Are You Waging Chemical Warfare in your Yard?

    Silent Spring, that’s what Rachel Carson titled her 1962 book that investigated the disappearance of neighborhood songbirds.  Her expose linking the use of chemical pesticides to the decline of wildlife species, spurred the environmental movement of the sixties.

    We often hear of environmental disasters caused by big companies.  But, many people do not think about how their own actions may contribute to the level of toxic chemicals in our environment.  It is important to realize that “we all live upstream” and chemicals we use may combine and become more concentrated and affect those that live further downstream. Many of our waterways, such as the Hood Canal, are extremely sensitive because of the slow rate at which the water is exchanged and ultimately diluted in larger bodies of water such as the Pacific Ocean.

Reducing Chemicals    Gardeners use various types of chemicals in their yards. Pesticides include insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, rodenticides, and slug baits.  Petroleum-based chemical fertilizers, although generally not as toxic as pesticides, can cause severe problems in lakes, rivers and bays, encouraging algal blooms and limiting the amount of oxygen for fish and other animals.

    The best way to avoid using pesticides is to grow plants that are not as susceptible to insect damage and disease.  I curse my apple trees because all I ever get are scabby, wormy apples.  On the other hand, I love my plum tree and blueberry bushes.  They produce bountiful crops with little care!  If you grow troublesome species such as apples or roses, try to select varieties that are disease resistant.  If a plant becomes too much of a problem it is better to be ruthless with the plant and replace it with something else than to spend the time and money on chemicals to kill its pests.

    Make sure you diagnose plant problems correctly.  Don’t be in a rush to spray at the first sign of a “bug” or a little nibbling.  Try to tolerate a little damage.  The problem may take care of itself naturally.  Be able to recognize beneficial organisms such a ladybug larva.

    Baits are preferable to spraying because they limit exposure to nontarget organisms.  If you decide to spray, use the least toxic alternative.  Read the Label!  Chemicals labeled Danger are highly toxic, Warning means moderately toxic, and Caution means mildly toxic.  These warnings, however, will not tell you if it is carcinogenic or mutagenic, only how many lab animals it killed in testing.  Only buy the amount you need, following the recommended application rates, at the proper time– no matter how desperate you are to eradicate the pest!  Avoid “double-duty” products such as “weed & feeds.” Also, just because a product is from a natural source does not mean it is safe, although it may be less persistent in the environment.

    I rarely use any chemicals in my yard any more.  My resident garter snake population takes care of most of my slugs.  In my gardens, I use only Tagro, compost, and organic fertilizers.  The use of slow-release chemical fertilizers is limited to my container plants.  I do, however, spray my foundation when necessary to discourage Carpenter Ants from eating my house.  Weeds present the biggest challenge to avoiding chemical use.  Planting groundcovers and mulching discourage some but there are always plenty of weeds that need to be pulled! 

    Reducing chemical use in the garden requires tolerance of some other organisms—such as insects and weeds.  Maybe, eventually, you can convince your neighbor that, to save our planet, it’s not so important to have a perfect, weed-free lawn!

(This article was first published in the Peninsula Gateway on Apr 15, 2009 as Is there Chemical Warfare in your yard?”

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