Wild Lawns, Home-Brewed Fertilizer, Overwintered Kale, Avoiding Neonics

Butterfly and sunflower
photo: Olivia Marshall

by Elisabeth Marshall

The news from the wider world is decidedly discouraging this spring, even as flowers brighten our gardens and frogs have begun their nightly song in the slough out in back of the house. Ukraine spring wheat planting is perilously delayed. In China, winter grain harvests, because of drought, are half of what was hoped for — though spring yields are forecast to be better. Fuel is unaffordable and diesel is being rationed, even with federal reserves being released. Fertilizer prices are beyond the reach of many home gardeners and farmers, and everything from tools to seeds is more expensive than seems warranted.

But, in spite of, or possibly because of the harrowing news, people are making gardens everywhere! This year seed saving and home fertilizer brewing are common subjects of casual conversation among gardeners. Wild lawns, instead of mown expanses, look especially pretty and practical with gas prices at pain-inducing levels. Our learning curve is steeper than ever, our determination renewed, our appetites for local resourcefulness whetted.

Wild lawns are gaining in popularity through organizations such as the Xerces Society, which publishes a website called Bee City USA (https://beecityusa.org). Here’s where you can learn about the benefits of not mowing and how to establish a healthy lawn, while saving water, gas, labor … and bees! You will find lists of plants to seed among the usual lawn grasses to attract bees and other beneficial insects to your garden.

I found the suggestions at Bee City for how to design and manage a bee lawn as part of a larger garden very helpful in envisioning a more layered plant ecosystem for one of our orchards. We’re planting Bock 14 comfrey, horseradish, flax, yarrow, monarda, hyssop, phacelia, thyme, marjoram, nasturtiums, mints, golden rod, sneezeweed, aster, violets, milkweed, coreopsis, dill, lungwort, and daffodils in the lower orchard this  year — dandelions and burdock already proliferate there with white clover, red currants, blueberries, kiwi berries, and grapes. 

All of these will contribute to the health of our trees — they open the soil with deep tap roots; lure beneficial insects to feed on destructive pests; feed bees and other pollinators; disgust and repel hungry, little rodents; and deposit large amounts of nitrogen when they die back and decay. They make the orchard a busy (buzzy?) intersection where otherwise far-flung life gathers and collaborates.

Home-Brewed Fertilizer
Some of the plants I’ll be establishing will go into my home-brewed fertilizer which can be used as either a drench or a foliar feed. Stinging nettle which is mostly limited to our hedgerows and sunny stream edges and the comfrey which will colonize the orchard, will be especially important ingredients in our concoction. 

Both will be gathered, bruised, weighted, and left to steep with plain well water for a month or so, somewhere covered and out of the way where the strong, fermenting stench will not be noticed. When it’s finished, it’s strained and diluted to a weak tea color. The solids go on the compost and the diluted liquid can be sprayed on or poured around plants. The comfrey plants also act as an effective indirect pesticide by attracting spiders, lacewings and parasitoid wasps to the garden.

Neonicotinoids (Neonics)
Speaking of pesticides, this is the season to add new plants to your landscape and expand your food gardens, so sourcing ornamentals, trees, vegetable transplants, and all your seeds is crucial. There has been a lot of attention paid to the deadly consequences to pollinators, especially bees, of using neonicotinoids in our gardens. But, did you know that neonics, as they’re commonly called, are now the most widely used pesticides in the world? Deployed against a wide array of chewing insects, worms, and beetles, neonics are applied as coatings on seeds for many food crops that cover more than 150 million acres in the United States.

Neonics applied to seeds are taken up and passed on to whomever eats them through all the plant parts: roots, stems, leaves, fruit, pollen, and nectar. Neonics can be sprayed onto plant foliage or applied as soil drenches, as well. While seed coating is the most common application method, the other methods often use an even heavier amount of the chemical. 

Targeted and non-targeted species are affected by neonics. Caterpillars that feed on the plants, butterflies that sip the nectar or any bees collecting pollen are poisoned if neonics are present. The chemical disrupts the central nervous system of insects and other invertebrates and causes paralysis and death. Neonics are toxic to both honey bees and bumblebees, and are a recognized causative factor in honey bee Colony Collapse Disorder.

Neonics are highly water soluble and readily leach into soils and waterways where they have been found in birds, fish and mammals. Birds who have eaten minuscule amounts of treated seeds show navigational disorientation and significant weight loss. These result in prolonged or delayed migration and missed mating opportunities. It is believed these factors have contributed to a drastic reduction in the numbers of songbirds worldwide.

The European Union banned the use of three neonics with the active ingredients thiamethoxam, imidacloprid or clothianidin in September 2020, except in “emergency situations.” However, several EU countries continue to manufacture and export neonics to low- and middle-income nations with weaker environmental regulations, such as Brazil (which was due to receive almost half of the exports), Russia, Ukraine, Argentina, Iran, South Africa, Indonesia, Ghana, Mali and Singapore.

As long as neonics are unregulated in the United States, it is up to each of us to exercise the wisdom our government lacks. Always ask the nursery, grower or seedsman/woman if their stock is treated with neonics before you buy. There are many in Whatcom County who will not use or sell treated products. Support them!

Overwintered Kale
It is still early spring, but after such a hard-bitten winter, lots of gardeners are champing at the bit to get out in the dirt and sow and reap as soon as possible. 

Our farm’s earliest vegetable is overwintered kale with spring buds and leaves. It is so good prepared so many ways — in soups, in salads, as part of a pan sauce or a stir fry, in pasta, with beans and sausage, with fish, and in Goma Ae — a Japanese salad. This salad is fantastic made with spinach or broccoli or green beans or asparagus — a lot of things will work here. But, I particularly like this kale bud and leaf version for its frugality, homeliness, and its simple reflection of a sparse present, but a promising season ahead. It is delicious served with meat, fish, chicken, tofu or seitan. Rice is nice, too.

Kale Bud and Leaf Goma Ae — 

Serves 4


 8 oz. kale bud and leaf tips

 3 T. toasted sesame seeds

 1 ½ T. soy sauce

 1 T. sugar

 ½ teaspoon mirin, optional

 ½ teaspoon sake, optional

Toast sesame seeds in a frying pan over moderate heat until they start to pop and color.  Remove them from the pan and put them in a mortar. Grind the seeds fine with a pestle, but leave a few whole for texture. Mix the other sauce ingredients with the ground sesame seeds and set aside.

Wash the kale and leave the buds and leaf tips whole — no need to chop them. Bring a saucepan of salted water to a boil.  Add the kale and cook it until just tender — about 1-2 minutes. Pour into a strainer and run under cold water to cool rapidly. Gently squeeze out excess water and let cool completely to room temperature. Add and gently mix in sesame mixture. Refrigerate. Serve cold or let come back to room temperature.


Elisabeth Marshall and her family have lived in Whatcom County for 40 years. They grow fruit, vegetables, flowers, eggs, sea salt, and peonies on their island Full Bloom Farm. They sell their goods at their farm stand, which is open from April through December and at the Lummi Island Farmers Market.


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