Seasonal Gardening: Safety Of Pesticides, Colored Mulch Boosts Yields and Keep Bare Roots Moist

The Seasons of the Garden column shares seasonal gardening news briefs on the safety of pesticides, using colored mulch to boost vegetable yields and keeping bare roots moist until planted.
By Greg and Pat Williams
January/February 1988
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According to a national Gallup poll of 1,500 households, 88% of consumers rank the safety of a pesticide they use as more important than its effectiveness.
ILLUSTRATION: STEVE CHARNEY


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The Seasons of the Garden column shares seasonal gardening information and tips with MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers. 

Pesticide concern is on the rise. According to a national Gallup poll of 1,500 households, 88% of consumers rank the safety of a pesticide they use as more important than its effectiveness. Indeed, 55% of the pesticide using respondents said their worries about the dangers of using chemical insect controls have risen in just the past three years.

Such concerns are spreading to the commercial landscaping and tree-service industries, as well. The nationwide tree-care firm Davey Tree & Expert Co., for instance, is reducing its pesticide use on trees and shrubs by 75% by using customized sprayers and Safer-brand insecticidal soaps.

A few firms are going 100% cold turkey. Frank Harder, president of Harder Landscape Contractors in Hempstead, Connecticut, has quit using pesticides entirely—after relying on them for 40 years. Why? He felt uneasy about the presumed "short- and long-term innocence" of pesticides, the concerns expressed by his employees who were exposed to the sprays, the high cost of using them and the increasing risk of liability suits. Now he concentrates on cultural methods for maintaining healthy plants, saying, "We believe neglect is the real enemy that is generally fought by chemical warfare." The results? His business is growing, and "we sleep nights."

Even some lawn-care companies have gone organic. Mike Merner, of Charlestown, Rhode Island, dropped the chemical-intensive lawn-care approach when he saw the vicious cycle of dependency it created. Now he runs the Organic Landscape Company and guarantees that the lawns he cares for won't have insect or disease problems. What secret ingredient does he use to maintain such wonderfully robust home turf? Compost. He makes it himself out of livestock manure, fish scraps and plant clippings.

Seasonal Gardening Research Briefs

Colored mulch boosts yields. Red mulch has been found to increase tomato fruit size and number, and white mulch aided pepper and potato production. Research in this area is just beginning, but the future could hold "designer gardens" with rainbow-like arrays of mulch.

Nix to early pruning. University of Connecticut researchers report that, in a mild winter, January pruning of apple trees caused excessive bark splitting and death. February pruning was much less harmful.

Two thousand mutant tomatoes. The Tomato Genetics Stock Center (Dept. of Vegetable Crops, University of California, Davis, CA) is a seed repository for over 2,000 tomato mutants, wild species and primitive varieties. This collection is vital for breeding improved varieties; and most of its stock comes from farmers and gardeners. So please let the TGSC know about any "weird" tomatoes you've been growing.

Keep bare roots moist. If you ordered any bare-root nursery stock for next spring, be sure to keep it moist until you can plant it. Researcn indicates that adequate moisture is the most important factor for keeping such stock alive and healthy.

Inert may hurt. Even the so-called inert ingredients in pesticides may be harmful. The EPA has evaluated about a quarter of the over 1,000 inert compounds in commercial chemical sprays and found 100 of these either potentially or significantly toxic.

Planting by the plants. Phenology is the study of the timing of biological events in relation to climate. The old farmer's advice to plant corn (or look for morel mushrooms) when oak leaves reach the size of a squirrel's ears is a down-to-earth example of a phenological correlation. Dr. James Duke (Herbal Vineyard, Fulton, MD) thinks such biological indicators are better at predicting the appropriate timing for planting and harvesting than the current mathematical, degree-day models. If you'd like to help him with his Independent Phenology Research Project, send a long SASE to Dr. Duke for a copy of his record-keeping chart.

Borate those beams. Borate treatment may become the standard preservation technique for wood used in gardens and greenhouses; the materials are low-cost and not very toxic. Just soak fresh-sawn wood in a concentrated solution of borate salt (such as sodium borate) and air-dry the wood. It's then protected against powder-post beetles termites, mildew and decay fungi. (For more information, see the July 1987 issue of American Forests, American Forestry Association, Washington, DC.)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Greg and Pat Williams raise most of their own food on a small farm and publish HortIdeas, a fine newsletter on gardening research and products (available for $10 a year from G. & P. Williams, Gravel Switch, KY). 


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