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This Spring go Green in your Garden

By Kelley Guiney

The return of spring is unequaled in its power to inspire and rejuvenate even the most melancholic, sunlight-deprived northwest resident. Numerous poems and other works of art have been dedicated to the rebirth of green-the inevitable joy of the return of light after the dark winter.

Unfortunately, spring can also signal a renewed outburst of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and no matter how much collective joy springs forth at spring's advent, there is nothing poetic about a toxic dump. And a toxic dump is exactly what a garden or lawn will become unless care and thought are used in the gardening and lawn care rituals that are so often a celebration of the season.
It's important to remember that what goes into the air, soil and water is then distributed throughout the surrounding ecosystem. In other words, what you spray on your lawn or garden is going to end up in your soup. Washington Toxics Coalition reports that in a recent study of water quality throughout the northwest, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California, 35 pesticides were found in five major river systems. Sixteen of these pesticides were found at levels which put salmon and other aquatic life at risk. Household and commercial use of toxic pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers have been linked to soaring cancer rates, especially among children. Pollutants such as these can act as hormone disrupters, interfering with important developmental stages and processes in humans and animals. It's not surprising, then, that the use of these products is also implicated in deformities found in alligators and frogs, an increase in lower sperm counts in men, and a rising occurrence of endometriosis in women. This is just a small sample of the widespread damage caused by toxic chemicals.

Furthermore, in 1997, Seattle Times reporter Duff Wilson, in an award-winning series, exposed a chilling reality: manufacturers were recycling a wide variety of toxic and even radioactive waste by putting it into commercially sold fertilizer. This fertilizer was sold to unknowing farmers who in many cases watched their land and cattle sicken and die. Any waste material with fertilizing qualities could be boxed up and passed off as fertilizer, even if it contained all manner of heavy metals, including lead, nuclear waste, etc. Wilson went on to write an acclaimed book on the subject, titled Fateful Harvest. The series caused an uproar; however, as far as I can tell from my research on the subject, Washington's laws haven't changed enough for the average consumer to regain any peace of mind regarding the contents of conventional fertilizers. The impact of this scandal has obvious and far-reaching implications.

The good news is, any effort one makes to garden responsibly and naturally will make a difference. There are numerous resources available throughout the area to educate and assist residents with responsible lawn care and gardening. With our water and soil already saturated with chemicals, it stands to reason that natural and organic methods should be a priority. When one must resort to chemicals, it is important to use them responsibly.

The key to responsible gardening often lies in simply using common sense and putting some thought and education behind our actions. One of the most common mistakes we make is to use chemical products without knowing for sure if they are really required, or assuming we have a problem without verifying that the problem actually exists. Just because you have some crane flies or funny looking bugs in your garden doesn't necessarily mean that you have to arm yourself with pesticide and let fire. Crane flies may well be at harmless levels, and that funny looking bug might be a ladybug larva, which you'd be crazy to get rid of, as ladybugs are natural pest killers. (To check for crane flies, dig up a square foot of lawn, about one and a half inches deep. Even up to 40 or 50 larva per square foot is a safe amount.) It's important to first make sure you have a problem before you go to combat. Then it is very possible that there is a natural method that can take care of the problem.

Just a small amount of research can unearth safe solutions. For example, to combat slugs, place a container of beer near your garden, buried at ground level. Slugs are attracted to the scent, and will meet their demise in the clutches of your favorite brew. There is also a non-toxic combatant known as "worry free." For weeds in the flower beds, put strips of newspaper between the beds, and cover them with mulch. Corn gluten is the latest non-toxic, weed-fighting alternative to herbicides-it inhibits the growth of seeds, and can be used in a garden or lawn that is already growing. Potato bugs will not dare to cross a copper strip-place them near the plant beds. Diatamateous earth can take care of earwigs, fleas and slugs. Nematodes are microscopic worms that you can release into the ground-they will take care of crane fly larvae. Ladybug larva and other natural pest killers can be purchased at most nurseries. Again, it is important to destroy pests only if it's absolutely necessary, for all insects contribute to a healthy ecosystem.

Another important factor to remember is that the classic uninterrupted expanse of green known as a front lawn is actually an unnatural phenomenon. A putting green may look good, but in most cases it is a toxic dump. Many gardeners consider moss to be a nuisance, yet although it can overcome a lawn, it's otherwise harmless in most cases. I personally find moss to be aesthetically preferable to grass.

The Northwest houses a wealth of information on natural and organic gardening methods. Keep your eyes open for classes and talks. Visit Seattle Tilth's public garden at Wallingford Center for an example of what organic gardening can produce. Washington Toxics Coalition has a wonderful Web site with a library of information and publications; most of it is on the Web site for free. The publications that are available are very reasonably priced at just a few dollars. Washington State University's Agricultural College is a great resource. There are also many local landscaping companies that use natural and organic methods. Please be conscious of our already overburdened ecosystem, and have a wonderful spring.

Many thanks to Marsha Bennett -Reinert and Master Gardener Dave Kingery from The Grange in Issaquah and Mark Gile from In Harmony. Thanks also to these resources, check them out for more info:

· Washington Toxics Coalition: http://www.watoxics.org
· Seattle Tilth: www.seattletilth.org
· Organic fertilizer and compost tea is available at: http://www.hendrikus.com, or http://www.soildynamics.com
· A Seattle organic landscaping company: http://www.inharmony.com
· King County "Yardening" Program: http://www.dnr.metrokc.gov/topics/yard-and-garden
· Request a "Green Home Kit" which includes tips on natural lawn care and gardening: call (206) 296-4692