Newsflash! What “Organic” DOESN’T Mean

This year, I’ve been working harder to network more with other gardeners, home growers, and farmers, to learn better techniques (or at least new things to try) in producing my own food. 

One thing I have noticed recently is that people consider “organic” pesticides to be a panacea, a god-send, the answer to all their prayers when it comes to protecting their produce.

What everyone forgets is this: organic does not mean “consequence-free”.

There are still ecological impacts to using organic pesticides, just like there are for conventional pesticides. Herbicides as well. I will share two examples from my own experience.

Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT) is a very popular organic pesticide that targets fleshy, soft moth caterpillars in the garden or orchard like tent caterpillars, gypsy moths, cabbage loopers, cabbage worms, and tomato horn worms. If you have ever lost crops to these, you know how voracious and damaging these little guys can be. I was complaining to a friend about them, and she replied she applies BT to her garden every other week, and that’s why she has such perfect and beautiful cabbage.

Here’s the thing. BT also kills butterfly caterpillars as well.

Swallowtail caterpillar, happily nomming on my celery plant
Swallowtail caterpillar, happily nomming on my celery plant

If you’ve ever had swallowtail caterpillars in your celery, dill, parsley or carrots, you know they can be just as destructive as the “bad” bugs. But swallowtail caterpillars aren’t “just” a bug. They grow up into beautiful butterflies that help pollinate plants. They also feed birds, so by wiping out the caterpillars (intentionally or not), you are impacting the upstream members of the food web.

Black and tiger swallowtail butterflies
Black and tiger swallowtail butterflies

OK, this is outright speciesism – favoring the pretty butterflies over the plain moths – but heaven help you if your kids discover swallowtail caterpillars in your garden, become attached to them… and then a few days later they are gone because you sprayed BT in a different area and the wind carried it to where the little guys were happily eating your carrots. I don’t know anyone who would intentionally spray butterfly caterpillars, but the wanton, unthinking application of pesticides (organic or not) will inevitably have consequences.

Even “regular” organic pesticides, like neem oil and insecticidal soap, can kill beneficial insects such as praying mantises, ladybugs, and other predators such as spiders. A balanced, diverse ecosystem includes both “bad” bugs and the natural predators that keep them in check.

Tomato horn worm caterpillar taken out by natural predators
Tomato horn worm caterpillar taken out by natural predators

If you kill a prey population with a pesticide, and it also kills the predators – or the predators starve to death, or die from ingesting poisoned prey – which of the two do you think bounces back faster? Hint: not the predators. 

Ladybug stalking aphids - in a healthy ecosystem, predators and prey exist in balance
Ladybug stalking aphids – in a healthy ecosystem, predators and prey exist in balance

What are the alternatives? Manually removing smaller infestations is one option; for instance keeping an eye on your tomatoes and removing by hand the hornworms when they appear. (My hens love these for a treat!) Keeping the plants lightly covered with a row cover that creates a physical barrier to the moths laying their eggs is another possibility.You can also encourage predator populations. Some websites sell ladybugs and praying mantis egg sacks, but it is even better to support local populations. When we find mantis egg sacks on our property, we always relocate them to our garden to hatch.

Hatching praying mantises
Hatching praying mantises

If you must use BT or other pesticides, consider applying it only as-needed rather than as a routine, and use a spray bottle rather than a big hand pump sprayer for more targeted application.   Spray on a calm, wind-free day. You may also want to bring butterfly caterpillars indoors and feed them pesticide-free greens if you have some available. 

For the record, this year I tried using aggressive intercropping in my garden to help “hide” the tasty crops, especially the brassicas that would often succumb to the cabbage loopers and imported cabbage moths. It didn’t work as well as I had hoped, but I also don’t think I a) separated the individual plants from each other by enough (i.e., there were cabbage, kale, kohlrabi and broccoli all planted within one 4 x 4 bed). And b) I probably needed more different crops, such as more fragrant herbs or flowers to help confuse the predators.

A second example, specific to herbicides. We have areas in walkways and garden paths that are difficult to weed – plus it was blistering hot here in Maryland all summer, and who wants to waste precious time pulling weeds? I have garden produce to pick! Rather than reaching for the Roundup, I researched “homemade” weed killer. A common recipe goes like this: 1/2 gallon apple cider vinegar, 1/4 cup sea salt and 1/2 tsp Dawn liquid dish soap. (The old kind, the kind you use to rescue ducklings from oil slicks. You know the stuff). Mix it up, and spray on the weeds.

Newsflash: you are still dumping toxins into the soil! That much salt kills plants because it is poisonous. Then it leaches into the surrounding ground. A good rain will help it soak further into the area. We are actually changing the salinity of our soil with the overuse of salt on local roads in the winter, and it is impacting ecosystems, especially waterways and watersheds. Pouring salt on your weeds may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to the amount used in keeping roadways ice-free, but in this case, it is actually stuck in your lawn or your garden, not just on the sides of local roads.

One alternative that I really, really like: boiling water. No, I am not suggesting you use electricity via your microwave or stove top just for the purposes of heating water. But if you happen to be canning; blanching vegetables to prepare for freezing; hard boiling eggs; boiling water for pasta noodles or vegetables – in all these situations, consider capturing the boiling water in another pot when it’s done doing its job, then pouring it (carefully!) on those offending weeds. The water will lose some heat in this process, but it still will be hot enough to kill the plants, especially once it comes in contact with the roots. With no chemicals left behind in your soil!

Let me be clear. I’m not saying “Don’t ever use pesticides and herbicides”; nor am I saying “organic is pointless, go back to using conventional methods.”

What I am saying is this: everything humans do has an impact on the natural world. Everything. We have deluded ourselves for quite a while thinking we are separate from nature, and as a result we are killing the planet.

Take a moment and think about the possible consequences of what you are about to do.

Please. The Earth is begging you.

(Note: this is why I am NOT currently an affiliate marketer! I would have to include links to BT, neem oil, insecticidal soap, Roundup, and Dawn in order to get my commissions!)

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