116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
There are lots of good reasons to use fewer garden chemicals in your landscape.
Note I didn’t say “going organic.” There are certainly a lot of good reasons to go 100 percent organic, but if you aren’t quite ready to commit to absolutely no store-bought garden chemicals ever again, consider simply cutting back their use. You’ll save time, money, and help the environment.
Terminology alert: “Chemicals,” per se, are not bad. Water is a chemical, for example. But for the purposes of this article, I will say “garden chemicals” to mean synthetic or inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, weed killers and treatments for plant diseases.
One of the most immediate benefits of relying less on garden chemicals is money. Between high demand because of the pandemic — when gardening was one of the few safe recreational activities we could entertain ourselves with — and supply chain issues, the prices of a number of popular garden chemicals have gone up.
Even in normal times, fertilizers, weed killers, pesticides and fungicides are no bargain. I can easily spend $50 for just enough synthetic fertilizer to cover all my flower beds for a one-time feeding. Of course, if you simply switch over to store-bought organic fertilizer, you might spend just as much or even more. But if you’re smart and rely instead on compost — what gardeners rightly call black gold — it’s practically free.
Another benefit to using fewer garden chemicals is time. Any reason I can find to not make yet another trip to the hardware or big box store is a good one. I hate spending even one hour of a beautiful spring day shopping, instead of gardening.
Of course, composting takes time as well. But it also saves time because it’s such an easy way to dispose of yard waste, such as autumn leaves.
But the best reason to use fewer chemicals is because it’s the smart thing to do for our health and the health of the planet.
It’s nice to eat beautiful homegrown lettuce, tomatoes, and other produce knowing they haven’t been doused in pesticides. It’s also a great way to feed children in your household.
Of course, there also are the additional benefits of less exposure to synthetic chemicals, some of which in the past have been linked to rashes and skin problems if they linger on plants and come in direct contact with you or children. Garden and agricultural chemicals have been in some cases linked to higher cancer rates and diseases like Parkinson’s.
Then there’s the impact on our environment. Each year, it seems, we find out new ways in which agricultural and garden synthetic chemicals are diminishing our bird population, our bee population, and polluting our water.
Then there’s the packaging. These garden chemicals take energy and create problematic waste and emissions in the manufacturing processes and transport. Once home, there’s the issue of properly disposing of the garden chemical. What do you do with a half-used bottle of pesticide, other than find a place that takes hazardous waste?
Convinced it’s time to use fewer garden chemicals? Here are some easy ways to get started:
- Restrict yourself to only one or two key synthetic garden chemicals and use even those sparingly. For example, I keep a non-selective herbicide (often sold under the brand name Roundup) on hand to deal with those few weeds that I just can’t find an easy way to kill any other way, like nutgrass and some tree seedlings with deep taproots.
- Build a compost heap. Or better yet, three or four. You’ll have a great way to dispose of leaves, grass clippings, and other yard waste and no fertilizer will feed your plants and improve your soil the way compost does. It not only provides foods for plants but it also improves soil texture and attracts beneficial earthworms. Make a habit of working it into the soil every time you plant something, and spread an inch or so on your flower and vegetable beds every year. It’s almost impossible to have too much compost.
- Don’t grow problem plants. If something isn’t well-suited to our climate, or you have too much shade, rather than baby it with garden chemicals, simply don’t grow it. An example: For some reason, in my garden, I can’t grow zucchini, of all things. Each time it gets infested with squash borers. I could treat it with Sevin, but instead, I just don’t grow zucchini and buy it at the farmers market or the grocery store instead.
- Choose alternative plants that are less prone to problems. When buying plants, do a little research ahead of time to choose those types that are tougher and more disease- and insect-resistant. Hybrid tea roses, for example, are notoriously disease-prone and do best with sprayings of insecticides and fungicides. Instead, look for “landscape” type roses or any other types that are labeled as easy-care or low-maintenance.
- Rethink your lawn care program. I have yet to find an effective organic weed killer for my lawn, but there are lots of good organic lawn fertilizers out there. I use a lawn service, so this year I called and for just a little extra money, they can use an organic fertilizer along with the synthetic fertilizer.
- One of the best ways to go semi-organic is simply to focus on good gardening practices rather than giving doses of “plant medicine” to help sickly plants. Keep plants appropriately watered. Make sure they’re positioned in the right light. Mulch to conserve moisture and prevent diseases. Do fall cleanup to remove dead foliage that can harbor overwintering insects.
Veronica Lorson Fowler is co-publisher of The Iowa Gardener website at www.theiowagardener.com.