Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: Try Not to Poison Your Neighbor’s Baby Food

By Ron Sullivan
Friday May 25, 2007

It’s bug time! The plants in the garden are just starting to thrive and get real leaves; the flowers are midway in their annual sequential display; what was mud is starting to look like future meals.  

But the bugs. They’re here, and they outnumber us. They have diabolical designs on our tomatoes and greens and bouquets, ands some of them are out for blood—and infectious besides. Quick, Henry, the Flit!  

(Ten points if you recognize that; five more if you can name the author.) 

Resist the temptation to bomb the yard, please. Resisting will be better for the rest of the world, and in the long run—not very long either—it will make things easier for you. 

First, it’s a good thing to know your pests. Some of the nastier-looking things on your plants might be your allies. Ladybeetles, in their voracious young stages, look like little black gator things with curved claws up front. Those “claws” can’t pinch you or me, but the youngsters are even better against aphids than their parents.  

Spittlebugs are icky, but not very threatening. They generally have only one generation of kids per year, and that’s what’s making bubbles on plant stems now. If you spray them off with plain water, they’ll land elsewhere sans protective foam and die or get eaten. 

Other plant-eaters abound, of course, but nearly all of them are on someone else’s menu. If you load the pests with esoteric toxins, you’ll not only starve your allies, but poison them—and their children. 

The flush of animal life at this time of year follows closely on the plants’ growth and bloom. Within that animal expansion, predators lay eggs or give birth, hatch or awaken, in time to make the best of their prey’s plenitude.  

Those predators include, for example, birds that eat mostly seeds the rest of the year: finches, sparrows; also nectar specialists like hummingbirds. Everybody feeds their kids bugs; it’s a high-protein diet for fast growth and development. If you want birds, don’t poison the babyfood.  

And of course if you want butterflies, you’re going to have to let the caterpillars chew on the foliage! 

Meanwhile, everything flows downhill and downstream, where the leftover nasties can do in our neighbors. Even the stuff that’s been marketed to replace organophosphates is dangerous; for example, pyrethroids, chemically modeled on natural pyrethrins, can kill aquatic critters, starting with the little amphipods, “scuds,” at the base of the average creek’s foodweb, and are toxic in solution to fish as big as salmon.  

Natural pyrethrins are potent allergens, by the way, so use it with caution if at all. “Natural” does not equal “nontoxic.” 

An alliance called “Our Water Our World” distributes handy wallet folders with the names of some less toxic ingredients to match with what’s on the shelves when you shop. Its website at www.ourwaterourworld.org has references and details and at least one hilarious swarm of similes. Download and print the card from that, or look for it by cash registers in nurseries.  



Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in the Planet’s East Bay Home & Real Estate section. Her column on East Bay trees appears every other Tuesday in the Planet.