gardening

New England Fairy Houses

By Amy Miller

The hundreds of little girls prancing around historic Portsmouth in pink tutus and silvery fairy wings were adorable. Of course. And even the mothers that put a splotch of glitter on their cheeks were endearing. But what really warmed my heart were the men – police officers? – directing traffic in flowing princess skirts and organdy wings.

For eight years, Portsmouth has welcomed the community for a weekend of viewing incredibly artful fairy houses. Fairy houses, for the uninformed, are essentially tiny houses made of twigs, leaves, pinecones or whatever else you find in the woods, the yard, in nature. And they are the residences of fairies.

The Fairy House Tour invited visitors to tour five dozen abodes tucked under maples, hidden among tomato plants, blooming from Prescott Park’s flower beds and sitting in the pathways of historic Strawbery Banke. Thousands of people came to see the diminutive garden center, the tea room, the yarn store, the dress shop and so on.

The fairy house craze has been a New England tradition for decades or longer. But in the last few years it has taken off as a way to encourage kids to be outside and enjoying nature.

Author Tracey Kane of New Hampshire set the tradition on fire and inspired the Portsmouth tour after her book “Fair Houses” came out about a decade ago. Her website suggests building fairy houses as an antidote for the so-called “nature-deficit disorder” affecting kids these days.

Nature deficit disorder, a term coined by author Richard Louv in 2005, refers to the trend of children spending less time outdoors. After traveling the country, Louv concluded children are spending more time on either organized sports or inside on screens. He partly blames a culture of fear among parents that he says is exacerbated by the media.

Although my 10-year-old son watches nowhere near the average amount of TV, and neither of us is particularly fearful of the outdoors or the people you find there, he was predictably sullen about going to the land of girls in tutus. He was lured by his 9-year-old female cousin and the boats I promised he’d see from Prescott Park.

Still, when we got to the part where you build your own, everything changed. Benjamin’s testosterone (culturally derived training?) kicked in and he erected a construction site. A twig log here, a milkweed stalk there and he was off hunting the woods for more building materials.

And so it seems, the pull of nature once again is hard for a child to resist. Given half a chance.

About the author: Amy Miller is a writer who works in the public affairs office of EPA New England in Boston. She lives in Maine with her husband, two children, seven chickens, two parakeets, dog and a great community.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Green Plants and Fat Wallets: Water Conservation Tips for the Summer

By Elisa Hyder

After all the hard work during the spring, proper watering can help relieve some of summer’s challenges to a flourishing outdoor lawn and garden.  However, outdoor watering can easily turn into wasted watering if not done properly. Residential outdoor water use in the United States accounts for more than 7 billion gallons of water each day, and it is estimated that up to 50% of this water is wasted due to overwatering. That is 3.5 billion gallons of water down the drain every day, along with money spent for the water bill.

Overwatering draws down our water resources and your wallet, and it may also affect your beautiful plants. Overwatering may also lead to drooping or wilting plants and stunted growth.  Plants need a very specific amount of water for the best growth results, depending on weather and soil conditions.

There are lots of ways to save money and water when using water outside.  Always make sure that the water you are using is going towards the plants, not your house walls or sidewalks. Also, water your plants earlier in the morning or later in the evening; if done in the early afternoon, most of the water is lost to evaporation.  You can also think about rainwater harvesting like rain barrels as a source of water for your plants.  Check out our new video about rain barrels on youtube!

[youtube width=”400″ height=”300″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSBKqFrxoZA[/youtube]

Do you know just how much water to give your plants? It can be hard to track what’s going on with the weather and soil. But, now it can be a lot easier. There are technologies out there that can handle all of the effort.

Some of these technologies include irrigation controllers that, with proper programming, can do wonders for your garden and your water bill. Instead of using a clock or preset schedule, they work like a thermostat for your sprinkler system. There are access points that can be plugged into either an Internet router or personal computer which communicates wirelessly with the controllers.

Click for more about WaterSense Labeled Irrigation Controllers

Click for more about WaterSense Labeled Irrigation Controllers

So, the controllers are able to use the Internet to check local weather and landscape conditions to adjust the watering schedule. These controllers are designed to make sprinkler systems more efficient. With them, you can enjoy a beautiful outdoor lawn and garden while keeping some money in your pocket. In fact, it is estimated that they can help you save up to 40% on your water bills.

How are you watering your garden efficiently this summer?  For more tips on more efficient outdoor water use and technologies, visit http://www.epa.gov/watersense/ and check out WaterSense on Facebook and Twitter.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Environmental Expression

Last summer a group of inner city kids in Chicago had a cool learning experience when they took part in summer camp activities that included gardening, exploring nature, understanding conservation, and the importance of environmental awareness.

They expressed an interest in environmental stewardship through writing about the projects they participated in. These are some of the words they used to describe their connection with the environment. 

What words would you use to describe your connection with your environment? 

Yvonne Gonzalez recently finished an internship with the Air and Radiation Division in Chicago. She currently works at EPA in Washington, DC in the Chemicals Control Division.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Outdoor Activities for Better Grades

Haga clic en la imagen para unirse a la conversación en nuestro blog en español... ¡No olvide de suscribirse!

By Lina Younes

As I was watching one of the morning shows covering the Olympics Games this week, I saw a feature story about a primary school in England that had incorporated cooking classes into the curriculum. The intention was not to produce future chefs, although many of the students had become quite skilled in the culinary arts. The objective was to get children outdoors, to teach them about gardening, to make them aware of where food comes from, and how eating fresh food makes them healthier. While their culinary talents were an added bonus, the program pointed out to many positive outcomes. The part that caught my attention was when the reporter asked the schoolmaster if there had been an improvement in their overall grades in traditional classes. The school master answered with an emphatic “yes!”

Many of the issues highlighted in the London school were similar to First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative Let’s Move which focuses on fighting childhood obesity by improving access to healthy food in schools and in the home and by increasing physical activity. I would take the benefits of this program one step further. How about increasing opportunities for children to have healthy outdoor activities? How about exposing children to nature? What would be the impact on children’s health and knowledge?

In fact, there have been several small studies which show a correlation between environmental education and improved student achievement and success in the sciences. The studies indicate how hands-on learning experiences through outdoor or environmental education enhance problem-solving skills, improved performance in the sciences while fostering overall environmental literacy and stewardship. Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

So, while we still might have time off with the kids during the remaining summer vacation, why not try engaging our kids in some outdoor activities away from the TV? What do you think?

About the author: Lina Younes is the Multilingual Outreach and Communications Liaison for EPA. Among her duties, she’s responsible for outreach to Hispanic organizations and media. She spearheaded the team that recently launched EPA’s new Spanish website, www.epa.gov/espanol . She manages EPA’s social media efforts in Spanish. She’s currently the editor of EPA’s new Spanish blog, Conversando acerca de nuestro medio ambiente. Prior to joining the agency, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and an international radio broadcaster. She has held other positions in and out of the Federal Government.


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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2 Flower Pots, 4 Herbs, and My Pick 5 for the Environment

By Jessica Orquina

When I was growing up we always had a garden – rows of vegetables and herbs to eat throughout the summer. I remember picking fresh tomatoes, corn, or herbs to help make dinner.

Balcony flower pot herb gardenNow, I live in an eight story condominium building surrounded by a paved-over world of sidewalks and asphalt in Washington, DC. While I enjoy the culture, energy, and convenience of living in the city, I sometimes miss the connection to nature I had during my childhood. I try to shop at farmers’ markets whenever I can. It is not quite the same as picking a fresh vegetable from my own garden, but it’s close. And I started planting a small garden in flower pots on my apartment balcony. Last year I had chives and basil. This year my chive plant returned and I’ve added a new basil plant, oregano, and parsley. It’s tiny, but it’s my patch of green. Next year I’ll add a few more plants (maybe even tomatoes).

At EPA I work in communications. My daily tasks focus on sharing information with the public about protecting the environment. But, I also do things in my everyday life – like planting my small garden (greenscaping), saving water, using less energy, recycling, and taking public transportation – to reduce my impact on the planet. These are my Pick 5 – the simple actions I take every day to make a difference.

You can make a difference too! Join our Pick 5 for the Environment and learn how to make your actions count! Share your Pick 5 in the comments below.

About the author: Jessica Orquina works in the Office of External Affairs and Environmental Education as the social media lead for the agency. Prior to joining EPA, she served as a public affairs specialist at another federal agency and is a former military and commercial airline pilot. She lives, works, and writes in Washington, DC.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Early Blooms and Bugs

By Lina Younes

Due to the mild spring, many bulbs and flowering plants have been blooming early.

In our area, forsythia and bulbs were the first to make their appearance. Azalea bushes that normally bloom around Mother’s Day already peaked several weeks ago. Even rose bushes have some breathtaking flowers earlier than usual. As I was taking a walk, I couldn’t resist capturing the moment through some pictures which I’m sharing with you.

Unseasonably mild temperatures have also ushered the early arrival of other living creatures to our neighborhoods: bugs. While we welcome beneficial insects, especially pollinators such as butterflies and bees, we will not be putting out the welcoming mat for pests such as ants, termites, ticks and mosquitoes. Special measures will be needed to control biting insects that can transmit diseases such as West Nile virus and Lyme disease. Our web pages indicate which insect repellents are most effective in controlling specific biting insects. When using insect repellents or any pesticide products, always remember to read the label first.

So, as you’re getting your garden ready for the planting season, adopt greenscaping practices to attract beneficial insects. By planting the right native trees, plants and shrubs you’ll create an inviting environment for birds, butterflies and other wildlife. Any gardening projects in the making? Please share your ideas with us.

About the author: Lina Younes is the Multilingual Outreach and Communications Liaison for EPA. Among her duties, she’s responsible for outreach to Hispanic organizations and media. She spearheaded the team that recently launched EPA’s new Spanish website, www.epa.gov/espanol . She manages EPA’s social media efforts in Spanish. She’s currently the editor of EPA’s new Spanish blog, Conversando acerca de nuestro medio ambiente. Prior to joining the agency, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and an international radio broadcaster. She has held other positions in and out of the Federal Government.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Planning A Summer Garden

By Alice Kaufman

Seed catalogs are piling up around the house. It’s that season when my attentions turn to spring, then to summer’s bounty. I grow just enough of the things our family likes but leave the veggies that take a lot of land to local farmers –things like corn and potatoes.

I grow a salsa garden, a salad garden and a pesto garden. That means I grow the ingredients to make salsa, salads and pesto: tomatoes, peppers of various colors, shades and hotness, lettuce, basil and herbs. I plant obscure and familiar varieties of lettuce. Every time my husband eats a garden salad he says “I feel like I am eating the sun.”

I meticulously label each row of tomatoes so when it’s time to harvest, I know what I’m eating. Funny, though, I am never sure whether I am eating an Early Girl or Pink Beauty by time it goes from basket to summer table. When I pick these tomatoes they are still full of the sun’s heat which makes them that much juicier to eat.

Backyard gardeners learn to share their plots with wildlife. Bunnies nibble on early greens, woodchucks eat everything if I’m not careful, and birds love blueberries. The neighbor’s chickens have a knack for filing in to feast the day before I would have picked the tomatoes. I’m always torn about how aggressive to be in keeping critters out. My master gardener friend plants a row of veggies for the critters and harvests inner rows for her family.

This year I can choose from a broader range of varieties For the first time in more than 20 years the USDA redrew the Plant Hardiness Zone map, based on national warming trends. My town in Massachusetts is now in Zone 6. This map is the gardener’s Bible about what varieties of shrubs and plants can be grown given certain climate limitations. Kim Kaplan of the USDA said the agency isn’t forecasting a dire message about climate change. She says the map is not scientific evidence of climate warming since the map is simply based on the coldest days of the year.

But Mainers are excited to try varieties of rhododendrons that would surely have perished in winter’s freeze. And Tucson gardeners report daffodils blooming earlier. Nebraskans are pondering peaches and apricots. For me, the big question is whether I should try growing figs. Or maybe kiwi?

About the author: Alice Kaufman works in EPA’s Boston office. She loves to travel, is an avid backcountry hiker, and frequently tromps through Thoreau’s woods in her home town with her husband and kids, and Watson, her mischievous Golden Retriever.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Lessons From My Garden

Blueberry bushBy Nancy Grundahl

The recent Philadelphia Flower Show inspired me. I bought 3 kinds of asparagus roots and seed packets for those sweet, round yellow watermelons that are hard to find, corn and green beans. Already in my garden are blueberry bushes and a sour cherry tree. I have found that growing my own food is fun, relaxing and educational. Here are some of the lessons my garden has taught me.

Conditions need to be right or your seeds won’t grow and your plants won’t thrive. If a plant needs to be in the sun, plant it in a sunny area. If a plant needs moist soil, keep it moist or it and you will not be happy.

Create a healthy garden environment and wildlife will come. Birds love berries, even when they are not ripe. Bunnies love small tender plants. Deer? If they are in your area they will probably find you, as will slugs and beetles and on and on. It means your garden is healthy and inviting.

Nothing tastes like fruit and vegetables you grow yourself. They are typically way better than what you can find in stores. Ah, there’s nothing like eating a warm tomato that you just picked! Plus, you can plant unusual varieties, like heirlooms, to experience tastes you didn’t know exist. Biodiversity is a very good and yummy thing.

Using water you’ve captured (like in a rain barrel) is a better way to water your plants, particularly if your tap water is chlorinated. You might even just run a hose from a downspout into your garden. And, capturing stormwater can help reduce flooding from run-off. And, you’ll save money!

Mosquitoes love to breed in standing water, so don’t have any. Turn buckets upside down. Getting attacked by mosquitoes while you are gardening is very annoying and they can spread disease.

Weeds almost always grow better and faster than planted plants. That’s why they’re called weeds.Composter

Native plants grow better than non-natives. That is unless you are unlucky enough to have a non-native plant that’s invasive, like kudzu. Natives can be hard to find, but search them out — they are worth it.

Don’t trash your yard waste; turn it into compost instead. Recycle! Reuse! Your plants will grow better with compost.

Yes, I’m ready to get going outside in this earlier-than-normal spring in the Northeast.

About the author: Nancy Grundahl has worked for the Philadelphia office of EPA since the mid-80’s. She currently works in Program Support for the Water Protection Division. Nancy believes in looking at environmental problems in a holistic, multi-media way and is a strong advocate of preventing pollution instead of dealing with it after it has been created.


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Rediscovering Paradise Lost in your Backyard . . .

By Maryann Helferty

Question: Where are EPA volunteers acting as explorers to rediscover the Paradise Lost in the backyards and woodlands of the Mid-Atlantic? Answer: The 2012 Philadelphia International Flower Show,   where EPA staff have constructed an educational showcase of environmental gardening techniques since 1993. This year’s exhibit is titled “Palekaiko Nalowale,” roughly translated from Hawaiian into “Paradise Lost.”

Thousands of gardening guests venture into the lost world of plants indigenous to this region. I spoke with one team member who shares his knowledge of botany and vegetable gardening by working on the exhibit. Todd Lutte, a wetlands biologist, often encounters native plants in swampy bogs or steep cliffs. He has a deep appreciation for interconnections between native plants and the web of life. For example, local insects evolved in tandem with native plants so they depend on each other for survival. So when gardeners plant native species such as the highbush blueberry, they also invite bumblebees as pollinators. These delicious berries nourish humans, birds and mammals and the leaves feed a host of butterfly and moth larvae.

Each exhibit visit is a teachable moment. Visitors peer into the pinky bell flowers of a sheep laurel,  or dwarf azalea and are touched by their spring beauty. Factsheets suggest how to select native plants at nurseries. Curious greenthumbs learn to pick plants adapted to local climate and soil, while controlling pests more easily and using less water and fertilizer.

Agency volunteers share experience with using integrated pest control on roses and tomatoes. So, Todd recommends knowing insects to remove aphids and beetles by hand and leave the beneficial insects to help your garden. Video loops help visitors learn about low-impact techniques like companion planting or using bait and traps to control pests. We’re delighted this year to share our thousands of teachable moments with the EPA pesticide program.

It takes a cadre of volunteers to create the magic of a blooming lesson on “green” gardening. Some care for herbaceous plants in personal greenhouses; others force mountain laurels and honeysuckle to flower in winter. Volunteer carpenters create the sturdy flooring and beautiful fencing. With the help of many, EPA spends only one-eighth of the budget of comparable educational exhibitors. Thanks to two decades of team effort, creativity and green thumbs, there have been many awards earned throughout the years. Ah, spring!

About the author: Maryann Helferty is an Environmental Scientist with the Office of Environmental Innovation for EPA’s Mid-Atlantic Region. In her work on drinking water protection and sustainability, she blends science and education tools to promote the Environment, Social Equity and a Sustainable Economy.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

Early Signs of Spring

By Lina Younes

Truth be told, this winter season has been relatively mild around the greater Washington, DC area and across the United States. So when the famous Pennsylvania groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, saw his shadow forecasting six more weeks of winter, my first thought was: “what winter?”

Taking advantage of the beautiful weather this past weekend, my husband, our youngest daughter and I decided to take a walk around Allen Pond, Maryland near our home. Although it was mid-February, it felt more like early April. In fact, during our walk, we were seeing early signs of spring all around us. There were robin red-breasts hopping on the grass. Several shrubs were showing some signs of budding. The leaves from bulbs were pushing up through the ground making way for an early appearance. The fresh scents and lively sounds of spring were already in the air.

We were also taking advantage of that lovely afternoon to get out and move. While the short winter days seem to give us the perfect excuse to enjoy more sedentary activities, the change in seasons should be an ideal opportunity to get out of our self-imposed hibernation. And what better way of fulfilling a resolution of becoming healthier in 2012 than taking a long nice walk with the family in the park on a beautiful day?

So, do you have any plans for the spring months? Looking forward to gardening? Planning any greenscaping techniques? Please share your thoughts with us. As always, we’re interested in keeping these greenversations going!

About the author: Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and currently serves as EPA’s Multilingual Outreach and Communications Liaison in the Office of External Affairs and Environmental Education. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.