Monthly Archives: April 2008

Organic Pest Control: Vacuum-Cleaner at the Ready

You know how these things go: a comment on my cinch bug post led to a brief conversation with my husband, me maintaining that vacuuming up bugs off the lawn is pretty odd, and he claiming that we’d actually done something similar ourselves.

"What? Vacuum up bugs–oh my god."

"Remember the roaches?"

"Agh–yes. You’re right."

"And that’s what finally got rid of them."

This isn’t strictly speaking a gardening story, but it is an organic pest-control story, so I’m going to go ahead and tell it. It took place in our San Diego days, which is a good thing, because if that many roaches had inhabited a stove in New York, neither the stove nor I would have survived the experience. Nor the vacuum cleaner, come to think of it. (I’m not afraid of bugs, but New York cockroaches are a different order of being, truly the stuff of nightmares–mine, anyway, when I was a child. It’s probably because I was the one my two squeamish sisters assigned to kill them.)

There in San Diego we noticed roaches on our stove-top from time to time–slender, half-inch long items, not New York’s lumbering giants, which are often over an inch long and half an inch wide–(and here you see one of the many ways that growing up in New York City leaves one permanently twisted: everything, for the rest of one’s life, exists in comparison with the New York version and these paler imitations are, well, paler imitations. The rule applies to fireworks, cockroaches, you name it. And you wondered what the "twisted roots" in the blog tag meant. Now you know.)

So, back in San Diego, (remember San Diego? (remember Alice’s Restaurant?) This is a story about San Diego) I got up from bed one night and turned on the kitchen light to find the stove-top aswarm with roaches. We didn’t want to spray lethal chemicals all over the surface where we cooked dinner, so we took to lying in wait for them in the dark, then flicking on the light and leaping at the stove, bug-squashers at the ready. It worked great in that we got lots of bugs every time, but there were always more. It looked as though we could go on this way forever, and we weren’t that bored with our lives.

It was Steve who proposed taking the sides off the stove. When we did–pay dirt. Or pay bugs, except that I haven’t found anyone willing to pay. They swarmed over the insulation just inside the metal sides. We could actually see the little hollows where eggs were laid.

Clearly, a couple of sponges weren’t going to do the trick. And again, I suspect it was Steve who suggested the vacuum cleaner, because he really does have a "beginner’s mind" in the Zen sense–open to new ideas and therefore infinitely creative.

There was something perversely satisfying in vacuuming up those bugs by the dozen. We practically fought over the nozzle–"That one’s going to get away!" "Let me!" "No, let me!" And then there was the other side of the stove to do.

As Steve reminded me today, after that it was just mopping up. There were a few stray roaches over the next couple of days, but really, it was over. No sprays, no traps, no powders and, thank god, no nightmares.

We get locked into set ways of thinking about things (bugs=Raid), and this rigidity cramps our style. Sure, vacuuming the lawn may seem odd–but no more so than vacuuming the inside of the stove. If we’re going to give up pesticides, we’re going to have to be creative.

This Cold House: Chard for Organic Indoor Gardening Any Sixty Degree-Day

As mentioned a few week ago, the tomatoes I brought indoors last autumn haven’t exactly thrived. They are still, by most definitions, alive, but the aphid population is doing better than the tomatoes.Chard_2_indoor_4

The chard, however, is thriving. At the end of fall I crowded six or seven tiny plants into a two-foot long planter and gave them the best spot I could. The room is unheated, but the window is sunny, so temperatures in winter range from sixty odd by day to thirties at night.  The plants haven’t burgeoned, but they’ve grown, and seem happy. The left-hand photo was taken December 18th; that on the right twelve weeks later, on March 9th.Beautiful_chard_2

Chard is a cold-weather crop, better suited than tomatoes to conditions in this cold-weather climate and this cold house.  It’s also a lot less vulnerable to infestation and disease than tomatoes. The main problem I’ve had with chard here in Montana has been the same I’ve had with spinach and broccoli: leaf-miners, and those I seem not to have imported along with the plants.

There was a slight setback when one of our cats got locked into the room with the chard and uprooted half of it in a desperate search for a cat toilet, but most of the plants seem to have made an excellent recovery from that unfortunate event.

I love these multi-colored stems; they make traditional white chard seem washed-out, bleached, in comparison. When I brought in a fistful of red-stemmed chard one summer a year or so back, my mother thought they were beet greens.

Next year, I’m going to bring in larger plants, and more of them. Next year I won’t let the cat uproot them. Next year…

For the moment, though, I have chard for miso soup, and for omlettes. It’s as tender as spinach, the stems crisp as celery, but prettier.

Letter from Toronto: The Look of Organic Lawns

written 4/15

If I didn’t know there was a pesticide near-ban in Toronto, I wouldn’t be able to tell from the look of lawns and parks around town. Since my parents still bike everywhere though he’s 81 and she’s "in her eightieth year," as she modestly puts it  (they don’t own a car), I see a lot of lawns and parks up close just biking with them to lunch, or the cheese store, or the lawyer’s, or a friend’s house.

What appears in those lawns and parks, though, isn’t all that revealing, because spring here is weeks behind. When I planned the trip, I figured I’d be able to learn a lot from how the lawns and parks look, even if I didn’t manage any official interviews. After all, it’s April, and though spring is barely a rumor back in Montana, it should be well-advanced here.

Or so my memory of high school springs told me.

After several days here though, I cannot claim to have made great progress. My calls are all suspended in some virtual purgatory, and the weather is not co-operating. When I got up this morning (this was ), it was 34 degrees Fahrenheit here, or barely above zero on the Celsius thermometer used in Canada (and in the rest of the world), and 39 in Bozeman. A few days ago the split was even wider: forty something here for the high and seventy-seven in Bozeman.

(Of course, the temperature in Bozeman is now falling and due to continue doing so; by the time I get home it should be back in the normal range, dang it. Where is justice?)

In Toronto, the trees are bare of leaves, though some appear to be thinking about budding; the lawns are green, but only just. Crocuses are blooming everywhere, and the tiny blue-flowered scylla, and on one ride I spotted daffodils are out on a warm south-facing slope, but no forsythia yet. It’s been a long winter here.

I’d read one blog entry before leaving that said Toronto’s parks look awful; that certainly wasn’t my impression, but the dandelions were barely sprouting, much less flowering. So I can’t say I got a good impression of the parks, but in this context that means not that they look bad, but that I didn’t have a good chance to form an impression. Since my next visit may be in October, I’ll hope that fall this year also comes late. If it comes as early as spring is late, I’ll be looking at fallen leaves and brown grass, or even at snow.

Letter from Toronto: Pesticide Bylaw Not Quite a Ban

I’ve been talking (and writing) about the pesticide “bans” (without quotation marks) in Toronto and other Canadian cities for months now, and just discovered that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

When I decided to visit Toronto to see my parents, I figured it would be great chance to learn more about the impact of the pesticide “ban” passed several years ago. Were people complying? Were there a lot of complaints? How did the parks look? How had the parks department adapted? Was the “ban” successful?

So I called a series of environmental organizations and city parks employees, explaining to each that I wanted to learn more about how things were going since the pesticide “ban.” The third or fourth one interrupted me: It’s not a ban, he said, which brought me to a screeching, stuttering, embarrassed halt.

When I re-read the by-law more carefully after that conversation, I saw the exception I’d missed: that pesticides are permitted “To control or destroy pests which have caused infestation to property.” Herbicides are banned outright, but insecticides are severely limited, not banned.

The city employs an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach, meaning that everything is done to encourage healthy plants (including grass) and that pesticides are not used routinely. However, if an infestation does occur and other methods don’t succeed in controlling it, synthetic pesticides can be used.

Many Canadian bylaws contain an exception of this sort, I’ve discovered; some even specify the number of cinch-bugs per tenth of a square meter that constitutes an infestation. Apparently property owners in Toronto must stand ready to explain any use of pesticides, so they need to count and record pest-levels.

Before I could ask any more questions, my informant told me I needed to go through the city’s Media Hotline, a clearance center for all requests to speak to City employees. The Hotline is currently processing my request; I’ll be back to you after they get back to me.