The Poisoned Earth

I’m not an organic gardener.  I sprinkle fertilizer around, spray for pernicious weeds, douse a bug here and there… I figure “progress” has to be good for something more than shorter winters and a warmer globe, plus I like cool things like antibiotics, vaccines, and diabetes and heart medicines.  Unfortunately, there are a few things which scare me and I’ve been thinking more and more on them lately.  The most recent is the death of this year’s tomato plants.

For all the neglected vegetables of the potager, sauce tomatoes are always in demand and always harvested.  The kids might throw cherry tomatoes around and play baseball with a zucchini but the paste tomatoes always find their way to the saucepan or freezer, and if it were up to me they’d all go towards pizza, not sauce, but now I’m getting distracted.  This year the plants went in early, the stakes before they were needed, all were watered, mulched, and looked great… for a little while.

I mulched with lawn clippings like I always do and within a few days the plants were dying.

2-4-D tomato damage herbicide

All the new growth on the tomatoes is coming out curled and stunted.  According to what I’ve seen online it’s classic 2-4-D herbicide damage and chances for recovery are zero.  

I take care of the lawn next door, and my mother in law always reminds me every year to put down grub killer and something for the weeds.  I usually “fib” and say sure and things are just fine, but this year the clover and dandelions were getting a little too obvious, so rather than explain how the stuff ‘doesn’t always work 100%’ got a bag of Scott’s weed and feed to spread around.  It worked for the most part, we’re back to a monotonous yawn and she seems happy.

cabbage and cauliflower

The cabbage and cauliflower bed doesn’t seem as sensitive and are growing well.  They likely absorbed the same poisons and now I have to consider the fact it’s part of the cabbage leaves and future cauliflower heads.

So that was the end of March.  Two months of growing and mowing and rains and I was desperate for some mulch in my earliest-ever and most-promising tomato bed.  My lawn is still sparse from bulldozer traffic so what the heck, it’s been months since the last illegal clover shriveled and died over there, so let me just use a mower bag full, what’s the harm…. and then the tomatoes went belly-up.  It scares me to think of that whole yard as still being toxic.

no mow may meadow garden

No-mow May is a month long break from all the chopping and edging and spraying and fertilizing of the lawn growing cult.  I love the way it looks.

Leaf miners are what started all this nervousness about chemicals settling into garden.  Years back I would lose most of my daffodils, snowdrops, snowflakes, amaryllis, and lycoris to narcissus bulb flies… that is used to until I started sprinkling grub killer around the bulbs.  The bulb flies disappeared and that was awesome but then one summer I realized how perfect all the leaves on my columbine (Aquilegia) were.  Perfect leaves on columbine is something I’ve never seen in this garden, they always end up with a bunch of leaf miner tunnels and it’s not perfect but not that big a deal either.  If I feel like it the foliage is trimmed back, and new growth returns quickly, but it was weird to not see them.

Columbine often seeds into areas where I planted daffodils and snowdrops.  The columbine takes up the grub killer and becomes poisonous enough to kill the leaf miners.  Whatever else sprouts there also becomes poisonous.  The leaves decay and the compost becomes poisonous.  Many people say the pollen and nectar of the flowers contains the poison and the bees suffer… and of course people love bees… but think of the crickets and katydids living in the shrubs which also share that soil, suddenly they’re as likely to die as the leaf miners are.

One bag of grub killer would last me for years since I used it so sparingly, but today it’s only columbine in the far reaches of the yard which ever show an occasional leaf miner.  They’re basically extinct in my yard.  Just imagine how a normal person would use a whole bag in a day, across their entire lawn, and from then on every grass blade, perennial plant, shrub, and tree in the yard becomes toxic to insects.  Think of how many neighbors use Lawn Doctors and Tru Greens, and I don’t think they use anything less-toxic than the unlicensed, off the shelf products we gardeners use.  No wonder insect populations are crashing.

no mow may meadow garden

A no-mow May meadow.  Hopefully this is a toxin-free buffet for both myself and the bugs.  I’ll resume regular mowing in August and then keep it up until fall.

I’m probably preaching to the choir here.  I already have some much-smaller, far-less amazing tomato plants to plant in another unmulched bed, and so what if there aren’t any leaf miners.  I just hate to think of everything else we’re losing.

Hope you’re having a great week.  Happy June!

19 comments on “The Poisoned Earth

  1. Paddy Tobin says:

    It is rather scaring to realise how pervasive and invasive these chemicals can be.

    • bittster says:

      Agreed. I know they do studies on how long they remain active in the environment, but I now worry that it’s a measurement of how long it takes for them to dilute into the environment and they’re somehow building up elsewhere.

  2. Deborah Banks says:

    Thanks for sharing your epiphany. Back in the 90’s I used to sneak the Roundup out to spray the poison ivy in the hedge, and used the blue magic stuff on my potted plants. My husband got me to give it all up. We moved from PA to upstate NY in 2000 and we have never used herbicides or pesticides here. I gave up the pyrethrum and neem types of ‘natural’ insecticides a few years ago also. My viburnums have a few ugly days from aphids, but I’m trying not to care. A couple years ago I spread borax along the outside of the house below the kitchen window to try to deter ants. Next day I watched a bumble bee dying in agony nearby. No more. My struggle this year is our drastic reduction in mowing in the yard. Lots of benefits already obvious – wildflowers blooming (we didn’t have ‘grass’ – just former field), a cloud of yellow finches rising out of the grass when the puppy runs past, lots of fire flies. But I think the ticks will be moving in; they are bad this year everywhere. Ironic that the only thing we poison now is ourselves (with the Deet).

    • bittster says:

      I think you have a good plan in place. I’ve always been fairly hands-off with pesticides etc more out of laziness than anything else, but I also get nauseous from the smell of many of the chemicals so that’s been a factor as well. You can imagine how much I like the fact most of our neighbors now have lawn services… not…
      I hope you don’t run into any tick problems. My wife absolutely hates the tall grass out back and claims it’s a red carpet invite for ticks and spiders, but I’m out there nearly every day, often walking right through and we’ve had the tall grass for years and I haven’t had a tick in years, even without ever spraying repellant. There’s hope! We don’t have deer though and I think that’s a huge factor for ticks proliferating. Also there are always sparrows and other small ground birds hunting around. I think that helps as well.
      It was good seeing you Tuesday!

      • Deborah Banks says:

        It was good seeing you too! Sorry for not talking more. I was trying to hurry on my shopping so I could go back to my post. You would have enjoyed the conference. All the garden tours were especially nice, as well as getting to meet some of my garden idols. And I had the honor of sitting next to Kathy Purdy on Thursday night when she was given her well-deserved award for garden writing.

  3. Cathy says:

    The comment above says it all Frank: the only thing we poison now is ourselves. It’s best not to think what goes on the fields and is in the processed food we buy, but in our own gardens we can at least reduce the amount of chemicals we consume. Then we might not need those medicines from the big pharma companies… I bet you are glad you have your meadow as a safe haven. 👍 My garden is completely organic and it is not easy sometimes seeing slugs or blackfly spoil my plants, but at least I know my strawberries and salad are healthy for me (and the hares! 😉).

    • bittster says:

      You’re right on of course, and although I like to joke about eating too much garbage food and sugar-laced treats I do try to watch out a bit… even if it is a little harder here in the wild-west of food safety laws and ‘good enough’ additive limits.
      I don’t know if it’s a ‘balanced’ thing or my ability to ignore many pest attacks, but overall the garden here gets by very well left to its own devices. Slugs and blackfly (aphids) never amount to much, but biting blackflies (gnats) are torture for the gardener and for some reason sawflies are a real pest on the roses and shrub dogwoods. I think I’ll take that if it means slugs are a rarity 😉

  4. Eliza Waters says:

    A cautionary tale, Frank. Hope more folks connect the dots like you have. Spread the word! I’m trying to get folks to accept some munching in the garden, to actually be happy to see as it, as it means that they are supporting a healthy food web, and most likely encouraging those that control pests naturally, both insects and birds.

    • bittster says:

      I try but there are so many deaf ears.
      I was telling someone about how poisoned grass clippings had killed my tomatoes and all that did was bring on a gushing review of how green and weed-free their own lawn was now that they were paying for a service. It just didn’t register, just like the joy of frog eggs in the pond was lost on someone asking if my pond needed a filter and how nice it could be with a few koi…

      • Eliza Waters says:

        Sigh… education takes time, as you well know. I find you have to find something they care about, like their health, pets or kids and WHY they need to practice environmental care. A famous ad exec once said that someone needs to see/hear something nine times before it sticks. Keep trying! 🙂

      • bittster says:

        Good point, I’ll be more persistent!

  5. Oh my! That’s really kind of scary. I hope you find my tomatoes satisfactory! Those San Marzanos make a pretty delicious sauce, imho. My direct neighbors are big on the whole fertilizer/weed killer thing, but no one else in this neighborhood does that. It’s pretty funny to see the lawn across the street from these neighbors–they typically end up with a 4 or 5 foot swath of very green, thick grass at the very front edge of their yard, from the runoff from the fertilizer!

    • bittster says:

      Next door they sprayed something ‘wrong’ on the lawn and just had to aerate and overseed and are now watering… all while mine is sparkling with clover blooms and just as green as every other week.
      The tomatoes you gave me are doing great. I want to mulch them though and I’m too scared to do it!

  6. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    You never know what you will kill when you start using insecticide. The birds suffer too because they feed their you protein rich insects. Who doesn’t like to see lightening bugs winkin and blinkin on a summer night. We just have to do what we can do.

    • bittster says:

      The lawn across the street is always sparkling with fireflies. They just started a lawn service though, and I’m afraid that will change.

  7. When you see it happen in front of your eyes, it’s a whole new ball game compared to reading about it in books and garden magazines.

    • bittster says:

      Yes. I was scared by the quiet mornings of my parent’s suburban NY garden. So few birds and I think there must be a connection to all that spraying.

  8. Pauline says:

    I am having to use a weedkiller on my paths otherwise I would be down on my hands weeding all the time, but that is the only chemical I have ever used. I was always organic until it bacame just me having to look after the garden, never having used any pesticide my garden is full of insects, birds, bees, butterflies etc and lots of mammals which safely eat them! I just hope the weedkiller just isn’t poisoning the soil. I’m sure you will notice an improvement in your insect population and from there on in your birds and mammals.

    • bittster says:

      I’m surprised that a basic herbicide which kills everything would be a better option to the one I used which gets absorbed by everything yet only kills certain things. Here I thought it was a step in a better direction but live and learn.
      Maybe because I already use so few chemicals (outside of chemical fertilizers) that the effects are more noticeable, but from here on I’ll really try and keep them out!

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