Ground beetle drawing by Jane Gates

Insects are both helpful and damaging in the garden. If the damaging ones get out of hand, they can really become a problem. But there is no single, perfect solution for controlling insects in the garden. Let's take a closer look at insecticides.

Although most insecticides are rated 'safe' by the EPA, the huge volume of these chemicals being used -- both commercially and in homes -- has never been equaled in history, so we really have no long-term proof of the effects of these intensively used toxic chemicals on the planet or the human body over the course of a full lifetime. In the past such seriously harmful pesticides as DDT were considered safe until they almost wiped out several innocent animal species and were finally proven toxic to humans, too. Since there are a number of non-toxic ways of controlling insects, it seems logical to avoid those easy-to-use solutions that could harbor as-yet unproved dire consequences. The better we can live in harmony with nature, the safer we are. Another consideration is that in using general insecticides, you are often killing off the beneficial insects as well as the harmful ones. Left alone, many of these beneficial insects might naturally control the undesirable insects. Also be aware that using poisons, especially the commercial ones with residual (long-lasting) effects can introduce those chemicals into the whole food chain. Ironically, it is the least desirable critters – rodents and insects – that seem to tolerate them the best. Creating tough, resistant pests is not in anyone's best interest. Then, of course, there are the unknown long-term effects to us humans as these chemicals infiltrate our soil, air, water and food supplies. By using physical barriers, natural deterrents and non-toxic solutions, the more likely it is that all of us will be able to share the beauty of our gardens and nature in safety.

Look into some of the more natural and organic methods of controlling pests. Trap them, introduce natural predators, inter-plant your gardens with resistant or repellent plants and use physical barriers like screening, cages, netting, and washing off insects with water. Look into natural repellents and organic insecticides and use even these organic insecticides cautiously since they are still poisons, albeit natural ones.

For example, beware of coatings of aphids on the soft new growth of vegetables, roses and other plants in your garden. If you catch them early, a good squirt with the garden hose should wash off enough pests to keep numbers down. But you will have to be vigilant and continue the spraying with water on a regular basis or the pests will proliferate and you will have to resort to insecticides. You can also buy and introduce ladybugs or green lacewings into your garden. If they are happy, they will eat all those aphids and breed. There is always the risk that they will just fly away into someone else's garden, too.

Take a closer look at each insecticide and please consider starting with the gentler materials like insecticidal soaps. You can also try some of the organic insecticides like Neem and Pyrethrum based products. These latter two are still poisons even if they are organic, so they become my second choice – especially if you have children or pets in your garden. They have a shorter residual effect, however, than most commercial insecticides which makes them safer to use.

Other suggestions are to use worm castings in your soil. They seem to strengthen plants so they resist predation. Growing the right plants in the right soils with the right amount of water and light will create stronger plants that will resist insect attacks without your intervention.

There may be times when using toxic chemicals are the best solution. Make sure you have exhausted the more gentle choices first, and always follow directions carefully and dispose of containers properly. Take a closer look at insecticides. The important part of using insecticides wisely is to research the alternatives and take responsibility for what you put into your own garden rather than always grabbing the easiest solution without thinking of the larger consequences.