Organic, shmorganic

I’m all for pesticide-free gardening. It’s friendlier to the planet, it doesn’t leave residue on your food, and it’s less harmful to the things you’re not trying to kill, like ladybugs and dogs. There’s only one downside: pests.

I’m beginning to think that the whole idea of organic gardening is a vast, six-leg conspiracy, hatched by the pests themselves. They got together to solve the life-threatening problem of pesticides and, in a remarkable show of pan-pest cooperation, launched the organic movement. The leafrollers wrote the literature, the cutworms did the PR, and the slugs – well, the slugs were supposed to set up the web site, but they never got around to it.

Before you could say “insecticide,” they had world-wide buy-in, and right-thinking, ecologically conscious humans started to do their work for them. The rest is history.

Don’t get me wrong. I try to be a responsible steward of land and water. I know the earth’s tolerance for chemical pesticides isn’t infinite, but neither is it zero. I can’t think that taking the time and using the energy to plant a vegetable garden, and then watching the crops succumb to pests that chemicals could kill, is anybody’s idea of good resource management.

I’m sure that, were I a more skilled gardener, I would have an arsenal of organic pest-fighting tools and wouldn’t be so quick to resort to Liquid Sevin, a toxic soup that kills every garden pest known to man. As it is, my primary organic pest-fighting tool is Monterey Garden Insect Spray, a commercial organic pesticide whose active ingredient is spinosad.

In the unlikely event that you’re unfamiliar with spinosad, let me fill you in. It’s a compound that was first produced by fermenting a soil sample populated by the bacterium Saccharopolyspora spinosa. The soil sample was collected when a vacationing scientist with the Natural Products division of Eli Lily stumbled on the remains of a defunct Caribbean rum distillery. He scooped up the sample, brought it back to the lab, and left it to ferment for three years.

What possessed him to let it ferment for three years? Dow Chemical (which now owns that Eli Lily division) doesn’t say, but I’m betting he forgot about it. He put the thing in a test tube, and then went about his Natural Products business. Three years later, when he was cleaning out his cubicle, he found it. “Oh yeah!” he said. “Here’s that soil sample from the Caribbean rum distillery. I wonder if it’s produced any natural insecticides.”

Actually, first he probably tested to see if it produced any cancer cures, non-caloric sweeteners, or wrinkle creams. Once he ruled out the big money, he tested for insecticides – and hit the jackpot. Sure enough, S. spinosa generated metabolites that were deadly to caterpillars, borers, leaf beetles and the like, while not harming beneficial bugs like lacewings and ladybugs.

Because it’s made from metabolites produced by fermentation involving a bacterium found in nature, it’s organic. (It’s worth noting that this bacterium has never been found in nature again, leaving open the possibility that someone accidentally spilled Liquid Sevin on the original soil sample.) Because it’s organic, we gave it a shot. We sprayed our garden with Monterey, and the pests just laughed – in between bites of our collard greens.

We’re going over to the dark side and breaking out the Sevin.

15 people are having a conversation about “Organic, shmorganic

  1. Loving reading your web site and truly admire your goal. I have a very small garden that I am trying to keep organic but am slowly being defeated by squash bore worms. I bought the horrible chemical at the feed store that they said would kill them but haven’t been able to bring myself to use it. So now my garden is a bit like that movie Outbreak. I have watched each of my 5 squash and zuchinni plants become infected in succession and then die. I guess they are really the vegetables I like the least that I am growing so I am hoping the Hot Zone ends with them. Enjoy your chowder weather while we sweat away in the sunny South!
    Heather R

  2. Heather, Heather, break out the chemicals! You can’t let your garden turn into a horror movie. (Although we’re on the same page when it comes to zucchini — it’s my least favorite as well.) But if you give in on the squash, they’ll go after your cukes, and then your melons. Give ’em an inch …

    If you can’t bring yourself to do it, I’ll come and do it for you.

  3. You write a fair number of posts on the following template:

    1. I feel guilty about doing X, which is common sense.
    2. Not doing X is expensive and damaging.
    3. I’m doing X anyway, I don’t care what you say!

    I respectfully suggest bypassing the guilt and proceeding directly to X.

  4. Hi, Heather,

    In my kitchen, any creatures who makes it past the washing and into the meal is called spices. Spices are just for flavor and should not be eaten. But, if you do eat one, it is not going to kill you, for pity sake, so stop fussing!

  5. Aaron — Busted!

    I see your point, but I don’t think guilt is quite the right word. Certainly I sometimes waver. I often do not have the skills to solve problems optimally. But guilt is generally not what I feel. In this case, a moderate application of chemicals in an otherwise organic garden is a principled stand.

    Jan — You’re a hard-liner! When I was a kid, and we found a bug in the salad, my mother would say, “Extra protein.” But, if I read her right, Heather’s saying that the bugs are reducing her produce to the point where there isn’t enough squash left to make it past the washing and into the meal.

  6. It’s a principled stand, if your principle is “I will not let pests destroy my vegetables.” Which is entirely valid, so far as I’m concerned, but I doubt that it’s quite what you had in mind.

  7. Aaron — You’re right, my stand isn’t “I will not let pests destroy my vegetables,” alhthough I wish it were that simple. It is “I will do my best, given imperfect information, to weigh the benefit of saving my vegetables against the cost of damaging their environs in order to maximize good.”

    If, in order to save the vegetables, I had to, say, kill all the fish in the pond, the costs would outweigh the benefits. But if I could do it with one or two applications of Liquid Sevin, I think the benefits outweigh the costs.

  8. I have my first large garden in my city backyard this year. Got off to a great start, then came the pests: especially cut worms on tender plants, cabbages. I thought the cabbages wouldn’t survive, but actually they did. I just have to peel off a lot of the outside leaves, then find a perfectly good cabbage (though smaller).

    However, when the pests attacked the young tender okra, set in on my tomatoes, pretty much everything, I hauled out the big gun: Sevin liquid spray. In truth, it did cut down on the pests, but didn’t entirely eradicate them.

    I feel I’ve put a lot of time and money/investment (for seeds, plants, labor) into my garden to let it be ruined by pests. Of course, I didn’t just keep saturating plants with the Sevin, rather gave it a one-time good spray from a small handheld sprayer directly on each plant. That has sufficed enough to get the benefit of the veggies without overkill, so to speak.

    I have read a bit about organic gardening, and I think it is a multi-layered effort – takes years to establish pest control in a natural way (without sprays). Lots of info on where you plant, creating bordering flowers, etc that are natural repellants to certain insects, etc. I might be able to do that in a very small, limited space, which I will probably try next year. For larger gardens, especially the first year, pests seem to be a major issue.

  9. We are certainly not going to iron out the difficulties with various forms of consequentialism here. Suffice it to say that humans are so notoriously bad at calculating second or third order consequences — and so notoriously good at kidding themselves that they can do it — that they are best off restricting themselves to worrying about their own vegetables. (Il faut cultiver son jardin, n’est-ce pas?) In other words, your information, and especially your capacity to process it, are far less perfect than you imagine them to be.

  10. Great website and I admire your efforts. I’d like to try something similar someday. My wife and I maintain a couple small gardens in our postage stamp of a backyard on the south side of Milwaukee, WI.

    Although we haven’t had too many problems with pests (knock on wood), I worry that may come to an end some day. For now its mostly squirrels, rabbits, and an occasional slug or two.

    We’ve planted tons of tomatoes, cukes, peppers, beans, peas, herbs etc. All organic. Nothing but good dirt and lots of compost. Last year we did egg plant (yawn) and some watermelon (never again).

    Anyhow hang in there and thanks for uncovering the vast six legged conspiracy!

  11. Charles — We have squirrels and rabbits as well, and I’ve been checking out recipes for them. Something out there is dead-heading my fennel, and I will show no mercy.

    As for the six-legged conspiracy, it’s probably as close to investigative journalism as I’ll ever get.

    Good luck with your postage stamp.

  12. I wish it were only bugs. My garden was eaten by animals that climbed over the fence and burrowed under it. They also ate through my thick plastic composter to get at corncobs.

  13. Just wait until the hornworms show up – vastly more cool (and off-putting) in their gargantuanness than any cutworm, potato beetle or slug. If you’re lucky (like we were a couple of years back) you’ll have some 6-legged reinforcements – see here for details

  14. Hornworms are creepy! When we were kids my Mum used to give us a nickle for everyone we plucked off her very very very organic tomatoes. I remember the ones covered with the eggs. I never knew what the hell they were. Thanks for the tidbit. If only she knew the six legged critters would do em in, she wouldn’t have had to pay her two legged critters to hunt em down!
    From my hornworm tracking days , you can always find the worm, just follow the poop trail.
    Incase you might be wondering what we did with them after we cashed in for our nickles…… Mum said we’d fry them up with a little butter for dinner!

  15. There was a whole season when I washed down my small corn crop with the hose every night to kill the critters. My dad said it was the best corn he had in his 80 + years.

    Organic and integrated pest management work in tandem; bring in the “good bugs” to get rid of the destructive pests. Or just plant extra to let the bugs have their way. I use BT & handpick, often tossing the hornworms and such to the blue jays & cardinals hanging around. Using a good bit of compost works well; an enriched
    soil will help the plants ward off bugs and disease.

    And geez, Aaron – you are still the pain in the ass you were at Spackenkill. Leave your sister alone.

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