Organic gardening has turned me into a ruthless killer.
Back when I used popular chemicals to ward off insect attacks, garden defense was a matter of gracefully waving my sprayer wand over my beloved plants, much in the manner of Glinda the Good gracing the Munchkins with her benevolent presence. A gentle spray drifted down over the leaves and slowly, silently, the offending insects fell to the ground. All was well. No distinction was made between “good” insects and “bad” insects, all were treated with equal dispassion. My plants were inviolate. They probably glowed – gratefully, I would have thought - in the dark. While I was never entirely comfortable with spraying, all of the accepted farming dogma insisted that a carefully followed spray schedule was necessary to produce good crops. I was a good grower, I followed the directions carefully.
Eventually, I gave up standard commercial growing and all the chemical pesticide and fungicide formulas. I couldn’t justify poisoning myself any longer, even for perfect looking food. I also couldn’t justify poisoning the frogs, toads, dragonflies, water, earth and air. The list of victims, the collateral damage, was endless. The results were becoming obvious, even on a small farm like ours. Amphibians of all sorts - frogs, toads - and many of the lovely insects we liked – bees, butterflies, fireflies- were scarce. We began creating meadow spaces across the farm, half an acre here and there, where clover, Queen Anne’s Lace and other wild flowering plants could flourish, hoping to lure back and nurture some of what had been damaged.
But let me point out that what never became scarce were the original offenders, the Japanese Beetles, the whiteflies, the hornworms – all of the munching, tearing, sucking, piercing horde that made gardeners like me take to poisons in the first place. The newly available organic sprays worked to an extent, but I was now the caretaker and defender not only of my plants but also of the beneficial insects I worked so hard to encourage. The new sprays were equally lethal to those newly beloved friends. What to do?
And so it came down to hand-to-hand combat, mano a mano with the bug world. Where I once wandered ladylike, gently wafting airborne particles across the garden, I now crept clumsily, eyes narrowed, ready to pounce. I’ve become a one-woman SWAT team for bugs. I’ve graduated from gently knocking insects into water-and-soap filled containers, flicking them down with genteel distaste, to removing them with glove covered hands (and stomping on them) and finally, now, to quickly and casually squishing them with my bare fingers as I move through watering and weeding. I squint into the leaves and I pounce. I pinch a pair of mating Japanese Beetle and feel a grim satisfaction as the shells crack. No grubs will come from that pair to destroy my plants next summer. I move a waiting mantis and flatten the nearby berry-eating stinkbug. I’d leave him for the mantis but she takes too long. She can have the ones my eyes don’t see.
All of this brings pest control down to a very personal war zone. I have to take personal, individual responsibility for every tiny life I’m taking. I don’t like it. Not only the squishy, icky parts of it, but also not the karmic, I-can’t-pretend-I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing part of it. We are locked in a fight for food, these bugs and me. This is what the natural world dictates; this is what it all boils down to. For one to eat, another may not. And it is always this way. When I buy ‘conventional’ produce at the grocery store, I know that somewhere a field has been sprayed and resprayed, like bombers spraying over the far-away jungles we heard about when I was younger. Thousands have died there. Here in my garden, death is selective. If I can move the offenders to a different plant, less desirable to me, then we share. If they are too greedy, too voracious, if the plant is suffering and my crop – the whole purpose of the endeavor – is damaged, then we move to ultimatums. They bite into a fruit; I pounce. They are ruthless in their pursuit of food. So am I.