Pest Control and Fertilizing–some food for thought. . .

Garden Pest Control and Organic Gardening

Sooo. . .you pack up your tools and your lunch and you head over to the garden to do a little bit of hoeing.  You get there and you decide to have a little look around before you start, only to see that

Colorado Potato Beetles

Colorado Potato Beetle

are feasting on the tomatoes,

Cucumber Beetles

are eating up the  squash,


are crowding out the onions,

and the corn is looking rather poorly.

Sooo. . .you grab some . . .


And that’s the question.   Exactly WHAT do you grab?  What you use to fertilize and to control the predation of garden pests and weeds is very important—in fact, what you use can determine the quality of the soil in your garden, when you can harvest, and even IF you should harvest.

To be organic or not to be—that is the question.

Everyone has their own opinion about this.  Generally “old school” gardeners prefer chemical fertilizers and pest controls for their gardens, while “new school” gardeners are turning to organics more and more.  The difference in opinion generally surrounds what any given person thinks a “perfect” garden should be.

Most gardeners dream of an absolutely bug free garden full of perfectly formed and beautiful vegetables and flowers.  Many who follow the chemical and synthetic route feel that these products help gardens to produce more faster and to ward off pests better than natural methods.   After all, who doesn’t want more produce faster?  But at what cost?

Before the availability of chemical and petroleum-based fertilizers and insecticides all farming was strictly organic.  Farmers and gardeners of the 1800’s were used to using all natural methods of crop production and they were more accepting of slightly blemished fruit and vegetables.  However, after a scientist named VonLiebig determined that plants feed on nitrogen compounds and carbon dioxide derived from the air, as well as on minerals in the soil, the race was on to develop synthetic fertilizers.  In fact, one of the most recognized and far-reaching accomplishments of VonLiebig was the invention of nitrogen-based fertilizer.  He believed that nitrogen must be supplied to plant roots in the form of ammonia, and recognized the possibility of substituting chemical fertilizers for natural (manures, composts, etc.) ones.  After WWII, production of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides was stepped up by using some of the surplus by-products of munitions manufacturing. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are now widely used throughout the world, and their production is a substantial segment of the chemical industry.  Hey, the most famous of these was also invented by a German scientist– “Miracle Gro.”

But synthetic fertilizers have their downside.  One VERY BIG downside is soil salting and depletion.  Since the second World War many people have come to believe the promise of “better living through chemistry.”  As a child in the 50’s and 60’s even I remember hearing this popular catchphrase on radio and television.  Many people began to believe that the MODERN way was to use the products of laboratories and not the OLD-FASHIONED natural ways.  This led farmers and gardeners to believe that poor quality soil dosen’t matter, as long as one could rely on products from the chemical industry.  People started to believe that synthetic fertilizers infuse nutrients into soil, enabling plants to prosper, but they do not.  Synthetic fertilizers add mostly chemical nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous.

As plants take up these nutrients, other nutrients in the soil are depleted, and the reaction between the plants and the chemicals leave behind salts as a waste product.   These salts kill all of the helpful living creatures in the soil (including earthworms) , so the soil becomes even more depleted and you have to continue to add chemical fertilizers.  The condition of the soil does not improve at all.  In other words, the soil cannot support plant life of any kind on its own without the use of chemical fertilizers.  There is a dependency formed.  The soil itself stays as poor as it was at the beginning.  For example, dry non-porous clay (which is what we have to deal with at the community gardens) STAYS that way.  Dusty and hard-pan in the summer heat.  And so you MUST keep adding chemical fertilizers to get anything to grow.   That’s why so many are dependent on the good ole’ “Gro.”

What happens if you can’t get any more chemicals to add to the soil?

A better way is to improve the soil itself by adding natural amendments; humus, manures, composts and the like.  The addition of soil amendments increases the action of living things in the soil, including microbes that break down the clay and let plants take nitrogen naturally from the earth.  These amendments do not leave behind the killing salts.  This is why leaves were dumped in the gardens last fall.  These decomposing leaves will lighten and enrich the soil, adding sorely needed nutrients.  Unfortunately, the leaves were not evenly spread throughout the entire gardens so some people got too much, while others (like me) got no leaves at all.  You people who got leaves dumped on your plots ARE BLESSED!!!  You don’t need to buy a lot of organic nutrients or amendments to add to your soil.  Just till in the rotten leaves! Tons of rich natural fertilizers and nutrients were lavished on your gardens.  In the meantime, those of us at the lower end, who got nothing, still have to PURCHASE cow manure, humus and leaf compost to add.  HOPEFULLY, our end will get some leaves this year.  HOPEFULLY. . .

In some previous posts I also provided information about organic fertilizers and how to make your own.   That’s a good place to start.

But. . .what about the bugs? 

SEVIN seems to be the most popular insecticide among the old school gardeners.  But is SEVIN safe to use?  The answer seems to be nope.  Here are some highlights from the Journal of Pesticide Reform:

“Many pesticides have gained their notoriety because of a particular human or environmental health problem. The organochlorine insecticide DDT, for example, is well known because of its ability to bioconcentrate in carnivorous animals,1 and the fumigant dibromodichloropropane (DBCP) made headlines when it caused sterility in men who worked with it.2 The insecticide (Sevin) carbaryl, however, is striking because its use has been associated with such a large number of health problems. From acute toxicity, suppression of immune system functions, and behavioral problems to cancer, genetic damage, and reproductive problems in both males and females, carbaryl’s adverse effects span an enormous range.

Carbaryl (1-naphthyl methyl carbamate) is one of the three most commonly used insecticides in the United States with an estimated annual use of between 10 and 15 million pounds.3 … It is a broad-spectrum insecticide and is registered for use on more than 100 different crops, animals, ornamental plants, and indoor areas.4 … It has been registered in the U.S. since 1958.4 Previously manufactured by Union Carbide,7 the primary U.S. manufacturer is now Rhone Poulenc Agricultural Company; many of its carbaryl-containing products are marketed under the brand name Sevin.8

Carbaryl is a carbamate insecticide. Like all members of this chemical family, it inhibits the action of an enzyme that is an essential component of insect, fish, bird, and mammal nervous systems. The enzyme, acetyl cholinesterase (AChE), controls the chemical reaction that transforms acetylcholine into choline after acetylcholine has been used to transmit nerve impulses across the junctions between nerves. Without functioning AChE, acetylcholine accumulates and prevents the smooth transmission of nerve impulses.9 This causes loss of normal muscle control, and ultimately death.

Symptoms of acute carbaryl exposure in humans are malaise, muscle weakness, dizziness, sweating, headache, salivation, nausea, diarrhea, incoordination, and slurred speech. Depression of breathing ability combined with an excess of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary edema) is the usual cause of death when exposure is high.10

Carbaryl’s acute oral LD50 (the dose that causes death in 50 percent of a population of test animals) in rats is 255 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) of body weight.5 Extrapolated to the weight of an average 70 kilogram (154 pound) human who is assumed to be as sensitive to carbaryl as are rats, this means that a dose of about 18 grams or two-thirds of an ounce would be fatal.

Lower doses of carbaryl over a longer period of time cause a variety of adverse effects. In humans, ingestion of 0.13 mg/kg/day (less than a thousandth of the LD50) caused abdominal cramps and a decrease in the ability of the kidneys to resorb amino acids.

Given that carbaryl’s primary mode of action disturbs the nervous system, it is not surprising that researchers have measured a variety of neurological and behavioral effects of carbaryl exposure. Case reports of human exposures tell some compelling stories. For example, a professor of medicine at a New England university reported that his twice daily applications of a commercial tick powder with active ingredient carbaryl to his cat had dramatic effects on the cat’s personality. The pet, who had never been much of a hunter, began attacking large numbers of birds and mice. The professor’s personality underwent a parallel change (in spite of the gloves and mask he wore while dusting the cat) and he was described as being in a “continual rage.” Ending the tick powder treatments brought an end to the aggressive behavior in both doctor and cat within a week.19 Two other reports describe patients with a neurological condition called delayed peripheral neuropathy following carbaryl exposure. This condition, normally associated with certain organophosphates and not carbamates like carbaryl, causes nerve degeneration and paralysis of arms or legs several weeks after exposure.20 One of the patients had been exposed through ingestion of a relatively large quantity of carbaryl-containing insecticide.21 The other patient was exposed when his basement was treated for fleas with a carbaryl-containing dust.22

Ever since the late 1960s, when two researchers showed that female beagle dogs fed carbaryl had more stillbirths and infant deaths, decreased litter size, smaller pups, and more pups with birth defects than did unexposed mothers,35 carbaryl’s reproductive hazards have been of concern.29 Adverse effects in the beagle study were found at doses approximately 1/50 of the LD50. Studies since that time have demonstrated that carbaryl can affect reproduction in a variety of species and in both sexes.

Males: Two studies at a carbaryl manufacturing facility have shown that carbaryl exposure affects the quantity and quality of sperm produced by the workers. One study found that more exposed workers had very low sperm counts than in a control group of unexposed workers.36 This result was significant based on one statistical test, but has been criticized because a second statistical test only “closely approached significance.” A second study of the same sperm samples found that the number of sperm abnormalities was increased in workers who were being exposed to carbaryl while the study took place.37

Females: Female laboratory animals of a number of species fed carbaryl suffer from reproductive problems. A 1986 review summarized 25 studies that had found reproductive problems caused by carbaryl in eight different kinds of animals. These problems included reduced fertility, increased fetal mortality, low birth weights, reduced growth and survival of babies, and birth defects.29 Some effects occur at surprisingly low doses. For example, rats fed carbaryl in doses equivalent to 1/35 of the LD50 for one year had estrous cycles significantly longer than unexposed control rats39 and pregnant monkeys given daily doses as low as 1/100 of the acute lethal dose had increased rates of spontaneous abortions.40

Several recent epidemiology studies have associated exposure to agricultural and household use of carbaryl with an increased risk of cancer in humans. Farmers in Minnesota and Iowa who had ever handled carbaryl had an increased risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; this increased risk was statistically significant for those farmers who had handled the chemical prior to 1965 (with a risk almost four times as high as that of unexposed Minnesota and Iowa residents) or had handled carbaryl without using protective clothing (with a risk about double that of unexposed Minnesotans and Iowans).42 A similar elevated risk associated with exposure to carbamate insecticides as a group was found in a study of Nebraska farmers.43 Exposure to carbaryl used in gardens or backyard orchards in Missouri is associated with an increased risk (2.5-fold) of childhood brain cancer.”

I don’t know whether or not this frightened YOU, but it terrified me.  I used to use Sevin.  Now, I would never feed my family anything that had been treated with it.  Many of us have been led to believe that Sevin is the safest thing to use on vegetables, but that simply is not true.

Furthermore, the very bugs that we seek to stop are mostly resistant to Sevin.  The Colorado Potato Beetle and the Squash Beetle are among the insects that have built up a resistance to Sevin.

How the heck do you get rid of these !@$% bugs then?!?

How about trying NATURAL methods.


A new, organic pest killer called SPINOSAD is now available.  This kills most garden pests and is approved for organic gardening.  SPINOSAD is available under a number of brand names:

Bull’s Eye:

Colorado Potato Beetle Beater

Captain Jack’s Deadbug Brew

SPINOSAD works great for controlling most kinds of garden pests, and it is safe for organic gardening.  SPINOSAD adds no chemicals of any kind to the garden, and it is very effective.


Here’s a natural bacterial control for bugs that works:  Safer Garden Dust


And another garden dust:  Bonide Dust


Need those bugs dead on contact?  Then try PYOLA:


Finally, using methods such as leaf and straw mulching and barrier controls like diatomaceous earth will control the bugs.


Knowing something about the various types of bugs that plague the gardens is helpful–

Some interesting information about the Colorado Potato Beetle from Gardens Alive

A really good Organic Pest Control search engine from Mother Earth News

Chart cross referencing the garden pest with both its insect control and its organic insecticide control


And what about the blinkety-blankety WEEDS?!?

You can till them under, or  you can go over to Lowes or Home Depot and get a bottle of the most popular herbicide—you know the one with the name that begins with R and ends with UP.


First of all, I wrote in a previous post about how overusing tillers causes degradation of the soil.  Hoeing is better.

And you need to understand that the use of synthetic weed killers, also known as herbicides, is BANNED in the Community Gardens.  Herbicides kill all plants—they do not differentiate between weeds and vegetables.  If some of the herbicide is carried by wind or water into your plot or your neighbors, disaster will result.  Also, these herbicides persist in the soil for up to one year (depending on how heavily they are sprayed).  That means that when the gardens are plowed, soil contaminated by herbicides can be unknowingly spread to the garden plots of others, preventing establishment of plants or stopping seeds from germinating.

Two years ago, someone put a partially full bottle of R–UP herbicide into the trash can that is in front of my garden.  It leaked from the trash and ran into my garden.  Everything in its path was killed, and I was not able to use that section of my garden until now.

Spraying herbicides is not the answer to the weed problem.  It would be helpful to know something about weeds in order to know how to control them.

Weeds are one of the most persistent pests plaguing gardeners, farmers and homeowners. What makes weeds so persistent?  Well, they have a unique ability to live with humans and they produce a considerable amount of seed. Single plants of some weeds can produce more than 200,000 seeds. Not all of these seeds survive to produce plants, but many remain in the soil for years waiting for the right conditions for germination.

As a weed matures, seed is dispersed from the plant and some of the seed ends up in the soil. Weed numbers and weed seed production are generally less in natural settings, such as forests where the land is generally undisturbed and where weeds must compete with large trees for nutrients.  In areas of disturbed soil, such as farms and gardens, the soil may contain from 200 to 54,000 seeds per square foot.

This is why there are so many of them!  This is why they keep on popping up!   And if people don’t keep their garden as clear of weeds as possible, the number of weed seeds in the soil increases dramatically as new weed plants mature and drop their seeds.  Similarly, the number of weed seeds will get smaller if good weed control is obtained.

Planning ahead for what your garden does in the off-season is one very good way to deal with the weed problem.  I will talk about that later in my “season ending blog.”  But there are many things that you can do to control weeds throughout the season.

First of all, there is old-fashioned weeding.  Just pull them out.  The younger they are when they are pulled, the better.  Every weed that you remove before it goes to seed will stop thousands of weed seeds from being added to the soil in your garden.  Old-Fashioned hoeing is an excellent way to control weeds.

And when you pull them, REMOVE THEM from the garden.  Don’t allow weed piles in your garden.  Seeds will fall off the weeds in the pile and contribute to the problem.  What I do is spread them out in the common area near the water pump so they dry up and die there.

Another alternative for spot control of weeds is to spray them down with White Vinegar.  YUP!  The same White Vinegar that you use for canning or for putting on the salad is a very effective, safe and all natural weed killer.  Wait for a dry day.  Then simply put the vinegar in a spray bottle (DON’T ADD ANY WATER) and spray down the weed.  The vinegar will kill the whole weed, right down to the root.   If the weed is tough, like a thistle, you may have to spray it down twice.  To hold down the cost, use a cheaper generic brand of White Vinegar, but make sure it is 5% strength.

Finally, you can get back at them by EATING them!  Several of the weeds that grow at the community gardens are actually edible.  Land cress, purslane and dandelion all grow over there.  I’ve even actually eaten these.

Just look at our old friend, the Thistle, here. . .

                            Photo Courtesy of Michael Shephard, USDA Forest Service,

The Common (or Bull) Thistle (a real problem at the gardens!)   is often used as a survival food.  All parts of the common thistle are edible except the thorns.

Use the peeled stems to quench your thirst. Peel off the sharp prickly spines and hard outer shell to get to the inner stalk, which is sweet and juicy. Eat it as you would celery.

The roots can be eaten raw or cooked as a vegetable, much like a turnip. You can also dry them and grind them into flour to be used as a thickener for stews and soups.

To eat the leaves, choose young tender ones, remove the thorns to get to the central stalk and then cook or eat them raw. The older leaves can be used to make a tea.

Read more about it :

Of course, you should never eat wild plants unless you are sure of what you are eating.  I’m just saying that this is one way to get revenge on those weeds!

That’s all for now–next issue will be about canning and preserving!


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