Advice for the eco-minded.
|Joel W. Rogers/Corbis
I’m switching over to environmentally friendly cleaning products, but what should I do with the old, toxic ones? Trash them? Use them? Push them to the back of the cabinet?
—Jennifer Thorn, Charleston, SC
Toxic chemicals—whether from cleaning products, home improvements, or car repairs—never belong in the regular trash, nor should they be poured down the drain. Eventually these chemicals can make their way into water supplies, by either leaching from landfills or entering directly through sewage or storm drains. Nobody wants to swim in a toxic soup or drink it.
When you switch to environmentally friendly cleaning products, you have several options for dealing with what remains of the old stuff. You can use up the bottles, perhaps in areas where you and your family don’t spend as much time—in the basement, the attic, the garage. Giving away your stock of multipurpose sprays and mopping agents is another option; while you may not want potentially toxic substances under your sink, there are plenty of people or organizations that are going to continue buying conventional products, whether you do or not, and your donation could help out.
Finally, advises Dave Deegan, spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency’s New England office, you can take unwanted industrial cleaners to your town or county’s municipal toxic waste collection facility. If you are confused about how poisonous those bottles under your sink are, make sure you read the labels. Toxic substances are required by law to be labeled as such. If the description says the substance is corrosive, reactive, ignitable, or poisonous, it’s imperative to follow local guidelines for the best disposal option. Most towns offer one or several days every year when they collect toxic household wastes, but the rules vary between municipalities, says Deegan, so it’s best to check with your local sanitation department.
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Everyone in my neighborhood bags up their fallen leaves each autumn and puts them in the trash. Are there better alternatives to getting rid of leaves? Is this practice removing something that’s important for the wildlife visiting my yard?
—Jon Campbell, New London, WI
For many people, autumn wouldn’t be the same without the annual ritual of amassing giant leaf piles. But when you bag leaves and ship them to the dump, you’re removing important ingredients from the local ecosystem. “Leaves have mined phosphorus, nitrogen, and other nutrients from the soil,” says Anthony Garza Jr., the supervisor of horticulture and grounds at the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley. “By leaving leaf litter, or alternatively, composting your leaves, you’re keeping those nutrients on-site.”
The environmental benefits are as plentiful as the colorful leaves spiraling off your trees. When left to break down naturally, detritus can reduce soil-transmitted plant diseases and the need for chemical fertilizers. A pile of dead leaves fosters bacteria, fungi, and insects, providing food for salamanders, birds, and small mammals. Leaf litter can also offer an insulating winter cover for such animals as frogs, toads, and queen bumblebees.
Unless you live in a fire-prone area (dead, dry leaves could fuel a conflagration), consider leaving some parts of your backyard unraked, or chop up the leaves with a shredder or lawn mower and spread them on a planting bed. It will save time during fall cleanup, and you won’t have to water your plants as often—the leafy mulch will slow evaporation. You don’t even have to worry about what your yard will look like next to a neighbor’s orderly turf, because Garza offers a clever way to disguise your good deed: “You can tidy up and landscape with woody mulch right on top of the leaf litter."
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|Randy M. Ury/Corbis
How can I attract migrating monarch butterflies to my garden?
—Josephine Barker, Big Sur, CA
If you’re noticing fewer eye-catching orange-and-black monarch butterflies these days, your vision isn’t failing you. Scientists suspect a number of culprits have combined to significantly reduce monarch butterfly populations in recent years—intense storms, more-variable-than-usual temperatures, genetically modified crops, loss of habitat, and herbicides and pesticides. Monarchs are the marathon migrants of the butterfly world, traveling up to 3,000 miles between their northernmost breeding areas in Canada and their southernmost wintering grounds in the high mountains of Mexico. With such a long migration route, you are likely to see some monarch butterflies fluttering through your garden, no matter where you live.
Michael Fox of the Gardener’s Resource Center at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens in New York says there are several essential provisions that can make your garden plot more appealing to monarchs: a sunny site protected from the wind, leaf litter habitat for caterpillars, and a wide variety of native flowering plants of different heights, scattered over as much area as possible (which helps the butterflies avoid predators).
Most important, don’t use pesticides. “In gardens they will kill caterpillars, and where there are no caterpillars there will be, ultimately, no butterflies,” says Fox. Avoid even insecticides sometimes marketed as “environment friendly,” such as Bacillus thuringiensis (commonly known as Bt). Bt is a naturally occurring insect-killing bacteria often used to destroy crop-crunching caterpillars, but it doesn’t discriminate; monarchs and other butterflies can also succumb to its toxicity.
When choosing plants for your garden, select native species that can provide food to monarchs in each of their life stages. Monarchs typically lay their eggs on milkweed, the primary food source for their larvae, and most areas of the country host a native variety, so check with your local botanical garden or cooperative extension office for the best local choice. Butterfly bush should be avoided when it’s invasive in your region; if it’s growing in your garden, remove the blooms as soon as they are wilted to prevent further spread of the plant. Some of the flora that can offer energy-packed nectar to migrating monarchs include black-eyed Susans, blazing star, purple coneflower, goldenrod, aster, and yarrow, but whenever you are choosing wildlife-friendly plants, make sure they are native to your specific region. (For more information on butterfly gardens, click here).
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