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Reducing pesticide usage in the garden
If you use pesticides in the garden, it is advisable to keep the use to a minimum. The fact that garden pesticides are available in nursery stores, supermarkets and hardware stores isn't a guarantee of their safety, even though such an impression is easily reached. Pesticides need to be used with care and, where possible, avoided.
Informed purchasing of pesticides
First up, always check what you're buying. Read the instructions thoroughly. Read the warnings or caution label accompanying the product. Decide if that's something you can accept being used within your garden space, while bearing in mind that the impact is accumulative and affects children, pets, neighbours, wildlife and the well-being of the environment beyond your own garden or yard.
Second, realize that while consumer protection law is aimed at helping to regulate the use of products that can cause harm to consumers, it relies on proper enforcement and adequate current knowledge for it to be effective. Inevitably, the consumer protection laws won't keep up and may not cover gaps. Hence, it pays to always do research using the internet and calling tertiary-level academic departments that deal with agriculture and pesticide safety to find out the latest knowledge on any particular pesticide.
Third, be aware that children are highly vulnerable to the impacts of pesticide ingredients. The FAO, UNEP and WHO recommend that children's exposure to pesticides is reduced in home, work and other environments.
Companion animals (pets) and wildlife are also susceptible to many pesticides, and at amounts different from those the companies and/or government agencies have assessed as safe levels for human beings, thus potentially harming many creatures without full awareness of this occurring.
Assessing plant vulnerability to pests
Learn to assess vulnerability to pest attacks. If your garden plants are getting attacked, go through the following considerations to see what might be increasing the vulnerabilities of your plants:
- Check the watering levels––too much or too little?
- Assess nutrient quality––too much or too little nitrogen, phosphorous, etc.?
- Look at the positioning. Maybe the plants need more or less sun/shade?
- Consider the level of diversity around the plant––is there too much of one type of plant and not enough of other plants around it?
Reducing use of pesticides
There are various things you can do to reduce the use of pesticides in the garden. These include:
- Realise that a small amount of pest damage can be tolerated by many plants, even without any noticeable drop in yield, plant health or quality of the edible or decorative produce from the plant.
- Use diversity in your favour. Grow a range of plants together, to mix things up and reduce the interest of pests in descending upon a monoculture. Diversity of plants tends to mean diversity of insects, allowing them to keep each other in better check, and often preventing one species from dominating.
- Grow plants with greater pest resistance. This will vary from area to area, so do some research. It may be better than trying to grow plants that keep succumbing each season to a new infestation of the plant's foes.
- Grow plants in their optimal conditions, to help them stay their healthiest and to avoid stressing them, at which point they can easily succumb to pests. This includes:
- Ensuring that the soil is right for the plant types, it is well tilled and has the needed amount of organic matter in it and that it is draining appropriately. Keep the soil as healthy as possible.
- Checking that the plants are planted in the right place, such as receiving needed shelter, having sufficient sun and shade amounts and are not overly exposed to drying winds.
- Fertilising appropriately and regularly.
- Using mulch to reduce water loss and control weed invasion.
- Consider using companion planting techniques. A parallel approach is to have decoy plants that can be "sacrificed" for the sake of the other plants by attracting the insects to them instead of the plants you're trying to protect.
- Use beneficial insects that will attack and reduce the numbers of pest insects. In some cases, provided your plants can cope with the initial pest invasion, waiting a little will see the natural arrival of the beneficial insect species, in search of their favourite meals on your plants. One such example is an aphid invasion, following by green lacewings descending en masse to enjoy their aphid feasting. It can be quite satisfying to watch your garden foe finally getting balanced out by its own foe, enabled by the lack of pesticide usage.
- Use manual intervention, such as hand squashing and hosing off pests. Simple organic sprays made from plants or soap can be used in some cases, such as soapy sprays on aphids.
- Consider stopping maintenance of problem plants, such as vast expanses of lawns. Pesticide use on lawns has been a major cause of pesticide problems in many municipal environments and all in aid of something that is a water-greedy, maintenance-intensive and productive-land removing landscape preference.
- Encourage the insect-eating birds. Provide them with incentives, such as plants they love, dust bathing areas, safe areas to alight, etc. (Of course, you'll also need to balance this with the desire of some birds to eat seeds, seedlings or dig up the garden.)
Are "natural" commercial products safer?
In response to consumer desire for greener garden products, some companies have produced "green" pesticide products, relying on such plant-derived ingredients as pyrethrins. Apart from the fact that some of this insecticide may be synthetically produced (as "pyrethroids"), risks remain. This includes skin, eye and respiratory irritation for human beings. And for aquatic organisms, it is deadly. As such, it is important to never assume that natural means "safe"; it remains a marketing claim. Even with such products therefore, read the instructions for use and the cautions with care. Moreover, it is important to do research first, and to be absolutely certain that use of any green pesticide is okay for your garden. When using it, strictly target it to the problem area only.