Food waste reduction: It’s everyone’s job!

Our society wastes food at every point in the food chain from farms and gardens to home kitchens, restaurants, supermarkets, food service companies, and large institutions like universities that feed  thousands of people daily. Last December I was astonished to lean about the extent of food waste at the MD Food Recovery Summit organized by the Maryland Department of the Environment. 

Surplus food is the term used to describe unsold and unused food, like crops that don’t go to market because prices are too low, perishable items tossed into supermarket dumpsters, and groceries and restaurant meals bought and not eaten. 

In 2019:

  • 35% of all U.S. food went unsold or unused 
  • 23% of all surplus food is fruits and vegetables 
  • Only 15% of Maryland’s 900K+ tons of food waste was recycled 

Why it’s a problem:

  • Huge economic and environmental costs of producing surplus food
  • 1 in 6 U.S. residents are food insecure. Surplus food can feed hungry people
  • Surplus food is the #1 landfill material (24% of landfill space) 
  • Food waste in landfills generates methane, a potent greenhouse gas that can trap 28X as much heat/mass unit as CO2
  • The value of wasted food at the consumer level is $161 billion/year
Continue reading

We are still alive! How to protect pollinators in the slow season

Even when they look dry and “dead,” our green spaces are full of life. When we think about plants, for example, we can see that herbaceous perennials seem dry but they are actually just retreating underground, while annuals continue their life cycle by spending the winter as seeds in the ground. The same is true for other organisms that live in our green spaces: squirrels become less active, snakes retreat to sheltered spaces, and insects may overwinter as adults underground or in crevasses or as juveniles in their nests or chrysalises. Among these insects, there is a particular group that we seem to take a lot of effort to protect in season, but that we may then forget about in the fall and winter: our pollinators. In today’s post, I would like to talk about some specific ways that allow us to take care of our green spaces in the fall, all while continuing to support these organisms we worked so hard to support throughout the growing season.

Where are our pollinators in the winter?

As we mentioned in a previous post, pollinators don’t disappear in the winter. Instead, they either migrate to warmer conditions (like monarchs do; check out this website to know where they are now!) or stick around and overwinter right here in protected spaces such as crevasses, underground nests, and within plant stems. If we have been enjoying supporting them throughout the season, it may be a good idea to continue to do so also throughout the winter. Let’s see some ways to do this.

Continue reading

Get to know your local mantis

Carolina mantid
Carolina mantis adult female in early autumn. Notice how her wings don’t reach the end of her abdomen, as they would with our other local mantids. Photo: M. Talabac

Q:  I’ve heard that not all of our praying mantis types are native. They’re all good for garden pest control though, right, or are some bad instead?

A:  Maryland is currently home to five species of praying mantis, but only one is native, which is the Carolina mantis. The others are the European, Chinese, Narrow-winged, and Asian jumping mantids, with the latter being the most recent introduction. While non-native, the other mantids have more-or-less been integrated into our ecosystem for some time now, so they don’t necessarily need management or removal. Evidence of this includes the fact that insect-eating birds and other predators will readily consume them, and their eggs can also be parasitized by the tiny wasps that presumably evolved to have a relationship with our native mantis. In the grand scheme of things, other invasive species deserve more attention. Plus, at least they also eat various other non-native insect pests.

If you prefer to support native mantids found in your yard, make sure you’ve identified them correctly. Maryland Biodiversity Project has image galleries for each mantis species and provides a few ID tips for telling the difference between them, at least for adults and egg cases (called ootheca). Put “mantids” in the search box to see the species list.

Comparison of 5 mantis ootheca. The native Carolina mantis has a narrow gray ootheca.
Photo: Pawel Pieluszynski

Mantids are generalist predators, so can consume pest insects and beneficials like pollinators alike. They’re opportunists, nabbing anything they can subdue (including each other), so are neither universally good nor bad. Gardeners generally consider them helpers since they do consume pests, though we don’t know to what extent the non-native species may be depriving the native species of a food source due to competition. (Given how many other non-native insects exist in our area, I imagine this impact isn’t that significant, especially when compared to the greater problem of habitat loss and degradation.)

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun and Washington Gardener Magazine. Read more by Miri.

Have a plant or insect question? The University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension. Our horticulturists are available to answer your questions online, year-round.

Colorful shrubs jazz up the fall garden

Our landscapes are changing into their fall wardrobe which in many cases is brown, brown and more brown.  Add some pizzazz with shrubs with colorful leaves and berries.  As leaves lose their green chlorophyll, the underlying colors shine through in an autumn palette of red, gold, purple and orange.  Many shrubs reveal these vibrant leaf colors.

I’m a sucker for sumac.  Native varieties are already blazing red and orange along roadsides, but are often too big for the average backyard.  A better choice is a shorter cultivar such as the 3-foot ‘Gro-Low’ sumac. It’s a tough drought-resistant shrub that can handle poor soil. Its botanical name – Rhus aromatica – hints at another bonus: scented leaves.  

Fothergilla fall foliage – Image credit Miri Talabac

Also scented is native fothergilla.  Fragrant white bottlebrush blooms cover the plant in spring and in the fall it can wear red, yellow, orange and sometimes all of autumn’s colors combined.

Related to fothergilla is our native witch hazel.  Its leaves turn a sprightly yellow edged with orange in fall.  In winter it flaunts spidery yellow flowers.  Yes, it blooms in winter.

Oakleaf hydrangeas’ distinctive leaves deepen into a rich purple, red and bronze in autumn.  Their whopping blooms – like lilacs on steroids – tinge from white to mauve as they mature.

Love red?  Be kind to the environment and skip invasive burning bush which bullies out native plants.  Opt for a highbush blueberry instead which flashes the same rich red and provides food for both you and wildlife. Berries are berry – um, very – striking additions to the fall landscape.  Here are a few of my favorite berry-producing shrubs:

Viburnums are handsome, tough, pest-resistant shrubs whose praises I love to sing.  There are over 150 species and sizes run the gamut. Flower forms range from snowballs to flat-top clusters and many are fragrant.   Fall leaf colors range from rose to burgundy.  Then their berries take center stage in shades of yellow, orange, pink, red, blue and black.  Some even have two-tone berries.

I am not alone in my fondness for viburnum. Author and plantsman extraordinaire Michael Dirr says, “A garden without viburnum is akin to life without music and art.”   

The native American beautyberry stops traffic in the fall.  Somewhat nondescript much of the year, its cascading branches hold fistfuls of purple berries in autumn.  If you see it, you want it. 

Cotoneaster is another underused cascading shrub, this one dotted with red berries.  Pronounced cah-toe-knee-aster (no, not “cotton Easter,”) it looks especially fine draped over the top of a wall 

Red chokeberry – Image credit Miri Talabac

Native red chokeberry has dangling clusters of red fruits.  The ones in our demonstration garden get rave reviews when they are loaded with fruit or their abundant snowball-like spring flowers.  

Get thee to a nursery.  Enjoy a pleasant stroll while you search for just the right shrubs to enliven your fall landscape.

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

What’s digging holes in the lawn?

With the transition into the Fall season, I often find myself feeling a mixture of emotions; relief, that another growing season is coming to an end; sadness, that it went too fast; and excitement for what the next year will bring! I am sure that our animal friends also sense the need to prepare for the changing seasons and as such, over the last few days, I’ve been seeing some damage happening in my yard from an uninvited guest! 

holes and torn up grass in a lawn- skunk damage
Holes were dug in the lawn recently. Photo: A. Bodkins

Can you guess what caused this digging of the grass? This occurred in two different areas of my lawn over the course of a week. I also noticed the exact same digging at my parents’ house in this same time period.

Well, if you guessed a skunk, you are correct! An Eastern Striped Skunk to be exact, which you can learn more about by visiting the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website. These native critters are fairly small with a lot of fluff and a long tail. Their most characteristic marking is their black body with a white stripe down the middle. They are also known for their smell! 

striped skunk lookin up from a lawn
Striped Skunk Photo: © Jen Brumfield, some rights reserved
holes dug in a lawn by a skunk
Holes in the lawn from a skunk digging and searching for food. Photo: A. Bodkins


As you can probably tell from the photos, my yard is not something that I manage too closely, with a  mixture of grass types and broadleaf plants, so I am not upset that the skunk was foraging for protein sources. I am hopeful that he/she is enjoying some insects, and hopefully consuming some pest larvae like Japanese beetle grubs and slugs. 

We often discuss the benefits of creating a landscape that is rich in biodiversity and habitat for all creatures. So what do we do when we find ourselves inviting a stinky guest to dine on insects and other soil-dwelling critters? Well, for me and my family, we will use this as a teachable moment with our children and be sure that we are not leaving anything outside that would be attractive to our new friends.  Things like pumpkins for fall decorating, pet foods (or livestock feed), bird seed/feeders, trash cans, or compost scraps can be unintended foods for skunks, which are in the weasel family. At this point, we do not need to take action as my husband has only seen our guest once and it was early in the morning, which is the normal time that he should be foraging. The skunk sighting was also what helped confirm my suspicion of what was digging in the lawn.  

Remember that the skunk’s main form of defense is to “spray” a very foul-smelling liquid (butyl mercaptan) from special scent glands. Once they release their “perfume” it leaves them vulnerable with no tools for defense for a few days so that is the last thing that they want to do. They will give you a warning sign of stamping or kneading the ground. If you spy a skunk doing a handstand, you best be on the retreat though, as that is the position they use for releasing their spray!  

Mole or vole tunnels may appear to look similar to this damage, as it’s hard to tell from the photo, but this damage was not raised as you see with mole and vole tunnels. Remember, moles eat insects only, but voles will eat plants. 

Be a careful detective and look for signs of problems in the landscape, whether that is a pest, plant disease, or mammal. In our instance, we saw skunk scat and then also the actual visitor to confirm what was causing the damage to the lawn. If you need guidance on the management of a nuisance skunk, please check out the University of Maryland Extension website on skunks and never try to capture, pick up, or relocate a skunk without help from a professional. 

Happy Autumn!

By Ashley Bodkins, Senior Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Garrett County, Maryland. Read more posts by Ashley.

Bats!: The Garden Thyme Podcast

Listen to podcast

It’s Spooky Season! In this month’s episode, we sit down with Leslie Sturges of the Bat Conservation & Rescue of Virginia to talk about bats. We chat about how much we love bats and why you should also. She tells us all about the types of bat you can find in Maryland (9:53), Whitenose syndrome (17:03), how bats rear their young (23:24), and echolocation (25:50). We also put some of the vampire and other bat myths to rest (40:30). 

We also have our: 

  • Native Plant of the Month – American Persimmon (51:15)
  • Bug of the Month – Twisted winged parasites (45:01) 
  • Garden Tips of the Month (58:25)

The Garden Thyme Podcast is brought to you by the University of Maryland Extension. Hosts are Mikaela Boley- Senior Agent Associate (Talbot County) for Horticulture, Rachel Rhodes- Agent Associate for Horticulture (Queen Anne’s County), and Emily Zobel-Senior Agent Associate for Agriculture (Dorchester County).

Theme Song: By Jason Inc

The good and the bad of carpenter bees: Can we get along?

Although we may love them with all our hearts, it is true that every one of our most beloved friends and family have sides that at times make us mad… and that’s no reason for us to love them less. I feel our relationship with pollinators and other beneficial insects is similar to that which we have with our loved ones: pollinators pollinate and play an important role in native plant reproduction and food production… and sometimes can become a nuisance if not properly managed. As for our loved ones, the fact that pollinators can become a nuisance shouldn’t stop us from supporting them; we just need to learn how to sustain our relationship while controlling its negative aspects. In today’s post we’ll talk about one pollinator in particular, with which our relationship can sometimes become complicated. Let’s talk about carpenter bees.

What are carpenter bees?

In our area, carpenter bees are large bees belonging to the bee genus Xylocopa. If you enjoy being outdoors, I am pretty sure you have already seen them. A very common species in our region is the eastern carpenter bee, which is about the size of a bumblebee, has a “dot” on its back and dark wings, and when exposed to the sun, has a shiny abdomen. These bees are very common in our area, and are very regular floral visitors of many ornamental and food-producing plants.

The eastern carpenter bee (left), a native to the mid-Atlantic, has a shiny abdomen, while bumblebees (right) have fuzzy and hairy abdomens. Photos: J. Gallagher, Wikimedia: R. Hodnett.

Because they are about the same size as bumblebees, carpenter bees are often confused with them. To differentiate them, a look at their abdomen will quickly allow us to know who’s who; carpenter bees have shiny abdomens, while bumblebees have very fuzzy and hairy abdomens.

The life cycle of a carpenter bees

It’s not random that carpenter bees are called that way. Their life cycle is tightly linked to wood, in which females dig holes to build their nests. Carpenter bees have impressive mandibles that they can use to chew soft wood to dig galleries in it. Although they may seem impressive, these are peaceful bees that sting only if physically and aggressively disturbed. In the spring, males of these bees establish and defend their territories, a strategy that will win them a female to mate with. During this defense, they “chase away” other males but also people who may be close to what they consider their spaces. These males are harmless, however, since they have no stingers and thus can’t sting.

the life cycle of carpenter bees from spring to fall
Life cycle of a carpenter bee. Photo: NC State Extension.

The life cycle of these bees goes hand-in-hand with the season. In the early spring the hibernating adults emerge, mate, and the females build their nests in the wood. These nests consist of galleries, at the end of which the females lay eggs and store food (nectar and pollen) for the developing larva. The larvae develop throughout the spring and summer, and by the end of the summer emerge as adults. These adults are the carpenter bees we usually see flying in the early fall. Once the weather starts becoming chillier, at the beginning of the winter, these adults return to some of the cavities and overwinter there, emerging the following spring, to restart the cycle.

Why can carpenter bees become a nuisance?

As we saw above, carpenter bees nest in wood. If a house or any structure is built of wood, they may pick it to build their nests. When this happens, these bees have the potential to affect the integrity of our wooden buildings. So, we see that while these bees are very important pollinators native to our region, this particular aspect is the one that can be problematic in our relationship with them. The good news is that there are solutions for this!

a carpenter bee seeks a nest side in wood
Carpenter bees nest in wood, which sometimes can be a part of human buildings. Knowing how to proactively protect wooden structures is the best way to manage this helpful native pollinator, while protecting our buildings. Photo: H. Jacoba.

If there are no nests yet in the wood

The best solution is of course not the reactive, but the proactive one. If we have important wood structures that we don’t want to see occupied by these bees, the best we can do is first to use hardwood (which these bees tend to dislike) and/or to treat the wood. The treatment consists in painting or varnishing the wood, which will deter the adults from nesting in it. A very good treatment is coating the wood with almond oil in the spring, which will deter the bees from choosing that section to nest.

Another proactive action that can be taken along with wood staining is to distract the bees from the wood that we want to protect. To do this, one can use pieces of wood that one may not be interested in keeping, and displaying them in other parts of the open spaces so that females choose to nest in those surfaces instead of in the wood we want to protect. Besides protecting the wood, this also allows us to support these important native pollinators from our region, all while reducing the potential negative impacts on our buildings.

If bees are already established in the wood

If carpenter bees are already established, there are several options. First, if the number of nests is really low, and if the structure can be removed and replaced, then this should be done and the new wood structure should be stained to protect it. If possible, the piece of wood that is removed can then be placed elsewhere in the green spaces around the property, which will provide nesting resources for this pollinator, and will simultaneously protect the house and support native pollinators.

carpenter bees flying around holes in old wood
Carpenter bees can sometimes establish many nests in structural materials. If this affects the integrity of the building, more extreme actions may be needed. Photo: JoeyZ51.

If the piece of wood can’t be removed and, in particular, if the nests appear to jeopardize the integrity of the building, a more radical action should be taken. In that case, the use of insecticides can be considered. If this path is taken, it is important to not perform insecticide applications without proper knowledge, meaning that this should be done by an expert applicator. This point is really important, because non-targeted and improper insecticide treatments can lead to a lower efficiency of the treatment on the carpenter bees, and the death of other non-target beneficial insects (e.g., other bees, beneficial pest control insects, etc.) that may become in contact with the treated region.

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

Anahí also writes an Extension Blog in Spanish! Check it out here, 
extensionesp.umd.edu, and please share and spread the word to your Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues in Maryland. ¡Bienvenidos a Extensión en Español!