Avoiding Pesticides in the Butterfly Garden
by Donald Ray Burger
Attorney at Law

I like technology. I like modern science. I do not believe that primitive is better. There is a place for man-made chemical formulas in the garden.

However, the natural gardener must be aware that improper application of chemicals can upset the delicate balance of nature in the garden and wipe out habitat in an instant. You do not have to forego modern products, but you must go easy. Read the label. Don't apply above the recommended rate. Be aware of the side effects of whatever you are using.

And it is in the area of "side effects" that I believe we risk going wrong. Let's face it, we are creating man-made habitats here. There is nothing wrong with using man-made products-with restraint- so long as you realize that the products have both seen and unseen consequences.

Butterflies (and caterpillars) are insects. Insecticides such as Dursban, Diazinon and Malathion kill insects. They don't discriminate between harmful and beneficial insects. They are designed to kill insects that come into contact with them. So what to do?

First, get your plants healthy. Use compost. Select plants native to your area. Plant sun-loving plants in the sun. Plant shade-loving plants in the shade. Read Brenda Beust Smith's Saturday column in the Houston Chronicle for a discussion of easy-to-grow "lazy gardener" plants.

Also, keep your head. If leaf-eating insects are nibbling on your plants ask yourself if it really matters. Can't the plant spare a few leaves? Why nuke your garden to kill a few bad guys?

Remember folks, butterflies come from caterpillars. And caterpillars eat leaves. If you kill all the leaf eating caterpillars, where will the butterflies come from?

Here are my rules regarding pesticides:

(1) Less is more. Spray the plant instead of the garden. In fact, spray the part of the plant insects are after instead of the whole plant. And only spray insecticides if you know the insects are there. Preventative spraying of insecticides is not good.

(2) Always try to plant disease and insect resistant plants. Native plants usually meet these requirements.

(3)Read organic gardening books and magazines. They will steer you toward the less harmful products.

(4) Mellow out. Unless you are entering your plant in a contest, so what if something has nibbled some of the leaves.

(5) Be vigilant. Walk your garden. Some critters are like gangs of thugs--they wipe out a plant overnight. Benign neglect does not always work.

(6) Don't exceed the recommended dose. Doubling the strength usually does not help and it may burn the leaves of the very plant you are trying to save. In fact, try using less than the recommended rate.

(7) Make the plant taste bad. Certain sprays work on the principle that a plant that tastes bad to an insect won't be eaten by that insect. The natural gardeners have lots of hints using this approach. But remember that caterpillars need to eat larval plants. Don't get carried away with this technique.

(9) Do not use systemic poisons. These are chemicals that are placed in the ground and taken up by the plant's roots to make the entire plant poisonous. Unfortunately, this makes the plant a killer of both beneficial and harmful insects. It also leads to the increase of insects resistant to the systemic.

(10) Avoid bacillus thuringiensis (BT). This is a powder which contains a bacterial pathogen that kills caterpillars. It is often cited favorably by natural gardeners as an accepted biological control because it doesn't harm most beneficial insects. But it kills caterpillars. Butterfly gardeners need caterpillars to make more butterflies.

(11) Buy a water wand to control spider mites and aphids. Its high pressure spray knocks these critters off the leaves without the use of any chemicals. It is amazingly effective.

(12) If thrips are attacking your roses, spray the insecticide only on the bloom. Also, thrips usually attack white roses. Confine your attack to those roses. This technique will minimize the odds of insecticides drifting into "butterfly areas" of your garden.

(13) Wear protective gear when spraying insecticides. A long sleeved shirt, pants (not shorts), gloves and goggles are a minimum. Many insecticides and fungicides are very harmful to the eyes. Do not spray without eye protection. And wash the clothes separately.

(14) Water your plants before you spray.

Last revised September 3, 1996 (15)If you must spray, spray in the evening and wash the spray off in the morning.

Last revised September 3, 1996

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