What is our obsession with killing insects?
I was once in the garden section at Home Depot, talking with an employee who knew I was (at that point) a Master Gardener. As we were chatting, a man walked up and started looking through the pesticides near us. He looked a bit confused, so the Home Depot worker asked him if he needed help.
“I want to kill the (insert name of pest here) in my grass,” he stated. “What would work for that?”
“I’m sure we have something that will work,” she replied to the customer, then gestured at me, “you should ask David – he’s a Master Gardener.”
The man turned to me with a couple of jugs of poison in his hands. “Which of these would kill them?”
I took the bottles and read the labels. Both were indeed toxic. Both claimed they would kill a wide range of insect life.
I handed them back to the man. “You know, I wouldn’t spray anything.”
“What? Why not?” he asked.
“Because you end up killing all kind of good insects along with the bad ones.”
“Hmph,” he responded, then looked at the jug in his right hand. “Says here this one also kills fleas.”
“Do you have fleas in your yard?” I asked.
“Then why do you need a poison to kill them?”
“I might have fleas at some point,” he stated, then shuffled off with his insect WMD.
I was frustrated. Most people simply don’t see the intricate web of life that fills the enviroment – even in an ecosytem as barren as a front lawn.
Spraying poison to kill a pest is like adjusting a Swiss watch with a sledgehammer. Not only does it kill the “bad” bugs, it kills a lot more – plus it poisons your living space and maybe even our water supply.
I haven’t had to spray anything more toxic than homemade sprays in over a decade. The only pesticide I do use – in moderation and with resignation – is Amdro fire ant bait. Even then I only use it when the ant piles get ridiculous and the children are in danger playing outdoors. Fire ants are an imported non-native species here that doesn’t fit into the environment; that means they are without natural predators.
For most other insect problems, the cure is already built into the environment.
The lure of pesticides for most gardeners is twofold:
1. We don’t like to see anything attack our plants
When you’ve nurtured something up from a little seed or transplant, lovingly watered, fertilized and cared for that plant… then you see insects chewing away at it, there’s a sense of violation. “HOW DARE THEY!!!”
Here’s the real scoop: many insect attacks don’t kill the host plants. A few bug bites in your cabbages, beans, etc. can be shrugged off by the plant. Major infestations cannot. Most insect damage consists of drive-by attacks, not full-on assaults. Be calm. If you spray, you’re poisoning your food. Leave that madness to industrial agriculture… as for me, I prefer my salads non-toxic with a few bug bites.
2. We control our land with a heavy hand
This obviously ties in with the first point about not letting minor bug damage get to you, but it goes further than that.
The desire for order runs deep. For some reason, it seems to run even deeper in gardeners. We need to make our plants behave! Nature must submit! Insects must flee from our wrath!
Yet as I’ve written before, the ecosystem is a self-balancing affair… when it’s healthy. “Healthy” doesn’t look like straight rows of one crop; “healthy” is more like a forest edge. A rich diversity of plants makes for a rich diversity of both pests and predators.
Agricultural experiments have shown that leaving unmown hedgerows or “nature strips” (or whatever they’re called right now) along the edges of plowed fields greatly reduces the need for pesticide application. Why? Because predators have a place to live.
If you don’t spray at all, plus you leave lots of creature habitat around your gardens, plus you mix up species, most pest problems basically melt away.
An additional benefit, at least in my mind, is that my family gets to see a wide range of insects, some of which are rarely seen in most yards. Leaving habitat and not spraying make for interesting bug-catching.
Full disclosure: Before becoming a full-time plant guy, I used to want to be an entomologist. I find insets fascinating and take lots of pictures, as you can see in this post. The vast majority of them will leave your garden alone!
Resist the urge to call down chemical vengeance on your garden’s enemies unless you’re dealing with a serious problem on an expensive perennial.
Going without spraying is better for the good bugs, better for the environment, and better for you.