Pests in the Garden

Most of the time, I don’t end up with significant gardening pest problems. I had a brief visit from aphids on my dahlias last year, which I resolved with some soapy water, and when some slugs moved in on my sage, I set out a dish of beer and salt and we solved that particular problem. I’m grateful for my limited pest issues because they can become so very frustrating, and it’s so very easy to be tempted into quick, easy solutions if you’ve been battling pests for months or years.

And I don’t really want to use chemicals in my garden. Neither my landlords nor I use chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, and I don’t particularly want to stop with that trend. I try to use companion planting to deter pests, to be smart about where and how I plant to limit opportunities, and I monitor plants for signs of unwanted invaders so I can catch them early and take care of the situation in a timely fashion. Hot soapy water, beer, and vinegar go a long way when it comes to handling invasions, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to nontoxic and natural remedies.

The gardening section at the local hardware store, though, is packed with arrays of chemicals for the garden, and it gets me thinking about the environmental impact people can have with a relatively small action, because I know plenty of people who are environmentally conscious, but use chemicals in their gardens. They’ve given up because they’ve had recurrent problems, or they just want to use them the once, or they don’t think it will make that big a difference. Or they don’t really carefully read the label of what they are buying to find out what is inside.

There’s a delicate balance around my garden of all these living things that wander around and do things and they are all part of what happens in my flowerbeds and containers. The beneficial insects, the moles tunneling about churning up the ground, the friendly fungi. When you’re trying to be inviting, sometimes a few bad apples sneak in as long as the door is open, but I try to promote a healthy balance of good things, which tend to drive out the bad. Beneficial fungi can outcompete ones that cause disease if I take good care of the soil and plants, for example.

And I try to be aware of the larger animals around me who could be negatively impacted by chemical use. Pesticides often contain chemicals which are extremely dangerous for cats, for example, and a number of people in the neighbourhood have free-roaming cats, some of whom like to visit my garden. I want to make sure they will be safe if they brush against plants as they meander around, or catch moles and gophers that have been burrowing around in my garden. I want to make sure they don’t carry chemicals home on their coats that might make people or other animals sick.

The choice to use chemicals in the garden doesn’t just affect you, even if it’s ‘just a little bit’ and you’re careful to follow the directions and use them responsibly and keep the containers secure so the chemicals can’t be abused. It’s impossible to confine them just to your garden, and they can end up in some surprising places. Living right against Pudding Creek as I do, for example, I have to think about runoff and chemicals entering the river, where they could harm fish and other organisms; they might kill insect larvae fish need to eat, for example, creating a ripple effect of imbalance that spreads far beyond my deer fencing.

Gardening is not, for me, just about personal pleasure and enjoying working outside and growing vegetables. It is also about a state of balance with nature and the world around me, a connection with the soil that runs deeper than grubbing around barefoot when I’m planting seedlings. Gardening is an awareness of a bigger space that surrounds me and what inhabits that space. Sometimes those things are good; I love seeing the bees buzz around my flowers and have encouraged them with a bee garden off my back patio, for example, because I love pollinators. Sometimes those things are bad; I’m not a fan of aphids colonising my ornamentals or bugs in my spinach.

I take the good with the bad because we’re all in it together and as a larger organism with more powerful tools at my disposal, I can have a disproportionate impact and a huge ripple effect if I’m thoughtless. If I slosh some pesticides around to kill the bugs that will certainly solve my short-term problem, but it will also create more problems for me by killing the bugs I want, which in turn leaves the garden vulnerable to bad bugs again, and it will spread to other places, sometimes unexpected ones.

Like the cat who gets sick after rolling in pesticide-treated plants, or the person who experiences a skin reaction after petting an animal that’s been walking through an area treated with herbicides. These things become troubling and irritating mysteries that are hard to solve because no one things that the solution might actually lie just over the fence in the neighbour’s nicely maintained flower garden that just happens to contain chemicals.

Sometimes I lose a plant to pests, and that’s okay. There’s enough to go around.