Organic Pest Control III: Acts of Gardening Violence, Petty and Profound

Where We Have Been:

In Organic Pest Control I and II: Breaking with the Hive Mind, I challenged organic gardeners to break with ways of thinking about organic gardening that I believe get in the way of holistic relationships with backyard ecosystems.

Also, I challenged organic gardeners to reconsider gardening not as a benign, impact-neutral waltz with a romanticized Mother Nature, but as a range of ecosystemically violent choices, each of which exacts a cost, whether or not we are willing to acknowledge it.

Where We Are Going:

Doubtlessly by now, readers are gnashing their teeth with rage, waiting for me to say something brilliant about squashes and vine borers, eggplants and flea beetles, spuds and Early Blight.  It’s what gardening gurus do in every book, magazine article, YouTube video and gardening lecture on the subject.

Cutworm. Gag.

Photos of ugly pests, magnified hundreds of times, are used by marketers to make organic gardeners  purchase biocidal products reactively.  Don’t be lassoed.

I shudder to disappoint, but brace yourselves, because here it comes: today’s sho’ ‘nuff ugly truth straight from the hip.  I am no Gardening Guru.


Biocides are poisons. They kill non-target organisms, or wipe out food sources for beneficial insects. Use them judiciously.

Not only will I not tell you anything immediately useful about pest control in your backyard ecosystem, the truth is that I can’t tell you anything useful about pest control in your backyard ecosystem.  I can tell you nothing.  Squat.  Nada.  The big empty hole in the center of your breakfast bagel.  And neither can anyone else.  Why?

My practical experience as an organic gardener centers around two different gardens that I work with.  The main one is my own backyard; the other is the organic garden and orchard classroom I helped to establish and manage at my children’s Early Childhood Center.  These two gardens are physically very close to one another, no more than a fifteen-minute car ride apart.  They grow many of the same fruits, flowers and vegetables; yet, they are very different spaces, with very different pest pressures.

Working with two different gardens simultaneously over many years taught me a crucial lesson that I wish Gardening Gurus would have mentioned sooner: no two ecosystems are the same.  Each is particular.  Each is dynamic.  Each is as unique as the lines in the palm of a human hand.

I know my own hand very well; I live with it, after all, and use it every day.  You have a hand that I can shake when we meet.  I can feel its shape, and texture, its warmth and strength.  But I will never know your hand the way I know my own.  I will never know your hand the way you know your own.

I know my ecosystem.  I can't know yours.  Become your own guru.

I know my ecosystem. I can’t know yours. Become your own guru.

Likewise, I can’t know your ecosystem, its history, its stressors. Each organic gardener needs to know his or her own ecosystem well enough to solve minutely local problems in whatever way works best in each garden’s specific moment.  In matters of pest management, organic ecosystem-ers have no choice: we have to become our own Gardening Gurus.

So with this post, I won’t rehash formulaic “solutions” to common garden problems.  These can be found everywhere, on any organic gardening web-site, in any book, magazine, television program or lecture.  What I can do, what I will do is ask you to reconsider how you decide which pest interventions to choose in any given situation.  Most of us, at one time or another, will be compelled by gardening conditions to try out every tool in the organic gardening kit.  Importantly, our tool kit is not  benign, or inert, neither is it ethically neutral.  Questions that bear careful consideration include: which pest control measures should we use?  How do we use them and when?  How do we know when to use them?  Who gets to decide?

Ecological, Mechanical and Chemical Interventions: Calculating Intervention Violence

It might be helpful to think about the organic pest control tool-kit as having three basic types of tools: ecological tools, mechanical tools, and chemical tools.

Slide1An example of an ecological tool would be companion plants; a mechanical tool wold be row covers; a chemical tool would be neem oil.  To my way of thinking, ecological tools represent the least labor-intensive range of pest control measures found in the organic tool kit. Chemical tools, on the other hand, are the most labor intensive.

This might seem counter-intuitive.  After all, we use chemical biocides precisely because they increase the pest-killing power of a single gardener a factor of thousands. Chemical biocides are certainly marketed as  easy to use, time-saving, and efficient. For example, if I use a pyrethrin and neem oil spray mixture to defend my pole beans and ornamentals from Japanese beetles, it will take me no more an hour every 10 – 14 days  depending on weather conditions, to do so.  It might take me another ten minutes once a week to apply a touch up dusting of diatomaceous earth to get a consistent result… about an hour and twenty minutes of work every fourteen days or so.

If I were to defend my pole beans and ornamentals from Japanese beetles using a mechanical technique like manually removing the beetles and drowning them in a pail of soapy water, I would have to do it daily, vigilantly, for the entire duration of the beetle season. Frankly, I’d rather give up green beans, roses, gladiolas, and dinner plate dahlias than manually pick thousands of those nasty, sex-drunk little buggers out of my flowers!images

Visceral disgust aside, here is the central point: the comparative labor intensity calculation for pyrethrin and neem, described above is seriously flawed.  It is far more labor intensive than any mechanical intervention when you remember to factor in the hidden labor labor costs of the petrochemical industry.  Our “eco-friendly” pyrethrin and non-toxic neem oil have to be extracted and brought to market by burning fossil fuels.

The Heart of the Matter: An accurate calculation of labor intensity necessarily includes each gardening intervention’s place in the industrial commercial food chain.

Another critically important issue that we organic gardeners must recognize and deal with is the correlation between labor intensity and ecological violence.  I am very comfortable with the idea that ecological violence is a measure of labor intensity.  The ecological violence we commit when we garden is entirely a function of the labor intensity of our pest-control methods.


Straight from the hip: so-called “labor saving” measures like chemical pest-solutions don’t save labor at all.  They simply move the location and cost of labor elsewhere, to be paid for not in simple physical (caloric) energy, but in explosively powerful hydrocarbon energy– a twentieth century form of “progress” that is – as we know — radically remaking the Earth’s climate.  The more market-oriented and fossil fuel-dependent our “benign” and “eco-friendly” pest solutions are, the more profoundly ecologically violent our gardening practice.  You will mow your lawn much more quickly with a power mower than with a reel mower, but that time-savings is an illusion paid for from a hydrocarbon bank account.

My beautiful picture

Without chemical pest intervention, my home garden would never grow cucurbit fruits like these gorgeous heirloom watermelons. Interestingly, the Early Childhood Center garden grew curcubits in heaps without a single chemical intervention. Go figger.

I am in no way saying that organic gardeners should reject  chemical pest controls.  I use chemical pest controls; and hypocrisy gives me the scratch.  What I would like is for the organic gardening community to have a frank conversations with itself.  I would like us to pose hard questions that when answered honestly, enable us to modulate our own acts of ecological violence. Such questions are deceptively simple.  But you might be surprised by how many of us come up with answers that are out of synch with our actual gardening choices.

Why am I growing this produce? 

  • Am I showing it at the State Fair?
  • Am I consuming it as soon as I harvest it?

… because twelve blemish-free tomatoes for a State Fair competition requires a very particular standard of pest intervention, a standard that is not necessary for gardeners who are consuming rather than showing their produce.


Organically grown orchard fruits often require the most toxic and hazardous chemical interventions in our pest-control arsenal. Do you really need fruit trees? How many do you need? The answer to these questions will shape how much violence you do to the environment. Answer honestly.

How much volume do I need?

  • Am I selling produce at local markets or to high-end restaurants?
  • Am I preserving it for winter?
  • Am I sharing/swapping it with friends and neighbors?

…because the “labor intensity” of pest control needed to produce 300 bushels of apricots to sell at local market is very different from what is needed to turn 4 bushels of apricots into enough jam to give away to relatives for the holiday.

Do I really need this type of produce in my garden this year, or every year?

  • Will my family go hungry this winter if don’t grow corn in my garden?
  • Will my sense of having a complete garden be harmed if I only grow tomatoes every two years?

…because if I don’t have home-grown tomatoes in my garden every year, it’s as if I didn’t garden at all.

Each, individual organic gardener must make these calculation on his or her own, with specific reference to the actual ecological conditions in which they are working.  No one else knows your ecosystem, so no one else can make this calculation for you.

Every choice an individual makes is one variable among  7 billion others in Earth’s planetary sustainability equation.  I don’t know how many human beings garden organically – but if the millions of us who do choose techniques that rely on the highly labor intensive petrochemical industry (and face it, EVERY commercially-based choice does) then no matter how much we believe ourselves to be morally superior to conventional gardeners, we are generating ecological karma, for which we are ultimately responsible.

Next time:  Organic Pest Control IV: the Ecological Tool Kit


3 thoughts on “Organic Pest Control III: Acts of Gardening Violence, Petty and Profound

  1. naima says:

    I love where this series is taking me: thinking critically about my own garden and my own needs!

    • Sho'Nuff says:

      That is so reassuring to hear! You encourage me to continue in the same vein. I have to admit to feeling as if I’m walking on thin ice a bit. What I think isn’t exactly what people are used to hearing. Peace!

  2. […] Organic Pest Control III: Acts of Gardening Violence, Petty and Profound, I suggested a conceptual framework for organic pest control based on the notion that labor […]

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