Pesticides: The Reward of Fear

I am, and always have been, an environmental gardener. I’d like to pretend it’s because, in the wisdom of my worldview, I see the terrible damage caused by pesticide abuse and don’t want to contribute to that scourge, but, honestly, it’s not that at all. It’s that I’m afraid.

Fear of Pesticides

It’s true! I’m scared to death of pesticides, both chemical and biological (don’t try to make me believe that pyrethrum is less dangerous than malathion, just because it’s of plant origin!) I’m barely willing to use insecticidal soap (as I wash with soap every day, I hope it’s safe!) in the most urgent cases! When I see people standing on their lawns in shorts, t-shirts and sandals, bareheaded, spraying a product so dangerous that the instructions suggest covering the whole body, wearing a mask and washing clothes separately, I can’t believe their temerity. I’d rather parachute: it seems a lot safer. How brave these people are!

What’s more, it’s not just the one who treats who’s brave, but their whole family. Imagine, immediately after the treatment, their children go off to play on the lawn, their dog goes to relieve itself and their wife hangs out the washing on the line (O.K., let’s not be sexist… the couple, together, hang out the laundry on the line)… over the contaminated lawn! I think that’s brave without any common sense! Even braver are those who treat their apple trees and vegetables. It’s one thing to roll around in a poison, but to eat it on purpose – how daring!

Gardening Without Pesticides

Fortunately for fearful people like me, it’s easy to garden without using dangerous pesticides. What’s more, the gardens of people who don’t use pesticides are often more attractive than those of people who do.

The Example of a Herbicide-Treated Lawn

Take, for example, the case of a lawn regularly treated with herbicides. It’s true that there are fewer weeds, but the lawn is yellower than that of the neighbor who doesn’t treat, and there are more patches of dead or weak grass. It’s just a question of degree (broad-leaved weeds absorb more herbicide than narrow-leaved grasses).

Photo: Canva

So, to green up and bring back the weak patches, more fertilizer is applied. And because we apply so much herbicide and fertilizer, the balance of the lawn is disturbed and unwanted insects, generally well controlled by predatory insects and birds on an untreated lawn, proliferate. An insecticide treatment is then needed to contain them. Then begins the “courageous gardener’s vicious circle”: the more he treats, the more he has to treat.

Personally, I prefer to live with a few weeds in the lawn. Since I’m too timid to treat with herbicide, my lawn is naturally very green and I don’t have to apply fertilizer often. This is even truer since, being too lazy to pick them up, I leave the grass clippings in place, which automatically supplies the lawn with mineral elements. And I’ve never had any major problems with insect pests. I blame this on the “laidback gardener’s vicious circle”: the less he treats, the less he has to treat. Isn’t it funny how lazy you can get when you let nature take care of things?

The Flower Bed and Vegetable Garden

It’s the same in the flower bed and vegetable garden. Since I’m far too afraid to treat, animals proliferate, both good and bad. I have tons of ladybugs. Birds too! And so a real war begins, deadly as it can be, between the good guys and the bad guys. Fortunately, the good guys almost always win. Even when the bad guys seem to be on the verge of winning, and my nasturtiums are full of aphids, for example, if I can just wait around for another day or two, the aphid colony always diminishes, sometimes attacked very visibly by ladybugs or hummingbirds, sometimes for no particular reason at all.

Photo: Frank Cone

“The natural balance”

It’s funny, but we call this war “natural equilibrium”, unlike chemical treatments, which look a lot like ethnic cleansing!

In any case, deadly or not, natural balance requires little intervention and, as a laidback gardener, I’m only too happy to encourage it… by avoiding, among other things, planting disease- and insect-prone vegetation. For example, there’s no way I’m planting hybrid tea roses, world-renowned for their total lack of disease or insect resistance, in my flower beds. I’m far too afraid of all the pesticides that would have to be applied to keep them alive. If I plant roses, they’ll be varieties recognized for their ability to resist everything.

Let’s summarize. So my yard is greener than my neighbor’s and needs less work too, and that’s just because I’m afraid? Come to think of it, I might as well be afraid!

Larry Hodgson published thousands of articles and 65 books over the course of his career, in both French and English. His son, Mathieu, has made it his mission to make his father’s writings accessible to the public. This text was originally published in Fleurs, plantes et jardins magazine in April 1999.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

9 comments on “Pesticides: The Reward of Fear

  1. When I first read this blog, I just decided that commenting to the anti pesticide people would be useless. However, the blog should at least have mentioned that herbicides and pesticides have a very important role in protecting our environment. We have a large number of dangerous and invasive species that are taking over large parts of our country. And the only effective and safe was to fight them is to use chemicals
    Though late, I hope a few people read this.

  2. Although I do not fear (most) pesticides, I do not use them. My garden just seems to work because I leave it alone. Pests happen, but I merely contend with them. Peach leaf curl is likely the best example. My peach tree has been getting it from the beginning in 1985. It is not a problem though because I prune the tree aggressively enough to keep it more vigorous than the disease. The problem that I notice with other trees is that they are not pruned aggressively enough. People, including those who claim to dislike pesticides, are more likely to neglect their peach trees, but then spray them for peach leaf curl to compensate for their negligence.

  3. What about ticks? I was a gardener who preached about the dangers of chemicals. Those yellow lawn flags made me angry. Then I got Lyme disease because my large chemical-free garden was a haven for them. Despite my efforts to protect myself – shoes, socks, long pants, long sleeves, gloves, hat, I was bitten by a tick carrying Lyme disease. I was sick for a month, even spent four days in the hospital. Spent another month recuperating. I still have some physical problems. Two people died from tick born diseases in Connecticut this summer. As gardeners, we must at least acknowledge the danger of disease-carrying ticks in our natural landscapes.

  4. Laurie Macdonald

    How unfortunate that those who need to read your words are miles away in a haze of chemical applications. We keep a natural yard and organic vegetable garden and I think it’s more work in the learning process, educating ourselves and making informed planting choices but oh so much more relaxing, enjoyable and yes, even lazy on the physical side of gardening.

  5. I agree with Tomas that weeding with chemicals is foolish, uncaring, ignorant and lazy.
    Is it a selfish act too as the chemicals must go on damaging living organisms for many years?
    I have to admit that the warning labels and fierce smells of ‘gardening’ chemicals put me off many years before I realised the environmental damage they do.
    I feel grateful for that fear too knowing that gut feeling was valid 🙂
    Nature gives and takes at my allotment garden with no chemicals and I’m happy to share! x

  6. Not brave. Not brave at all. Foolish. Ignorant. Uncaring. To spray pesticides,Roundup, whatever you want to call it, just to kill weeds is very lazy as well. But, such is the world we live.

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