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Mary Lowther column: Benefits of gardening without pesticides

We have non-pesticide solutions to vegetable-chomping pests
Bees are very sensitive to pesticides. (Mary Lowther photo)

By Mary Lowther

“Sight is faculty, seeing is an art,” says Bill Merilees, president of Vancouver’s Natural History Society, in his book Attracting Backyard Wildlife. He explains that we can assist thriving ecosystems to exist in our own yards or balconies without resorting to pesticides. Indeed, pesticides interfere with Nature’s balance and although we may not see their effect, the ecosystem does.

I understand the temptation to get out the spray and kill every last aphid attacking my broccoli, but do I want to poison whatever eats them? I know a farmer in northern Manitoba who grew wheat one year and sprayed herbicide at the end of the growing season. After harvest, when he plowed up the field as usual, he turned around to see birds that always followed the tractor, eating whatever he turned over. This year they were dying in their tracks from ingesting the herbicide. He never used it again.

In his book The One Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka describes a morning when a student rushed over to ask if he had covered the fields with a silk net. When Fukuokasan hurried to have a look, he saw the field was completely covered with spider webs, catching plant-chewing insects, greatly reducing their numbers. This didn’t happen every year — sometimes frogs or toads predominated to eat these insects. Fukuokasan says, “When chemicals are put into a field, this is all destroyed in an instant.”

This is not to say that gardens left alone will thrive without human intervention, but we have non-pesticide solutions to vegetable-chomping pests. When I start seeds in flats, I protect them with fine mesh, and when crucifers get transplanted outside, I cover them with a spun cloth cover like Reemay to keep out cabbage moth whose progeny can destroy the whole crop. Frogs and snakes eat slugs and birds eat insect eggs. Even small amounts of pesticides alter frogs’ hormones, rendering them sterile, so they probably affect snakes and birds similarly.

Speaking of birds, they don’t discriminate between my freshly-sown seeds and insect eggs, so I’ve taken to allowing birds two weeks of free reign over a freshly turned bed before sowing my seed and covering that with Reemay held off the ground. A barrier of dry soil surrounding the garden helps keep slugs out of it. Soaker hoses water exactly what I want watered and the areas without the hoses become dry, deterring slugs and sow bugs as well as weeds, even when mulched.

There’s nothing like ambling into the garden looking for something to eat, grabbing it and chomping it down knowing that there’s no poison on it.

Please contact with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.