Down To The Wire

March 4, 2011

Today, Nancy mentioned that she thinks of Master Gardener trainees (that’s me) as “tender perennials”, which made us all smile, as some of the group are old enough to be heritage tomatoes.

It was warm when I walked to the building, my coat open, swinging purse, lunchbag (roast beef with avocado, yogurt, apple, orange and red peppers with Traders Joe’s tomato basil hummus) and black bag filled with book, notepad, and folder. Just one more nametag on the sheet after I peeled one off. Two ladies were discussing how they’d like to take everything again, especially the botany class, immediately, as it would really make more sense now.

I must agree.

Nancy opened with talk of volunteer requirements, of the final exam (100 questions – good grief) and the final lesson, plant pathology (that one ought to be a laugh riot, huh?). She talked about the importance of today’s topic, Integrated Pest Management or IPM. She mentioned that one of the first questions from homeowners usually is “What can I spray?” I got a little tense at that – spray to me is rather a dirty word.

Amy, the educator for the day, was a tiny dark-haired young woman, very interested in anything that ends in “cide” – as in herbicide, pesticide, insecticide and the like. She passed out a sheet with two sides of questions and asked us to fill out side one. Easy enough to circle “I never use any type of pest controls” and the why “I don’t want to harm the beneficial insects.” I commented that I just didn’t have pests – thinking no aphids, no chewing worms, no Japanese beetles – nothing of that ilk.

She began by explaining that a mower run for an hour does as much damage to the ozone layer as a car driven 20 miles. Homeowners typically apply 3-5 times as much chemical per acre as farmers and that everything – everything – everything comes with risk.

My assumption that “pest” is defined as insects that destroy plants was turned on its ear as she gave us a definition – an insect, plant, animal, disease or microorganism that is unwanted and out of place. Oh, yeah, I have pests. I have big, hairy, sharp-toothed, vicious, horrible, destructive, loathed, dreaded and frustrating pests.

I have Damn Rabbits.

Amy explained that the first step, the most critical aspect of IPM, is identification. You can’t get rid of a pest if you don’t know what it is. Discover the life cycle, its probability of causing any real or lasting harm and then determine the gardener’s acceptance level. Most of the times, Amy said, the answer is to do nothing – let nature take its course of migration, death or hibernation. Only 5-15% of influences are pests, she mentioned.

I really liked her approach; first, to see if doing nothing is the correct answer. Proceed to cultural controls, like making sure the right plant is in the right place, that it’s maintained and cared for. Then try physical methods, such as picking, pulling, whacking, mowing, hoeing, squashing, digging, covering, protecting, spraying with a blast of water. Biological methods should then be considered, like lady beetles for aphids, praying mantis – bringing in those predators (had me thinking of my pests and the possibility of importing a pack of coyotes). The last resort, Amy said, is chemical.

I love it when that’s the last resort. She also mentioned that there are many organic methods out there and read a list, which included – yep – vinegar. Everyone in the room looked at me and laughed. I must be the Vinegar Woman. Someone explained to Amy what had happened last week and she also smiled at me in sympathy. “Yes,” she said, “it must be recommended by U of I if you want to recommend it.” She said she anticipates U of I recognizing more organic methods soon – hang in there, she nodded at me.

She mentioned that geraniums keep mosquitos at bay. Japanese beetle traps make your problem worse by attracting beetles from all over the neighborhood – literally up to 5 miles away.

When Amy began the topic of “cides” in earnest, she explained the mantra for MGs and for everyone – The Label Is The Law. It’s all there, she told us. There is information about amount of dosage, frequency of application, first aid requirements, level of toxicity. The Label Is The Law.

She taught us how to read a label, what all the alerts mean – Caution means just that, tread carefully. Warning means the product is a little more dangerous and should be handled sensitively. Danger means that if you don’t follow that label, you could very well end up dead.

She talked about how safety levels are determined and brought up testing on mice (no response from the crowd), rats (a bit of an encouraging attitude in the air – who likes rats?) and then mentioned dogs. “AUGH,” the room erupted. “DOGS? Why dogs?” When she replied she didn’t make the rules, she didn’t perform the testing and gosh, it mostly seems to be beagles, one woman shouted out, “Beagles? Why beagles?”

Master Gardeners apparently don’t consider test subjects worthy of sympathy unless they are the common companion animals.

She explained the many effects they test materials for, including acute, carcinogenic, reproductive – about nine categories in all.  She then explained how they determine what’s safe for human – explaining that everything comes with risk and nothing is completely safe.

Testers take the smallest amount of material that affects a test subject, mathematically make that amount proportionate to a human’s size and weight and then divide that by ten. They then divide it by ten again, so if tests determine that 10 lbs of exposure shows no adverse effects, what is cleared for distribution turns out to be .1 pound. For children, they divide that by another ten, so a product may contain only .01 lb of a tested material.

She passed out two labels, described the problem of leafhoppers in a homeowner’s lawn and asked us to select the proper product. Well, neither of them were quite right, neither of the labels answered all the questions. When she called us back to order, she explained that it’s okay not to make a selection, because all the information was not there – don’t buy either product. She smiled and said, “And leafhoppers aren’t that big of a problem anyway. Tell that homeowner to just wait it out for a few weeks.”

I think it was a trick question.

At the end of the day, she asked us to answer the questions on her side two. What did I learn? I learned that using milorganite, chickenwire and barriers is indeed using an IPM. I also learned that no matter how small an amount of questionable material is in a product, I still don’t feel very comfortable using it.

Amy gave us all a pair of gloves, bright green and labeled with a website for more natural lawn care. I mentioned Neatnik Neighbor and his quest for perfection – she gave me a pair for him too.

P.S. At the farm store, I bought two beautiful spring toned pashminas for only $8.50 each. Yes, eight dollars and fifty cents.

The Gloves!! don't you love free stuff??

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