Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Everything Gives You Cancer, or Something

Joe Jackson’s sardonic “Cancer” lyric from the ‘80s keeps drifting back to my subconscious these days as I contemplate new year’s resolutions and commitments to live healthier with lowest possible impact on the environment: “Everything gives you cancer, everything gives you cancer, there’s no cure, there’s no answer….” Indeed, pray tell, why does it sometimes seem that when you think you’ve found a great way to help the planet, it turns out it causes other problems?

Now it comes to my attention that Nalgene bottles, which were among my gift suggestions for gardeners I made this year, are considered toxic by health experts because they are made of polycarbonate. Though it has been used in food and beverage containers, recent studies show polycarbonate, also known as BPA, can release minute amounts of material that can interfere with normal hormone activity. Hence, not only Nalgene bottles, but also baby bottles and food utensils with BPA have been pulled from shelves across the country, in Whole Foods and other markets. Interestingly, liners of food cans also contain the compound, but so far there hasn’t been a massive recall of canned food due to BPA, even though acids from foods must certainly leach it over shelf time.

So, what if you have a polycarbonate bottle? Of course, a tiny baby is much more vulnerable than an adult when it comes to toxic materials, so you should definitely not use it for children. Some people argue that low amounts are still hazardous even for adults and are tossing theirs into the trash heap; others say they’re still keeping the bottles because they’re indestructible and still usuable and want to keep them out of landfills. If you just bought it you can probably return it. Or if you can’t return it and you don’t want to drink from it, you can always use it the way Nalgene first intended, as a laboratory storage bottle. If you’re a gardener, at least you can use the graduated lines on the side for measuring water and mixing fertilizer. Or store seeds or plant tags, or plant in it. Have any other ideas?

Nalgene has extensive info about BPA and its products on its website here.

I have a friend who carried around a tall glass bottle with drinking water, which I thought was a great idea until it broke. And then there’s the good ole stainless steel thermos, so sturdy and heavy it ought to be a registered weapon…

Saturday, December 15, 2007

O Christmas Tree…and Yellow Jackets

When I lived on the mainland for a while, I once took my family camping at Clear Lake State Park, just north of Calistoga, California. As we were making teriyaki hamburger patties for the grill, yellow jackets suddenly swarmed around us, apparently thrilled with our local-kine grinds. As the swarm grew, the wasps started getting bolder and landing on our food, which was at once frightening and disgusting to say the least. However, the ultimate gross-out was when they started stealing our food – yellow jackets were picking up chunks of meat bigger than themselves and flying off with them!

Not surprising, says Dr. David Foote, ecologist and project leader for USGS Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center, who says that yellow jackets (Vespula pensylvanica) are incredibly strong carnivores and have been seen flying while clutching large caterpillars, one of their favorite foods that they also feed their own larvae back in their nests below ground or near ground in rotting logs. Foote recently gave a fascinating presentation about yellow jackets at the Kinoole Farmers Market, and he offered some helpful tips to gardeners who might encounter them in their backyards.

A non-native species, yellow jackets first appeared in Kauai in 1919. On the Big Island, yellow jackets were probably accidentally introduced in the 1970s through shipments of Christmas trees from the Pacific Northwest. While yellow jackets inhabit most islands, they thrive best in cooler, drier parts of the islands, typically the mesic zones between dryland and rain forests. Despite their formidable sting, yellow jackets can be viewed as a gardener’s friend because they predate on non-native caterpillars that feed upon vegetable crops. Unfortunately, however, yellow jackets don’t discriminate and also eat native caterpillars and picture-wing flies, and they are likely to outcompete our native insectivorous birds and pollinators for food as well. Foote says he is currently monitoring areas where yellow jackets are present in greater numbers, where he expects to find diminishing populations of native moths and butterflies, including the pulelehua, or native Kamehameha butterfly (Vanessa tameamea), possibly due to the aggressive predation by yellow jackets.

To reduce yelllow jacket visits to your backyard you can set traps, either economical homemade ones or the fancier store-bought ones. Foote says that on Oahu, cat food (Figaro brand seafood) is used as bait, but Big Island yellow jackets seem to prefer canned white chicken breast. I like to think that it’s because everybody on the Big Island has good taste, even the insects, but Foote thinks it’s probably because the chicken is lower in fat and stays fresher longer in our humid weather than the cat food.

If you’ve ever been stung by a yellow jacket while working out in the garden, you know it hurts like fire. Though you might not have had anything more than a trivial welt, repeated stingings over a period of time can lead up to a serious allergic reaction one day and possible anaphylactic shock. When I was a child, my younger siblings and I used to enjoy capturing bees with our bare hands. Though I never got stung on the hand, occasionally I accidently stepped on them with my bare luau feet . The last time I got stung, not only did my foot blow up like a dirigible but also my face and ears puffed up. Sound dangerous? You bet. Foote cautions people like me who may be at risk to keep an Epi-Pen on hand. Ask your doctor for a prescription; the medication expires in a year, and it is around $35 per dose, but I’m convinced it is money well-spent to save a life—mine, yours or your gardening buddy’s.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Gifts Suggestions for Hawai’i Gardeners

My friend Julia brought me a pair of poinsettias. "Oh, more container plants," I said. She laughed because she knows, like most other people do, poinsettias are lousy container plants, especially after Christmas. People either stick them in the ground or let them die, because they aren't worth the hassle as potted plants. Still, I like them better than a cut tree, because at least they're rooted and living for a while. If someone could figure out how to crossbreed a Norfolk pine to make it smell nice without making it a GMO, maybe they'd stop shipping in those containers of Douglas Firs and yellow-jackets. But I digress. Pass me the holiday cheer!

Just in case you’re stuck, here are some gift ideas. As always, shop around for the best deals. You still have time to order online, but I'm into shopping small independent local businesses whenever I can. I'm just providing links so that you get the full description of the item. (By the way, I have all of these, so this doesn’t work if I’m on your list. Sorry, family and pals.)

New pair of gloves, or two. Nitrile coated knit gloves are great for light jobs like repotting and propagating cuttings. Thicker rubber coated knit gloves are perfect for the bigger jobs like pruning, turning compost and hoeing. I like Atlas brand that I get in the hardware store, but use whatever feels comfortable for you. Just try not to go without. My 70-year-old gardening buddy grew up on a plantation and never wore gloves and never had a problem, but I’ve heard enough horror stories and had enough unpleasant, ungloved personal experiences to convince me that it’s wiser to wear them while working in the garden. Pruning a finger that had to have stitches wasn’t so bad, but soilborne fungal infection, what can I but say but yeccch. Don’t forget to wash gloves: turn them inside out (gently poke the fingers out with a chopstick), scrub clean in warm, soapy water, rinse and hang them to dry thoroughly in the sun . That’s why you need at least two pairs.

Natural bug repellent. Not for the plants, but for you. One of the nicest discoveries I made this year was Burt Bee’s All Natural Herbal Insect Repellent. It smells lemony and keeps the mosquitoes away while I work in the greenhouse. I photographed Akaka Falls for two hours without a single bite, while everyone else was smacking away at themselves. Neem spray, the kind formulated for your skin not plants, also works well, but to me it smells like nicotine. By the way, SPF 50 sunscreen is also good for gardeners to have on hand. A surfer chick I met in Longs recommended Coppertone Sport because it’s waterproof, lasts a long time and doesn’t sting your eyes. I tested it out, and she’s right, it’s the best thing I’ve found in a drugstore.

Pair of righteous bypass hand pruners. I love my Felco No. 6 for small hands, but the most popular is Felco No. 2. Sure, high-quality pruners cost more, but they last almost forever, and if you prune a lot they're extremely sharp and make quick work, so you might even be able to save yourself from developing a cramp, or worse, carpal tunnel sydrome. Shop around for the best deals! Get a leather holster, too. (I once took a pruning workshop taught by a wiseguy who used an old policeman's holster he found at a flea market, just so he could pretend his pruners were a .38 Magnum. Gardeners really are weird.) Felco also makes models with ergonomic features.

Kickin’ pair of Crocs. Don’t worry, you don’t have to wear your Crocs in public, just in the garden when rubber slippers aren’t enough. Unless you live in Puna. Then you must wear them in public.

Groovy water bottle. Nalgene water bottles, the kind for hiking, are odorless, tasteless and now come in lots of fun, bright colors and styles. Fill with some of your recipient’s favorite seed packets, a Swiss army knife and/or a garden shop gift certificate.

Magnifying glass or loupe. At least 10x power is helpful. Everyone needs one to see the tiny world within the garden up close, especially when looking at plant damage (is it a disease or an insect?) or insects and their allies ( “good guys” or “bad guys”). I bought my folding pocket magnifier when I was taking an entomology class. The instructor ordered a bunch of them from the very cool Bioquip catalog, but shipping rates can be high for Hawaii sometimes.

Nice gardening book. You know what I’m giving this year.