To Spray or Not to Spray?

Wednesday 7-4-2012

I was a commercial landscaper for 12 years, and I was a licensed pesticide applicator for turf, trees and shrubs, so I have certainly applied my share of insecticides, miticides, fungicides, fertilizers, and herbicides. As a landscaper, we used the products to save labor, and of course to make nice, neat, perfect landscapes without a bug or weed in sight. I was proud that we used organic fertilizers, and we never blanket sprayed any pesticides. We practiced IPM, or integrated pest management, which was basically to only use pesticides if needed. Of course our clients had pretty high expectations, so we certainly applied a lot of pesticides. I was really entrenched in the camp that thinks that these chemicals are the best way to manage certain issues in landscaping and farming.


Towards the end of my landscaping career, I really started to doubt a lot of common landscape practices. I started to see the wastefulness, and ugliness of the perfectly kept suburban lawn. I started to doubt whether I was actually doing something needed in society. When I sold my business, and moved to rural Pennsylvania, it was tough to change my beliefs on pesticides entirely.


In my first gardening season, I used round-up for weeds, and some harsh insecticides. In my second season, I moved away from the harsh insecticides, but I was using some botanical insecticides. I was still using roundup, but less of it. In my third season, I used much less of the pesticides. Now, in year four, I am going cold turkey on any and all pesticides.


Why the change of heart?

With learning and research, I have come to the conclusion that these pesticides are not actually helping my garden and landscape. For example, if you notice aphids on your lettuce, and you go and spray an insecticide, a couple of things happen. The insecticide will kill most of the aphids, but not all. The insecticide will also knock out any aphid predators that may have been trying to help. The predators always come after the prey, and in much smaller numbers, so you may not even know they are there. Then the remaining super aphids that made it through your spray breed very rapidly, and before you know it you have another outbreak. The poor predators breed slower, and are even farther behind than before you sprayed. Now you have to spray again. You are now on the pesticide treadmill, and it just gets worse over time. 


Another example is if you have an un-mulched garden with a lot of bare earth. Immediately, “weeds” move in, because nature is just trying to fix a problem. Seeing these “weeds”, you spray and kill them with roundup. Then more weeds continue to show up and of course more spraying. Then the bare earth becomes compacted and hard because there is no groundcover. Then “weeds” that help fix compacted earth show up, and then you kill those as well. The ground is now not suitable for anything but the sturdiest of weeds. Again, you are on the pesticide treadmill.


What about spraying fruit trees?

I learned from a couple of successful fruit tree growers that you cannot grow a good fruit crop without spraying. I developed a nice fruit tree spraying program with botanical insecticides and cultural methods, but I am now completely throwing it out. I am going to try to manage my fruit trees without any pesticides, including the organic and botanical types. I want to get off the pesticide treadmill. I have a lot of permaculture design to incorporate to help with the common fruit tree issues. I will detail these projects as they are completed.


So how do you deal with pests without pesticides?

In a word…….. POLYCULTURE. I am a big believer in building not just an orchard or a garden, but an ecosystem. If you can build a varied and healthy ecosystem with tremendous diversity, Mother Nature will reward your efforts. And if a plant fails, or dies, or succumbs to pests, it is nature’s way of fixing a mistake in your design. 


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