It’s tempting to reach for the chemical sprays or powders when your walk into your garden and find your favorite rose overrun with aphids or Japanese beetles, or find your cauliflower beset by cabbage worms. After all, what harm can a localized spray possibly do?
The answer is quite a lot. The fact is 90% or more of all insects are beneficial and harmless, and no matter how “localized” the spray, the chemical will kill all insects — not just the “pests.” A diverse collection of insects in your garden/yard translates into good pollination and fruit development, and a natural, non-toxic check on the growth of “pests.” We need insects in the ecosystem. The alternative would be hand-pollinating our fruit and vegetables to continue our food supply. Clearly not a viable or reasonable alternative.
And, as I will mention no doubt countless times in the course of this blog, beneficial insects, if allowed to flourish, will curb the spread of pests. The two most effective ways to encourage beneficial insects is to avoid using all chemical sprays and fertilizers in your garden/yard, and to plant with beneficial insects in mind. In other words, create mixed borders and gardens by planting various types of flowers, shrubs, herbs and vegetables together. A rose under-planted with other enticing flowers will suffer fewer Japanese beetles, then will the traditional, formal, mono-culture rose garden.
The same ban should apply to the use of synthetic fertilizers, such as the ever popular “blue stuff” (i.e., Miracle-Gro), or the various types of fertilizers used to produce the perfect, weed-free lawn so favored by suburban America. Each of these poses dangers to water (seeping into ground water or flowing into streams and rivers, which then carry the chemicals into the ocean creating the algae blooms that have become an increasingly significant pollution issue), wildlife, and humans.
The alternatives are easy and so much healthier for us, our local wildlife and the planet. First, use compost instead of synthetic fertilizers to feed the soil and your plants. Even if you have a small urban or suburban yard, you can easily create a compost bin in a discreet corner of your yard, or buy one of the bins that can be easily rotated (available at most garden stores). Toss all vegetable/green matter, eggshells, coffee grounds, and yard clippings onto the pile (avoid adding weeds, leaves, or woody material unless your compost pile maintains a high internal temperature). Flip periodically, and eventually it will decompose and create a beautiful, rich compost that will add nutrients to your soil. It can be as simple as that!
My solution for the perfect lawn is to “get over it.” You can have beautiful “green space” without worrying about the perfect lawn. Learn to live with different types of grasses, dandelions and clover. Personally I prefer the imperfect green space with its low-lying wildflowers that provide additional food for bees, and a much more hospitable environment for insects and grubs, which in turn provide toxin-free food for the local birds.
If you’ve always used pesticides and you suddenly stop, you likely will see a small explosion of aphids and other pests. This is temporary, until your garden/yard can re-establish a natural balance. Be patient and don’t succumb to non-organic means of control out of frustration. While you wait for your landscape to re-balance itself, use methods such as handpicking pests and dropping them into buckets of soapy water, applying nematodes in spring and fall to your soil to reduce the slug and Japanese beetle population, hosing aphids off plants and/or laying down rings of crushed eggshells or spent coffee grounds around the base of plants to prevent slug and snail damage — each of these methods allow for control of the pest populations without wiping out the beneficial insects as collateral damage.