.

Carrot love

By Sandy Swegel


I was noticing very happy pollinators this week: honey bees and native bees, tiny flies, lacewings.

And the air was abuzz with hummingbirds and their look-a-likes sphinx moth. Noticing that pollinators were all around is the first step. Then I looked for where they were gathered….because that meant I had somehow (accidentally) created a habitat that they loved.

The best habitat of the day was a patch of carrots abandoned last year in the back of the garden which had entirely gone to seed. There were dozens of different kinds of happy flying beneficials on it. It was at a slightly wet end of the row so that helped. I’ll never pull the last carrot again. What I didn’t know until this week is that carrot flowers are pale pink. Very sweet in a big patch.


I like to leave carrots in the ground in winter. I eat them until the ground freezes because they get sweeter and sweeter each day. Then I’m happy for them to get frozen solid because many of them turn to mush and by the time I dig them in early spring, there are writhing masses of earthworms feast. But the carrots that don’t turn to mush, make beautiful flowers their second year.

There was another surprise areas abuzz yesterday. I headed out to a patch of fallen lambs ear that looked spent. From a distance, the flowers were all brown. Lambs ear are beautiful and drought tolerant, but they will seed everywhere. I was about to pull out fifty or so plants that barely had any flowers left…but the bees had a strong opinion that they wanted the last of those flowers. So one more week for the lamb’s ears. I know they’ll drop seeds. But the bees had the final say. Everything for our bee overlords.


Photo Credits:

It’s a Bug Eat Bug World

by Sandy Swegel

I met a new bug this week. And really a bug…an insect scientists call a “true bug” but whose common name is “Assassin Bug”! Someone on an email list caught a picture of the assassin bug eating a bee to which my first response was “Poor bee.”

But the is the way of the insect world. All the creatures we call “beneficial insects” are beneficial because they eat bugs we don’t like. Ladybugs eat all those aphids for us, and we cheer them on. We love the predators that eat thrips and whiteflies or all the beetle eggs on squash. We’re so happy to see the insects we like eating the babies of the insects we don’t like. But sometimes the top predators aren’t too picky and they eat bees and ladybugs and butterfly caterpillars too. Fortunately, they assassinate many more bad bugs than good bugs.

The bugs at the top of the food pyramid have some great names like assassin bugs or pirate bugs They are still beneficials in our book because they are eating lots of the bad guys. Of course, they happily eat cute ladybugs and even their own siblings when they are ravenous after hatching. Keep an eye out in your garden for some of these more interesting creatures.

Beneficial Insects with Great Names:
Assassin Bugs
Pirate Bugs
Predatory Stink Bugs
Big Eyed Bugs
Damsel Bugs

See this link for more on these predators.
Photo Credits
Vickers Myers

Choices… as your cool season veggies go to seed

by Sandy Swegel

Gardening is always about choices.

There are the early choices about what to plant.
Choices about whether to treat pests.
Choices about when to harvest.

Now as your cool-season greens and herbs and alliums go to seed, you have some choices.

Your first choice is more food. If you are growing your garden primarily to feed yourself, you need to harvest as the market farmers do. When it’s time to cut kale, you don’t just take a few leaves, You get your knife and cut that plant to within two inches of the soil. That shocks leafy greens that they immediately triple leaf production and you will get two more big harvests out of each plant. Ruthless cutting produces more food.

Your other choice is for beauty and generosity. If you let some of those plants bolt and put out seed heads, you end up with a garden that generously feeds the pollinators and butterflies and birds with flowers and seed heads. The swallowtail butterflies ignored all the dill I planted for them and congregated on one old parsley plant to lay their eggs. The nature creatures have reasons for choosing we don’t always understand.


But Beauty is why I make my choice this week for letting edibles go to seed.

With the rain this year, bolted lettuce is statuesque. They are four feet high and visible across the yard. Purple Merlot lettuce at this size is stunning next to the sweet peas. The dill is taller than me in the well-watered garden and surrounds all the tomatoes like protective warriors. Yellow mustard flowers and white arugula flowers lean out across the walk begging to be nibbled. Broccoli heads opening up into flowers are beguiling.

So once again you have a choice. You can go out in the hot sun and tidy up your garden, or you can let Nature’s idea of Beauty run amok.


Photo Credit broccoli, Todd Dwyer

It’s Caterpillar Time!

by Sandy Swegel

Protect our friends. So many butterflies in our area have laid their eggs and their baby caterpillars are getting big and fat and chewing up plants. Be sure you know who your friends are before you squash any of them! You’ll love having the butterflies.

Swallowtail caterpillars
I found these this week, not on the dozens of dill plants I planted for them but on a leftover parsley from last year. Next year, more parsley.

Monarch caterpillars
Also yellow stripey…they look a little more serious. I’m watching for these now. Quite a few eggs on the milkweed plants I let take over part of the back garden…so I’m hoping

Painted lady caterpillar
I almost never see these although I see lots of the butterflies. Skinny little black prickly caterpillars. Their host is the Malva family like thistles or hollyhocks.

Cabbage looper
Well, this is one you’re probably seeing a lot of right now. Cute little white moths fluttering everywhere. Bright green little loopers inching along devouring your cabbages. If you want cabbages, you have to treat these as pests.




Who’s in My Garden?

by Sandy Swegel

That’s the question I’m hearing most this week. What is this and what do I do about them?

Grubs and larvae. These big squishy curled-up fat wormy looking things are usually the larval forms of beetles or moths. Lots of cutworms especially. They aren’t your friends because they usually come out of dormancy hungry and start chowing down your plants. What do I do with them? I put the grubs and other unwelcome critters like snails and slugs in the bird feeder. Mama birds who are always watching you even if you don’t realize it will swoop down as soon as soon as you walk away and take the grubs and slugs to feed their new babies.


Solitary wasps and bees
When I’m vigorously cleaning up spring debris, I sometimes accidentally unearth a solitary wasp or bee. These are usually still dormant so I haven’t gotten stung. I usually just recover them with debris and move on. Sometimes they are yellow jackets which I really should kill….but I don’t know bees and wasps enough to tell the beneficial ones from the bad ones…I’ll get the yellow jackets in the pheromone traps later this month.

Lady Bugs
I’m happy to say there are lots of ladybugs this year. When I disturb them during cleanup, I just apologize and put them back in place. I know they’re eating aphid eggs and all kinds of undesirable things.

There are the bigger critters naturally. The rabbits and mice and voles chomping on emerging bulbs. Squirrels digging up tulip bulbs. Rat traps will get the voles. Hawks and cats often take care of mice. Squirrels and rabbits: good luck. One friend has trapped 11 squirrels this week and relocated them fifty miles away.

Enjoy the Spring weather and spring flowers….and use this new-life time of year to notice how many critters share your garden space. Birds in the air, and grubs in the soil. It’s all good.

Photo credit bird: Angela Vidrich[email protected]/6167398051
Photo credit grub:

No Neonics: Three Easy Ways to Help

by Sandy Swegel

Just a moment to be serious now. Spring has arrived and stores are filling with bedding plants and seeds. At the same time, homeowners are noticing all the weeds in yards and some still go out to buy weed killer.

There are three easy quick things you can do that make a difference to help protect bees and yourself from the “neonic” pesticides.

Learn One Name
That’s the neonic most likely in retail products. If you’re an overachiever, the other names are Clothianidin, Thiamethoxam, Acetamiprid, Dinotefuran. These are ingredients in weed killers, especially products marked Bayer or with names like Systemic or Max. Just check your labels and don’t buy these.

Watch For the Label
Customer pressure led Home Depot and Lowe’s last year to agree to put labels on all plants treated with neonics. The label is deceptive….makes it sound like neonics are better…but watch for the label.

Ask Your Retailer
There’s no government regulation (Alas!) that says neonics have to be labeled. The best thing you can do is ask at the garden center if the plants you are buying have been treated with neonics. If they don’t know…then you can probably assume the plants have been sprayed. The treatments can last up to two months in your garden…making your pretty flowers potentially lethal to bees that land on them.

Every time you ask a garden center employee or a grower if their plants have been treated with neonics, you are educating them. That’s what we are after. Nobody really wants to harm bees or the environment. Two years ago when I asked a major grower here in the Denver area if they used neonics, the owner looked at me like I was some crazy Boulder liberal. Which of course I am. He said, “Bah humbug, there’s no way to grow plants without neonics.” But last week, his greenhouse (Welby) had an open house in which they proudly said that most of their plants were grown without neonics and they were continuing to work on how to get neonic-free.

Oh, and of course there’s a fourth thing to do to help the bees. Grow your own plants from good non-pesticide treated, non-GMO, often organic, often heirloom, always neonic-free seeds like ours!
For lots of info on neonics in consumer products, you can read this pdf put out by Xerces.

Photo Credit


Saving the Monarch—one yard at a time

by Sandy Swegel

Native plant advocate Doug Tallamy tells a wonderful story about how the Atala butterfly was saved from the brink of extinction.

“…the Atala butterfly was thought to be extinct in the 1970s. Then landscapers started placing the insect’s food source, a native plant called the coontie, around houses – not to help the butterfly – but because the plant was attractive in home landscapes. The result – a butterfly thought to be extinct found the suburban plants and today appears to be on the rebound.”


The greatest challenge for the monarch butterfly has been the loss of habitat across all of its migratory path. The monarch only feeds and lays eggs on one kind of plant: milkweed. Milkweed is considered a weed by Big Ag, and large farming operations have done their best to kill all the weeds including milkweed. Highway departments also have helped eliminate habitat as they found it was cheaper to pour weedkiller on roadsides rather than mow.

It’s difficult for us as individuals to change Big Ag, or highway departments or to stop deforestation in the Mexican winter habitat monarch. But the story of the Atala butterfly suggests that the monarch can be brought back from its hurdle toward extinction. And we, in individual suburban and city yards, can do something. We can plant native milkweed, a beautiful flowering plant, in our own gardens. Our hope will be that the monarch will figure out that the milkweeds are now in a new place…our individual yards…rather than along highways and farms.

For the last couple of years, I’ve lived in the city where my yard has space for maybe two milkweed plants if I smoosh them together. It seems like a pretty tiny impact I can make. It’s hard to buy milkweed plants in garden centers, so I have to grow from seed. What I’m doing this year is germinating the entire packet of seeds in little pots. After I plant my two plants, I’ll give the other baby plants to as many of my neighbors as I can and ask them to grow the plants. With any luck, our entire block (or two) will have milkweeds growing that will be beacons to overflying monarchs. It might be hard for the monarchs to see one or two plants in my yard….but I think they’ll notice a whole neighborhood worth of milkweed.

Habitat restoration on a grand scale is a great idea. But I feel powerless as an individual to accomplish that. But in the meantime, maybe we can offer new habitat in our collective yards. I can grow out a packet of seeds and change my neighborhood.

Another quote from Tallamy:
If half of the American lawns were replaced with native plants, we would create the equivalent of a 20 million acre national park – nine times bigger than Yellowstone, or 100 times bigger than Shenandoah National Park.

If you have more space in your yard, Tallamy tells about a great experiment in Delaware where researches planted Common Milkweed in a naturalistic planting in a 15′ x 15′ plot. That plot produced 150 monarchs in one season.

Let’s create this new hidden monarch habitat in our yards. Whether you have two square feet like me or space for a 15′ x 15′ plot, you can help save monarchs from extinction. One yard, one packet of seeds, one plant at a time, we can provide food and a place to raise baby monarchs.

Photo Credit:

Early Spring Flowers for Pollinators

by Sandy Swegel

Hungry pollinators are starting to wake up. Well, maybe not this week in Colorado if they are smart. We still have a foot of old snow on the ground, but the sun will come out later this week and I expect to see the first crocuses poke out from the melting snow.

The first warm days of Spring bring out lots of our pollinator friends. In a long winter like this, honey supplies are running short and honeybees are eager for fresh food. Wild bees and bumblebees who don’t have honey stores are very hungry. Ladybugs that woke up a few weeks ago and have been eating aphid eggs in the leaf litter are eager for some sweet nectar or pollen. Everybody’s hungry and are flocking to the first flowers to gather nectar and protein. They need to build up their own strength and to provide food for Spring babies.


You can spot some of the first pollinators of the season if you look closely at the first Spring bulbs. Plan to plant more of these in your garden if you want to attract more pollinators. You can lure pollinators to your yard by having the first flowers. Then they’ll stay for the rest of the season if you have flowers in bloom all year.


Some of the easiest spring flowers to grow are:
Grape hyacinths
Tulips, especially native tulips.

Little bulbs like snowdrops and grape hyacinths re-seed themselves and naturalize a good-sized patch. If you don’t have these in your own yard, it’s easy dig up a few bulbs from a friend’s overgrown patch and transplant into your own garden. They don’t mind the transplanting too much and will bloom as usual…attracting more pollinators to your yard.

So bend down close to those little crocus flowers to see our pollinator friends. Bring a camera. The bees get groggy from gorging on pollen and are often moving pretty slowly, so it’s easy to get a good picture.


Photo credits:
Mason bee on crocus:

Bee on tulip:

Bee on muscari and fly on snowdrop:

To make your pollinator garden click here!




Natures Goofballs

by Sandy Swegel

Nature’s such a goofball. Friday afternoon I was busy carrying the weight of the world. My mom has become bedbound. My dog has pancreas problems and has to eat and poop every two hours. I broke a tooth and there was nothing for dinner because I forgot to go to the grocery.  You know the kind of day.

So I took the poodle for a quick walk at a nearby lake.  The dog ran free and I look at wildflowers.  As we hiked there was a crazy flash of yellow all around. I tried to see what it was but by the time I looked, it was gone. The dog jumped at one of the yellow flashes.  A few feet further and there were more…and then I understood.  The sulfur butterflies had just migrated in. Everywhere tiny Sulphurs were frenetically flying in great swoops or zig-zagging so fast I couldn’t catch a picture.  They had just filled up on the nectar of a field of bright yellow wildflowers and now were wildly playing in a sugar rush of joy and delight.  What goofballs I thought.  How am I supposed to be depressed and downtrodden when yellow goofballs are flittering all over?

As if that wasn’t enough joy, we came upon the lake and it looked like it was Labrador dog day at the lake.  No less than seven labs were there bouncing in and out of the water chasing imaginary sticks or biting at the water.  Labs are definitely the goofballs of the dog kingdom.

It was all just too silly so I forgot about impending deaths and money worries.  Butterflies and labs are here to tell us that life is to be enjoyed like silly goofballs.

Photo credits: