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Pesticide-Free Gardening Tips for Earth Week and Beyond

By Aimée Code on 23 April 2019

How to fulfill the third step in the Xerces Society’s Bring Back the Pollinators Pledge: avoid the use of pesticides—including herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides.

As I look out my window at the mercurial weather there is no doubt that spring is upon us. I am currently enjoying a rainsquall from the safe confines of my living room in Oregon. As the sheets of rain come down, I imagine how happy my newly-planted narrow leaf buckbrush (Ceanothus cuneatus) must be to have its roots wet. I also imagine the weeds growing faster than a time-lapse animation.

 

Blue and white garden gloves laying on the ground next to a small shovel and some weeds that have been pulled from the ground.
This spring, take advantage of the season’s perfect conditions to establish healthy pollinator habitat and prevent weed, insect and disease pressures proactively, to avoid the use of pesticides.(Photo: Ruth Hartnup / Flickr Creative Commons 2.0)

 

Once the rain slows down, I will don my muck boots, grab my trowel and loppers, and work to fulfill the third step in the Xerces Society’s Bring Back the Pollinators Pledge: avoid the use of pesticides—including herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. Avoiding insecticides in the yard is likely the easiest to understand, as insecticides can outright kill bees and other beneficial insects. While herbicides and fungicides are less likely to kill bees outright, research shows that they can and do harm bees. For example, a number of common fungicides can cause bees to be more vulnerable to disease. Similarly, the widely used herbicide glyphosate (found in a number of products including RoundUp) can interfere with the microbes in a bee’s gut, making bees more susceptible to harmful pathogens. Therefore, in a home garden, the Xerces Society urges people to consider non-chemical pest management. To meet this challenge, please consider spending part of Earth Week in the garden, enjoying the diversity of insects and taking a few of the actions outlined below to simultaneously minimize pest problems and avoid the use of pesticides.

 

An up-close image of a dandelion in a field with the sunlight illuminating the dandelion fibers.
If you weed before unwanted plants have gone to seed, there will be less chance of weeds spreading—rendering herbicides unnecessary. (Photo: Amanda Ulrich)

 

First off, I need to get ahead of the weeds that crowd out desirable plants. In the springtime, soil is soft, making weeding relatively easy (I can actually pull out dandelion roots during this time!) and most of the weeds have not yet set seed, which means if they are pulled now, there won’t be as many weeds to contend with later. I’ll admit, my tolerance for weeds is pretty high. Weeds can provide ecological services such as protecting degraded or exposed soils or offering forage and nesting opportunities for pollinators. That said, my neighbor works hard to avoid weeds so I spend extra time in the spring removing weeds that could spread to her yard. Similarly, if you have areas that you want to maintain in a more manicured fashion — e.g.  the front yard or patio space — prioritize weeding those areas, leaving other, less visible areas undisturbed. My great grandmother Henrietta Waugh would say we need to “leave wild spaces for the wee folk.” I wonder if bees and butterflies were the wee folk my great grandmother was referring to. Of course, if you have invasive weeds, it is best to remove them. Check the USDA’s National Invasive Species Information Center or give a call to your local Extension service to determine whether a species is invasive.

Next on my “to do” list is deterring ants from entering my home. Both nuisance ants and the more damaging carpenter ants are visibly active in the spring. My goal is to keep them out of my home and in the yard—where they help aerate the soil and improve drainage. To do this, I’ll trim shrubs back at least a foot from the siding. This simple step removes a direct route for ants to enter my home since branches won’t be touching the house. Another part of my efforts to prevent ants from entering my home is to not plant flowers that attract ants (e.g. clematis, peony and rose) right next to my home.

 

An up-close image of a fuzzy bumble bee drinking nectar from red current.
Red flowering currant is a great source of nectar for a variety of pollinators, including California bumble bees (Bombus californicus), pictured, or the yellow-faced bumble bee (Bombus vosnesenskii) mentioned in this story. Just as important as including the right plants is ensuring that pollinators and other beneficial insects are protected from pesticides. (Photo: Xerces Society / Mace Vaughan)

 

The third item on the list involves planning spring plantings. Even though I haven’t planted much in my vegetable garden yet, I can still do a lot to avoid pest pressures later this summer. The field peas I planted last fall as a cover crop need to be incorporated into the soil before I plant my garden. I put in the cover crop last October to outcompete weeds, break pest cycles and increase nitrogen in the soil. I also need to check the soil temperature to know when my garden is ready for planting. A warm dry spring means I can plant leafy greens and peas early. This year is wet and cold. If I plant seeds (or transplant starts) too early, I’ll stress the plants—thus inviting fungal and other pest pressures later. Most seed packets will tell you ideal soil temperatures before planting. While I wait out the rain, I can also plot out my garden rotation. While crop rotations can be very complex, the easiest thing to remember is to only plant the same family of vegetables in the same spot once every three years. So, don’t follow cucumbers with pumpkins (Cucurbitaceae, the gourd family), or potatoes with eggplant (Solanaceae, or nightshades).

Once I’ve gotten through my garden projects, I love to sit back and observe the diversity of critters that enjoy my yard. During a brief sunny break in the rain, I recently watched a newly emerged yellow faced bumble bee queen (Bombus vosnesenskii) foraging on a red flowering currant (Ribes sangineum) that I planted for Earth Day two years ago. I am pleased to know that my efforts will help keep this queen and her colony well-fed and safe from pesticide exposures.

 

A small front yard garden with bright orange California poppies and shrubbery.
The author’s yard, filled with colorful native plants, on a sunnier day. (Photo: Xerces Society / Aimée Code)

 

As you enjoy the vagaries of spring be sure to make time to appreciate and support pollinators and other beneficial insects. Take advantage of the season’s perfect conditions to establish healthy pollinator habitat and prevent weed, insect and disease pressures. If nothing else, put on some grungy clothes and spend a few hours in the garden. What better way to honor the Earth?

 

Additional Resources

Check out all of our Earth Week 2019 content!

Learn more about the Xerces Society’s Pesticide Program.

 

Authors

Aimée Code joined the Xerces Society in 2013 to direct its new pesticide program. In that role, she has built a program focused on securing practices and policies that promote ecologically sound pest management. She and her staff evaluate the risks of pesticides, develop technical guidance, and advocate for actions that reduce reliance on and risks of pesticide use in both urban and agricultural settings. Aimée received her master's of science in environmental health with a minor in toxicology from Oregon State University.

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