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Pesticides, Fungicides, and Herbicides: Do We Need Them?

Caterpillars on milkweed will turn into butterflies well before they eat the whole plant, and the plant will produce new leaves for the next hatching. Butterfly gardeners love to see these, never spray and have beautiful gardens.

Obviously many growers think we do need pesticides and the production of these killers has been big business for decades. Also for decades, organic growers have insisted that we don't need them. For many years organic growers were considered ridiculous. But since the book Silent Spring came out in the 60s, there has been a slow but steady swing of the pendulum, even of big business at leaast a little more in the direction or natural, poison free growing.

We still have a long way to go.

I had been trained to think that pesticides were absolutely essential. We had a greenhouse where insects reigned and we tried everything to control them. We sprayed. We set off smoke bombs, wearing gas masks ( we scared our kids to death) and backing out as we lit one after another along the greenhouse aisles.

Once we had a crack in our glass house and the neighbors called to tell us that smoke was coming out. "Don't worry," we said. "It's just a bomb we set off."

Now I can't believe we did that.

We never did succeed in controlling the insects but we came near killing a toddler son at one point.

We had escaped the greenhouse, traded it for a small acreage and a large old farmhouse that we loved, when an Uncle Joe gave us a subscription to Organic Gardening magazine in 1966. It did seem pretty far out, but it made sense. Before long I was convinced and wrote for that magazine for many years. I'd rather face any number of bugs I can see (most of them are harmless) than chemical poisonous I can't see.

What a relief to abandon the spraying and not feel guilty. By improving the soil and mulching, we grew better plants that did not attract the pests that are Nature's way of eliminating weak and the stressed. Mulch helps immensely with weed control while it improves the soil and saves moisture.

We learned to pick the most disease resistant cultivars. You can grow beautiful roses and spray every week. Or you can grow heirloom roses or disease resistant roses, still quite beautiful, with no spraying at all.

When we moved to Florida, our next door neighbor Bernie came over that first night to welcome us. In the course of the conversation, he said, "You will want to have your yard and your house sprayed on a regular basis." We came to love Bernie but we did not take that bit of his advice. My husband spreads boric acid ( that comes in larger insect repellant packages) around the perimeter of the house every March. He also puts out some bait traps indoors, but only as needed.

In the garden I use hardly any pesticides except for mosquito spray when there is a threat of some dire disease and they are biting bad.

"Herbicide is a contradiction," my husband David says, "since herb means life-giving and -cide means killer." Actually, I know many people who use no insecticides or fungicides and only herbicides as needed on vines, paths, etc, most of the RoundUp variety. I have even tried it, but it didn't work for me. Maybe I didn't use enough because I still remember the farmers spraying their fields with weed killers in Iowa, sometimes when there was enough wind to carry the poison smell to our kitchen and curl the leaves on the grapevines just outside our kitchen door. I'll take the weeds.

Little by little I have learned to watch and spot, remove, and crush harmful insects before they become an infestation. Washing plants with a strong spray of water will remove most of the insects, eggs, and disease spores. If that fails, add insecticidal or dish soap and spray with that. There are beneficial insects you can buy and turn loose. Lady bugs will eat the aphids. There are safe sprays and dusts such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) or any product containing this that will kill any insects in the worm stage safely. But if you want butterflies, you don't even want to use soap. And you don't have to.

More and more people are growing, and growing well, without these dangerous chemicals. Even many of the Iowa farmers are going organic. It is another case where indeed the world is getting better, not worse.

Belinda's Dream rose is one that will grow and bloom without spraying.