What I Learned About Pesticides...
I am an open minded and, for the most part, forgiving person, but I fully expected to walk into my last gardening class with a heavy heart and a sour look on my face. The class was all on weed and pest prevention and on using pesticides to do so. I knew that I wasn't going to like it. For the past nine months I have sat in front of my computer researching, listening, watching, and writing about how much I appreciate organic gardening, how I strive to practice organic gardening and support the movement. I am into it! I am into eating food that hasn't been processed with chemicals, on making sure my son doesn't eat apples off of the ground that have been sprayed with an insecticide. To me, they're pretty much not what I like, and that still hasn't changed. I don't judge outside of my own beliefs; if someone wants to use a pesticide practice or is a conventional, commercial farmer, then that's fine. Part of being a normal human being is a disagreeing, but I believe we can have a civil conversation about it and either leave with fresh information in our minds to change or stay the way we are.
So even though I knew that walking into my class on chemical substances to kill bugs, even beneficial ones like bees and lady beetles, that I had to be open minded. I had to listen and learn, if not for the protection of my own beliefs on pest control practices, but to justify that that's what I actually wanted. One of the main reasons that I wanted to become a master gardener was to get the scoop on what's being taught right now and to learn how to teach and inform others.
I was surprised to find that a lot of what is taught when it comes to pesticide use is unbiased and straight-forward. Pesticides, like herbicides (to kill weeds), insecticides (to kill insects), and fungicides (to kill diseases) are taught as being harmful, though not enough to kill if used correctly. What wasn't covered was the controversial and emotional aspects of the practice. There were a lot of questions flying that were skated around, and I knew that it was because most people choose one method or another because of their emotional attachment to the consequences. For me, using a synthetic chemical on a plant disturbs the natural balance, leaves a residue that I have to eat, and can cause a nasty run off on larger scales. And that's all been proven!
What I didn't realize was that organic gardening does not mean the lack of pesticides. Wait, what? By becoming an organic farmer or gardener, you're not necessarily being any more protective. I am sure I will learn more, but the gist that I received was that being organic is yet again just another label to justify the actions you take. For instance, an organic farmer can use a botanical pesticide on their vegetables to prevent, say, cabbage moths from laying eggs and producing cabbage worms. That's legit. I did that this year. I used a diluted essential oil solution as a repellent - the scent kept the moths from wanting to land there and lay eggs. You have to step back and look at the issue for a minute if you are like me, wondering how that could be bad... based on statistics, there's no definitive research that says using any one kind of pesticide is any less toxic overall than another and that it may or may not have adverse impact on the environment overall.
That was kind of disappointing to hear. And what do you do after that? Realizing that the use of any sort of pest control treatment is just opinion-based, not fact-based, is kind of defeating, right? That's not to say that using an essential oil is just as bad as using a synthetic insecticide. I don't think that's the case at all. It's about realizing that by using this spray after you see an issue with your plants, like spots on leaves or an unwanted insect on roses, that you are disrupting the balance of nature and therefore causing an adverse side effect on that plant and/or insect.
In a perfect world, nature would work itself out in the garden. Predatory insects like lady beetles and lacewings would feed on weaker insects, the ones that sustain themselves on our vegetables. Weeds and vegetables would grow harmoniously together, and we would not have this desire to perfect our garden's aesthetic. That's unfortunately not the case; if we let hornworms enjoy themselves on our tomatoes, we would have nothing to feed ourselves, and although your nasturtiums may not be necessary to survive, it would be a shame to watch them wither and die.
After all of that was on the table, I was happy to learn about a new term that I had not yet heard: IPM, or Integrated Pest Management. It was something that I was already practicing, and after learning what it meant, it felt good. IPM is a form of pest management not pest eradication. It is holistic, simple, and requires the least amount of chemical sprays - in fact, it can require zero chemical sprays if you wish. Basically, this practice is done by using all preventative measures in controlling pests before you have to grab for the bottle of RoundUp or even the essential oils.
It was something that I was already practicing without realizing it. Early in the spring, I wrote here about dealing with an aphid issue on my sunflowers and eggplants. They had decided to take a liking to one of my sunflowers, and I was a little in shock. I knew that pests were bound to happen to me, but it felt like an entire army of aphids had arrived! I started to read up on organic practices to try, and mostly came up with insecticidal soaps or essential oils. Trying to save money, I eventually came across an entry where someone had written that they just sprayed aphids with the garden hose until they fell off; aphids, which suck on your plant and have strong jaws, have really weak limbs. Once they are sprayed or hand picked from your plant, the likeliness of them taking the time to climb back up is pretty low. And it worked! I was surprised and pleased; I didn't have to spend anything other than some time.
That's exactly what IPM is. Instead of attacking the problem, you take all precautionary measures to prevent pests from happening. Companion planting and crop rotation are forms of IPM. By planting specific plants near others, you are preventing certain insects from appearing near your plants or attracting them to something else. Hand picking pests and relocating them is another form of IPM. You see, it's the belief and philosophy that pests are naturally occurring insects, and although they are unwanted on your vegetables, it is still irresponsible to want to completely get rid of their populations. The goal is to keep pest populations at a low enough level that your losses are tolerable and to not overtly disrupt the balance. I can 100% roll with that concept.
To me, Integrated Pest Management is neutral. It still believes in using either synthetic or botanical pesticides. That's where it differs from organic gardening. Being organic means that you do not use synthetic, man made, pesticides. But you still use botanical ones, and I think that can be confusing as a consumer. Is this botanical pesticide all it's cracked up to be? I learned a kind of terrifying fact as well: that a majority of the apples grown in Iowa are sprayed, even if they're organic. I guess it's really difficult to grow apples here? And that was sad. It made me think of the apple trees that our neighbors grow; they rent out the home, so they don't really care for their trees, which means they're never sprayed. Those apples aren't pretty. They aren't cosmetically appealing, but they taste damn good. There's no difference. And what's wrong with that? Spotting on apples is normal. Did you know that? When we walk into the grocery store, we see a spotted apple and assume that it's gone rotten. It's still good! We are obsessed with perfection in our produce, and if I've learned anything when it comes to growing my own produce, that it's silly. We won't cut out a sour spot from our apple, but we'll eat whatever was sprayed on top of it.
So what do you think? Are you organic, or do you believe in IPM? Again, it's an emotional choice, one that depends upon the person. You can take preventative measures and protect yourself, but at the end of day, what really matters to you? For me, I still don't ever want to use synthetics. I don't think a cosmetic fix is worth what can happen. But I am looking at organic farming/gardening differently now. It doesn't seem so special as it did before, you know? If anything, I'm just going to keep trying my hardest to take my preventative measures, feed my plants natural composted materials, and pull weeds by hand. It's better for everyone!