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Organic Pest Control Creeping Into Gardens

Don't touch that trigger on the sprayer.

Environmental awareness sometimes translates into age-old common sense-- don't spray for the sake of spraying, regardless of whether or not there are insects or weeds around. Today, many agricultural growers and nurseries no longer apply pesticides strictly on a regular or preventive basis. Is it time to get rid of your cans and bottles of household and garden bug sprays? (If you do, take them to your local household hazardous waste cleanup center.) Although chemicals may offer the quickest and easiest solution to many pest problems, more consumers are discovering that organic pest control is a viable and environmentally friendly option.

Some practices for preventing pest damage may include inspecting plants and monitoring for damage, and using mechanical trapping devices, natural predators (e.g., insects that eat other insects), insect growth regulators, mating disruption substances (pheromones), and finally, only if necessary, chemical pesticides. The use of biological pesticides is another important component of IPM. IP what? Integrated Pest Management, that is. IPM is the coordinated pest strategy of waging war on several fronts, not just with chemicals. It prevents unacceptable levels of pest damage by the most economical means, and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.

The chemical arsenal is slowly shrinking so in some ways, the writing is already on the wall. EPA recently announced the voluntary phase-out of two of our best known, common insecticides, diazinon and Dursban. Found in popular brands such as Ortho and Spectracide, the chemicals will be phased out over time due to potential health problems caused by overexposure, particularly to children. So why aren't organic bug killers more common? A visit to the local home improvement center still shows how traditional chemicals dominate the home and garden market. One reason might be that organic treatments are only a small (but growing) segment of the market. It's only $10 to 15 million in sales in a $1 billion industry. Turn on the TV, and you're likelier to see an advertisement for Weed and Feed than Joe's Natural Nematodes. But the day when major producers start pushing organic alternatives is probably not too far off. All it takes is one company trying to corner the market. Then its competitors jump on the bandwagon.

Natural pesticides include products such as neem oil, used to control aphids on roses, for example. Biological controls include things such as predatory insects, mites and nematodes.  A naturally occurring bacterium, Bt, has been around for years. It's used for infecting and killing young caterpillars of the gypsy moth, various leaf-eating worms and borers in the vegetable garden, and for dispatching the nymphs of mosquitoes. Several benefits accrue from not being so trigger happy on the garden sprayer or lawn spreader. First of all, pests and diseases aren't always the culprits in the first place, although we automatically suspect they are. The place to look is the gardener, who might have chosen the wrong plant or location for planting, or failed to properly prepare the soil, for example. Another reason to reconsider chemical treatment is that broadcast spraying often eliminates everything, including the natural predators for the thing you're trying to control. It's ironic that we have to go out and buy ladybugs to control aphids.

Sources used to create this article include Adrian Higgins, the Washington Post, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.