Monthly Archives: March 2012
Gardening on the Planet

As pollinators for a native plant garden, honey bees suck!

Guest Rant by David Schmetterling, Montana Wildlife Gardener

That’s right, they suck.  Someone had to say it.

If you want honey bees (Apis mellifera) for say, I don’t know, honey- that is great.  No problem.  If you Beehave converted a heterogeneous, beautiful landscape of native plants and wildlife into a monoculture for crop production, and every plant requires pollination in the same, narrow, discrete window, honey bees are for you.

However, if you are interested in any of the following:  biodiversity, bee conservation, pollinator conservation and diversity, wildlife gardening, native plant landscaping, getting your native plant garden pollinated, or just plain learning about the really cool insects in your garden, then yes, honey bees suck.

Somewhere along the way of promoting awareness of pollinators and their role in plant, wildlife and bee conservation, people wove in honey bees.  This is really unfortunate, so I am trying to set the record straight. 

In our garden I have collected over 150 species of bees and “pollinators” and one of those species is honey bee.  In fact, honey bees in our garden are pretty uncommon, especially outside a narrow time of day and time of year.  The diverse species of native pollinators provide so much more than pollination to our garden.  Just as a small example, the larvae of the flower fly (Spilomaya spp.), a yellow jacket mimic, pictured below, are effective predators of aphids in the garden (including our vegetable garden).

I venture that honey bees are pretty ineffectual pollinators of most things- especially native species.  As far as colony collapse disorder, although academically interesting, don’t be fooled: it is not a conservation issue.

Honey bees are native to Eurasia (where most of our noxious weeds are coincidently from), and share no evolutionary history with plants in the U.S., and in particular with plants of the intermountain west of Montana.  Consequently, they are not effective pollinators of the diverse native plants we have here. They will only pollinate over a narrow range of dates and temperatures, and can only exploit certain sizes and shapes of plants.  Again, too narrow a range to be effective. 

For example, in the Missoula valley, and in my garden, spring arrives with sagebrush buttercups (Ranunculus glaberrimus) that flower in late February or early March.  They often arrive when snow still covers the ground and most days are barely above freezing, and the blooms can be rapid.  This time of the year, nary a honey bee is in sight or even able to survive – these blooms predate the hives trucked in from the south.  Native flowers come and go, blooming across different days (and some only at night) from snowy spring until late October, long after the honey bees head back down south or hunker down trying to survive.

Even as temperatures become more appealing to honey bees, morning and evening can be too cool for them to do much of anything beyond surviving.  Sure, on a warm July afternoon, honey bees will be out in force pollinating some things, but they don’t do much.  Our native pollinators, including moths, butterflies, bees, flies, beetles, ants, and others are so diverse in terms of habitats they occupy, body sizes and morpholoogy, that they can pollinate and exploit a diversity of native plants that no truckload of honey bee hives consisting of identically sized and shaped honey bees could even imagine.

So, yes, honey bees are great for producing honey.  They are great for pollinating commercial crops (though their value is probably grossly overstated), but they have little place in conservation and little room in my garden.

Posted by on March 8, 2012 at 4:29 am.   This post has 32 responses.

Home Depot to Stop Selling Books, and My Advice to Publishers

Garden books on display

This just in from Publishers Weekly:  Home Depot has announced they will no longer sell books.  It may be that you never bought a book at Home Depot.  Last time I looked, they sold an array of how-to books on home improvement and gardening, some of which were fairly humdrum (Ortho books, that sort of thing) and some of which were the sorts of books that you and I know and love.

Clearly the books weren't selling well, which is why Home Depot decided to drop them. Or maybe they were selling just fine, but Home Depot had other ideas for that section. In the announcement they say that "the move is part of a wider strategy of 'front end transformation.'" 

Whatever.  It's over.  I don't know how much hand-wringing is going on at publishing houses, but if you're a publisher of garden books, here's my advice:  Help independent garden centers become better booksellers.

Borders is gone.  Home Depot is, as far as bookselling goes, also gone.  Many cities have no independent bookstore at all.  But there are over 3000 large independent garden centers in the United States, and with a little help, they could become much better booksellers. 

People who own garden centers are not necessarily book people.  They don't read Publishers Weekly.  They don't go to BEA. They've never heard of the ABA.  And they might not even read much. This is not a criticism.  It's just a fact that when I go to IGC, I meet a lot of people who own or work in garden centers who say, "I don't read much." So they might be happy to add more books to their gift shop, but they need some help.  What could publishers do?

  • Help them make sure they're getting the best possible terms and working with the right kind of sales rep or distributor. Some garden centers just don't know where to get books, how to take advantage of special shipping terms, or how returns work. When should they discount books, and why?
  • Help them understand, in very concrete terms, what kinds of books gardeners might enjoy reading.  I've seen many IGC owners pick up interesting, top-selling, well-written garden books and say, "Will this tell how to prune shrubs in zone 6?"  They might not understand that books can be more than instruction manuals.  I have actually had to explain to garden center owners who Michael Pollan is and how many copies of his books have sold in order to help them understand about literary garden writing, or reading nonfiction for entertainment rather than instruction.
  • Just generally, help them figure out what books to order.  What's new, what's hot. Not just garden books but garden-themed cookbooks, nature books, children's books.
  • Teach them basic bookselling stuff.  I'm talking shelf-talkers, nice displays, where to buy shelving and book stands, etc. (or how to make them, since many garden centers employ very handy people or are next to a hardware store)  Garden centers can be dusty, humid, or otherwise inhospitable to books and signage.  Customers and staff sometimes have dirty hands. Help them figure out how to deal with all that. 
  • Help them teach the staff how to hand-sell books.  If someone comes in with a lot of questions about fruit trees, great.  Answer their questions, but show them some wonderful new book on fruit trees, too.
  • Give them ideas for cross-merchandising with other things they sell like tools, seeds, birdhouses, etc.  I mean literally–send out an email in September suggesting exactly what could go on a fall book table about, say, the harvest season.
  • Teach them about author events.  They might not know how to advertise an author event, how to introduce an author, how many books to order, where or how to do the signing–all of that could be brand new. Also, what about book clubs?  A book discussion group?
  • Give them some benchmarks to go by.  How much can a successful bookstore sell, per square foot?  How quickly do bookstores turn their inventory?  These are things that a garden center might have no idea about.

Just my two cents.  Publishers are worried about independent bookstores closing, but if you're a publisher of garden books, you have 3000 potentially great bookstores out there–they just need some help.

What do you think?  Do you buy books at your garden center?  Would you, if they had a truly fantastic little book section and enthusiastic staff selling the books?


Posted by on March 7, 2012 at 1:21 pm.   This post has 23 responses.

Sunset–We Have a Winner!

Congrats to Maggie at Slotharium–she wins a copy of the new Sunset book for her haiku:


Grandma's edition
advised using DDT
yet I still keep it

Thanks for playing, everybody!

Posted by on March 7, 2012 at 12:16 pm.   This post has Comments Off on Sunset–We Have a Winner!.

The Chicken Encyclopedia

Chicken encyclopedia

If you keep chickens, you probably already have a book or two by Gail Damerow. She's the author of The Chicken Health Handbook, which is the What To Expect When You're Expecting of chicken-raising. It is incredibly detailed, sometimes terrifying, and yet it is the first book we bought and the one we consult first whenever we have a problem.

The new book is, as the name implies, an A-Z encyclopedia with lovely illustrations throughout. You get photographs when a photo is really what you need, and diagrams or drawings when that's more useful.  And just the right amount of how-to is sprinkled throughout.  For instance, as I was flipping past the entry for "spurs," I found an entire page devoted to "spur trimming," something I desperately need to know more about as my Golden Wyandotte, Abigail, has grown horrifying spurs that must embarrass her terribly and might even hurt.  Spur-trimming, it turns out, involves needle-nosed pliers, vegetable oil, a baked potato, and a Dremel cutting tool. 

I am not making this up. At moments like this I wonder if I am really cut out for the stewardship of chickens. At least now I know how to do it; whether I actually will do it is another question.

As a how-to book, an encyclopedia can be frustrating.  The breeds are not all grouped together; an entry on Asian Malay hens is right next to an entry on manure balls. Problem-solving can be a bit tricky too:  the entry for "slipped wing" is right there between "slip" and "smut" ("slip" being far dirtier than "smut," as it turns out), but if you had a chicken with a wing problem, you might miss the "slipped wing" entry–and it's not in the index under "wing." 

These are not complaints.  I'm just saying:  it's an encyclopedia, and the randomness of the alphabetical system is what makes encyclopedias weird and wonderful to read. If they organized the material by subject matter, it wouldn't be an encyclopedia. So adjust your expectations accordingly.

I was particularly happy to see the section on poisonous plants (which Damerow files under Toxic, not Wicked) and was surprised to see vetch and corncockle on the list, two plants I'd grown around the chickens before without ever thinking about it. See what we learn when we read the encyclopedia?

It's a cool book, and I'm especially impressed that they managed to do a full-color, nicely designed, big fat paperback and still keep it priced under $20.  I know that's not easy to pull off, and it's nice that Storey  made it affordable and accessible to any chicken owner.  Now, Storey, here's my only question:  where's the app?

You, too, can own a copy of The Chicken Encyclopedia!  Just tell us any sort of charming chicken story and we'll choose a winner next week.

Posted by on March 7, 2012 at 4:43 am.   This post has 48 responses.
What's Happening

ProFlowers in the News

Would you believe it – plants are hot news again, and so soon after Michigan trees had their moment in the sun. This time it's the red hot controversy over ProFlowers' sponsorship of Rush Limbaugh's radio show. (If you've been in the Outback for the last week or so, click here to re-enter the news cycle and find out why so many people are angry at Rush and want his sponsors to dump him.)

Several sponsors indeed dumped the show immediately, and pressure mounted against the rest who, like ProFlowers, who seemed to be standing by their man.

The company was getting lots of complaints via Twitter, and responding, sort of.  I notice in the screen shot below that the Blogging Nurseryman Trey Pitsenberger was speaking his mind.  (Go, Trey!)

ProFlowers Twitter

And on the website Pissed Consumers, a new section appeared – Proflowers Pissed Consumers.

One disgruntled customer, a blogger, wrote:

This past Valentines Day, I spent over $50 with to buy my wife two dozen multi-colored roses. It was our tenth Valentines Day together and I wanted to do Proflowers2something extra special for her.

He goes on to say he won't be doing that again.  Hey buddy, try your local florist.  Here's what you get from ProFlowers for 50 bucks, by the way. 

Speaking of Valentine's Day, imagine how panicked the company would have been if Rush had made his incindiary comments a month earlier, right before V Day?

No matter.  There was enough pressure on them to cause a rethinking of initial lame responses and on Sunday, they dumped Rush. On their Facebook page they criticized his comments as "beyond political discourse to a personal attack" and stressed that they "do not reflect our values as a company." 

Other sponsors, including AOL and Carbonite, also announced they're jumping ship, and now radio stations are, too. We're on a roll here! 

But back to ProFlowers, about which I learned a bit over the course of all this unwanted media attention. For instance, it was started by one Jared Polis, the first openly gay male freshman congressman from Colorado.  But then I found a reference to ProFlowers as a long-time contributor to Republican causes – presumably since it was sold by Polis, a Democrat.

From the ProFlowers Wiki page we learn about some troubles unrelated to shock radio – lawsuits involving false advertising and unfair competition.  And this: 

Florist advocacy groups continue to take umbrage at ProFlowers' marketing which disparages the role of the local florist, particularly since ProFlowers itself uses local florists to fulfill its same-day, late next-day and Sunday delivery orders.

Readers, are you using ProFlowers or their online competitors, or do you go local?  And is that a loaded question? 

Posted by on March 6, 2012 at 5:03 am.   This post has 30 responses.

Assembling Natural Companions

The always stylish and inspiring Ken Druse has just published a new book titled Natural Companions: The Garden Lover's Guide to Plant Combinations.  In order to illustrate these happy relationships, Druse collaborated with photographer Ellen Hoverkamp, who turned groups of plants working together at particular moments in particular gardens into art.

Here is Ellen at work:

Posted by on March 5, 2012 at 6:30 am.   This post has 5 responses.

A Way to Counter Forces Beyond Our Control


This week, The New York Times ran a piece suggesting that tensions in Iran and Syria may soon bring us $5 a gallon gasoline.  Nothing any of us can do about that.  

Frankly, over the last four years since the start of the Great Recession, it's hard not to feel helplessly blown around by the economy. Today's question, whether a restructuring of Greek bonds will set off credit default swaps, one of the great magnifiers of the subprime mortgage meltdown, is barely comprehensible.  But if you paid attention in 2008, well, it's hard not to worry that there will be some shocks attached that may reach even to the level of American households.  And let's not even talk about the housing market

If you are 20 and jobless, you can join Occupy Wall Street and change the world.  If you are 40 or 50 with a mortgage and a bunch of kids, probably not.  

But it is possible to opt out of a volatile economy just a little bit.  Instead of buying all those $5 gallons of gasoline, you can plant a vegetable garden and conserve gasoline by skipping a few trips to the supermarket every month. You'll also be rejecting all of those petroleum-rich fruits and vegetables you'd otherwise be buying in the Price Chopper, depressing the demand for oil just the tiniest bit and possibly convincing Big Ag to rethink. You'll be paying $2 or $3 for a package of seeds and harvesting bushels of food in return.  At a minimum, your vegetable garden will make you feel more self-sufficient.

That is, until you are blown around by that other great force no ordinary person controls: the weather. 

Posted by on March 2, 2012 at 6:24 am.   This post has 17 responses.

We have a winner!

Commenter ELSA will take away the alpines. Thanks, Joseph and Arrowhead Alpines!

Posted by on March 2, 2012 at 4:54 am.   This post has Comments Off on We have a winner!.
Guest Rants

A guest rant and giveaway on alpines

I am so pleased to present Friend of Rant Joseph Tychonievich. Joseph has a new position at rare plant nursery Arrowhead Alpines and wants to share his enthusiasm about alpines, as well as share some alpines!—Elizabeth

The winner will be announced Friday (tomorrow) at 10 a.m. EST.


The great garden writer Elizabeth Lawrence said “All gardeners become rock gardeners if they garden long enough.” I'm not sure that is true, but it is undeniable that all gardeners, if they garden long enough, run out of space. A taste for wonderful trees and shrubs will fill up even the largest garden in no time, as will gorgeous sweeps of perennials in the style of Piet Oudolf. That may be why so many gardeners then become rock gardeners. When your plants' mature size is measured in inches not feet, you can easily install an entire miniature landscape in the space that had been occupied by just one sprawling ornamental grass

The traditional rock garden is an elaborate affair, recreating the look and drainage of a mountain top landscape with lots of, you guessed it, rocks, but the easiest way to get into these fascinating group of plants is containers. Growing wild in small amounts of soil in crevasse of rocks, these plants are perfectly adapted to life in containers, which are a perfect way to provide them the excellent drainage they crave, and also raises them up where you can appreciate their tiny, intricate forms.

Convinced to give them a try? Well, here's your chance for a jump start. Leave a comment for a chance to win a Trough Garden Collection from Arrowhead Alpines. You'll get four rock garden plants and a dwarf shrub, perfect to plant up a tiny landscape in a trough or other container.

But be warned. Alpines are highly addictive, and once you have a little container of perfect, miniature beauty, it is a slippery slope to replacing a great chunk of your perennial boarder with a exquisite alpine meadow.

Posted by on March 1, 2012 at 6:00 am.   This post has 64 responses.

Wicked Plants: The Case of the Missing Index

WickedplantssmI regularly hear from readers who want to know why Wicked Plants doesn't have an index.  It was a mistake, I tell them.  But it's hard to understand how an index could be accidentally left out of a book unless you understand how the production process works.

Once the manuscript is finished, edited, and ready to go to copyediting, a checklist gets filled out.  That checklist covers any number of production issues still to be dealt with.  One of the items on that checklist is the index.  If the book is supposed to include an index, then someone reads the checklist, hires a professional indexer, and an index gets made and turned in before the book goes to the printer.

In my case, there was some kind of glitch in that system.  The checklist definitely specified that an index should be included, but somehow that got missed and the index never got ordered. By the time I realized that there was no index forthcoming, it was too late to do anything about it. And there was no way to add it later without having to repaginate the book and possibly raise the price.  So there is no index.

I have never heard the end of it.  And you can be sure that I checked, double-checked, and triple-checked to make sure that Wicked Bugs contained an index!

This has been so frustrating to my readers that one of them actually posted an index she made herself as an Amazon review. But recently, something even more extraordinary happened.  An actual professional indexer, Laura Dodd, walked into my bookstore one day and handed me a complete, extremely detailed, beautifully formatted index that she made for practice.  It's even formatted to the exact page size of the book.

And now she's making it available to you. 

So if you find it frustrating that Wicked Plants has no index, I've got your answer right here.  Just head over to Laura's site and download the index in your choice of formats.

And if you're in the market for indexing, editing, or proofreading services, I hope you'll consider getting in touch with Laura at Redwood Coast Indexing, who is clearly devoted to her craft.


Posted by on March 1, 2012 at 5:36 am.   This post has 8 responses.