Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Eight Reasons to Think Twice Before Pulling Your Weeds

Copyright 2010, Harvest McCampbell

1. The weed roots form beneficial relationships with the microorganisms in the soil, and in relationship with these roots they flourish and propagate--as the plants you are intentionally growing get larger and you reduce the weed population, the microorganisms will partner with your crop plants and increase their ability to uptake nutrients.

2. Weeds scavenge water soluble nutrients and prevent them from leaching from the soil and polluting our ground water and streams, rivers, and lakes. As the plants you are intentionally growing get larger and you clip or pull the weeds and add them to the compost or your mulch, you have saved those nutrients in a slow release organic from that increases soil life and nutrient cycling.

3. Nutrient cycling microorganisms need protection from sunlight, weed leaves are great parasols.

4. Healthy soil life does not thrive on compaction. Weed leaves soften the blows of rain and irrigation, and the weed roots, when pulled gently - a very few at a time-- lift and aerate the soil. The roots that remain in the soil; will either grow new weeds prolonging their benefits, or they will decay, leaving behind humus and space for oxygen and for soil microorganisms to flourish.

5. Most weeds are edible and far more nutritious than anything we are trying to grow on purpose.

6. Many weeds provide habitat and food for beneficial creatures that will help control pests in the garden.

7. Weeds produce oxygen, which is currently in decline in our atmosphere--primarily because of human activity. See my article on Carbon Production = Oxygen Consumption (PS Oxygen Supplies are Limited):

8. Denuding the soil leads to erosion, nutrient loss, heat gain, water runoff, and much more. This is true on both micro and macro levels. To change how we think in the world, we must first change how we think in the garden. On the macro level denuding the soil of plant life (or even reducing plant life) leads to dust and sand storms, desertification, deforestation, massive top soil loss, and flooding. This in turn leads to destruction of the life in water ways and our oceans. Laying bare the soil may be our undoing.

Weeds are not the enemy. They are nature’s way of healing a damaged micro and macro environments. We can learn to work with them to the betterment of our gardens and our nutrient cycles.

For a little more information on my work, please see my info on facebook, and my website:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wood Ashes for Garden Minerals

This article was previously published in my column "Digging the Dirt" by the Hoopa People News, unfortunately, I am not sure what the date was . . .

Those of us who heat with wood have a free source of fertilizer for our gardens, lawns, and landscapes. As long as you don’t burn anything other than wood and newspaper, what you clean out of your stove is a near perfect plant food. Ashes contain potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorous in adequate amounts to support plant growth!

I first learned that ashes were good for plants, at least in small amounts, in much the same way that some of you may have. Grandmother had an outdoor wood burning cook stove set up in her backyard. When she would clean out the fire box the ashes first went into a galvanized tin bucket to completely cool. Next, if she wasn’t ready to spread them on the garden she would store them in a plastic bucket in the shed. Spring and fall she would sprinkle her garden beds with a fine dusting of ashes. When I helped she always admonished me to keep the ashes off the plants leaves and away from the base of any seedlings. She felt the ashes could burn the plants. Any ashes that drifted onto the plants leaves were hosed off right away. She also kept the ashes out of her shrub borders, because she felt it would burn the skin of her abundant and hard working frogs and toads.

Many years later when I was following one of my mentors, Jim Kaneko, around on his family’s homestead, I would see ashes piled up around the bases of certain trees. These trees had been planted 50 – 60 years earlier by his parents who had emigrated from Japan. At first I was very curious and also concerned. I felt the ashes would burn the trees. He just looked at me funny and said “No, ashes are good for the trees.” Over the few years I was able to help him in his orchards and gardens I frequently saw him pile ashes up around ailing plants. The plants would almost always improve and I never saw any sign of burning. He considered ashes to be the best plant medicine available. Like my grandmother, he would store the ashes in buckets in his shed. However, he saved them for ailing plants instead of sprinkling them sparingly throughout his grounds. (His house had a gas furnace for heat, but in one of his outbuildings there was a traditional wood fired Japanese bath. If he had more ashes available he might have also sprinkled them around.)

In many of our local homes ashes are far from a precious commodity. We shovel them out of our woodstoves in quantities that Gram and Mr. Kaneko would envy. I have been liberally applying them to my garden beds for several years. I really like the granular texture they impart to the soil as they age in the presence of organic matter. Granular soil particles resist compaction and provide spaces for air, water, and roots. Granular, loose soils are also the best for earthworms and soil micro-organisms who help break down organic matter, fix nitrogen, and form symbiotic relationships with plant roots. At first I was worried that the worms might be burned by the alkaline nature of the ashes, but they really don’t seem to be affected. That would probably be a problem in a desert area, but during our wet winters (in the Pacific North West) the alkalinity is quickly leached by the rain.
The nutrients in ashes are considered water soluble. In low rainfall areas it is important to use water soluble nutrients sparingly because they can lead to a toxic build up of mineral salts in the soil. This can be detrimental to earthworms, soil micro-organisms, and plants. Where mineral salts have built up you find a white or pale blue crust forming on the soil’s surface and sometimes on the lower parts of plants. Where we are most likely to see this is in our potted plants that live indoors or on covered porches or patios. The solution when this happens to garden soils is to leach the area with plenty of water, repeatedly, and to add organic matter. The water dissolves the salts and disperses them into deeper soil layers. Organic matter fosters soil micro-organisms who take up the salts and turn them into organic compounds that are slowly released in a more plant and soil friendly form. However, if ashes are only used liberally during the rainy season, and sparingly or not at all during the dry season this is not likely to be a problem in high rainfall areas.

Wood ashes contain almost all the macro and micro nutrients plants need to grow and produce abundant crops, except for two. Wood ashes lack nitrogen and sulfur. Nitrogen can be supplied to our soils by the actions of earthworms and micro-organisms; through the breakdown of green manures such as alfalfa, legumes, cover crops, and grass clippings; from composted animal manure, or from sparing side dressing with chicken manure or bat guano. Be extra careful with manure and guano. They contain soluble nitrogen that can leach into our ground water and end up in our rivers causing dangerous algae blooms.

Sulfur is provided to soils and plants primarily by organic matter. Mixing compost or purchased organic amendments into the soil at planting time and then using water conserving mulch during the heat of summer will supply your plants with all the sulfur they are likely to need. Plants can also extract a certain amount of sulfur from the air. Sulfur is released to the air by burning. Our wood stoves, cars, generators, and other fuel driven engines, as well as local forest fires all increase the amount of sulfur in the air. Rain washes some of this sulfur into our soils making it available to micro-organisms and plant roots. Too much sulfur in the air can cause toxic conditions and devastate natural and man-made landscapes. It is better for the environment, our gardens, and our health to avoid burning trash. Brush, paper, and cardboard can all be shredded and used for compost and mulch; improving our soils and supplying sulfur to our plants while keeping it out of the air.

Because of the alkalinity of ashes they definitely need to be kept away from acid loving plants. Azaleas, camellias, blueberries, and rhododendrons are the most commonly planted acid loving plants in our area. Most acid loving plants originally started out growing wild in conifer forests or peat bogs. Soils with high amounts of organic matter and plenty of rain or standing water are often acidic by nature. Here is a web site with a fairly complete list of acid loving plants found in people’s gardens: Hydrangeas, which aren’t really classified as acid loving, bloom in different colors depending on the pH of the soil. If you have several hydrangeas it might be fun to side dress one of them with ashes and the other with acidifying coffee grounds and/or pine needles and see how the flowers turn out. It might even make an interesting experiment to document for next year’s science fair!

Here’s where we usually talk about sources, but this time you will just have to make your own! Next week we will be talking about Hon tsai tai and some other yummy early greens. Until then, if it is raining, I might be inside starting seeds and only dreaming of Digging the Dirt.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Hedging for Amphibians

Published in the Hoopa People News, Copyright 2006 Harvest McCampbell

Slugs are gardeners’ worst nemesis here in Northern California. Amphibians, there for, must be our best friends. Salamanders, frogs, and toads can eat nearly their own weight in slugs on a daily basis. With friends like this working for you for free, the population of the slimy hoards will soon be on the decline. All amphibians expect decent housing and a source of moisture year around. Think Japanese garden sculptures, English boxwood hedges, and European garden fountains and you are on the right track.

Years ago my grandmother’s Dixon backyard was a haven for amphibians, birds, and other creatures that benefited the garden. Her yard was hedged in a mix of shrubs that provided habitat, food, and nectar. Growing amphibian habitat can be a pleasant side venture that enhances the landscape and attracts a number of delightful creatures to the garden. Grandmother’s yard did not feature ponds, fountains, or sculpture. But if you got down on your belly and peered under the shrubs you would find cracked bowls and pots arranged to catch water and to form shelter for her hard working toads.

The best plants to create habitat for these beneficial creatures are broad leaved evergreens. Think of plants without prickles or thorns, which stay green all year, and grow from a central stalk or trunk and branch out close to the ground. You may want to choose a number of different types of plants, to keep your hedge interesting, and to provide for a diversity of habitat and food sources. A well thought out hedge provides some food and visual appeal to the household, while it provides shelter and food for birds, beneficial insects, and our amphibian friends.

In choosing plants, we want to consider several factors. A selection of shrubs with a combined long bloom time will do wonders for populations of predacious insects. These insects will help patrol your yard looking for pests. Here are some suggestions to provide year around nectar, which will also provide amphibian habitat.

Coyote bush, a native shrub common in our area, provides nectar during winter as well as greenery for toads and salamanders to hide beneath. It has small soft green leaves, reminiscent in shape to holly, but with out the prickles. The flowers are not showy, but I often see pollinators and other beneficial insects visiting the ones in my yard. There are several cultivars available, from those forming ground covers to those that grow up to 5 feet tall. Read descriptions to be sure you are getting the right plant for the spot you have in mind.

Ceanothus, or California lilac, also has a number of cultivars available for home gardeners. They generally have small to medium sized glossy dark green leaves, and they bloom from late winter through early spring. Flowers are available in various shades of pink, blue, and white. Ceanothus are available as ground covers, average sized shrubs, and small trees to 15 feet tall. There are also varieties that loose their leaves in winter, so be sure to ask your nursery person if the plant description is not clear.

California coffee berry is a colorful shrub, often decked out in green, red, and purple berries as well as small insignificant flowers. Its main bloom time is mid- to late spring, but it often continues blooming throughout the summer and fall. Coffee berry has attractive long narrow grey-green leaves. The berries attract birds, but don’t think about brewing coffee from them yourself. These plants are a close relative of Cascara Segrada, and the brew was once used as a remedy for constipation. From all accounts it was quiet effective and unpleasant. Miwok Indians are reported to have told miners in their area that it was their coffee, as a joke. A joke the miners then perpetrated on each other.

Toyon (also called Christmas berry) will carry your nectar from mid spring to early summer. The orange to red berries these bright green shrubs produce are edible and are actually high in vitamin C and bioflavanoids! They can be used to make jelly or jam, or even eaten out of hand. However they are tart enough that most folks would prefer them brewed into tea with a dollop of honey. Sweetened they are tasty and provide your winter time vitamin C early for free. The berries ripen right about Christmas, just in time for winter arrangements, and remedies for colds and flue. These shrubs grow from 8 – 12 feet. The cultivars have been selected primarily for berry color, so keep that in mind when selecting your plants.

There are a few varieties of monkey flower, particularly Sticky Bush Monkey Flower that produce flowers over a long time during the hot summer months. Monkey flowers bloom in showy tubes of yellow, orange, and apricot. These lovely flowers attract hummingbirds. And they grow to form small evergreen shrubs. Be sure to read labels, because there are monkey flowers that prefer moist shade and others that thrive in the hottest spot you can provide. There are also monkey flowers that are annual bedding plants. While they may be fun in a border, for amphibian habitat you will want the shrubby forms.

Fall Asters will bring your bloom full circle. Bush Asters are available from low growing mounding plants to small shrubs that reach up to three or four feet tall. They prefer a spot with full sun and good drainage; however, they do need to be watered regularly during the hot dry parts of the year. Many varieties are available in nearly every color of the rainbow. Check labels to make sure you are buying a perennial that will provide habitat and nectar for at least a handful of years.

To round out your plantings here are some more suggestions you can take a look at when you visit the nursery: Look for box wood, Gunnera, Hebe, mountain mahogany, and Salal for an interesting mix of leaf types. Choose shrubs with interesting flowers such as, Abelia, bottlebrush, camellias, flannel bush, and gardenias to give your plantings some color and fragrance. Shrubs with interesting fruits or pods make nice additions. Check out barberry, carob, guava, pyracantha, and magnolias. Be sure to talk your selections over with your nursery person. Some of these plants have deciduous varieties or those that will not be happy to be trained as a shrub. If they don’t have any of these varieties available, they can probably make other recommendations that will work for you.

Growing a shrubby border is a long term proposition, and those dang slugs are out there eating up the garden right now. What on earth are we going to do in the mean time?

You can arrange some temporary shelter while you wait for the shrubs to grow. Artful arrangements of mossy branches, stones, and water worn pieces of bark can make attractive garden statements as well as provide homes for amphibians. Fall and winter walks, especially after high winds or storms are sure to provide a bounty of materials you can attractively arrange. (And you might even find some hungry amphibians that will be happy to make their homes in these fancy new digs.) Also check out second hand stores and flea markets for interesting sculptures, bowls, and pots. Some of these can be arranged to form houses, and others to catch rain fall and summer irrigation. These tiny ponds will keep your amphibians from dehydrating, and can easily be dumped out if they become infested with mosquito larva. Whether you call your collection art or habitat it will work just the same.

Find more information on beneficial insects to control slugs at the links below:

Empress Trees and Ground Beetles

Sex and Magic in the Garden

More on Slugs:

And Beneficial Insects:

Friday, October 29, 2010

Gifting the Gardener

Previously published in the Hoopa People News

Carefully chosen gifts can improve our loved one’s lives! You don’t need to spend a ton of money to show you care, brighten up a dreary room, and improve the air your gift recipient breathes. Houseplants provide all these benefits and more. If you have elderly or ill family members, research has proven that when they have plants to look at, they recover faster and feel less pain. House plants bring many of the benefits of gardening to those who can’t or won’t get out and dig in the dirt. Below you will find two easy to care for plants that make long lasting gifts.

If free is a sound you like to hear, check the end of this column for information on a couple of garden related downloads. The first is curriculum for teachers from the California Oak Foundation and the second is an e-book on herbs. (Check the paragraph right above the e-book and curriculum section, for another free curriculum download!) Whether you gift yourself with these offerings or print them out and tuck them into holiday stockings, they are sure to please.

House Plants Keep on Giving

Extensive research has been devoted to the effects of house plants on indoor air quality. While researchers don’t always agree on which plants are the best, Philodendrons and spider plants feature prominently on most lists. These tough guys don’t need any special care. They make good gifts for those who may be just starting out with houseplants and others who have limited time or abilities. They also make good gifts for busy people, for elders, disabled, or ill family members; in which case, part of the gift can be your regular plant care visits.


Philodendrons, while not traditionally thought of as holiday gifts, actually live much longer than most of the plants marketed for the season. Philodendrons are a very diverse group of plants. Native to the tropical zones of the Americas and the West Indies, there are over 900 different species found in the wild. They typically grow in the dim light found under the canopy of tropical rainforests. This adaptation to low light allows them to thrive indoors. They do need adequate light, however; and will do best in a bright room. They love cool morning sunlight, but they are likely to burn if exposed to direct afternoon sun during the warmer months.

Philodendrons would certainly prefer to be watered on a regular basis, as long as their soil is allowed to dry out in between watering. However, I have proof positive that they can stand a lot of neglect. (I am much better at caring for my outside plant menagerie than the poor souls stuck inside.) Of the three varieties of Philodendron that share my home, the largest, a split leaved Philodendron (now classified as a Monstera), is about to take over my front room. It came to me as a tiny one leaved start in a vase with some ivy. Each leaf is now over a foot across, and there are at least fifteen leaves on the sprawling ten year old plant. What poinsettia ever lived so long?

For small rooms, look for heart leaved or trailing Philodendron. There are varieties with solid leaves, with decorative holes through the leaves, and some with variegated foliage. They also do very well in our area and are easy to start from cuttings. Philodendrons are best for households without young children. They contain calcium oxalate and are considered toxic, so avoid them where youngsters feel they have to put everything in their mouths. (Spider plants are considered child and pet safe. More information on them is coming right up.)

Water your Philodendrons once a week or so, first checking to make sure the soil has dried out. Overwatering can lead to root rot and fungal infections. Occasionally adding a little dilute organic fertilizer or diluted left over coffee will help them stay happy and healthy. When the leaves are dusty, a damp cloth gently applied will return their shine. While polishing the leaves keep your eye out for scale and mealy bugs. They can be easily removed with the same cloth; or with a moistened swab, if they are hiding in hard to reach spot.

If you are on a budget, Philodendrons, and many other house plants can be grown from seed. Get a fancy card and include a packet of seeds for your hard to please gardening fanatics. For more information (and very reasonable prices) see:

Spider Plants:

These tough and prolific plants do a great job of removing toxins from the air, and they are considered safe for children and pets. (This certainly doesn’t mean you should encourage them to take a taste.) As resistant to neglect as they are, they still provide a delicate and lacy accent to any bright room. Spider plants have long gently curving grass like leaves in solid green or striped with white. They produce long flowering shoots that sport tiny lily like flowers, followed by young plantlets that hang in mid air. As the little “spiders” grow in size and number they hang down from the mother plant, forming a curtain or veil. When the plantlets begin growing roots they can be removed from the stems and rooted in water or moist potting soil and then put to work as air cleaners in other rooms. A spider plant makes a great gift that keeps on giving, whether for yourself or for others on your list.

Like Philodendrons, spider plants are happiest if you let their soil dry out in between watering, once they have well established root systems. They are rarely bothered by pests, especially when they are kept inside. But if you see signs of mealy bugs or scale, a damp cloth or swab will make quick and easy work of these pesky guys.

If you can’t find spider plants locally, Butterfield Organic Growers offers small plants for $4.00 each. (Click on Plants and Herbs to see what else they have to offer.) You can also reach them by phone: (603) 435-7260. Here is a special bonus for teachers and home school moms, Teacher Vision offers free curriculum using spider plants:

More Free E-Books and Curriculum

Here are two items you can give yourself without spending much more than a dime. (Download at the public library if you don’t have a computer at home. Printing will cost about ten cents a page for black and white, more for color, so check the number of pages before printing. If the pages are in color and you want to print in black and white, ask the librarian for help.)

The California Oak Foundation offers curriculum designed for fourth through eighth grade students available as a free download. Click on “Kids” right below their mast head for more information.
Everyday Herbs, by Ann McCormick is a free 37 page e-book available by sending an e-mail to Use “Everyday Herbs” as your subject line. She gives tips arranged in a number of sections, including: “In the Garden,” ‘The Recipe Box,” “Crafty Ideas,” and “Personal Care.”

Copyright 2008, Harvest McCampbell Please contact me before posting or publishing.!/harvest.mccampbell

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Dastardly Deer

Deer have been identified as the most widespread form of wildlife damage to crops, nurseries, orchards, and hay production. States that compile yearly damage estimates from these vermin often report figures nearing $30,000,000.00. Yet the critters are protected year around in every state in the union, except during very controlled hunting seasons. What on earth is a gardener to do?

Venison for dinner? That is the tastiest cure I know for those hoofed locust. But this, of course, is not always practical. If you happen to be a vegetarian or if your neighbor works for fish and game; you may need other tactics.

Long ago I was a city slicker child who used to love spending summers with my Auntie who lived in the woods. She had a home on top of a hill surrounded by oak woodlands and lots of deer. Those deer were definitely a problem to her landscaping. She learned to live with a few plants that the deer didn’t eat. Not really being a flower lover, she was content.

However, if you are like author and gardener, Carolyn Singer, you have got to have flowers in your yard. Ms. Singer spent 27 years researching what exactly she could grow in her Sierra foothills landscape, so age could enjoy the company of deer and flowers too. The result of this research and conversations with other gardeners in deer country is a great new book, Deer in My Garden. Volume 1 features 53 perennials and sub-shrubs that will grow in our area. Singer also lives in zone 8. The main difference between the climate where she gardens and ours is average annual rainfall. The plants that she recommends as being drought tolerant will need a well drained spot in our gardens.

She gives full details on each plants care, what zones it will grow in, what it may need in snow country, and how to best use the plants in the landscape. She also goes on to share related plants that the deer will eat. Near the back of the book she lists plants that are commonly reputed to be deer resistant, that the deer have devoured in her gardens. Her main strategy is to plant yucky tasting plants. While that works for ornamentals, it is not going to work in the vegetable garden. But my Auntie found a solution for that.

Auntie had a vegetable garden down the hill from the house. It was in a spot where the oak trees opened up a bit and allowed some sun to hit the ground. The first year the dogs did a pretty good job of keeping the deer out of the garden, at least until the produce was ready to pick. The deer had been keeping a close eye on the vegetables and the dogs. They developed a tag team approach to raiding the garden. A small group of deer would lead the dogs on a merry chase, while the rest of them treated themselves to midnight snacks. Auntie decided a fence was in order.

The first fence was five feet high. It only slowed the deer down for a few weeks. Then they gleefully leaped the fence to feast out of reach of the noisy dogs. Next, Auntie added pieces of pipe to the top of each metal fence pole. She strung some wire between the pipes and tied on strips of flash tape. That tape makes noise when it moves in the breeze and it is very reflective. It bought Auntie a few more weeks, then the deer just sailed right over it and began to munch. The fence was now high enough that they couldn’t leap it from inside, so they would still be there munching in the morning. She went down to the garden with a frying pan and a metal spoon. First she opened the gate. Then she headed to the far side of the garden, outside the fence, and used the pan and spoon to make a ruckus. Them there deer thought Auntie was rude and they took right off. But the garden was a shambles.

Next Auntie installed a second fence, six feet outside the first one, and six feet high. This did the trick. Every once in a while one of those deer would jump the first fence. It would still be trapped between the two fences in the morning. Auntie would make good use of her pan and spoon and the offending vermin would high tail it back into the woods. As far as I know, this double fence strategy is the only deer defense that works, every time.

We all know that fencing can be expensive. Double fencing, doubly so. Auntie used metal posts and wire mesh but there are other options. Polypropylene mesh deer fencing is available in rolls 7’x 100’. I have checked around for prices and have included a source at the end of the article that has the best prices I could find. To use these fences you will need to supply cable, posts, and tie downs of some kind. It is also a good idea to invest in anchoring pins or staples to keep those wily critters from shimmying under your fences. Flash tape is a good idea for new fences. It will make the fencing more visible and sinister to the raiding critters.

If you don’t fancy the idea of fencing, there are other things you can try. I found it interesting that while the companies that produce these stinky or zappy products claim they work, none of them comes with a guarantee. I was able to find user reviews for some of the products. And it seems they work for some people some of the time. I suspect these items are about as useful as the less expensive home remedies. Some people have success hanging mesh bags stocked with hair (human or animal), soap, crushed garlic, citrus peelings, used cat litter, and other stinky or scary stuff from fences or trees. Personally I am glad I don’t have a deer problem, but if I did, I would find a way to afford the double fence solution for the veggies, and I would avail myself of Carolyn Singer’s experience in the yard.

Here’s the catalog with the great deal on the deer fencing. (They also carry some extra large ‘staples’ to secure the bottom of the fencing. They don’t carry cable, poles, flash tape, or tie downs.): Gardener’s Supply Company, (800) 427-3363, (But don’t just take my word on it, shop around, maybe you will find a better deal.) For more information on Carolyn Singer’s book, Deer in My Garden, ask at your favorite book store, library, or contact Garden Wisdom Press, (530) 272-4362,

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Diatomaceous Earth

Copyright Harvest McCampbell 5/23/07 Published in the Hoopa People News

Diatomaceous earth offers organic farms, gardens, and households a non-toxic way to control many pests. It is made up of the fossilized remains of microscopic diatoms that once floated through ancient tropical seas. This product is mined from naturally occurring deposits, then purified and prepared for a number of uses. Food and agriculture grade diatomaceous earth is non-toxic to humans, mammals, and other higher animals. It is so non-toxic that it is sometimes added to food. DE, as it is often called, provides pest control by microscopic razor like edges that lacerate pest’s exo-skeletons and tender tissues. Death, generally by dehydration, is the fate of the pests that are susceptible.

Many common house and garden pests are equipped with an exo-skeleton. Think about the hard shells on ants, fleas, and beetles and you will get the idea. Even those squishy aphids and flour moths have exo-skeletons; theirs are just thin – making death by DE a quick proposition. In addition to its use in the garden, it can be used around the house, and diatomaceous earth can be added to stored seeds to prevent insect infestation.

Some organic packaged food products made for people and pets actually contain tiny amounts of food grade DE to prevent insect infestation. Diatomaceous earth is not readily digestible. What we do metabolize provides minute amounts of calcium and trace minerals. The undigested DE actually has another benefit. As it moves through the digestive track it lacerates any intestinal parasites it comes in contact with! It may seem a strange role reversal, but parasites equipped with an exo-skeleton are soon digested by their host.

DE is also inexpensive and easy to use in the home and garden. First, there are some careful considerations we each should make before adding it to our environments. One has to do with its possible irritant affects, and the other has to do with its permanence. Prolonged breathing or eye contact with the dust can be very irritating. While this is more of a problem for workers on organic farms than for those of us who are puttering around at home - it is still a good thing to keep in mind. Dust masks are advised as well as some care to avoid using on windy days and those with asthma or other respiratory ailments.

On the permanence factor, once diatomaceous earth has made its way into your soil, it’s there for good. Since it only works on contact and must be reapplied when it washes off, lots of DE can build up in the soil with repeated use. Think of it as teeny tiny grains of rock or sand. It is not a chemical that will degrade over time and it’s not likely to leach out by the actions of irrigation or winter storms. That longevity is both good and bad. The DE is there working for you - but it is not selective. It harms both the pests that attack our crops as well as the good bugs that attack the pests. While I have not heard of any pests adapting thicker exo-skeletons in response to exposure to DE, it is bound to happen. The pest species are always more adaptable than the predators, so when it does happen the DE will still be killing off the good guys while the bad guys reproduce out of control. Something like this is already going on with commercial farming. Farmers need more and more poison to control rapidly adapting pests, while the chemicals quickly wipe out the predators.

All that said I have used DE around my homes for the last 30 years. I am selective about where I use it because I want to encourage beneficial insects. Many beneficials spend their larval stage as grubs in the soil, so I try to keep the DE out of the garden. However, I find it very useful on my back porch, where my young seedlings are just getting started. It effectively discourages slugs, aphids, and most other pests. I also add DE to the seeds that I save from the garden. So far there have been no bugs in my DE treated seeds. Last but not least, I use DE on my pets for its flea controlling effects. I have a certain spot in the back yard that I use when I dust them with DE. It is a spot where they spend lots of time. The DE that hits the ground will control flea larva, which helps break the flea infestation cycle. (DE alone doesn’t seem able to solve the flea problem, but it definitely helps. If enough people are interested in natural flea control we can cover it in an upcoming article.)

When I use DE, I generally fill a small muslin bag with the powder, hold my breath or use a mask, and shake the bag to apply. It can also be dispensed from an old salt or pepper shaker that is labeled and kept with your garden supplies. You can sprinkle DE along base boards, behind furniture, into cracks and crevices in the kitchen, bathroom, and along windows and doors. This will help eliminate ants, fleas, cockroaches, and other pests at their points of entry and along any travel routes they may have established. They will also carry the dust back to their nests, helping to control the pests right at their sites of origin. If fleas are the main problem, besides dusting your animals, you can also dust their bedding and even your own mattresses (but not your bedding- you don’t want to breathe the dust all night).

Dusting your mattress is also recommended for control of bed bugs. You may come across recommendations to use the dust on furniture and carpet, having done it I don’t recommend it, unless there is no acceptable alternative. I find it quickly ages fabric and carpets, especially in high use areas. The friction of walking on the carpet and using the furniture causes those tiny razor edges to abrade the fibers. Your fabric will look dull and frayed before its time.

DE can be purchased in bulk and is sometimes available as prepackaged combination products. It is available from many organic nurseries and larger natural food outlets. If you can’t find it locally check out St. Gabriel Laboratories at or call to request a brochure (800) 801-0061. They carry DE (both wholesale and retail) in bulk as well as a product made to use in the kitchen called the AntEater. The Anteater contains food grade DE and clove oil, but it is not meant to be consumed. This product smells great and it is safe to use around stored food. The packaging is equipped with a special dispenser that makes it easy to apply to the cracks and crevices where insects lurk and where simply shaking wouldn’t be effective. They also have a number of other products available for organic farms and gardens. Check them out--but always do your own research or ask experienced gardeners before using unfamiliar products.

Thwarting Corn Worms

Copyright Harvest McCampbell, 2007, published in the Hoopa People News

Fresh corn on the cob is one of the delights of summer. Whether you like it boiled or roasted, drizzled with butter or olive oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper or chili powder; I know your mouth is set for a taste right now. Nothing is more disappointing than pulling a plump ear off the grill, impatiently waiting for it to cool, shucking off the husk, and finding you have cooked yourself up a bunch of fat grubs.

As unappetizing as those bugs may be, they won’t hurt you one bit. I am not suggesting you actually eat them, although my grandmother used to suggest that to me. I would get lectures on how nutritious bugs were; and she would further ruin my apatite with stories of all sorts of bugs Native people used to eat. I was not convinced and I won’t try to convince you. Instead I will give you some pointers to reduce the infestation in your corn and a little advice on what to do if you find corn worms on the ears you planned to eat for dinner.

An ounce of prevention is always worth a pound of cure. If you’ve had worms in your corn before, it may not be too late to thwart them this year. Check your plants to see how the ears are coming along. If they are just beginning to put out silk, here is a simple and inexpensive trick that will greatly reduce the number of disgusting worms burrowing through your favorite summer treat. All you need is a little vegetable oil, a small jar, and an eye dropper or bulb syringe. Castor oil is supposed to be the best, because it is the thickest; but any vegetable oil will work just fine.

First take a close look at your developing ears. At the top you simply squirt a dropper full of the oil into the opening through which the silk is emerging. You want to wait until the silk is at least an inch and a half long. It is important not to get any oil on the tips of the silk, because that would interfere with pollination necessary to develop plump ears.

This little trick works two ways. First of all, the worms emerge from eggs laid by moths which crawl through that same opening where you just squirted the oil. Those that are fool-hardy enough to crawl through the oil usually don’t survive the experience. Moths breathe through pores in their abdomen. The oil can clog the pores and suffocate them. If they manage to survive suffocation, the oil also ruins their wings, making it impossible for them to fly to the next young ear and lay a few more eggs. Second of all, should a moth have beaten you to the ear, the oil will also suffocate the eggs and tiny young worms. For best control, you can repeat this trick every three to four days from the time the silk emerges until the corn is ready to pick. However, if you have lots of corn and little time, you might just want to invest in the castor oil and make the application a single time when the corn is most vulnerable; just after the silk has emerged.

There is a product advertised for single application treatments that contains oil mixed with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Bt is marketed as a disease that only affects caterpillars, grubs, and a few other insects. It is incorporated into a number of products that are popular with many commercial organic growers and some organic gardeners. Bt gives the bugs a deadly case of the flue. Unfortunately it also kills native species and the bacteria can multiply and spread. If that weren’t bad enough news, recent research has shown that people can become infected with Bt. While fairly uncommon; there are well documented cases of folks with lesions in their eyes, lungs, and skin. (For more information search the Internet on “Bt / Human Infection.”) Bt infection is a greater concern for workers on organic farms, the elderly, the very young, or those with impaired immune systems; than it is for the rest of us. However, if my only choice was between those icky worms that never actually hurt anyone and bacteria that might, I would stick with the worms.

There is also a beneficial insect that can help control corn worms. According to research done by Cornell University some farmers have found that a tiny (non-stinging) wasp that goes by the unwieldy name, Trichogramma ostriniae, provides better control of corn worms than provided with commercial pesticides. These wasps parasitize the eggs and larva of a number of crop pests including cabbage worms, corn worms, and a number of borers that tunnel into the stems and fruits of our favorite crops. Home gardeners can easily attract these little guys to their gardens.

Adult Trichogramma feed on pollen and nectar from clover, golden rod, and carrot family plants. Queen Anne’s lace, fennel, and parsnips are a few carrot family plants very popular with Trichogramma wasps. To make sure your little wasps have plenty of fuel for their hunt, one plan is to plant the borders of the garden with nectar producing plants. Other options include inter-planting nectar plants in your rows or beds, or sowing the walk ways between the beds with white, rose, or red clover. These clovers can be mowed, they add nitrogen to your soil, and they may help keep weeds down. However, clover also attracts bees of the stinging kind. If you or the grandkids like to walk out in the garden barefoot, clover is best kept out of the walk ways and assigned to do its work in the border or in its own bed.

For those growing lots of corn for market, you might consider purchasing Trichogramma for release in your fields. The best crop protection with the least monetary expenditure is supposed to come from releasing 30,000 Trichogramma wasps per acre when the corn is in the 4-6 leaf stage. Unless you are growing late corn, you will probably have to wait until next year to make this experiment. That will give you time to establish some nectar bearing plants to help your Trichogrammas thrive. These little insects are cold hardy, so once you get them established they just might keep working for you for many years. If you are interested you can find more information here:

Trichogramma ostriniae and other Trichogramma species may be available through your favorite organic gardening supplier or catalog. If not, IPM Labs grows out Trichogramma and other beneficials by special order. You will need to contact them well in advance. They can be reached by e-mail or phone: / 315-497-2063.

Meanwhile, if you do find a few bugs, just remove the infested and fouled part of the ear by breaking or cutting it away. Rinse the remainder well, and boil; or wrap in the rinsed husks and some foil and pop them on the grill. While this little task may not be for the squeamish, if you get it accomplished well before your meal it won’t gross out your guests. That’s a mistake I recently made, and I definitely learned my lesson.

That’s all for now folks, but stay tuned. Next week we will be talking about the very flavorful Greek oregano. Meanwhile, you can find probably find me out in the garden, Digging the Dirt.


Personal experience and Cornell University research on beneficial wasps, some of it located here:

P.S. I know this post isn't timely for Northern Hemisphere readers--but I am sharing it here as part of a conversation on facebook about controlling caterpillars. Please feel free to add me on facebook and join in the conversations . . .