Who would not be angry to find that hours of planning and planting were undone overnight by snails?Understandably, you would want to annihilate the pests that thought you had planted this smorgasbord for them.
But stop and consider what you are contemplating. You planted your garden in this pest's home. Yes, it's your backyard, too, as well as an environment shared by your family and neighbors. And remember that a lot of chemicals hang around for years. Do you want to work in or eat from a garden with contaminated soil? Better to consider some options that are less detrimental to all.
“We are beginning to get a glimpse of the devastating consequences of the flood of toxins that have been, and continue to be, poured, sprayed, squirted, and pumped over the earth,” write Hilary Dole Klein and Adrian M. Wenner in Tiny Game Hunting (University of California Press). According to the authors, 4-1/2 billion pounds of pesticides are used each year in the U.S. alone.
As the leader of the bug brigade in my garden, I'm dismayed by this alarming pesticide use, and I hope that my fellow brigade leaders will take notice, too. Here are some suggestion for more environmentally safe practices.
Modifying the growing environment is one way to combat unwanted pests. Monitor your plants for stress caused by poor nutrition and lack of water. A stressed plant is a weak plant.
Check plants for pests and disease before purchasing them. Choose disease-resistant varieties when possible, and do your shopping at reputable nurseries.Fertilize adequately, apply the amendments your soil requires and rotate crops.
You can avoid many diseases with good sanitation, disposing of dead and diseased plant material in yard-waste bins. Turn soil regularly to incorporate healthy plant debris and prevent undesirable fungi and bacteria from spreading. Install drip irrigation, but when necessary, use a judicious squirt from the hose to wash off aphids or other pests.
Physical barriers like floating row covers, sticky past sand cardboard collars can discourage pests. Mulch beds to conserve water, control weeds and keep soil warm. When a site becomes overrun with pests or just needs a rest, use solarization to eliminate weed seeds, insect eggs and disease-causing fungi. For information on how to solarize soil, consult the Napa County Master Gardeners (address below).
Handpick snails and slugs in early spring before populations explode. I have enjoyed many a morning cup of coffee stomping on snails in my garden. Better yet, I put on my headlamp and go out at night to find and crush snails underfoot.
Hoe or hand-pull pesky weeds when they are young. Don't wait for them to set seeds.
Many insects are attracted to yellow. Keep that in mind if you are devising your own traps. A shallow bowl filled with beer, buried so that the rim is at soil level, can lure snails and slugs to their death. Insecticidal soaps are another safe and effective tool for banishing some pests.
When you discover a pest infestation, look first to beneficial insects for a solution. If you know what predators like that pest, you can encourage or import these beneficial predators.
Clearly the environmental approach requires more research and time than just purchasing a chemical fix. At times, I have felt like Sisyphus, destined to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again. But sustainable pest-control methods are more like that pebble dropped in the pond that keeps sending ripples outward.
Workshop: Napa County Master Gardeners will conduct a workshop on “Ornamentals and Flower Gardens” on Saturday, March 21, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., at the University of California Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Napa. Learn about care and maintenance of ornamental shrubs and flowers in your garden. Discover how garden microclimates influence plant growth and success. Master Gardeners will also discuss hydrozoning and planting for seasonal color nearly year round, thus enticing more pollinators to your garden. Online registration (credit card only) Mail-in registration (cash or check only)
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. Napa County Master Gardeners ( http://ucanr.org/ucmgnapa/) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.