Battling the bugs—and the temptation to use chemical WMDs

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Off to war against the weed-lurking worms. (Steph Larsen photos)

I'm at war with the common stalk borer. As much as I believe in sustainability and chemical-free agriculture in theory, I've never been more tempted to use insecticides as I am right now.

For years, the signature for my email has been a quote from the agtivist-scientist Vandana Shiva, "Sustainability begins with peace with the Earth." Contrary to current U.S. foreign policy, one cannot be forever at war. Balance is the basis of sustainability in the environment, and anyone who says differently is selling something.

I believe this fully, and you'd have a hard time finding a more staunch supporter of organic and sustainable agriculture than me. It's my chosen profession after all, and the way I live my life. But even I have my weak moments. When months of hard work and care are being undone by hungry little worms, it's hard to embrace the rhetoric of balance and harmony. I'm furious, and I want to take it out on the cause of my plants' distress. Poison seems as good a method of revenge as any.

A victim of the evil borer

A victim of the evil borer

Our battle with the borers started back in snowy February, when we started seeds in a spare room in our house with a big south-facing window. My partner, Brian, diligently watered them twice a day, and before long we had healthy seedlings. It's a lot of effort to start your own seeds, but worth it. By May, many of them had made their way into the newly tilled garden.

In early June, however, we noticed something was definitely wrong. It started with a pepper plant wilting even though we'd had plenty of rain. It took a few days to discover that the cause was a thin, striped worm boring into the peppers. By the time we wised up to their antics, the buggers had moved to other plants. Anything with a substantial stem was susceptible, so soon we were checking the tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, basil, squash, and anything else that looked remotely wilty.

After some research, we learned that the common stalk borers' life cycle starts in brome grass, one of the main weeds in our garden. Brome makes a great forage for our sheep, but it harbors the eggs of the stalk borer. So this weekend, in the 95-degree sun, we did our best to get rid of any weed within 10 feet of our 50-by-50-foot garden. It wasn't easy: I've got the blisters to prove it. But if we hadn't, all our favorite vegetables could have been lost.

When it comes to agriculture and growing things, my goal has always been to work with nature as much as possible. Live in a desert? Don't plant cranberries, rice, or anything else that likes "wet feet." Apple trees like south-facing exposures, watermelon do well in sandy soil...you get the picture. Crops do best in the conditions for which they adapted.

The same can be said for insects -- they live in balance with their surroundings. Some bugs are harmful, but they almost always have natural predators. Encourage the beneficial bugs, and your garden will be healthier for it.

But it seems the only predators in my garden for the stalk borers are two-legged.

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This potato plant used to have a top!

As I dropped weeds (and hopefully the borers inside them) into a tub to carry them to the compost pile, head pounding from dehydration, I briefly considered how much easier this would be if I could just spray a little Sevin and be done. A broad-spectrum insecticide, Sevin will do away with most insects it encounters. It would be so much easier than pulling weeds and checking all the plants, and Sevin doesn't wash off in a heavy rain, so I wouldn't have to use much.

It's that last part that gives me pause though. The active ingredient in Sevin is carbaryl, a known carcinogen and the chemical behind the disaster in Bhopal in 1984. If it resists coming off in a heavy rain, there will still be residue on my veggies even if I wash them. When carbaryl breaks down, the chemical byproducts are still carcinogenic. Do I really want to ingest this stuff?

Not to mention that carbaryl kills beneficial insects as well as stalk borers. I need ladybugs in my garden to control the aphids, and honeybees to pollinate the squash. Insects are an important part of the environmental equation that equals sustainability, and indiscriminately poisoning them would mean a lot more problems down the road.

The long view of this problem is that while stalk borers might fell a few of the plants we've worked hard to nurture, we'd throw our entire garden ecosystem out of balance if we started using pesticides. I'm also not willing to risk harm to my health, my animals, my DNA, or any future offspring. So while I'm tempted to take the easy way out with chemicals, I know I'd be doing more harm than good. To the extent possible, my land will remain organic for as long as it's mine.

I can't say, though, that I don't get a small amount of pleasure from squishing the stalk borers I find. This may not be chemical warfare, but it's still war.

Cross-posted from Grist.

7 Responsesto “Battling the bugs—and the temptation to use chemical WMDs”

  1. We're grappling with the insect problem on our organic farm this year, too -- lots and lots of slug damage (significant loss on a couple of early crops), loads of Colorado potato beetle larvae (which we smack into coffee cans and feed to the chickens), and now Japanese beetles.  On top of that, we're keeping a close eye out for late blight and powdery mildew thanks to the wet weather we've had the past month or so.  It IS frustrating!  And it's definitely opening my eyes to the real struggles farmers face in making these decisions.

  2. There are a few things we do that may be helping prevent us from having your fate. We graze our non-root crop gardens with pigs and then follow them with chickens. This kills all the weeds (well, 99.9%) and the insect pests. The gardens are then fenced off from the pigs and the poultry. The chickens continue to free range outside the gardens keeping down the insect population. At certain times I'll put ducks or chickens, just enough, in with certain crops such as corn or potatoes if there is a problem. They love the japanese beetles and quickly quell any invasion. In addition to not having insect problems I don't have to weed hardly at all. As a side benefit the pigs produce pork and manure and the chickens produce eggs and eventually become soup. So are we raising pork, eggs or veggies... Well, a bit of everything. :)

  3. Steph Larsen says:

    Has anyone tried guineas in the garden while things are growing? I've heard they only eat bugs, but I wonder if there's other consequences I'm not thinking of. My neighbor is hatching some out, so we might have the opportunity for chicks soon.

  4. We tried guineas. They did eat the red tomatoes and pecked some squashes - yellow ones - a bit. We got rid of the guineas because of their noise level. Too much for me. My brother has some though and likes them. Male guineas seem to pair up with just one female and are very loud. With chickens one rooster will serve a large number of hens - although you don't actually need a rooster to get eggs, just to get chicks. Guineas also don't produce as many eggs or as large eggs as chickens. Chickens do just as good a job at eating bugs in our experience. We have about 130 chickens right now and a few roosters. How many in the future depends on how loud they are. I train roosters not to crow too much by eating them. :)

    Other bug eaters we have are the little wasps (naturally here but you can buy them), a yellow stripped fly (dung flies we call them), bigger wasps (go after caterpillars great guns), dragon flies, bats, swallows and killdeer. Probably other things I am not thinking of but I see all of these a lot.

  5. Andrea Boykowycz says:

    What about planting marigolds in a tight border around your garden?  Keeps the nematodes away from our tomatoes -- and the groundhogs don't seem to like to cross the marigold barrier, either.  We plant a quartet of marigolds around each tomato plant, and the worms stay away.  No idea if it would work on the borers you're battling, though. But worth a shot?

  6. Karen says:

    This is my third year gardening.  I am trying my best to go as organic as possible.  I'm not necessarily planting only organically grown seeds; I get a lot of my seeds free by trades.  So far I've limited my pest removal assistance to insecticidal soaps and diatomaceous earth.  And serious squishing.  Last year I had horrible aphid issues, this year I have more ladybugs in my garden that I've ever seen before in my whole life.  This gives me hope.  I have put out wren houses and bird feeders hoping to get help battling the cabbage loopers and tomato hornworms. My worst enemy  has been the squash vine borer... consistently depriving me of pumpkins and squash all three years. STILL  I have held strong and resisted using poisons.
    This summer though,  it is not just my garden that is under attack.  We have chiggers.  (aka redbugs)  While picking blackberries I got over a hundred bites. After  that miserable experience, I won't go out into our garden without spraying myself down with off.  And still I get bitten.  A single bite itches for a week or more and nothing helps for any length of time.
    All my research comes up with nothing organic that can be done to help.  In the fall we can powder the yard with sulfur but that can't be done in temperatures over 90 and I'm talking Dallas, Texas where 100 is the norm.  I can't find any thing that preys on them.
    As much as I love my garden, this is almost enough to do me in.

  7. karen says:

    Speaking of eating local!: If you’re going to be near the Hamptons this weekend Brian Halweil, author of “Eat Here: Reclaiming Homegrown Pleasures In a Global Supermarket” and editor of the magazines Edible East End, Edible Manhattan & Edible Brooklyn will be appearing at the Amagansett Library, this Saturday July 10 • 6:00PM. More details at amagansettauthors.com. He’ll be talking about how changing the way we eat and how we produce our food can empower us to change the world for the better!