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

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ILLUSTRATION: STEVE CHARNEY
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.

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).