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Monday, July 17, 2006

Boulder Belt Gardening Advice

This past Saturday at the farmers' market, a guy who often buys things from us came to our stand with a tomato leaf wondering what was wrong with it. This sort of thing happens regularly to us, people asking for gardening advice, and Eugene and I give it out freely.

Okay, so this guy has this tomato leaf and is wondering what is wrong with his plants. He describe horrible fungal problems and that the bottom leaves were turning yellow and falling off. The leaf looked fine on first inspection, except for some sort of white stuff that had burned the tip of the leaf . I noticed that he did have aphids on his tomato leaf and said he could get rid of his aphid problem by putting a humming bird feeder or getting some ladybugs on his plants as long as he had not already used any pesticides. At that point he said he had used Sevin to get rid of the fungus problems which made Eugene recoil in horror and quickly give back the leaf which he had been examining.

I than started explaining that Sevin is a pesticide, not an herbicide and you cannot use Sevin and than start using natural methods and expect good result. I told him that the sevin had killed off not only the pest insects but also the beneficial predator insects and that because the pests are at the bottom of the food chain they are in much much great numbers and reproduce much more quickly and would be back several weeks before the predators begin to recover and he would actually end up with a far worse problem than is he had done nothing and let nature do the work for him. This seem to go over his head but he did ask how to deal with the aphids without using Sevin and I said soap spray is pretty effective as long as he sprays both the tops and bottoms of the leaves. I also mentioned that Sevin dust is only truly effective if the tops and bottoms of the leaves are dusted with it and he asked how to do this and I said you put it in a shaker and make a cloud of dust around the plant and that will do the trick (we organic people do use natural pesticides in dust for such as Bt so I have experience here). Than I told him you cannot breath in the dust because it is very toxic to humans so if he opted to keep using the stuff he would need a Haz-Mat suit and a good breathing apparatus. This seemed to alarm him a bit and he went away.

He came back later and again asked about his garden and mentioned using Sevin again and felt he could not have a good garden without resorting to this heavy duty poison. Betty Quantz, who was at our stand at the time, looked horrified and said loudly to never use such stuff, that Sevin was an Agent Orange ingredient (I don't know if it is true since AO is an herbicide and we are talking insecticides, but it was effective to get it across to this guy he was dealing with some bad stuff). Than the guy asked "But how can I have clean vegetables without using pesticides" and Betty looked at him and said look at Eugene and Lucy's produce, it is clean and they use zero poisons (which is true on both counts) and have a huge garden. He looked thoughtful and scampered away. Perhaps some of this sunk in and he will start using organic methods, perhaps not. But he did get an earful at market.

Now my main problem with all of this is not that he was using really toxic crap that kills off any insect it touches thus spinning the environment more our of balance (this does bother me a lot, don't get me wrong here). No, my main problem is with people who use these dangerous chemicals with no clue (which seems to be most of America). He was using Sevin for a fungal problem when it is an insecticide. By Federal law it states clearly on the label what it is to be used for and also states it is unlawful to use such products in an incorrect manner (which he was doing). People do not read the labels so they pump deadly poisons into the ecosystem needlessly. Look folks, if you garden do us all a favor and gets some books and read up on plant pests and diseases. Learn what the chemicals are in your garden shed and how to use them (it's on the labels and is the law fer chrissake) or better yet learn about organic methods and get rid of those nasty chemicals (but please do not just toss them down the drain or in a landfill, get rid of them properly). There are literally thousands of books and websites about gardening make use of these. there is really no excuse for the ignorance I see over garden chemicals. I wish the feds would make a law that required ALL gardeners who use toxins to take the pesticide applicator classes and test that all conventional farmers have to take. Of course if that happened corporations such as Dow and Monsanto would not make nearly as much $$$ because there would be a lot less wasting of garden chemicals due to wrong usage. But the planet would a lot less of the toxic load it now has since most of the toxic chem use comes from home gardeners, not farmers.

It is quite possible to grow a beautiful and bountiful garden with zero poisons, I have been making my living doing this for over a decade. Granted there is a steep learning curve and it takes years to get a garden ecosystem back in balance but that's the thing about gardening as a hobby-you are always learning new things. And if you get rid of the poisons you will start seeing wonderful life returning to your garden ecosystem to help you out. Remember that 97% of all insects are beneficial during some point in their life cycle and that alone is ample reason to go organic but there are millions of others.


Brad K. said...

Two problems with labels and pesticides (including herbicides, according to the Feds).

The first is that every single blinking can, carton, or bag contains the 'federal violation to use except according to label' or however the boilerplate goes. But the feds decided that 'label' for pesticides, unlike the federal misuse banner, doesn't have to be attached to the container. You may have to know how to get that information out of your vendor. At the farmer's elevator co-op the clerk can probably locate it for you -- the clerk at Wal-Mart, if you know to ask, probably can, too. The clerk at my Tractor Supply can't find the price except at the checkout register. So many people get home before realizing they don't have the full documentation -- in print so small a normally sighted person needs a magnifying glass. In federal terms that may or may not be useful to your average college graduate, unless degreed in agriculture or toxicology.

So what do people use? They use what the neighbor uses. Or the clerk at the store recommends. If it doesn't work, then they seldom check why -- some chemicals are intended at a vigorously growing part of the cycle, some at a stress/drought stage. Who can remember all that?

After about the third magazine-sized 'label', most people are going to forget which they read. Unless they are actively employed in the business of applying herbicides, our current federal regulations are a recipe for disaster. For the conventional farmers they are directed at. And for every consumer, either directly as a purchaser of pesticides (including herbicides), or from being downwind of someone with fungus on their tomatoes.

The other problem, is that not all mistakes are fatal. That is, sometimes we misuse chemicals, gardening tools, techniques, and advice, we misunderstand what happens, and we learn the wrong lesson. So as our experience accumulates, a certain portion of what we 'know' is wrong! And that is besides the minor and major 'little things' we just forget over the seasons and years.

So we use our DDT, our 2,4 D, and our 2,4,5 T (agent orange -- Dad actually used it one or two seasons, it was on the market in the 1960's. Funny how my uncle died of lymph cancer shortly after that, he farmed a few miles away from us, and used a few more herbicides). And we by-guess and by-golly unless we take the federal course, and get on the list to be audited for a library of labels of every controlled pesticide we use, and records of what was applied when, in which fields. Normal people aren't that organized.

We routinely use propane, gasoline, oils, greases, and electricity, most of us are completely untrained in safe handling of these dangerous substances and energies. We do A, then B, then C, and it works. How do you convince an average Joe that some dangerous things require him to handle them responsibly, when he gets away with only casual knowledge about these other explosive chemicals and energies? Have you ever noticed how many mechanics will state to your face that forbidding smoking while you put gas in your car is nonsense? And you wonder at your gardener being surprised that you find his Sevin a hazard and a problem. And that is the other problem with the toxic labeling requirements for pesticides. Most people aren't in the habit of using the written materials that accompany products. Not for our Sevin, nor our VCR, nor our TV, nor our Dishwasher.

You might locate or make up an organic card deck, call them trading cards or flash cards. I would bet that your gardener would recognize a lady bug if you showed him a picture. But maybe not by name. I don't know if he would recognize a hummingbird, let alone a hummingbird feeder, unless he saw a box on the shelf at the store. Aphids? Fungus? He may think both are dust particles, and just need to be washed off (soapy water, right?). Use the cards to illustrate which bugs are helpful and how you manage them, which are harmful and how you manage them, and which can be both. Illustrate how planning your garden is an important part of managing weeds and other pests. How cultivation before planting, while growing, and after harvest all contribute to the current and next crops. Figure you need picture, and you may be better able to answer questions like this.

I would keep a card with the names of books that discuss how difficult pesticides can make managing a garden. Maybe make up the list as book markers to hand out when this kind of question gets asked.

Jose said...

Very interesting post. We noticed a couple of days ago, that bean beetles were feasting on our green beans.

Last year, the beans grew very well before getting decimated by these bugs. This time I wanted to atleast put up a fight, so went online to find remedies. Found bayer all-purpose insect killer. Luckily I checked the active ingredient against a toxicity database, and found that carbaryl is tagged as higly toxic to the soil and is a carcinogen.

Ended up getting the soap spray and a product that contains neem extract. We will see how it works. I saw sevin on the shelves when searching.

I could have very easily picked up carbaryl or sevin if I didnt have the information (who knows, the stuff I got may be bad in some way that I don't know yet). It is hard to be informed about these things, and to disseminate that information.