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No chemicals used on these plants – next sale Saturday September 13

The colour is great at this time of year – the strong reds and mauves of phlox contrasting with the varying yellows of Tall Coreopsis, Black-eyed Susan, Helen’s Flower and Lance-leaved Goldenrod.  And the New England Asters haven’t even come out yet.

But it’s not just the colour that delights an ecological gardener – it’s the life!

I sit and watch, and there’s so much activity – the goldfinches swooping down to the birdbath, hummingbirds hovering at the Giant Blue Lobelia (no, wait, that’s a hummingbird moth!), a Monarch butterfly dancing through the chokecherries, winged creatures buzzing between the blue spires of Anise Hyssop and the fluffly pink heads of Joe Pye Weed, catching the sunlight as they dart from bloom to bloom.

Underfoot, small thumb-sized toads jump out from the grass and a chipmunk scurries into one of the many entrances to its underground domain. A garter snake slides across the patio and disappears under the jewelweed. Later, I will watch for bats that come out as the light starts to fade. No chemicals have been applied to this property to reduce the insect population, so I hope there’s plenty for them to feed on.

Yes, there are bite-sized pieces taken out of the Carolina Allspice shrub, and the bare stems on one plant in my pollinator garden give me no clue to its identity. Some would get upset about that – I view it as a sign my plants are contributing to the ecosystem. My Rose Milkweed is missing some leaves but if I bend I can see the culprits – the black and orange caterpillars of the Milkweed Tussock Moth. They’re funny looking, sprouting hairs in every direction, and not so greedy as to consume the whole plant, but I do move them off the ones in pots than I plan to sell.

It hadn’t occurred to me until this year that even though the gardener may not use chemicals, plants purchased at a nursery might retain the chemicals previously applied to ensure they remain picture perfect until the time of sale. But that of course is what “systemic” means. The chemicals are absorbed and spread through the plant’s tissues. They can persist for more than a season. Any insect or caterpillar that happens along and starts to feed will be poisoned. And the creature that comes to eat the insect may suffer too.

We all became aware of systemic chemicals when those in the neonicotinoid group became implicated in bee deaths. They’ve been banned in Europe. It’s shameful that that the federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency, despite having concluded that neonics contributed to most bee mortality, has still not banned them. Also shameful: as of tomorrow, September 1, CANPOLLIN, a unique and much-needed network of pollinator researchers, closes down for lack of funding. I took note of the Canadian Pollinator Initiative when it was started, in 2008, because it made so much sense for these scientists to coordinate their efforts – there is much to be learned about native bees and pollinators. (A step in the direction of knowing more is Healher Holm’s excellent book Pollinators of Native Plants, which calls for a blog all on its own, so more about that coming up).

The American Bird Conservancy last year flagged neonicotinoids for their environmental persistence, their propensity for runoff and groundwater infiltration and their cumulative and largely irreversible action in invertebrates. A report released in 2013 concluded that these chemicals are lethal to birds as well as to the aquatic systems on which they depend.

So we all knew that these chemicals are a problem in crops, but few of us gave any thought to their effect on our ornamentals, even those of us who garden organically.

But, as the magazine Organic Gardening pointed out in an article earlier this year, “Nursery plants are often doused with pesticides to kill bugs, fungicides to prevent mildew, and synthetic fertilizers to push their growth. Chemical growth regulators are used to slow a plant’s progress and promote compactness, so it will arrive at the retail store at just the right size to appeal to shoppers.” Have you ever wondered why all those hundreds of chrysanthemums arriving in stores now are at exactly the same stage of development? Chemical growth regulators.

In June, Friends of the Earth released a study that had found neonicotinoids in more than half of “bee-friendly” flowering plants tested at three Home Depot outlets across Canada. Similar results were found at other garden centres. Consumers were buying plants to support bee populations but were in fact being tricked into delivering toxins to them! Why is this happening in Ontario where there is a ban on the use of pesticides for cosmetic purposes? According to Friends of the Earth, our federal friends at PMRA have provided the horticulture industry with a loophole by classifying plants grown for garden centres as a “minor use.”

Home Depot responded by promising to label plants that have been treated with neonicotinoids. Labelling falls short of not using neonics, and even further short of going organic. The Ontario government has said it will restrict the use of neonics to where there is a “demonstrated need.” Lots of wiggle room there.

There are challenges to producing organic ornamentals – and until recently, the feeling in the horticulture industry was that there isn’t enough consumer demand to justify the effort. But attitudes are changing. As a consumer, step up to the plate and increase the pressure. Ask your garden centre if they can supply organic, chemical-free plants.

Going organic, however, requires a change in habits all round. Consumers will have to take measures to increase the numbers of beneficial insects in their gardens. This was vividly illustrated for me on a couple of occasions recently when customers had purchased plants from me that were healthy and unmolested by insects while in my nursery, only to be devoured upon arrival at their new home (they have recovered). But as I contemplated a couple of Return of the Native roses beside a couple of Zehrs roses purchased at the same time, I felt very apologetic: the ones from me were skeletal, the ones from Zehrs were unmolested. My explanation is that the commercial ones contained pesticides that will continue to deter pests for some time, while the native ones – protected on my property by a population of beneficial insects that prey upon the pests, were left defenceless once they moved into a more chemical world.

It’s complicated. But the solution is simple, and cheaper, and healthier for all species: work with nature to bring things into balance.

About the sale:
Saturday September 13, 9 am to 5 pm at 1186 Flos Road 10 East, Elmvale L0L 1P0. Check plant list for what's on offer (some new to the list), or call 705-322-2545 for more information. 

More information about chemicals, pollinators etc:
The Quest for Organic Ornamentals – Organic Gardening
CANPOLLIN – the Canadian Pollinator Initiative
Gardeners Beware – Friends of the Earth report
Impact of nenonicotinoids on birds – American Bird Conservancy
Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm  

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