Q: I would like to avoid creating plastic waste, but so many gardening supplies are made of plastic that I don’t know how to avoid it. How can I garden without becoming part of the problem?
A: I agree that it would be hard to think of gardening without plastic pots and labels, for instance. We may slowly find replacements for plastic in gardens, but not yet. Meanwhile, the best ways to be part of the solution, not the problem, are reusing and recycling. I rinse out plastic pots, and I do not worry about sterilizing them because I have had no problems. If a plant were diseased or full of bugs, I would not settle for a rinse. I would wash it in the dishwasher or rinse it in a bleach solution.
I stack pots by size in the garage, to use in future years. When too many accumulate, I take the surplus to a local nursery. As far as I know, all of them reuse pots. Only the small multi-packs are not recyclable. Although most garden plastics are not recyclable in the main waste stream, local recycling by local nurseries is alive and well.
One new solution to the plastic problem that I read about recently comes from the engineering school at Washington State University in Pullman.
They have created an environmentally friendly substitute for Styrofoam. It is made from nanocrystals, those mysterious, tiny structures so small as to be hardly believable. The nanocrystals in the experiment are in wood pulp. Bound together with polyvinyl alcohol, they create a substance with better insulating properties and better elasticity than Styrofoam.
This plastic substitute degrades easily and dissolves in water. Washington State University is now developing their laboratory results on a scale suitable for commercial use.
Q: What made my carrots split?
Q: What made my carrots twist?
A: These are two common carrot deformities with different causes. Carrots split when they grow erratically. If the soil around them gets fairly dry and then is watered with a big drink, the carrots may split. Their growth slowed with the limited water supply. If water suddenly became abundant, the carrots did not understand moderation. They drank and drank, until their cell structure could no longer hold the water. They split full length.
Of course, it is always the biggest carrots that split. The situation is an exact parallel to potatoes with hollow heart. With potatoes the split is internal, and the surfaces of the split turn black from exposure to air. The split potatoes also are the biggest ones.
Carrots twist around each other if they are not thinned soon enough, or if they are not handled gently while being thinned. Even if one of a twisted pair is thinned later, the misshapen root which was left to grow does not straighten itself. It bears the marks of its difficult start until it is harvested.
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Carrots have a hard time dealing with anything which interferes with steady growth. All of us who grow carrots have seen ones which touched a pebble in the soil and divided to grow around it. For a vegetable which is supposed to be quite ordinary, the carrot is quite particular about its garden site.
Q: My orchids have scale, lots of scale on some of the leaves. What do I do? Will the scale kill the orchids where it is living?
A: I want to let you in on a secret: many orchids have scale. The scale insects were on the plant, but invisible, when you first acquired it. Some scale probably will be there as long as you have the orchid. However, if you diminish their numbers whenever you notice them, you will keep the infestation under control. The plants will not suffer visibly. They will grow and flower just as if they had never met scale.
You are unlikely to get rid of scale completely because they live in hidden folds and crevices, especially near the base of a plant. No treatment can reach them. Gradually their numbers multiply, and some become visible as individual scale spread around the orchid, looking for living quarters. Scale move very slowly; once settled, they do not move at all.
Scale belong to the group of insects which live by sucking plant juices. Since each scale sucks only a little, it takes a large number to damage a plant. If you check for scale and remove visible ones about once a month, you will keep their numbers under control. Scale can be killed by smashing them between a finger and thumb, or by spraying the plant with any of several substances. My first choice for spray would be horticultural oil, my second choice, Neem.
Sprays will kill only immature scale. When they grow up, scale protect themselves with a hard roof. Sprays will not reach under it. The children of those mature scale and the ones hidden at the base of the plant will eventually form a new generation, but regular removal will keep you winning the battle, even if the war never ends.
No matter how you decide to go about killing scale insects, the last step of the process is to wipe off all visible scale and rinse the plant with water. Dead scale will not drop off, and they will look no different from live scale. If you do not remove the carcasses, you will think that you are looking at an increasing scale problem which is out of control. Actually, you will be looking only at a scale cemetery.
Be sure that an orchid with a chronic scale infestation does not touch another orchid on the same table. Although scale hardly move, they can cross from one leaf to another which touches it, during the course of a night. You will be a happier orchid grower if some of your plants remain scale-free.
Recently I had a conversation with a plant expert who is interested in increasing local populations of milkweed. Like many others, he would like to provide a food supply for monarch butterfly caterpillars, which eat only milkweed leaves. He has gathered seeds from several local milkweed populations and will try to sprout them in the spring. They are wintering on his porch.
For anyone interested in raising milkweed, it may not be too late to find seeds. All the plants that I know of are east of the Bitterroot Rover, and groups of them are visible along roads. To raise your own milkweed, drive the roads looking for plants. Collect some seeds now and store them outdoors, protected from the worst of the winter weather, until spring. The seeds will not sprout until they have experienced a cold winter. To grow milkweed from seed, stay tuned for more information in columns next spring.