The joy of letting native plants take over your yard

Richard Doak wrote a great piece in last Sunday’s Des Moines Register urging readers to “plant the seeds of a more eco-thoughtful Iowa.” Seeding native plants along roadsides has helped the state Department of Transportation save money and labor while user fewer chemicals.

Highway officials cite a long list of other benefits, such as controlling blowing snow, improving air quality, reducing erosion, filtering pollutants and providing wildlife habitat. They’re even said to improve safety by reducing the effects of highway hypnosis, delineating upcoming curves and screening headlight glare.

Doak wants to see much more native landscaping in Iowa:

To set the example, let’s have every school, every courthouse, every park, every hospital, every library set aside at least a patch of space for wild indigo, prairie sage, golden Alexanders, blackeyed Susan, pale-purple coneflower, butterfly milkweed, prairie larkspur, shooting star, compass plant, partridge pea, spiderwort, ironweed, blazing star, smooth blue aster or any of hundreds of other flowering plants that were native to the tallgrass prairie. […]

It’s estimated that up to one-third of residential water use goes to lawn watering, and lawn mowing uses 800 million gallons of gasoline per year, including 17 million gallons spilled while refueling. Some 5 percent of air pollution is attributed to lawn mowers.

Native plants require no fertilizer or herbicide, no watering and only enough mowing to mimic the effects of the occasional wildfires that kept the prairie clean of trees.

Interest in reducing pollution and conserving water and energy should be reason enough to switch to native landscaping.

About ten years ago, our family stopped trying to grow a grassy lawn in our shady yard. After the jump I’ve listed some of the benefits of going native.

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Organic farming is carbon sequestration we can believe in (updated)

The phrase “carbon sequestration” is often used in connection with so-called “clean coal” technology that doesn’t exist. Scientific debate over the best methods of carbon capture and storage tends to weigh the costs and benefits of various high-tech solutions to the problem.

But Tim LaSalle, CEO of the non-profit Rodale Institute, reminds us in a guest column for the Des Moines Register that an effective means of sequestering carbon in our soil already exists:

By using organic agricultural methods and eliminating petroleum-based fertilizers and toxic chemical pest-and-weed control, we build – rather than destroy – the biology of our soil. While improving the health of the soil we also enhance its ability to diminish the effects of flooding, as just one example. In some laboratory trials, organically farmed soils have provided 850 percent less runoff than conventional, chemically fertilized soils. This is real flood prevention, not sandbag bandages for life-threatening emergencies.

When the soil is nurtured through organic methods, it allows plants to naturally pull so much carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the soil that global warming can actually be reversed. Farms using conventional, chemical fertilizer release soil carbon into the atmosphere. Switching to organic methods turns a major global-warming contributor into the single largest remedy of the climate crisis, while eliminating toxic farm chemical drainage into our streams, rivers and aquifers.

Using such methods, we would be sequestering from 25 percent to well over 100 percent of our carbon-dioxide emissions. Microscopic life forms in the soil hold carbon in the soil for up to 100 years. This is much more efficient than inserting foreign genes. Healthy soil already does that at such remarkable levels it usually can eliminate crop disasters, which means greater food security for all nations. And the beauty is, investing in soils is not patentable, enriching just some, but instead is free to all.

Where has this science, this solution, been hiding? It has been intentionally buried under the weight of special interests – that are selling chemicals into our farming system, lobbying Congress, embedding employees in government agencies and heavily funding agricultural university research.

A few years ago, the Rodale Institute published a detailed report on how Organic farming combats global warming. Click that link for more facts and figures.

For more on how groups promoting industrial agriculture lobby Congress, see this Open Secrets report and this piece from the Green Guide on The New Food Pyramid: How Corporations Squash Regulation.

Expanding organic farming and reducing the amount of chemicals used on conventional farms would have other environmental advantages as well, most obviously an improvement in water quality both in farming states and downstream. Last week the National Academcy of Sciences released findings from the latest study proving that chemicals applied to farms are a major contributor to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico:

The study, conducted at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency, recommends setting pollution reduction targets for the watersheds, or drainage areas, that are the largest sources of the pollution that flows down the Mississippi River to the gulf.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was urged to help fund a series of pilot projects to test how changes in farming practices and land use can reduce the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus. The report, written by a panel of scientists, did not say how much money would be needed. Agricultural experts and congressional aides said it wasn’t clear whether there was enough money in federal conservation programs to fund the necessary projects.


The government has been debating for years about how to address the oxygen-depleted dead zone, or hypoxia, in the gulf. The dead zone reached 8,000 square miles this year, the second-largest area recorded since mapping began in the 1980s.


Agricultural groups don’t want mandatory controls put on farms.

However, a scientific advisory board of the EPA has recommended reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing to the gulf by 45 percent. More than 75 percent of those two pollutants originates in nine states, including Iowa, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Here’s a link to more detailed findings about how agricultural states contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Organic farming is also good for rural economic development because it employs more people. I’ll write more soon on the economic benefits of implementing other sustainable agriculture policies.

UPDATE: This post generated a lot of good discussion at Daily Kos. You can view those comments here.

When OrangeClouds115 speaks, I listen:

BTW – can you request in your diary that people who support your ideas here sign the petition at ? Apparently its 40,000+ signatures have gotten the attention of Obama’s transition team and Michael Pollan himself thinks that they may actually listen to us if we get to 100,000 signatures.

SECOND UPDATE: Thanks to understandinglife for the Digg link.

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USDA to bees: Drop dead

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking no steps to halt or even thoroughly study the use of pesticides that have been implicated in massive die-offs of honeybees, according to a press release from the Sierra Club. The release circulated on the Iowa Sierra Club e-mail loop yesterday.

Germany has suspended the use of neonicotinoid pesticides after agricultural research found that “poisoning of the bees is due to the rub-off of the pesticide ingredient clothianidin from corn seeds.”

Not only do many American farmers spray neonicotinoids on their crops, “Bayer and Monsanto have acquired patents to coat their proprietary corn seeds with these neonicotinoids,” the Sierra Club notes. The group has called on the USDA to impose “a precautionary moratorium on these powerful crop treatments to protect our bees and our food,” pending thorough studies of their effects.

This New York Times article from February 2007 discusses the threat that “colony collapse disorder” poses to approximately $14 billion worth of seeds and crops that honeybees pollinate in the U.S. every year.

Other articles discussing the possible link between pesticides and bee die-offs are here, here and here. The neonicotinoids may be affecting the bees’ memory, making them unable to find their way back to their hives.

The full text of the press release from Sierra Club is after the jump.

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Drink tap water, but not from plastic bottles

The Des Moines Register published an editorial on Thursday urging readers not to buy bottled water:

“Iowa’s capital city ranked best on our list of U.S. cities with the cleanest drinking water. The insurance industry center and home of the Iowa Caucus had the second-lowest level of bacteria in its drinking water” and was among the best for the lowest levels of lead,” according to the report.

As summer approaches, this is yet another reason to avoid purchasing bottled water. A better option is getting a sturdy plastic bottle and refilling it at the tap – which is probably cleaner anyway. While bottled water may sit on the shelves for ages, the Des Moines Water Works conducts performance tests several times a day, according to interim general manager Randy Beavers. Bottled water is an environmental and financial hazard. The bottles are shipped thousands of miles across the country in gas-guzzling trucks. Most aren’t recycled or reused, but end up in landfills. While it’s nothing to drop a dollar or two on a bottle of water, tap water averages a fraction of a penny per gallon.

I agree with the general point about not buying bottled water.

However, it’s a very bad idea to keep refilling plastic bottles from the tap. I used to do that before I learned that chemicals can leach from the plastic to the water:

Reused Plastic Bottles Can Leach Toxic Chemicals

The same studies found that repeated re-use of such bottles-which get dinged up through normal wear and tear and while being washed-increases the chance that chemicals will leak out of the tiny cracks and crevices that develop over time. According to the Environment California Research & Policy Center, which reviewed 130 studies on the topic, BPA has been linked to breast and uterine cancer, an increased risk of miscarriage, and decreased testosterone levels.

BPA can also wreak havoc on children’s developing systems. (Parents beware: Most baby bottles and sippy cups are made with plastics containing BPA.) Most experts agree that the amount of BPA that could leach into food and drinks through normal handling is probably very small, but there are concerns about the cumulative effect of small doses.

Even Plastic Water and Soda Bottles Should Not Be Reused

Health advocates also recommend not reusing bottles made from plastic #1 (polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET or PETE), including most disposable water, soda and juice bottles. According to The Green Guide, such bottles may be safe for one-time use, but re-use should be avoided because studies indicate they may leach DEHP-another probable human carcinogen-when they are in less-than-perfect condition.


Safe Reusable Bottles Do Exist

Safer choices include bottles crafted from safer HDPE (plastic #2), low-density polyethylene (LDPE, AKA plastic #4) or polypropylene (PP, or plastic #5). Aluminum bottles, such as those made by SIGG and sold in many natural food and natural product markets, and stainless steel water bottles are also safe choices and can be reused repeatedly and eventually recycled.

If you live in the Des Moines area, you can buy reusable SIGG bottles at Campbell’s (there is a coating on the inside so that the aluminum does not come into contact with what you are drinking). Otherwise, you can order SIGG bottles or other brands of safe reusable bottles at

If you’ve got small children, I highly recommend getting non-plastic reusable sippy cups and water bottles for lunch bags. SIGG is a brand we’ve been happy with. They are not dishwasher-safe, which is a little inconvenient, but we feel better knowing that chemicals are not leaching into our children’s water.

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In case you need motivation to avoid processed foods

Read this diary that Asinus Asinum Fricat posted at the EENRblog: The Obscene Scam that is Food Flavorings.

He talks about MSG in particular and its effects on human health and the obesity epidemic.

In honor of Autism Awareness Month I should add that many children with autism, ADD or ADHD find that their symptoms improve on a diet that is free of certain food additives (among other things).

For more information on the “Feingold diet,” click here.

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