Pesticides on College Campuses

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Pesticides on College Campuses

Across college campuses in the U.S., the use of pesticides (and to that extent, herbicide, insecticide, fungicide, etc.) remains pervasive as a convenient means of eliminating unwanted and potentially harmful organisms. Over 20,000 pesticide products are available for purchase in the U.S., a significant portion of which is directly marketed towards either lawn-care or agriculture.  Though chemical agents may be indispensable for farmers to protect crops, the enduring practice of spreading pesticides on college campuses proves to be problematic. Research has long been conducted to examine the effects of pesticide exposure to both the environment and individual well-being; various scientific articles, journals and organizations cite the indisputable links between toxic-chemical exposure and adverse health effects including cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive effects, and neurotoxicity, among others. (See this sheet for more details: http://www.beyondpesticides.org/assets/media/documents/lawn/factsheets/30health.pdf) As for the ecological effects, pesticides may leech into water sources through the soil or run-off, diminish the proliferation of beneficial microorganisms in the soil, impedes nitrogen fixation (necessary for large plants to grow), and may poison non-target wildlife.

Chemicals are not the sole method of eliminating pests, nor do the benefits of pesticides outweigh its considerable consequences. On the WILD Wes courtyard, our team continues to introduce multi-prong approaches, including biological controls, to mitigate some of our region-specific pests. Unlike chemical control, biological control relies on natural mechanisms, including predation and parasitism, and requires careful observation to minimize potential side-effects. When faced with the problem of multi-rosa and bittersweet bushes, which tend to choke out other plants, our team pulled the plants from their roots and covered the area with woodchips to prevent future growth. For gypsy moth caterpillars, the team organized various means: hand-picking, burlap sack traps, and attracting birds to the courtyard through our berry-bushes. We will continue to monitor the effectiveness of our strategies as well as implementing changes to the plans if/when necessary.  

As much as campus aesthetics are important in enticing potential college applicants, the image of the college can extend beyond the traditional notion of pristine, pest-free lawns. Maintaining surburbia is unnatural, harmful, and highly-inefficient. College campuses can still be beautiful without all that pesticide.

 

 

 

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The WILD Wes Saloon

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The WILD Wes Saloon

We are proud to introduce…the WILD Wes Saloon! 

One day while performing regular summer maintenance on the WestCo site, we found a large clear patch of old straw that was preventing new grass from growing back. After raking out this straw, one intern (Brooke ’18) decided that this would be a great place to incorporate another seating area into the site in addition to the benches that border the front area. WILD Wes (and permaculture) is, in part, about experimentation, and this new area was a great way for us to try our hand at constructing a great new place to help bring students into the courtyard. This is of course a great way to increase student interest and engagement with the site, but it would also show students that traditional landscaping/design is not the only aesthetically and logistically pleasing way to make leisure spaces. In trying to keep as sustainable as possible, we constructed this site out of recycled or donated materials, and in all, this seating area costs us under $10! Currently, the table has been painted completely white, and we are looking for student help in designing it. If you are interested in helping paint/design this tabletop please feel free to contact us! Compensation will of course be rewarded. Finally, come stop by the Saloon and hangout, play a game, and do be sure to read the sign on the outside of it for more information. 

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Hot Compost

Hot Compost

With the past two mild winters, we’ve realized that biomass in the courtyard no longer breaks down the way it used to. As a result, the once decomposition of the past perennials nourishing the winter soil for the upcoming spring/summer months no longer occurs and much of it collects in piles throughout the courtyard. Undoubtedly, an acre of land becomes not only difficult to clean up when the weather becomes warmer, but also creates mounds of grass, straw, branches, etc. As a way of addressing this reoccurring problem we’ve recently been experimenting with various composting methods, such as “hot composting”.

           

What is Hot Composting? This method involves a rather specific construction to allow for optimal decomposition of materials.

Ratio: Considering the fast rate at which we want to break down the material, nitrogen (“green” matter) is necessary. Usually, hot composting calls for a ratio of 25-30:1 (C:N). 

Construction: Rather than continuously adding to a pile, a hot compost pile needs to be built all at once. As mentioned before, it should be rather high- and the higher the better! For us, this was the most tedious, since it requires alternating thin layers of green (grass and weeds) and brown (leaves and straw) material 1.5 meters high. This ensures the same rate of decomposition and will prove a richer humus.

 Temperature: It wouldn’t be called hot compositing without this factor. The goal is to raise the temperature close to 150 degrees F in order to kill certain pathogens or seeds from decaying material. In traditional forms of composting, many avoid using grass that has gone to seed or weeds due to their tendency to grow once the humus has been placed into the ground. However, on our permaculture site we love weeds since they are nutrient dense and often indicate the state of the soil (i.e. acidity, nitrogen/carbon levels). Raising the materials up to a high temperature allows for the seeds to be killed while still utilizing the nutritious benefits of weeds and grass. It also allows for a quicker break-down of the material.

If you’re interested in doing this yourself, a good way to test the heat is to simply place your hand in the pile- if it’s too hot for comfort, it’s probably at the right temperature!

Placing a tarp over your pile also helps raise the temperature.)

Moisture and Height: These are two important factors in raising the temperature. A taller pile (roughly 1.5 meters high) generates a lot of internal heat, while the right moisture allows for quick movement of microorganisms, and, in turn, drives up the temperature. An important note: too much moisture or not enough makes it more difficult for the microorganisms to move around. Sticking your hand inside the pile is the best way to tell if it’s the right moisture- it should feel like a wrung-out sponge.

Rotation: In order to provide the pile with a lot of oxygen, rotation is vital. Rather than simply shoveling the materials around, proper hot composting methods require an entire layer-by-layer rotation. After letting the pile sit for the first four days, rigorous rotation occurs every two days until complete.  

If we eventually produce useful humus from this method, we will have added a lot of the courtyard. Not only will we be able to produce large amounts of humus to nourish our soil, but it will also allow us to make use of the dead bio-mass that collects after the mild winters.

Check our blog soon to see the different forms of compost tea we plan to make next week!

 

 

Red Currant Jam

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Red Currant Jam

Currants still on their vines 

Currants still on their vines 

Now that the cherry trees are finished producing fruit, the American Red Currants (Ribes rubrum) are providing one of their many contributions to the courtyard. The red currant bushes are located at the top of the hill on the South Side berry thicket, which helps protect against soil erosion. When placed in the right conditions (which the South side provides) the red currants require little maintenance and become vital to our ecosystem. Now early July, many of the red currants’ flowers have matured into a beautiful semi-translucent red fruit with some still to come.

Since the Mugwort and Mint wine fermentation is underway, we decided to try making jam for the first time. It turns out that red currants already have a high amount of pectin, which makes for an easy process. First, we picked the currants while still leaving plenty for passerby, such as groundhogs and birds, who help spread the seeds and enjoy these fruits too.

After picking nearly half a gallon of fruit, we crushed and subsequently boiled the combined fruit and sugar to help the congealing process. Finally, we placed the jam-to-be in sterilized glass jars and left them overnight in a cool place. 

The next morning, we had delicious jam to eat and give to others!

What to look forward to: the elderberries have just set fruit, which will be ready to eat by the end of July.

The final result!

The final result!

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"Cater-problem": The Gypsy Moth Caterpillar

In August of 1981, the New York Times published an article on the plague of New England trees: lymantria dispar or, as commonly known as, the North American gypsy moth. Contrary to their name, North American gypsy moths are not native to North America; in fact, silk farmers from Eurasia introduced the gypsy moth to Massachusetts in 1869. While the bulk of the population of gypsy moths remains in the Northeast, the gypsy moths have migrated both westward and southward, with accounts of gypsy moth infestations in Florida, Illinois and Michigan. The gypsy moth caterpillars are notorious to farmers and gardeners for their voracious appetite for leaves and propensity to reproduce, which has the potential to threaten the longevity of the many flora species they consume.

Gypsy Moth Caterpillars in the courtyard

Gypsy Moth Caterpillars in the courtyard

Beginning as clumps of eggs laid in the previous summer, the gypsy moth caterpillars surface and proceed to infest the flora in the early spring, consuming as much as 40 square inches of flora in two months. In the mid-summer, the larvae enter the pupal stage, emerging as adult gypsy moths in 14-17 days. The adult gypsy moth remains harmless to the environment; however, the gypsy moth larva remains incredibly dangerous to over 500 species of flora but especially to the well-being of hardwood trees (such as oak, maple, black cherry, hickory), defoliating and leaving the plants and trees susceptible to disease and other pests.

Defoliation itself does not severely damage the trees and shrubs; however, the consumption of leaves in tandem with other potential threats may prove to be fatal in the long run (estimated to be around 2-3 years of defoliation to completely destroy a tree). Moreover, the danger is not simply that gypsy moth caterpillars consume leaves--like many other insects, the true threat, with damage to over nine million acres of trees in the Northeast in 1981 alone, remains in their great numbers.The considerable number of gypsy moth caterpillars are the result of little to no natural resistance to impede the growth of the caterpillar population.

Often, the gypsy moth caterpillar is confused with the Eastern tent caterpillar, whose defoliation is considered less dangerous than that of the gypsy moth. To discern the difference between the two, look at the spots on the back of the caterpillar. The Eastern tent caterpillar will have a clear yellow and white stripe on their back, and often create tent-like egg nests that stretch in the spacing between branches. In contrast, gypsy moth caterpillars have four blue spots near the head with the rest of their spots being red, and predominantly create egg masses on the bark of trees.

Since the late 19th century, research has been conducted to establish a clear method of eliminating the gypsy moths, namely arsenate insecticide, which is extremely toxic to the environment, as well as less-toxic but less-effective insecticides. Other ideas include trapping gypsy moths in their adult stage using traps that cling to trees; however, given their considerable population, traps can only prevent but a small portion of the caterpillar population from intense defoliation. However, in keeping in line with permaculture theory, perhaps one of the best solutions is in biological control, meaning the introduction of predators to limit the growth of pests. One of the most effective means of eliminating the gypsy moth caterpillar is Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Thuricide, as it is commonly referred to, is a natural bacterium that, when consumed, prevents the pest from feeding and eventually leads to starvation. Considering its relatively safe properties (that do not harm soil, fruits, plants, and animals with the exception of insect pests) and long-term effectiveness, thuricide remains the pragmatic option for permaculturists to eliminate gypsy moth caterpillars.

In closely examining the trees on Wesleyan’s campus in the spring semester, one can likely spot several gypsy moth caterpillars either hanging from the tree by a silk string or positioned on the leaves/bark. The defoliation makes an audible munching noise, and one, if under a tree filled with larvae, can hear the crunching of the leaves. Currently, we are thinking of different ways to reduce the number of caterpillars while still adhering to our mission of using no fossil fuels and/or sprays in the courtyard. 

If you have any ideas on how to curb the "cater-problem" we would love the feedback!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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