Monday, June 7, 2010

Least Toxic Pest Control

I wrote this article for 'Florida Gardening' magazine ( a GREAT magazine by the way!) in 2005, but the techniques and principles mentioned are viable in any climate zone. John

Who among us hasn’t had a favorite plant chewed to bits by hordes of bugs, or watched their lawn quickly transform into a collage of brown and green as some weird fungus among us quietly attacked? And we’ve also noticed helpful critters in our gardens…lady bugs, lace wings, wasps, spiders, lizards, birds and snakes all filling their tummies with tasty plant-feeding insects and mites, ignoring the foul-tasting carnivorous beneficial bugs (like lady bugs) the way we humans don’t eat lions and coyotes. Bees and butterflies zip from bloom to bloom, pollinating our fruits and veggies.

A healthy landscape is also one with fertile soil teeming with beneficial microorganisms, and a diverse mix of plants harboring more carnivorous beneficial critters than plant-damaging herbivores. And once this balance is achieved gardening requires far less work and expense while offering vastly more joy and relaxation.

The trouble with non-selective pesticides, even natural ones, like rotenone and pyrethrin and tobacco tea, is that unless they are used as spot treatments, they tend to kill off ALL the inhabitants in the garden so that a big population of beneficials is never established. So much damage ensues that one feels one MUST use pesticides once again, ad infinitum. I call these toxic chemicals "Agricultural Crack" since one can never use enough of them often enough!

Yet those of us who garden organically, relying on the same principals of ecological balance that have largely sustained this planet for over 4 billion years, even through the traumas of global extinctions equivalent to spraying your entire yard with diazinon or benomyl , have gardens remarkably free of pest issues. By not using fungicides and insecticides and instead focusing on creating healthy soil, in time we end up with many billions of allies in the garden controlling pests for us.

As with any philosophy, there are "wild eyed fundamentalists" in the realm of organic gardening demanding absolute "purity", condemning for example using soap spray because "it can irritate mucous membranes in the eyes", or using tap water in the garden because it contains chlorine. But the vast majority of organic gardeners simply want to protect their lawns, gardens, children, pets, the environment and their budgets.

Many of us native Floridians remember the fire ant pesticide Mirex almost wiping out our beloved native pelicans (but not the fire ants!) in the 60’s and 70’s till it was banned, just as this nation almost lost the bald eagle to DDT. And think of the many thousands of wells now capped off due to toxic herbicides leaching into the groundwater, herbicides that their manufacturers thought would stay put in the soil then break down harmlessly.

But I prefer shades of gray to black and white, and so rely on a few least toxic pest control tips that have helped me and my clients over the years to cheaply and easily defeat the villains while the good guys are multiplying. Folks who do use artificial pesticides have noble goals…protect the food supply and human health and the beauty of the garden. Gardening organically meets those goals while protecting environmental health so together let’s explore some middle-of-the-road alternatives to either extreme of wanton pesticide use or fanatical environmentalism.

A favorite pesticide of many gardeners is……..water. Yup water! A boiling tea kettle of it will cruelly but effectively nuke a fire ant nest or weeds in the seams of sidewalks. A daily morning rinse of it from a spray nozzle on your roses can do wonders to reduce powdery mildew by washing off the air borne spores. A sharp coarse spray of it will blast off thousands of aphids, white fly and spider mites from okra, junipers, roses, tomatoes and potted plants. It also rinses off the dust that spider mites love to live in.

Water is precious, so using it to control pests also helps us water our plants well within the hand watering guidelines of current restrictions… "two birds with one stone" as they say. And water is a selective pesticide doing little harm to beneficial lady bugs, lace wings and assassin bugs to name just a few. And it poses no danger to visiting birds, our children or pets whereas a friend of mine nearly killed her neighbor’s dog by using poison granules on a fire ant nest. A yard safe for ladybugs is safe for our families and butterflies and birds.

Water has sustained life on this planet for billions of years, and it is central to a healthy yard, farm or garden. Hey, a pesticide I can brush my teeth with makes sense to me!

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