Practice No. 1 Eliminate the Eliminators

Above and Below Ground – Eliminate the Eliminators

Before a gardener can create a garden in harmony, our gardening practices need to align with nature.


Practice No. 1. Stop using herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, miticides – chemicals that kill. We've used them in the past to eliminate weeds, damaging insects and pathogens. Unfortunately, these substances kill beneficial micro and macrobiotic life above and below ground. Synthetic chemicals are prohibited in the certified organic program and should not be used in organic home landscapes.

Before you begin a conversion to an organic landscape, if you have serious problems in your landscape, and using these chemicals is the quickest way to eliminate the problem, consult with a professional for the proper use. Many chemicals are formulated to target the plant, pest or pathogen in a particular stage of growth. Use outside of that stage is often ineffective to the target, however still causes collateral damage. The repeated use, overuse and abuse of chemicals have killed off populations of beneficial microbial life in the soil, damaging and destroying the soil structure in the process.

The first step in creating an organic landscape is to re-mediate the soil. Re-mediate the soil with microbe stimulants, microbe inoculants (such as aerobically activated compost tea, Medina Beneficial Microbes, Soil Mender® Foliar Plus, mychorrizal fungi, composted manure, wormcastings, bat guano, or other products) and provide food for soil microbes to flourish. Micro and macro life will return (depending on the residual value of the chemicals) if the environment is allowed to sustain them. Different chemical products used together create greater barriers for beneficial biology to return. Using synthetic chemicals within an organic landscape just keeps defeating any progress you make.

An intricate network or community of life called the soil food web should be thriving in our soils. Sterile soil is dead soil. Our soils should be teaming with life both visible and invisible to the unaided eye. The organisms range in size from one-celled bacteria, algae, fungi and protozoa to the more complex nematodes. Earthworms, insects and small vertebrate animals are some of the larger members of the soil food web. Soil organism aid the home landscape in many ways, decomposing plant and animal residue, storing nitrogen and other nutrients, purifying water and air, fixing nitrogen from the air, photosynthesizing, improving and building soil aggregates, forming symbiotic relationships with plants, and of course killing harmful micro and macrobiotic life.

Unintended Consequences

Many times, the synthetic (and natural or organic) herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and miticides kill beneficial as well as predators in the landscape, both below and above ground. Some synthetic chemicals have long-lasting residual effects, some have a shorter residual life than others. Over time, pests develop resistance to these synthetic substances and rebound even stronger. In addition, these synthetic compounds contribute or cause unintended and harmful environmental effects.

As an example, a group of persistent synthetic herbicide chemicals, also known as pyridine carboxylic acids, sometimes referred to as pyralids, namely, aminopyralid, clopyralid, fluroxypyr, picloram, triclopyr and/or aminicyclopyrachlor have been on the market for nearly a decade. Products containing these chemicals include Curtail, Forefront, Grazon Next, Grazon P+D, Milestone, Redeem R&P, Surmount, Confront, Lontrel, Millennium Ultra Plus and Plus2, Clopyr AG, Stinger and Imprelis.

Vegetable growers and home gardeners need to be aware of the source for hay, straw, manure or compost from hay, straw or manure from individuals or companies. When sprayed on grass or grain crops, these persistent herbicides can be active up to four years or more. That is, broadleaf plants (flowers, shrubs, trees and vegetables) exposed to these persistent herbicides even from composted manures, hay, or straw previously exposed, suffer deformation or death for up to about four years.

If Using Chemicals

If you choose to use synthetic chemicals, use specific remedies for the problem in the most vulnerable stage of growth to the pest or invasive weed. Using these products require specific knowledge of the pest and/or pathogens. Some chemicals are broad spectrum; others target specific pathogens, pests or weeds. As with organic “cides”, follow directions carefully and in recommended concentrations only. The label is the law. The users of these products are responsible for any damage, including drift damage.

To minimize unwanted affects:

  • Use hand held spray bottles to spot treat the area.
  • Use cardboard or some other shield to protect healthy, wanted plants from drift.
  • Spray only on calm, windless days.
  • A small, disposable craft sponge brush comes in handy for painting on “cides” (organic or synthetic) among ornamentals and even vegetables in close quarters.
  • Re-mediate the area, whether it's above or below ground.

When using chemicals, beneficial insects, organisms and plants are affected adversely as well as the target. Removing the bad insect, fungus and/or weed along with beneficial insects sometimes will give room for secondary problems to move in and multiply, thereby exchanging one problem for another. Resistant insects develop as a result of an incomplete kill. One hundred percent eradication is never achieved. Some of the pests that remain have some resistant quality that prevents them from being killed. When these pests multiply, the chemical resistance is passed on to the young. Soon, a new pesticide resistant strain of pest is present, and the environment is left to contend without the normal beneficial predators to keep them in check.

In the rebound effect, pests usually recover quicker than their predators. Plant-feeding insects are at the bottom of the food chain and are therefore more numerous than their predators. Naturally this makes sense. It'll take many aphids to satisfy the hunger of an aphid predator, such as a lady beetle. If pesticides killed all aphids, this guaranteed meal to lady beetles would cease. But pesticides do not wipe out all aphids (or lady beetles either, although a good many of both are destroyed at the same time). The remaining aphids multiply faster than the lady beetles. Being lower on the food chain, aphids multiply faster and stronger and may even become genetically resistant. They now face fewer enemies (the diminished population of lady beetles). Using pesticides has created an imbalance and a greater problem. Spraying with a jet of water every 3-4 days until the aphid population is diminished is a safer method of managing the problem and preserving the lady beetles.

Insect interactions with other insects, both insect predators and plant predators are within the natural order of things. One feeds on the next, that feeds on the next, that feeds on the next and so on. Disruption by chemicals sets the community off balance. Because of these long and short term effects, use of synthetic chemicals is not permitted in the organic program.


Stop Using Chemical Fertilizers

Stop using chemical, salt-based fertilizers. Most fertilizers are salt based; the salts kill beneficial microbial life. Adding chemical fertilizers to the soil increases the saline content of the soil. Soils with a high saline or sodium content cause additional problems for the gardener:

  • Saline soils either ties up or releases micro nutrients to toxic levels, which causes a disturbance in cell water equilibrium.
  • Degrades the soil structure.
  • Organic matter is chemically destroyed under high pH conditions.
  • Higher sodium levels further inhibit the ability of plants to uptake water and nutrients and cause the plants to dry out quicker.

Past overuse of chemical fertilizers and use of chemical fertilizers with the wrong chemical formulation destroy the soil structure and imbalances the chemical composition of the soil. Many gardeners purchase a “complete” fertilizer, one containing nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Our soils have ample phosphorous and potassium and in most cases, do not require this supplementation. Plants require nitrogen, of course. But many gardeners, or homeowners, use the principle “if a little is OK, more is better.” Nitrogen is water-soluble. If it is not used within a short time frame, nitrogen leaches out of the soil and pollutes our lakes, streams and ultimately the ocean. Dead zones at river deltas are a result of excessive nitrogen and other chemicals flowing from the rivers.

Because nitrogen is water-soluble, is will quickly wash out of the root zone. Microbial life and plants prefer a steady supply of food, rather than the feast or famine method used in gardening. Different plants prefer different types of nitrogen, either nitrates and ammonium. Generally speaking, “most vegetables, annuals and grasses prefer nitrate and do best in bacterially dominated soils. Most trees, shrubs and perennials prefer their nitrogen in the ammonium form and do best in fungal dominated soils” (Teaming With Microbes, A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, Timber Press, 2006). In a plant based style of gardening, best results are achieved focusing on the needs of the plants. Providing the right type of food for bacteria and fungi promotes plants that prefer that biotic environment.

The soil food web is complex and requires many nutrient compounds, provided through the decomposition of a wide variety of organic matter and soil organisms. “Soil organic matter is the storehouse for the energy and nutrients used by plants and other organisms. Bacteria, fungi and other soil dwellers transform and release nutrients from organic matter. Organic matter is many different kinds of compounds – some more useful to organisms than others” (The Soil Biology Primer, published by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service). For a more complete description of the soil food web, access the Soil Biology Primer online.

Eliminating synthetic chemicals and salt-based chemical fertilizers is the first step in creating an organic landscape. Carnage to the soil food web must stop before gains are made. A thriving soil food web is the key to healthy soil and plants.