Gardeners: Go chemical-free in 2011

Jeff Lowenfels

As the New Year approaches, many will be making resolutions. What of the gardeners?

My wish is that each and every one of us will resolve to turn our backs on the use of chemicals.

It isn't very hard to build a case that no gardener should use chemical fertilizers, insecticides and the like. In fact, it isn't very hard to build the case that no gardener should be ALLOWED to use them. Gardening, after all, is just a hobby.

It is undeniable, for example, that nitrates and phosphates from modern agriculture -- and, yes, horticulture -- have leached into the aquifers, streams, rivers and waterways of our land in excessive amounts with incredibly deleterious impacts to the health of humans as well as Nature (as if the two can be separated). Chemicals with unpronounceable names, bearing labels carrying dire health warnings, have become such a mainstay of our hobby that some of us deem their use one of our "rights as Americans."

No matter that the poison you spray on your lawn drifts up to 75 miles when there is even just the slightest breeze, impacting the innocent child playing in the yard in the next town or the moose in the forests you may hunt and consume as much as it impacts the dandelion which is its target.

Gardeners using chemicals are polluters. That is just a fact. It is the nature of the beast, promoted by slick advertising that says nothing of the dangers involved, all in the name of bigger vegetables, flawless flowers, greener lawns and faster growth (not to mention less work).

The more I learn -- and hopefully you as well -- the more clear it is to me that a prize-winning cabbage at the State Fair, grown and protected with these chemicals, should not win a prize at all. Instead, it should be viewed as a monster, finally cut from its vine after having inflicted damage to soil, water and air during its growth. It would be one thing, perhaps, if there were no other way to grow things; but when I learn of world record, 1,600-plus pound, pumpkins grown organically, I know better. And you do too.

We are far too comfortable with the notion that we can do anything we want in our gardens because we work on our own properties. I will go to my grave thinking that there is a strong possibility that such a notion on my part and my own (now discontinued) use of horticultural chemicals caused cancers in my wife and could have lasting impacts on my son and daughter. I am a grandfather now. This one is for Maddie: We must stop poisoning the earth, our earth, our gardens for the sake of those who are following us.

I know I am going to get a lot of criticism from some. The government hasn't banned those on the market, they will argue, so they must be safe. Really? Were the dozen and more chemicals that have been removed from the gardening market over the past decades because the facts about their safety finally overcame the lobbying by their manufactures. DDT is still in the environment. Cygon IIe and a whole host of others may be as well. You and I know that monied, corporate interests rule in this land.

Others will assert you can't have a good garden or a green lawn unless you use chemical fertilizers and 'icides of all sorts. To any of these, come see my lawn, my garden, my tomatoes. It just isn't so. You have only been made to think it is by those who make their livings manufacturing and selling chemicals. They have done a good job too.

Forget DDT et al., if you must, and let's go back to the nitrate fertilizers that drain into our water systems, causing dead zones in oceans, lakes and streams, chemicals that have damaged children's brains when all they did was drink water that came out their faucets. Consider what gives us the right to negatively impact the health of others. Why are we so hell-bent on ruining the environment that needs to support our children just so we can have a perfect lawn or flawless flower or even a record breaking cabbage? None, and frankly, there is no argument to the contrary.

So as you contemplate your gardening resolutions tomorrow and the next day, put going chemical-free at the top of your list. Your gardens won't suffer and your children and their children won't either.

Happy New Year.

Jeff Lowenfels