Life without chemical pesticides

Insects: Other ways to get rid of pesky bugs beckon, now that the EPA has banned Dursban and diazinon.

In The Garden

April 08, 2001|By Suzanne Richardson | Suzanne Richardson,Special to the Sun

As warm weather approaches, serious gardeners have one thing on their minds: What are we going to do without Dursban? Or diazinon?

Since the 1960s, Americans have been sprinkling these chemical pesticides on their lawns, shrubs and vegetables like sugar on their breakfast cereal. Now we're going to have to go on a diet.

The Environmental Protection Agency has banned both products for over-the-counter sale, concluding, after years of study, that certain chemicals they contain, such as chlorpyrifos and organo-phosphates, increase our risk of brain damage, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and other kinds of cancers.

The ban will take effect this growing season, and the impact will be major for home gardeners. Results from the 1992 National Home and Garden Pesticide Use Survey, as reported by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, reveal that "more than 63 percent of households surveyed had one to five pesticides in storage. Moreover, homeowners use up to ten times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers and spend more per acre, on average, to maintain their lawns than farmers spend per acre on crops."

Translation: Householders assume that if the label calls for two tablespoons, five will do the job better.

Does this mean we hapless homeowners will have to stand idly by while legions of mealy bugs, thrips and earwigs decimate our gardens? Of course not. With the home-gardening market growing as fast as Jack's famous beanstalk, producers are responding to the problem, or the opportunity, depending on which side of the fence you're on.

Going green

Ronn Barnett's an old-timer. A farm boy, with 33 years of experience in the seed and nursery business, you'd expect he'd wax nostalgic about the good ol' days of DDT and chlordane -- he doesn't. "The people dying most of cancer are farmers," says Barnett. "But no matter what you tell them, they always say the same thing: 'My mind's made up; don't confuse me with the facts.' "

Barnett manages the garden shop for American Plant Food (APF), in Bethesda, a third-generation business owned by the Shorb family. APF removed 95 percent of toxic pesticides from its shelves two years ago; this year, feeling they have a solution to most scourges in the area, APF has gone completely "green."

Barnett patiently deciphers the multisyllabic contents of each bag and bottle before it goes on the shelf. The longevity of the product determines whether it's a keeper: "That's the guiding light when we choose a product: that it doesn't last, it biodegrades and it isn't carcinogenic," says Barnett.

Within those parameters, the latest generation of pesticides offers the same deadly intent as their forebears -- they just do their business a little differently. Rather than attack the insect's nervous system, for instance, Hot Pepper Wax both suffocates and repels its victims; neem oil, a natural insecticide and fungicide derived from the neem tree, disrupts the insect's molting process; pesticidal soaps and diatomaceous earth (derived from fossilized algae) wear down the insect's outer covering, allowing vital liquids to leak.

Some of these organic controls are "food grade" -- you can sprinkle them on the kitchen counter or spray them on your vegetable garden without fear of toxicity. In fact, some of the ingredients read like a good salad dressing: garlic, lemon, vinegar and mint oil.

Two other natural controls complete the arsenal of organic pest control: biological controls and beneficial insects. Both of these introduce living organisms into the garden that look upon our unwelcome guests as a pretty good meal. Milky spore thrives on Japanese beetle larvae; Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) favors bag worms, gypsy moth and caterpillars. Beneficial insects, including lady bugs, praying mantis and decollate snails, will also happily feast on aphids, leaf hoppers or even slugs. These approaches have the advantage of specificity; you can target the intruder rather than spray a large affected area.

It all sounds like a win-win situation -- no pests and no poisons -- and who can argue with that? But for busy Americans, mostly confined to weekend gardening, new organic approaches may take some adjustment. As Barnett puts it, "We have to educate just about every consumer that walks in the door about a whole new way of taking care of plants -- natural products are very effective, but they do require a little more diligence."

The questions most consumers ask are not surprising; but some of the answers are. Price, as expected, is a little more, but not much. Joanne Engler, co-owner of Necessary Organics, a natural lawn and garden supplier in Bloomington, Minn., estimates the difference in price is about 10 percent. "Our products are a little more expensive, but the people who buy them tend to go with the philosophy that less is more; they use as little as they can get away with, and apply more if necessary. That really keeps the price down."

Organics effective

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