The cost of a homegrown tomato should never include a future cancer diagnosis.
Chemicals have been heavily promoted and used as effective controls for weed growth and insect pests in home gardening since the post-World War II era. Unfortunately, evidence continues to mount regarding adverse effects on human and environmental health for a wide variety of products.
By now, many gardeners are aware of a recent World Health Organization report pinpointing the chemical glyphosate—the active ingredient in popular weed-killing products, like Roundup—as “probably” causing higher rates of cancer in agricultural workers. The study, appearing in the scientific journal the Lancet, notes high rates of lymphoma and kidney cancers impossible to ignore or deny.
It makes sense to seek out alternative methods to avoid risk. Although more expensive in terms of initial investment, these techniques ensure that homegrown vegetables maintain their contribution to good health and not detract from it.
When it comes to weed control, organic gardeners have many effective approaches. “Beat it and Eat it,” for example, recognizes the food value in common plants like nettles, purslane, and lamb’s ears. All of these common weeds are tasty and have high nutritional impact. If eating weeds is not your thing, consider their use as cover and forage for beneficial insects. Allowing a few weeds to flourish in between garden rows or along borders provides habitat for species like ladybugs, braconid wasps, syrphid flies, and other pest-eating insects.
Shallow cultivation is another simple method. Before planting out crops, hoe the soil lightly, at about 2 to 3 inches depth, to bring up weed seeds that lurk below. Eliminate young weeds as they appear by continuing this method for a week to two weeks before planting. Solarization of the soil, using clear plastic, can also kill off young weeds, but is more effective if you cultivate first. Unfortunately, it can also damage soil micro flora and fauna responsible for fertility, so use this method sparingly and in places where weeds are most persistent.
Another technique requiring some initial cost, but less effort throughout the growing season, is the barrier method. Cover the desired beds with landscaping cloth, cutting holes for plantings. Many gardening catalogs now offer specialized, colored cloth for different vegetables that suppress the growth of weeds while allowing water to permeate. Growers of tomatoes and peppers in colder climates gain an added advantage of warming the soil for these heat-loving plants. Some weeds may still break through, so you’ll have to be vigilant. The cloth is removed and discarded after the growing season.
Now you’ve controlled the weeds, but still have to battle the bugs.
Again, the barrier method is a common way to protect vulnerable starts. Use floating row covers at the appropriate time. Many areas have local conservation districts, often run by the agricultural department of a university, that maintain a telephone information line, or online “degree day” count for common insect pests. The alerts rely on research that identified the number of warm days a particular insect species needs before it hatches out and does damage.
Learning the main pests of the vegetables and fruits you wish to grow, when they emerge, and monitoring the site, will give you sufficient time to place the floating row covers over plants to protect them. This method works particularly well for flea beetles and cabbage moths. It has the added advantage of deterring deer and other four-legged foragers.
Another popular method of monitoring pests is to use pheromone sticky traps. Different colors are available to attract a variety of insects and trap them before they get to plants. The disadvantage is constant replacement during heavy infestation, and not being able to get a jump on pests before they’re a problem. They can also trap beneficial insects.
A home garden is worth the work, and there are many more techniques worth exploring, like crop rotation, trap plants, and companion planting to avoid chemical intervention.
Organic gardening may not be as convenient as using chemicals, but discovering the rhythms of nature flowing through the garden is the hidden reward that doesn’t come in a can.
Karen Johnston is a mother, writer, and former farmer working and growing in Rochester, Vt. © www.blueridgepress.com 2015.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.