People often reach for garden chemicals to treat weed or insect pest problems before thinking about other options. It’s important to realize that there are no chemicals that target only one organism. When you introduce something toxic to treat a single problem, you can be sure that it harms other parts of the landscape that you didn’t intend.
Due to the widespread use of agricultural chemicals and the elimination of natural habitats in rural places, populations of insect pollinators are in a lot of trouble. A healthy insect population is as important to our health as is our skeleton to our body. Without them, we face ecological collapse.
As long as we continue to rely on agricultural practices that use a lot of chemicals, suburban landscapes have an important role in providing a safe place for insects and other beneficial organisms. So, before reaching for common toxic garden chemicals, it is good practice to think about how to encourage a healthy home landscape that can withstand a little natural damage. At the same time provide a safe place for beneficial insects, birds, and soil organisms.
Here, I’ve laid out four principles for ecological landscaping and some resources to learn more:
- Build fertile soil. Fertile soil is the foundation of a healthy home ecosystem. Healthy soil with lots of organic matter and soil organisms will provide healthy plants. You can build soil fertility by applying compost and other natural materials, avoiding tillage, and avoiding chemical fertilizers.
- Encourage diversity. Many suburban landscapes are dominated by lawns. These lawns often maintained with fossil fuels, are essentially dead space and provide no ecological benefit. Replace lawns with perennial gardens, bushes, and trees. Learn to tolerate dandelions, clover, and other flowering weeds. The bees will thank you. Also, when you have a diverse landscape, you’re providing diverse habitat that encourages more balanced ecological relationships. It is less likely that one pest can cause a lot of damage in such a landscape.
- Monitor your landscape. Sometimes people apply chemicals on a schedule or think they need to apply pesticides widely to treat a very small problem. Reduce the use of chemicals by being aware of what’s happening in your garden and treating only when necessary. This is called Integrated Pest Management, and it’s been used successfully by many farmers and natural resource managers.
- Lastly, if you need to apply chemicals, apply them sparingly and very targeted manner. Again, no chemical only affects the insects we call pests.
Suggested resource starter list:
(There are lots of composting books out there, but you can likely learn about it online for free).
Pollinators and diversity: https://pollinators.msu.edu and https://www.pollinator.org have really helpful planting guides.
MSU’s resources on IPM are likely just as good as anything https://www.canr.msu.edu/ipm/
(Lots of university extension programs have great materials, so it’s worth web searches for specific questions about garden and landscape management.)
The best writer on insect population declines is David Goulson; you can find his work on Amazon.
Doug Tallemy’s website Homegrown National Parks will connect you with many resources and a nationwide community of people working to heal the planet by focusing on their home landscapes. He also has a collection of videos that are good that you can find here.
About the Author
Stephanie has lived in Tacoma Hills since 2007. She has a Master of Science Degree in Agroecology and a Ph.D. in Community Food Systems. She’s been an avid gardener for two decades!