By CRISTINA JANNEY
For hundreds of years, the human race has used organic farming practicing, fertilizing with manures and manually pulling or hoeing weeds from gardens. Within the last 100 years, farmers and home gardeners have turned to chemicals to control weeds and pests to what a local herbalist argues is the detriment of wildlife, pollinators, plants and people.
Pam Herl, a local herbalist, recently presented a program to the Hays Public Library Herb Study group on organic gardening.
“They had very strong work ethics,” Herl said of historic home gardeners. “They worked in their gardens. Whereas today, we tend to reach for the bottle of Roundup or 2,4-D instead of bending over and pulling the weed. We spray and then we go to Curves or the health center and exercise. You get a lot of exercise [in your garden].”
You can burn about 300 calories for one hour of gardening, depending on the type of work and your body type. It is the equivalent of one hour of intensive work in a gym.
Hoeing can help cut down on grasshoppers, Herl said. The insects lay their eggs in the top layer of the soil. If you turn over the soil with a hoe, it exposes the eggs to sunlight and heat and kills them.
Dangers of chemicals
“It has polluted our food source, it’s polluted our air, it’s polluted our water source, and yet we are still reaching for that bottle of chemicals for spraying insects, for fertilizing, for spraying weeds,” Herl said. “We are constantly reaching for that bottle.”
Use of pesticides has increased by 50 percent over the last 30 years, Herl said. 2.5 million tons of commercial pesticides are used annually in the U.S., according to a study published by the American Institute of Biological Sciences.
“That is a lot of money we are pouring into an industry that is killing us spray by spray,” Herl said.
The chemicals can leach into ground water or run off into watersheds such as streams, rivers and lakes, all sources of drinking water and places were people swim and enjoy water sports.
“Every time you see someone spraying that bottle of 2,4-D,” Herl said, “I can guarantee it is going to go down in the water and the ground and the water source and it is going to end somewhere it is not supposed to be.”
Pesticides and herbicides can kill beneficial insects along with ones that would destroy crops. Less than 1 percent of the world’s insects are considered pests to farmers. The rest play a vital role in our food chain, Herl said.
Herl expressed concerns about how the use of pesticides is affecting pollinators. Despite her use of organic gardening practices in her herb garden in WaKeeney, she has seen a marked reduction in the number of bees and butterflies.
Herl said chemical fertilizers can disrupt beneficial bacteria and fungi in the soil. They also may not replenish trace elements plants need. Chemicals can also negatively affect the pH in the soil.
Herl called out some specific chemicals of concern to her.
Glyphosate, a chemical found in many herbicides, is affecting butterflies, Herl said.
Neonic, a chemical used to treat corn seeds, has been linked to bee kills and been found in honey. 80 percent of the 92 million acres of corn in the U.S. were treated with the chemical as of 2011.
Herl said there are a few exceptions of invasive plant species that are very difficult to kill unless you use chemicals or a weed torch. These include bindweed and puncture weed. Weed torches are not recommended when conditions are very dry as they could ignite wildfires.
Weeds that are not weeds
The group talked about the classification of plants as weeds. Some plants that are categorized as weeds, such as dandelions have benefits, produce nectar for pollinators and are used by some for medicinal purposes.
“It depends on the person and the location of your garden,” Herl said. “If you have a pristine formal garden, any of these are going to be a weed. They don’t want them in their garden. Now if you have a cottage garden like mine, they would be welcome. I had a lady who was there for the garden tour and she said, ‘Oh, you have a dandelion in your garden.’ I said, ‘I have a lot of dandelions in my garden because this is a herb garden. It is not a flower garden, so there is a lot of dandelions in my garden. There sure is.”
Herl also has wild lettuce in her garden. Other gardeners chimed in and said they had yarrow, lamb’s quarters, hog weed and dock in their gardens, all of which are categorized by some as weeds.
“These are all that people spray,” Herl said. “They spray these. These are all used medicinally, and they spray them. We are a chemically enhanced generation. We are all about chemicals. We want the fast fix whether it is an antibiotic, an insecticide or fertilizer. It is all about the fast fix. We are worried about today and not tomorrow and we are killing ourselves, slowly but surely. We won’t be around to see it, but our kids or grandkids probably will.”
Even if you want to take your garden or your farm organic, it is difficult to get away from all the chemical use around you, Herl said. Land has to lay fallow for seven years to certify crops on it organically grown, Herl said, and then the land is periodically checked to make sure there are no chemicals in the water or land.
“You would have to grow that whatever crop you want certified organically on an island in the middle of the ocean because you can’t control what goes in your groundwater,” she said. “You can’t control what a neighbor three miles from you has a crop duster spray and the wind blows your direction. You can’t control what the county worker is doing when he is driving a truck down the road spraying the ditch with Roundup. How can you grow anything certified organically grown?”
Natural pest repellents
Herl gave some examples of plants and natural substances that can be used to repel animals and unwanted insects:
Recipe for animal repellant
2 T of powdered red pepper
1 gallon of water
6 drops of soap
• Rabbits can be repelled with powdered aloe vera.
• Aphids, white flies and beetles can be repelled with garlic spray. Use a bulb of garlic in four teaspoons of mineral soap and let it set overnight. Strain the garlic, add two pints of water and one teaspoon of Dawn. Use as a spray.
• Botanical sprays can be purchased over the counter. Rotenone, which is derived from the derris root, kills aphids and grasshoppers. Sabadilla powder, liquid or seeds are used against grasshoppers, corn borers, codling moths, squash bugs, aphids, web worm and cabbage loopers.
• Toads and frogs can be beneficial to garden as insect-eating machines. One toad can eat up to 10,000 insects in three months. They eat crickets, grubs, rose beetles, caterpillars, squash bugs, potato beetles, flies and slugs. They just need shelter, water and light. A solar light in the ground near water will attract insects for the toads. However, toads and frogs are very sensitive to chemicals in the environment.
• Some flowers also have insecticidal qualities, including aster, mums, cosmos, coreopsis, nasturtiums, and French and Mexican marigolds. You can dry the flowers and turn them into powders. You can also use the green flowers, soak them in alcohol, strain, add Dawn, add a little oil and use as a spray. Planting marigolds in your garden can help repel nematodes, which attack vegetables’ root systems.
• Cornmeal spread at the base of roses can prevent black spot.
Herl also discussed the use of natural fertilizer, including animal manure. Cow manure contains high amounts of nitrogen, phosphates and potassium, as well as calcium, magnesium and sulphur. Herl also uses fish fertilizer.
“You have to remember, this is free,” she said. “You can go out in the country and you can get a lot of cow manure yourself. Just let it dry. You get free exercise, and you get to go out into the country for a good drive.”
Earthworm castings are excellent for gardens as well.
Attract worms to your garden by taking newspaper, laying it flat on the ground, wetting it and spreading mulch over the top. It will prevent weeds from growing, it breaks down naturally and earthworms will love it, Herl said.