Alternatives to pesticides and herbicides

We have a thriving yard without pesticides. How do we do it?

A healthy yard

Leaves decomposing ©Janet AllenLeaves left on the ground gradually decompose

We focus on the soil. In our edible garden this means adding a lot of compost. In our habitat garden, we don't add extra compost, but we do leave the leaves where they fall to compost naturally. In fact, a plant's own leaves left to compost around it may provide the best nutrition there is.

And by not using chemicals, we're also protecting all the little microorganisms naturally present in the soil.

Recreating natural plant communities would be another important way to maximize the health of the landscape. I have to admit that we haven't done this to any great extent, not because it isn't important, but just because it we didn't have the information or resources to accomplish this.

The bottom line, though, is that a healthy plant will be better able to fend off pests and diseases.

Changed expectations

Ginger ©Janet AllenA small hole in a ginger leaf

We don't expect every leaf, flower or fruit to be perfect. We wholeheartedly agree with Tallamy's and Grissell's perspectives (sidebar). It makes life a lot easier when we don't have to get upset about every little leaf hole.

Part of the reason we can ignore many of these problems is that, on the whole, our plants are healthy. (In fact, it was difficult to find a photo of a plant with a problem!) Tallamy's research has found that landscapes can have up to 10% of plants with leaf problems etc. before people even notice.

Still, though, some pests—especially non-native imports for which our native plants haven't developed resistance—have to be dealt with some way. In some cases, such as with my arrowwood viburnum, we decided it was just not worth fighting the non-native viburnum leaf beetle and we let it die.

Hand-picking pests

Hand-picking pests ©Janet AllenJohn hand-picking beetles the day before our first child was born

Even at our previous house, we found that hand-picking some pests was the best way to get rid of them. Here John is standing with his jar of soapy water collecting Japanese beetles. (And this happens to be the day before I gave birth to our first child, so nothing stands in the way of beetle collecting!)

This works best when we hunt them down early in the morning or in the evening when they're less active. We hold the jar under them, so if they drop (as they tend to do), they fall right into the jar.

When we didn't have time to do this ourselves, we hired our grade school son and his friend to collect them for a penny a piece. A good deal for them and for us!


Sawfly larvae ©Janet Allen
Hibiscus sawfly larvae

The first time I saw these, they had turned my hibiscus leaves into lace seemingly overnight. It was at the end of the season, so I didn't pay too much attention. The next year, they had done the same to my glade mallow even before it was blooming. I had to find some solution, so we tried a weak solution (we're trying about 1 part soap to 10 parts water) of Dr. Bronner's Peppermint soap. We sprayed it on the critters and they curled up and died! A pretty fast, non-toxic (I assume) fix.

And we use Dr. Bronner's peppermint soap all the time for hand soap anyway. We get it in the Nature's Marketplace section of Wegmans, but If your local store doesn't carry it, you can get it on Amazon.

Organic pesticides and herbicides

Lots of organic products are marketed and some may be safe and effective, but we haven't tried any of them. I'd rather let the plant fend for itself. If it dies, so be it. I'll replace it with something that is better able to survive on its own before I get involved in these complications.

Lawn signs

24 hr. pesticide sign ©Janet AllenOne of the warning signs displayed after pesticide application

At least commercial applicators are required to display a sign saying that pesticide has been applied. (Probably homeowners are technically required to also, but nobody enforces it.)

How could anyone feel good about having their yard turned into a toxic environment even for 24 hours? Just like reading the warning on cigarette packs would deter me from smoking, seeing this little sign would make me want to avoid it. (As far as I can recall, these signs weren't displayed years ago when we applied these chemicals.)

I few years ago I heard a local environmental toxicologist from Upstate Medical Center say that these poisons do NOT degrade in 24 hours, despite what the little yellow signs say.

We wanted to have a more positive message, however, so we bought some signs and created other pesticide-free signs.

Is a perfect lawn worth the risk to our children? ©Janet AllenIs a perfect lawn really worth the risk to our children?

I'm constantly amazed that people consider a perfect lawn worth the risk to our children! I guess kids will have to be dropping dead at their feet before they'll stop using these poisons.

Ironically, adults reap the "benefits" of having a beautiful lawn,while children take all the risks. Children are at risk because their smaller, still-developing bodies and brains are disproportionately affected by these chemicals.

You're welcome to download and laminate my sign to display in your yard.

Is a perfect lawn worth the risk to our pets? ©Janet AllenIs a perfect lawn worth the risk to our pets?

Pets, like children, have smaller bodies and therefore are affected by these chemicals more than human adults.

Our own dog was exposed to these chemicals when we treated our lawn. Even after we stopped using them, though, she encountered them on our walks in the neighborhood. These pesticides are all over the place, probably even being tracked into our home on our shoes. Our dog developed cancer and died.

You're welcome to download and laminate my sign to display in your yard.

Is a perfect lawn worth the risk to wildlife? ©Janet AllenIs a perfect lawn worth the risk to wildlife?

As the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center says, "When it comes to pesticides, birds are sitting ducks! Pesticides kill millions of birds and they also cause sub-lethal effects that cause problems. And pesticides are a huge problem for our pollinators, too.

You're welcome to download and laminate my sign) to display in your yard.