Monday, March 29, 2010

Sustainable Garden Maintenance

First of all, I am not a gardener. I have no natural gift for it and limited inclination and experience. However, as time goes on, am developing a deep affection for my garden. I am attempting to develop a flourishing and sustainable organic ornamental garden surrounding my house. I am trying to concentrate on native species assuming they will be the most likely to flourish with my form of benign neglect. I did not originally start out to be organic, I actually never thought about it until faced with a nursery consultant wanting to sell me bags of chemicals the year I began planting my garden. The groundwater that I drink is very shallow with limited soil overburden to protect it. In addition, nutrient runoff is a major problem in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. For the most part, the back seven acres of my property are part of the Resource Protected Area under the Chesapeake Protection Act. Anything that goes into my septic system, is spread on my lawn, or sprayed around my house could easily find its way into my water or the water shed (someone else’s water). My first reaction to the offer of fertilizer and weed killers was no. Since that time the more I read about pesticides, herbicides and insecticides derived from naturally occurring substances that are now commercially available, the less I am inclined to use any synthetic chemical products in the garden. Some of the more natural pesticides were introduced in the 19th century, and are derived from the roots of tropical vegetables. At the moment I am practicing a form of feeding the soil through composting. I try to always use the least toxic method to address any pest issues. This requires an integrated pest management approach that includes a series of methods for preventing and managing pest populations based on an ecological understanding of the problem. Time, patience and diligence are necessary for the success of any natural program of sustainable garden and pest management. Chemical annihilation of pest colonies and weeds are not an option.

These older, methods and naturally occurring chemicals are a step back, but believed to be safer than the new generation of pesticides and herbicides developed during last quarter century (encouraged by the US EPA to replace the first round of pesticides banned by the agency). The lower concentrations of the new chemicals and their breakdown products rendered them virtually invisible in water. We could not detect them and assumed they were not present. Now it seems that the degradation products of these new chemical herbicides are far more persistent in the environment that originally believed or hoped. Recent studies have documented endocrine disruption in a wide variety of marine gastropods, frogs, and fish associated with exposure to low levels of non specific endocrine disrupting chemicals of unknown sources. The current state of analysis only allowed the documentation of EDC presence. EDCs are a structurally diverse group that includes natural and synthetic estrogens, alkyl phenols surfactants, phthalates, bisphenol A, brominated flame retardants and some pesticides.

Pesticide' is a broad term, covering a range of products that are used to control pests. The slug pellets, ant powder, weed killers, and rat and mouse baits that you may use in your everyday life are all pesticides. Other pesticides you may have heard of including: insect killers (insecticides), mould and fungi killers (fungicides), weed killers (herbicides), slug pellets (molluscicides), plant growth regulators, bird and animal repellents, and rat and mouse killers (rodenticides). Often people only think of pesticides as chemicals, but they include a very large range of different types of products. Some as described above are natural, while many are altered versions of natural chemicals. I choose to stay away from the synthetic chemicals. My organic garden requires me to weed the beds on a regular basis, where spraying 2, 4-D, commonly found in household weed killers is certainly much easier. However the more chemical pesticides are investigated the more questions are raised. For example, in a 1991 National Cancer Institute study examined dogs whose owners' lawns were treated with 2,4-D four or more times per year. The study found those dogs had double the risk of developing canine malignant lymphoma than dogs whose owners do not use the herbicide. Our knowledge of the consequences of pesticide use is really so limited considering the widespread use of the substances. I think just doing without pesticides and weed killers in my garden are best. There is simply no justification for adding chemical contaminants to the earth and the watershed for a greener lawn and prettier flowers.

Without the need to spread fertilizer or weed controlling chemicals, my spring clean up of my garden involved, edging, weeding and mulching the beds, replacing the shrubbery that the deer pulled out and the snow crushed and replacing the snowplow damaged sections of the lawn with sod and calling it a day. (It was actually 5 man days and 50 bags of mulch.) For full disclosure purposes I still have one of the worst lawns in my neighborhood, I apply no chemicals to my lawn and never water. However, I do hope to improve the lawn by continuing my fall program of aerating and over seeding and applying my limited amount of compost. So far, not so good despite soil analysis that showed decent soil composition. I may not have a great garden, but at least it is a neat one. Next we are onto assessing the condition of my dozen hollies trees that appear to have been severely damaged by the harsh winter we just had. The arborist will be out to determine what can be saved and what needs to be replaced and I will plant some saplings on the forest edge to increase its footprint.

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