Monthly Archives: May 2015

Triclosan – The Pesticide You Might Be Using Without Even Knowing It!

The term “pesticide” is a broad term that includes any compound that kills “pests.” There are miticides, bactericides, fungicides, insecticides, herbicides, rodenticides and a host of other “-cides” that all fall into the category of pesticide.

Gardeners today are more aware of the use of pesticides than they were decades ago. The increase in organic gardening and the negative publicity of some pesticides (i.e., RoundUp) has led to a greater awareness of the benefits and risks of using any pesticide.

But there’s one pesticide that a lot of people don’t even think of as a pesticide. Walk into any grocery store and if you want to buy dishwashing soap, hand soap or body wash, you’ll find all kinds of products labeled “antibacterial.” And if you look closely, you’ll find that the active ingredient in all of these products is triclosan (or the closely related chemical triclocarban).

Triclosan is a bactericide – a pesticide. It was originally used in hospitals as a surgical scrub but since the late 70’s it’s found its way into a multitude of products.

You can find triclosan in soap, deodorant, lipstick, cosmetics, paints, toothpaste, mouthwash, clothing, kitchen utensils and even pencils! Often it’s hidden under the name Microban where it’s used to limit microbial growth that can cause stains and odors on a lot of kitchen and children’s items – like the Ticonderoga® Pencils with Microban Protection.

I don’t think there’s a person out there who would gargle with RoundUp, shower with 2,4D, coat their skin with Sevin or soak their clothes in Malathion, but unsuspecting consumers are doing just that. Sure, triclosan is a lot less toxic than these other chemicals but it’s still a pesticide – and a pesticide that we don’t even need.

17vz0bud5d9khjpgPlain soap and water cleans as well as any antibacterial soap. And plain soap doesn’t add a pesticide to our bodies that can be absorbed through our skin. Tests have shown that 75% of the population have triclosan in their bodies. It’s been found in breast milk, blood, and urine. While there still don’t seem to be clear studies showing direct harm from triclosan, many believe that it affects hormone balance and can alter the gut bacteria and increase antibacterial resistance in microbes.

Anyone who has followed my blog knows that I’m not opposed to pesticides. But when I use them, it’s always to address a specific problem and I used the least amount possible of the safest product for the shortest period of time.

That’s why triclosan makes no sense to me. There is no specific problem that it addresses except Americans’ deeply ingrained germaphobia! If you use antibacterial products you’re exposing yourself to it for a long time. And many are raising the question of just how safe it is.

I always read the label when I buy an herbicide or insecticide. Now I’m reading labels when I buy soap, toothpaste, and moisturizer. I’m reading to make sure that there isn’t any triclosan in the product. I’m not about to start washing with a pesticide!

(Also see Scientific American’s article, “A Key Antibacterial Soap Ingredient Must Go” by Maricel V. Maffini and Mae Wu.)


A New Milestone – Thanks to All My Readers

I just noticed that I’ve hit a new milestone – over 4000 views in one month with over 3000 visitors. Now I know that this isn’t a lot of traffic for many sites but for my little blog with its strange mix of botany, gardening and photography, I’m pretty impressed.

Stats for May 2015

Thanks to all who have visited and here’s to breaking the 5000 views/4000 visitors in one of the coming months!

Blossoms for Memorial Day Weekend

Here are a few of the things blossoming in the garden right now:

German Bearded Iris

German Bearded Iris

German Bearded Iris

German Bearded Iris Bud

German Bearded Iris





Tomatoes. I’ve never had tomatoes blossom this early but planting them in a cold frame gave them a good head start this year.


And while it’s not a bloom, I had to share this picture of the bane of my existence – the rabbit! (Note the chicken wire around the rose bush in the background; that’s all because of this critter!)


Wheel Bug Babies – a.k.a First Instar Wheel Bug Nymphs

Here’s an example of why it pays to keep your eyes open when you’re working in the garden.

Wheel Bug Nymphs with Egg Case

Wheel Bug Nymphs with Egg Case

Yesterday I was thinning out some old lilac bushes when something caught my eye. On one of the branches, there was a group of small insects that were unlike anything I’d seen before. The head and thorax of this creature was black, but the abdomen was bright orange. They were also clustered around a honeycomb-like structure that I assumed was an egg case. They moved slowly and didn’t seem to want to leave the branch where I had found them.

I first thought these were some kind of spider but after taking a picture of them and looking at it more closely, what I thought were eight legs were really six legs and two really large antennae. Also, the antennae were orange at the tip.

Whenever I find an insect that I can’t identify, I go to my friend Google. I typed “black insect with orange abdomen” and the second image shown gave me my answer. This was the first instar of a wheel bug (Arilus cristatus).

Wheel Bug Nymph

Wheel Bug Nymph

I wrote about the wheel bug a few years ago when I saw my first one. (What the….. Oh, It’s a Wheel Bug.) I’ve seen adults over the past few years, but I knew nothing about what they look like as nymphs.

The wheel bugs I found were in their first instar, having just hatched from their egg cases. An instar is a developmental stage of a nymph in an insect that matures by way of incomplete metamorphosis. (Insects with incomplete metamorphosis have three stages: egg, nymph, and adult. Those with complete metamorphosis have four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Wheel bugs and grasshoppers mature by way of incomplete metamorphosis; butterflies and moths go through a complete metamorphosis.) Between each instar stage, the insect molts, shedding its exoskeleton to grow and/or take on a new form. Wheel bugs go through 5 instar stages before becoming sexually mature adults. At each molt, they change a little bit but it isn’t until the final molt that they take on the look of an adult wheel bug. It’s kind of hard to believe that this first instar nymph is the same insect as the adult!


Picture of Nymph and Two Mating Adults

Picture of Nymph and Two Mating Adults

I’m glad I had my eyes open and saw these wheel bugs when I was trimming. I was able to rescue them from the chipper since they’re beneficial insects. But maybe even more important, seeing them kept me from touching them which could have been a problem. You see, these nymphs, just like the adults, can give a painful bite. The nymphs might be cuter than the adults, but you want to leave both of them alone if you see them!

To Till or Not to Till – That Is the Question

A couple of months ago I read Jeff Lowenfels’ Teaming with Microbes. This book describes the microbiome of soil and the various living organisms that make up a healthy garden soil. He outlines the bacteria, fungi, archaea (organisms that were first classified as bacteria but later classified as a separate group of prokaryotes in 1977 – a new class of organisms to me!), arthropods, insects, and worms that are all a part of a healthy soil system. With all of this life going on under the surface of the soil, it got me thinking about how I garden.

Like a lot of gardeners, I’ve always assumed that you needed to have a nice, soft, fluffy bed of soil in order to plant seeds and grow plants. In order to achieve this, it means using a rototiller every spring to stir up the soil in order to create this desired texture.

But Lowenfel got me wondering if this is really necessary or even beneficial. There aren’t many farmers that plow their fields like they used to in the past – they just plant directly into the soil without any preparation. So could it be that this no-till approach is something that I should consider in the garden? After exploring a lot of sites devoted to soil and rototilling, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are some pros and cons to tilling the garden.


TroyponyThere are benefits to tilling:

  • It can break up heavy, compacted soil.
  • Large amounts of organic matter can be incorporated into the soil to improve its texture and tilth.
  • Tilled soil dries out and warms up more quickly in the spring.
  • If the soil’s pH needs to be adjusted, tilling distributes the lime, aluminum sulfate or sulfur throughout the soil and lead to an even adjustment of the pH.



There are also problems that tilling causes:

  • no-rototillerStirring up the soil disturbs communities of microorganisms as well as shredding earthworms.
  • The incorporation of a lot of oxygen into the soil leads to a rapid breakdown of organic matter and the release of a lot of CO2.
  • While tilling will kill surface weeds, it brings buried weed seeds to the surface where they can germinate and grow.
  • Quicker drying in the spring means that there’s less water in the soil later in the season.

I had always thought that you needed to till in order to open up the soil and allow for easier water absorption and root penetration. But I now see that in a healthy soil, decaying roots, tunnels created by worms and the hypha of fungi all provide avenues to allow water to enter the soil. Also roots are strong and while they can’t break through a hard dead-pan, they can easily make their way through the average soil.

Many think that fertilizer or compost needs to be mixed into soil in order for the plant to be able to absorb the nutrients. However, this isn’t the case. The majority of feeder roots of plants are close to the surface and the natural process of leaching will bring the needed nutrients to the plants. Side dressing plants with compost or fertilizer will work well and limit the amount of wasted fertilizer.

After a lot of reading, research, and thinking, I’m moving in the direction of not tilling. This year I left a couple of beds untilled to give it a try. I find that the untilled beds have more moisture in the soil than the tilled ones. While the soil might not warm as quickly, here in south central PA, untilled soil warms quickly enough. When I planted seeds, I just used a hoe to loosen the soil a little and the seeds germinated well.

The biggest challenge to planting in untilled soil was a mental one. I’ve come to expect that garden soil should be as loose and fluffy as a bag of potting mix. It seemed a little strange to plant in soil that was more firm and dense. So far, the plants don’t seem to mind the difference so this is probably something that I need to get over!

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that I’ll never till again. If I was preparing a new site for a garden, I’d till the soil. If I planned to add a lot of compost or peat to the soil, I’d till it in. If I had pH issues, I’d rototill the lime or sulfur into the soil. And if this no-till experiment doesn’t work, I’ll certainly go back to using the rototiller.

But for now, no-till gardening seems like a good idea. It preserves the communities of life within the soil. It appears to maintain soil moisture better. And let’s face it – it’s a whole lot easier!

So, to till or not to till? The question is still open, but I’m going to see how the not-to-till option works for me.

Cattleya Bloom – A Study in Patience

I’m not a fussy gardener, especially when it comes to houseplants. If a plant doesn’t perform well, I throw it out. If it gets diseased, I throw it out. If it gets an infestation of insects, I’ll treat it once or twice, but if that doesn’t work, into the garbage it goes. If it gets too big, I’ll try to take a cutting and propagate it, but if that doesn’t work, I toss it.

This is why it’s a little surprising that I allowed a cattleya orchid to take up space in the house when it didn’t bloom for 2+ years. The only thing that saved it was that was growing well, it had no disease or pest problems and I knew that these orchids take some time to reach blooming size.


I found a small cattleya orchid at Lowes in 2013. (Maybe tiny is a better word for it since it only had three leaves and was in a 2″ pot.) I’d gotten the hang of growing phalaenopsis orchids and wanted to try my hand at growing a cattleya.

As I said, the plant grew well. I kept it in a window with a south-east exposure so it would get a lot of light, something that cattleyas need. Every time I watered it, I’ll look to see if one of the new leaves was going to push out a sheath-covered bud.

It finally happened this year. A bud emerged and it opened into a flower this week. This orchid has finally reached blooming size and I should get more blooms every year. I’m glad I gave this plant some time to perform because it’s performance is pretty amazing. There’s something very satisfying in taking a tiny plant and bringing it to maturity – especially when it looks like this!

As these pictures show, this cattleya is definitely a keeper and a great payoff for my patience.








The Vegetable Garden 2015 – A Late Start and an Early Start

This could turn out to be an interesting year in the vegetable garden.

I planted some cool weather crops like broccoli. kale, collards, onions and lettuce back in April, but the weather was a little too cool even for them. They sat in the ground in a sort of suspended animation and did nothing for a number of weeks. During this time, there was also a really cold night that nipped the brassicas and set them back even further. Add to all of this that there hasn’t been very much rain and the whole spring garden seems to have gotten off to a very late start. Only now are these plants starting to grow and get settled into their place in the garden.

But as is often the case, a slow, cold spring suddenly changes into summer within a day or two.

May 1st - Vegetable Garden Planted

May 3rd – Vegetable Garden Planted

In early May that sort of change occurred. Temperatures were in the 70’s and even crept up into the 80’s. Here in south-central PA the frost-free date is around May 15th. But this year, when I checked the Accuweather forecast, I could tell that the frost-free day for 2015 was going to be much earlier. It was May 1st and there was no sign of a cool down in the coming two weeks.

I also noticed something happening in the garden. Volunteer seedlings of squash and tomatoes were starting to pop up in the beds. While I’ll be hoeing out these plants since they’re little more than weeds, they served as a sign to let me know that the soil had warmed enough to allow them to germinate.

With the soil warm and the temperatures safe, I planted most of the warm weather vegetable garden on May 3rd. I transplanted tomatoes, sowed seeds of beans, cucumbers and summer squash.

My early planting seems to have paid off. The squash and beans are germinating, the tomatoes are fine. The only negative is that I had to water some of the plants – that’s unusual in May but until we get some real rain, I think I’ll have to continue doing it.

This year, the peas and broccoli might be later than usual, but I’m likely to have beans and summer squash much earlier than other years. I guess that’s the trade-off with having a late start with cool weather plants and early start with warm weather plants!