Some alternatives to using poisons in the garden

Some alternatives to using poisons in the garden

The focus of my previous column was how the petrochemical industry has convinced many of us to declare war on nature, especially on weeds and garden pests. Scientific studies tell us most of the products we use not only kill beneficial insects and nontarget plants, but also affect our health.

Only a small fraction of the over 50,000 compounds in use have been tested for toxicity. This can be attributed to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, which does not require chemicals to be proven safe before use.

This war also affects our wallets. A report by Market Research said U.S. citizens spent close to $2.4 billion in 2020 on home and garden pesticides. In his book, “American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn,” Ted Steinberg said, “More than $40 billion are spent on the lawns in North America yearly.”

The industry wants us to buy their products regardless of the dangers they pose to our health and our environment. A 1989 report in the Fordham Environmental Law Review looked at the 1947 Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. This law was put in place to monitor pesticides for health effects. The report basically said the law “has no teeth,” and “costs and benefits” are often the reason most of the pesticides have been approved.

So what can we do to control certain pests in our homes, yards and gardens without harming ourselves and without spending a lot of money? There are several options that are safe and much cheaper than buying petrochemical products, products which are long-lasting in our environment as well as toxic.

We can buy organic-based products, we can incorporate pest-deterring planting techniques and we can even make our own pests-control concoctions with safe household substances.

A natural product that can be purchased to control pests such as fleas is diatomaceous earth or DE. It is made from the ground-up bodies of prehistoric diatoms. Our family used it to kill fleas in the wall-to-wall carpeting in a previous home.

DE also is effective for slugs, mites, spiders, beetles, worms and other insects. The tiny pieces of diatoms scrape the lungs and respiratory systems of the pests but are safe for humans, pets and wildlife. However, if you have a respiratory condition or are particularly susceptible to fine particles, you should avoid breathing in the dust.

As a kid, I never worried about ticks, but they are now an issue in most of Ohio. Over the past 10 years, our family and many of my hiking friends are finding an increase of these little pests on their clothing and bodies. Deer ticks are known to carry Lyme disease, a disease which has quickly spread across the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the disease has been reported in all 50 states and is becoming more prevalent in Ohio’s eastern counties.

A study published in the National Institute of Health reported when it came to using essential oils against ticks, “oregano essential oil was the most effective among all essential oils tested, followed by clove, thyme, vetiver, sandalwood, cinnamon, cedarwood and peppermint oils.”

N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide or DEET works better at killing ticks, but studies suggest it’s an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor and that this action may result in neurotoxicity and pose a risk to humans from its use as an insect repellent. Consider the risks of DEET when used on small children or pregnant women. Essential oils are a safer alternative.

DEET also has been used as a mosquito repellent for decades, but research is showing mosquitoes are now becoming immune to DEET. Once again, essential oils are being investigated as repellents.

This month’s issue of Popular Science discusses the effectiveness of oils. Nepetalactone, the active ingredient in catnip, has the ability to trigger a powerful irritant receptor in flies and mosquitoes. It acts like a tear gas.

Last August the EPA approved nootkatone, an essential oil found in grapefruits, to be used as a bug spray. This substance may be commercially available by 2022.

Many of us are already using another essential oil, citronella, as a bug repellent. While it needs to be reapplied more often than DEET (every 30-60 minutes), your skin will not smell like industrial chemicals, and the oil is nontoxic to humans and other mammals.

Spiders are great in the garden but may be unwelcome in your home. The Farmer’s Almanac gives several natural ways to control spiders. You can mix up water sprays with a touch of white vinegar, citrus oil, peppermint oil or cedar oil. These sprays repel spiders and some other insects. They are all nontoxic and actually leave your house smelling fresh.

Companion planting is a technique used by gardeners to trick insects. Planting garlic in close proximity to other vegetables helps deter insects from munching on the plants. Many rodents do not like bulbs in the allium family. If you want to discourage moles and voles from eating your spring bulbs, pop an onion in with the bulbs. Deer also are not fond of garlic and onion bulbs.

Slugs have decimated my chrysanthemum plants in the past. They come out at night and munch on leaves and flowers, leaving a slimy trail behind them. There are several home remedies that help control slugs; one is beer. Place a shallow container filled with beer near the plants being affected. The slugs “over indulge” and end up drowning in beer. Copper also repels slugs. A few pennies, a piece of copper wire or copper tape placed around a plant helps.

Vine borers have killed many of my summer squash plants. A simple technique our son uses to thwart these insects are row covers. You can buy them at any garden center. They can keep the plants safe, acting like blankets that allow sun and water in but stop the flying vine borers. In some cases you might have to pollinate the blossoms of the squash by hand as pollinators are unable to reach flowers covered by the cloth.

Every garden needs a toad. Toads eat slugs and snails — up to 10,000 in a single summer. How does one hang out the welcome sign for a toad? An easy way is to make a “toad abode.” Lay a clay pot horizontally in the soil and bury the lower half. This creates a cool, moist “toad cave.” You also can place a clay pot upside down on top of rocks. Take a few rocks out to create an entrance to a toad home.

Instead of working against nature, we need to incorporate nature’s team of beneficial organisms and remember “a weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows.”

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