By Maureen O’Connell
This issue of the Monocacy Monocle celebrates the tenth anniversary of its founding by John Clayton and Rande Davis. Congratulations for “Keeping an Eye on Local News” and presenting news, community information, and human interest articles with journalistic objectivity and adherence to the rules of good writing.
I have written my “In the Garden” column for the Monocle for those ten years. During that time, I have focused on such varied horticultural issues as new plant varieties, garden maintenance and plant care, gardens throughout the world, Colony Collapse Disorder, pesticides, and global warming. Today, what issues are still in the news for their impact on the world of agriculture and its subdivision, horticulture?
I began gardening in 1972. Since then, there have many new horticultural developments and the birth of new varieties of plants. W. Atlee Burpee started his seed company in 1876, and he changed seed production and selection for the United States. Up until his time, gardeners used old European varieties of seeds which had trouble adjusting and growing well in our different summer climate. Today, horticulturists spend millions of dollars in research to produce new plants that have great visual appeal, interesting foliage, new colors, increased blooming time, and resistance to drought, pests, heat, humidity, and cold weather—but the classics will always be with us, in spite of their flaws: hybrid tea roses Mr. Lincoln and Peace; the old rose ‘Comte de Chambord'; the perennial daylily ‘Stella De Oro'; and the white phlox ‘David.’
In the past decade, there has been a significant increase in interest and concern about the use of pesticides and their effect on the environment. Rachel Carson was a strong advocate against their use, and she brought the issue to world attention in her book Silent Spring (1962.) Several events in the past years have brought a new awareness to this issue. One is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive disappear and never return to their hive. Such disappearances have occurred in the history of apiculture, but, in 2006, there was a dramatic rise in their numbers. This has an immense impact on the agricultural world which depends upon bees for pollination of fruits and vegetables. The workings of CCD and the reason for its existence are unclear, but there is strong evidence pointing to pesticides, in particular those of the neonicotinoid class. A second concern involves the decline of the number of butterflies. Since last year, the migratory route of the Monarch butterfly from Canada to Mexico has drawn attention. Their numbers have decreased. Is this caused by loss of habitat in Mexico or the widespread use of pesticides?
The impact of pesticides and fertilizers on our wetlands and waterways has garnered increased interest and a demand for more protective measures in the past ten years. Close to home, our treasured Chesapeake Bay has sustained heavy damage from pollution runoff. The bay’s “dead zones,” hypotoxic waters depleted of oxygen, are unable to support life, resulting in massive fish kills. The bay’s crabs and oysters are also being threatened by loss of water grasses and overharvesting. I used to rely heavily on insecticides to protect my flowering plants, especially my many roses. After seeing the harm that this practice was doing to the environment, especially to bees and other beneficial insects, I stopped using them completely. My garden exists on the motto of: The survival of the fittest.
Global warming is a very sensitive issue for discussion, and it is subject to much controversy. There is a long queue of believers in this phenomenon as well as a queue of skeptics. Global warming—or as some call it: climate change—has been discussed for decades, but in the last ten years, the increase in disastrous weather worldwide has caused an intensified focus on its cause. In 2012, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled a new Plant Hardiness Zone Map, the first update since 1990. This sparked a new debate about the existence of global warming. There was criticism as to whether the USDA used too much or too little reliance upon the tenets incorporated in climate change. The map does show that planting zones have been shifting northward as our winters have become milder (of course, this past winter’s temperatures will provide cannon fodder for the skeptics). This map is an invaluable help as it sets the standard by which gardeners and professional growers judge which plants can do well within the climate of their zone.
Genetically modified (GM) crops are a hot issue today in the agricultural world. While there is a broad scientific consensus that food on the market from GM crops poses no greater risk than conventionally-produced food, there are broad differences of opinion from Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund on the questioning side to other environmental groups such as The Nature Conservancy who support the use of GM crops as beneficial to the environment. The first GM crops were grown more than thirty years ago, but today more of our food comes from this source. The food industry has started to weigh in on this issue. Whole Foods has pledged that by 2018, it will replace some foods containing GM ingredients and label others. Trader Joe’s proclaims: “No GMOs Sold Here” (GMOs being genetically-modified organisms). General Mills announced in January that it will stop using GM ingredients in Cheerios (what about its other cereals?).
These are just a few of the topics that I have discussed “In the Garden” over the past ten years. In my travels to different parts of the world, especially to less-developed countries, I have tried to describe for you the beauty of the people I have met and the landscapes I have seen, but I have also seen great poverty, poor or nonexistent healthcare, inadequate educational opportunities, and people trying to exist on very little with total dependence on subsistence farming. There have been many wonderful advances in agriculture that can help alleviate or improve the numbers of people living in poverty worldwide. I shall continue to write about what is happening locally as well as in other parts of the world—In the Garden.
So happy tenth birthday, Monocacy Monocle. May you have many more to celebrate. The Gardener.