I have made it my determination never to use pesticides. This was not a decision that I made based on philosophy or even environmental consciousness. On the contrary, I bore witness to the extraordinary ease and effectiveness by which natural predators dispose of the most pernicious and damaging of garden pests.
In the mid-2000s, I began my first serious attempt at a large garden. I did the research about how to do as little work as possible. In the early fall, I put materials over the lawn to kill it. I dumped leaves into my beds instead of tilling. Allowing the biological process of decay do the work would invite a sturdy network of fungi to help bring nutrients to the plants. Finally, I used a technique called wintersowing to sow my seeds outside during the winter. I only planted native varieties, the idea being that they would be a boon to natural pollinators. Native plants would be able to care for themselves once established.
The real work came in the spring. Planting, watering new plants, only to plant and water more new plants, was a daily routine. I was sore in places I didn’t know had muscles, but the garden was doing very well. It was green, perfect, and all native.
The bees and butterflies came, but so did everything I had failed to anticipate. My new ‘serious’ garden began to be eaten before my eyes. There were all sorts of native leaf chewers: Aphids, slugs, and caterpillars to name a few. Leaves were mined and skeletonized and fell off. Flowers and buds were being sucked into oblivion.
However, the damage that really hurt my feelings was to the roses. When the Japanese beetles arrived, my roses were denuded of both foliage and flower. That was when I first felt the desperate fury that comes when a gardener is faced with crop failure. Up until now, I wanted nature to do the work. This time I felt like I had to do something.
However, the idea of spraying the roses still repelled me. I simply did not want to have roses that you had to keep out of the reach of children for fear they would ingest them. Therefore, I turned away from that idea and began looking for organic ways to help. There was not much I could do. Picking the beetles off the bushes with my hands and putting them in a bucket of soapy water was the best most had to offer. I got to work.
It did not help. I did not get a single rose that year. At the end of the season, I read that Fall and Winter would be a good time to solicit natural help in the form of birds. I put up a wren house, I put out the bird seed, and I put out water all winter long.
The fate of the Japanese beetles – and every other garden pest – was sealed the day I decided not to spray the roses. Predators had already moved in in numbers! But they weren’t at the right life stage to help. Syrphid flies, many wasps, and other insects are only predators as larva. However, because I didn’t spray, they laid eggs all over the garden.
I got an avian resident. A male house wren stuffed sticks in the wren house and sang until he attracted a female. The females are the ones who choose the nest site, and she chose my garden. In a few weeks, when the days were warming and I was fearing another attack by the pests, she laid seven eggs.
I am no expert on bird fertility, but it wouldn’t make much survival sense for her to be so fertile in the presence of little to no food. It was likely that both these wrens were already present in the garden and their bodies knew how many babies they could afford. Because I didn’t spray, I got to see them diving from the house, straight down into the leaves and running around like little feathery wolves and returning with all manner of caterpillars. They did this every day, all day long, the entire season. The wrens had to have devoured thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of insects.
The syrphid fly larva got to work on the aphids that were attacking my new growth. Centipedes got to work on the snails and slugs, as did the firefly larva who are surprisingly voracious and active hunters for worms. The snails and slugs would later attract garter snakes and a mole and a toad. Robins nested and had three chicks on the curve of my downspout. The wasps returned for the flowers and stayed for the hunting. They made off with plenty of insects, bringing them back to larva to eat. Spiders moved in. There were so many green crab spiders that I called the zinnia flowerbed the “Spider Condominiums”. Every zinnia flower and a spider in it.
There were so many predators that my pest problems vanished. I concluded that my ‘Garden Salad’ had turned into the ‘Garden of Death’. Pests who managed to survive long enough to chew and lay eggs would only have their eggs and larva eaten by something else. The lucky few who did manage to breed were inconsequential.
Gardening without pesticides takes time and, in my case, a crop failure, but I put away the mask and the gloves and the sprayer. Using them would have made things harder for myself, and easier on the pests. I learned that gardens need time to get established to thrive. Pesticides delay or prevent the garden from ever moving on from the “Garden Salad” stage to a healthy population of predator and prey. They are an expensive hindrance and can kill or discourage natural resources that help the garden be self-sustaining.
A pesticide-free garden continued to grow in variety of species of insect and served as a wonderful classroom for young children and adults who wanted to learn from what the plants attracted. Once a gardener experiences the joy of a garden free of pesticides, he will never be able to return to using them.