Ministry of Controversy

Miles of aisles of chemicals—except now they’re green.

This compound is a particularly attractive product because it has low toxicity to nontarget insects and people, and thus far tests … show it to be noncarcinogenic. It’s considered to be safer for beneficial insects …

Milky spore disease (Bacillus popilliae). Let’s cut to the chase: Both the newspaper article and Gillman agree that this works OK used community-wide, not so much in an individual yard. Gillman adds that it might reduce numbers of Japanese beetles, but is not as effective as it once was.

Pyrethrum. They say: It is fast-acting (good for wasp spray) but not exceptionally lethal. Pyrthroids, such as Talstar and Raid, are synthetic versions of pyrethrum and are fast becoming popular insecticides because they are safer than many synthetics.

Gillman says: This poison breaks down rapidly so is only toxic for a very short time. … but it’s not completely safe [it is often sold mixed with synthetic compounds, even mild carcinogens] and should be used with the same respect afforded to any potent poison.

Rotenone. They say: Obtained from the roots of tropical plants, rotenone is a broad-spectrum insecticide. Although it is mildly toxic to humans, it is highly toxic to fish, so it should be used with care around water.

Gillman says: My least favorite pesticide. … known to cause Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms when injected just below the skin of rats at extremely low doses … Why would any sane person use this?

I don’t mean to pick on one newspaper article, nor do I mean to hold Gillman up as an all-knowing guru. But I’m concerned about the all-out marketing blitz we’ve already seen and are going to see much more of in service of “green” garden chemicals. Caveat emptor, indeed. Better to be forearmed with as much knowledge about these products as possible.

Posted by on May 14, 2008 at 5:00 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.
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28 responses to “Miles of aisles of chemicals—except now they’re green.”

  1. gina says:

    elizabeth – I noticed this too. The garden centers I shopped in last year are suddenly stocked with all these fancy so called organic options. They also seem to have these signs posted all over their stores saying LOOK WE’RE GREEN NOW! I was trying to figure out of the signs were placed there so I’d notice (don’t need signs to notice that kind of thing) or to explain their position to all the traditional gardeners so they wont lose business. Have you noticed signs?

  2. Michele Owens says:

    I don’t understand why any of this is necessary. If the plant is getting buggy, it’s not happy, so don’t grow it.

  3. eliz says:

    Gina, oh yeah. Signs everywhere.

    Michele, that would rule out a lot of plants. Though I prefer to address bug problems by spraying them off.

  4. Sandra says:

    It seems as though there are more aisles of bug/weed exterminators than other garden products, ‘green’ just seems to have doubled the number not reduced it.
    I either hose bugs off with a water spray or pick them off. Mostly I don’t have a big bug problem and I’m prepared to put up with some damage or get rid of the occasional plant that gets infested annually. I refuse to use any chemical garbage on my garden, green or not.

  5. I’ve never been a huge fan of the ‘input substitution’ approach to organics — trading one bag or bottle for a greener product while not changing the practices that led to the problems the bags or bottles are meant to solve.

    Grow a diversity of plants. Match them as best you can to the conditions they face. Keep them (and the soil supporting them) healthy. And if a few of them have some problems, it’s not the end of the world.

  6. Gloria says:

    Going green means stopping this kill everything mentality.

    My favorite article at Mother Earth News is about spiders and other beneficial creatures…
    “Don’t swat that bug!”

    http://www.motherearthnews.com/Sustainable-Farming/1995-04-01/Dont-Swat-That-Bug.aspx

    and a more recent reason to stop the spray…
    http://www.motherearthnews.com/Laurie-Tumer-Pervasive-Pesticides-Photography.aspx

    I once wrote that for those that feel they must treat a problem that I would feel safer if they used a recommended organic solution. This will rarely be a quick fix kill all spray.
    Is there a problem? Just seeing a bug does not indicate the bug is a problem.
    Then one must fiqure out what is causing the problem (it could be nutrient or weather based).
    I still say no spray but if you must please make sure you are doing the least harm possible. People like Jeff Gillman are at least addressing this.
    Craig at Ellis Hollow (above) has it right…
    Grow a diversity of plants. Match them as best you can to the conditions they face. Keep them (and the soil supporting them) healthy. And if a few of them have some problems, it’s not the end of the world.

  7. Lisa Albert says:

    Thank you for this information and please tell us more! Natural and organic don’t equal safe: tobacco and arsenic, anyone? We need to have a healthy dose of skepticism to weed out the “green” products that truly earn the “safe” label and aren’t just another way for companies to rake in their favorite kind of green (oh, who am I kidding, I like that kind of green, too).

    In your research, have you come across any information regarding the new herbicides on the market? Is clove oil, the active ingredient in my herbicide, really a “safe” product?

  8. Jeff Gillman says:

    Hi Lisa,

    No, Clove oil is not a completely safe product. It is primarily eugenol which can be pretty toxic if you swallow it. It can be used to do things like numb a sore tooth, but too much can be pretty darn bad — for us as well as for aquatics and other organisms. Based on my research I consider Round-up (and by Round-up I mean glyphosate with no other chemicals added) to be safer than clove oil. More effective too – though slower acting

    Jeff Gillman

  9. Jeff Gillman says:

    I should add that I’d rather see you hand weed that use either of these chemicals.

  10. susan harris says:

    Thank you, Eliz, Jeff and commenters! I’m writing part 2 of my “Truth About Organic Gardening” column for a local paper, covering insecticides, and you’ve practically written it for me. Part one was a summary of Gillman’s advice about “weeds and feeds” and was posted on my blog:
    http://sustainablegardeningblog.com/archives/429

  11. susan harris says:

    I forgot to say right-on to the suggestion by Craig and others that organic gardening isn’t really about switching products. It’s different practices and attitudes, like getting rid of problem plants and accepting a certain amount of insect “damage.” After all, don’t we WANT our plants to feed wildlife?

  12. wooly sunflower says:

    My experience working in a garden center is that most people want a quick fix to deal with garden pests. Alot of the time I can talk them into the “green” solution, but when I suggest anything harder than aiming a spray bottle, they give me funny looks. Of course, these are not gardeners who would read this or any gardening blog, they’re folks who want to sit outside and enjoy a pretty garden without alot of fuss. One thing I’ve found that steers people away from toxics is to read them the warnings on the labels! This works almost every time. Most people are more than happy to buy pesticides OK’d by the Organic Materials Review Institute(OMRI), but they still would rather buy a solution in a bottle than live without their favorite rose bush or actually do the work required to create a balanced ecosystem. I firmly stand my ground on some things tho. I’ve had people walk out of the store because I’ve given them a hard time about purchasing toxics for edibles. This hasn’t happened so much lately, but there’s a generation of folks who hate insects and want to see all of them dead. I think that this generation is slowly dying off tho(might they still be alive if they hadn’t been addicted to using Orthenex on their roses? or Malthion on the squash?)Thankfully, most of these guaranteed-to-kill- everything products aren’t even on our shelves anymore. It’s sure nicer to work in an environment free of toxic offgassing! btw, I tried the clove oil herbicide for weeds growing between bricks and just the smell of it convinced me it couldn’t possibly be healthy! Plus, it’s top kill only so most stuff comes right back. Boiling water works just as well.

  13. eliz says:

    Wooly sunflower,

    Interesting point, and it’s one I had in mind when I wrote this.

    We have a lot of readers on this blog who do not comment. I have to assume many of our readers are NOT totally up to date with some stuff, so sometimes I give information that I know will be familiar to the regular commenters.

    Jeff, I would love to see YOU hand weed! Please come over any time and I would be happy to admire your weeding skills.
    : P

  14. Aside from the strains on back and knees, I enjoy hand-weeding. I ascribe to the Hirogen philosophy when it comes to weeds: I come to know and understand my prey through the hunt.

  15. Daphne Gould says:

    I’m with you Sandra. I refuse to use that stuff in my garden either. I will use soaps and Bt though haven’t used either for about 5 years. But that is about as far as I go and only if I’m extremely desperate.

  16. susan harris says:

    Like Daphne, I use products when I’m extremely desperate, which means when an essential plant is threatened, usually a big one. In my garden it’s been a whole hedge of cherry laurels, and someday I might use a product to save my Canadian hemlocks. Other than those, troubled plants are yanked.

  17. Dr Dog says:

    At the risk of being labeled Dr Pedantic, “a brave new world of kinder, gentler pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides” is annoyingly redundant. All insecticides, fungicides and herbicides are pesticides. A pesticide removes pests, any pests, plant, insect, fungi, the know-all gardener next door, whatever. Environmentally friendly pesticides are a great move, but lets see if we can avoid the pointless repetition, hmm?

  18. Lisa Albert says:

    Thanks, Jeff, for the info. I do realize that nothing is completely safe – hence safe in quotes. Rest easy, I hand weed 99.9% of the time (I call it my Zen of Weeding.) However, I have some persistent garden thugs that have not responded to hand weeding, hot water, sheet mulching…. seems like I’ve tried everything to eradicate my Japanese anemones but she continues to ignore my eviction notice. After 5 years of failed attempts, I’ve resorted to product use – but only with careful spot spraying and only until she’s banished for good. But dang, I’m sorry to hear that clove oil is perhaps not as good an alternative as I’d hoped. It does work well and I love the smell, much more pleasant than Round-up.

    Is there an organic herbicide on the market that is safer/better than glyphosate? Do I have no other alternatives?

    The only other product I use in my garden are mosquito dunks (BT).

    Until you reminded me, I’d forgotten about the clove oil for tooth ache remedy (I think my grandma taught me that one).

  19. Lisa Albert says:

    Oh, one other question for you, Jeff. I’ve learned that clove oil is exempt from EPA registration. It’s included on a list of “safe” products, whatever that means. When I learned that it gave me a false sense of confidence. So here’s my question (actually two). How exactly does the EPA determine what goes on the exempt list and how can we, as consumers, make product decisions based on this information? Thank you!

  20. susan harris says:

    Dr. Dog, you’re right but people who know the true definition of “pesticide” are few and far between, so don’t be surprised if the “pointless repetition” continues.

  21. Jeff Gillman says:

    Vinegar is pretty safe — but no, it isn’t as effective as Round-up. Fire works well (you can buy propane torches intended for this purpose) It doesn’t work as well on woody weeds though. Off of the top of my head I don’t remember exactly how an organic pesticide gets on the exempt list. Actually I don’t think that the exempt list is a terrible thing (the pesticides on it are generally on the safer side) except that it gives people a false sense of security – which is bad.

  22. eliz says:

    I have to agree with Susan; most gardeners would make the same distinction between pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides as I did. And that’s how they are arranged in the garden center. I am not really interested in confusing people in order to show off my superior knowledge of nomenclature.

  23. Lisa Albert says:

    Thanks again, Jeff.

    Flaming weeds would work great in my gravel paths and I’ve considered asking for a small flamer for Christmas or birthday ever since I heard Ann Lovejoy talk with great affection about hers (I think it was called a Lady Dragon). But I’ve decided that hitting weed seedlings with my hula hoe works as well and it’s good exercise. I’m a low-tech kinda gal, any way. My garden beds are much too packed with plants to use a torch safely.

    When you say vinegar, do you mean white vinegar from the cupboard or a concentrated form of vinegar? My experience with cupboard vinegar is so-so. Works great on weeds in sun, but the cursed anemones were barely affected. I considered Blackberry & Brush Blocker but since the anemones have wound their way through the bed so completely, there’s no way to treat the soil of the anemone without affecting all my other plants. Perhaps it would work as a targeted spot spray ala Round-up – have to check into that.

    I’m loathe to use products, organic or synthetic (rather spend my money on plants) but, as I wrote, my battle to win control of my garden bed from the anemone (it has world domination in mind) escalated to the point that I needed something, anything to give me an edge over it. And there isn’t a product that is safe and effective (Utopian thinking, perhaps) – at least not that I’ve found yet.

    I saw another organic herbicide with the active ingredient of orange oil. I’m guessing the precautions would be the same as for clove oil.

  24. Reading Dirt says:

    I’ve got a weed flamer, and it does melt down the weeds pretty well, but it doesn’t kill the roots. You have to flame pretty often to keep them down. If only corn gluten worked as well as the package says…

    I think a lot of these “green” garden products, and garden products in general, have the same appeal as many “health” products — such things sell to the “worried well,” people who are pretty healthy, but worried that they aren’t healthy enough. The garden product industry has long sold us a similar bill of goods — if you thought your garden with a few bugs and weeds was healthy, well, think again, pal. Bigger! Better! Greener! It can all be yours, if you’ll only buy and use lots and lots of our products!

    I mean, just look at the GardensAlive! catalog. While I do like some of their stuff, they’ve got a separate fertilizer formula for just about every plant in your garden. I’d go broke buying all their special formulas. At the rate they’re going, I wouldn’t be surprised if they came out with special fertilizer for pink geraniums as opposed to red ones.

  25. Marte says:

    I just saw this post, since I’ve been out in the garden the past few days. Very interesting topic and great comments. I am a confirmed hand-weeder myself, and am now engaged in eradicating the creeping charlie from my lawn; by hand, with sections roped off with strings. I do use insecticidal soap on the sawflies that appear at Graduation time on my two remaining gingko pines. Otherwise, no chemicals and lots of bugs but not that much damage (except by the rabbits) But yesterday my husband put chicken wire around the bottom of our three garden gates. We’ll see if that helps. Thanks all of you for the great information.

  26. Jeff Gillman says:

    For the vinegar — the higher the acetic acid content the better (I’ve found 6% or greater to be best — some commercial herbicide formulations may go up to 20% acetic acid — these will work best) — but roots will still persist — it will probably take you multiple applications (like 5 or 6) to get rid of the situation that you’re describing — or 1 maybe 2 applications of Round-up. I’m not recommending Round-up here, but there are benefits to using a synthetic sometimes.

  27. Sarah says:

    “We have a lot of readers on this blog who do not comment. I have to assume many of our readers are NOT totally up to date with some stuff, so sometimes I give information that I know will be familiar to the regular commenters.”

    I resemble this remark! :) I really appreciate the fact that you do give out information for those of us not as far along in the journey. The comments others leave have been really valuable to me as well.

    I’ve just been growing a full-fledged vegetable garden for a couple of years (before that it was a couple of tomato plants, which are really easy to grow here). I’m committed to keeping it organic, so I gave up completely on broccoli and this year I’m really fighting something (not sure what) for my salads. My lettuce is full of holes!

    I’d rather wash my lettuce well to make sure I don’t eat any, um , protein than spray it, but it’s starting to get ridiculous. Some leaves are more hole than lettuce!

    I also figured out what to get DH for father’s day from other’s posts. What could be more manly than a weed flamer? Thanks!
    Sarah

  28. this is good news. nasty pests must watch on their backs more closely!

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