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The Plant Doctor: Rid unwanted garden guests with chemicals

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Proud of your gardening efforts? Neat rows of pansies, petunias, impatiens and a host of beautiful flowering annuals gracefully color your lawn...ah yes, summer has arrived.

Most of us would like to sit back, relax and enjoy the results of our labor. Well, don’t get too comfortable because there are a number of unwanted guests sharing the pleasure of your garden.

Slugs, fungus, a variety of insects, bacteria and worms could not be more delighted with the harvest of goodies that you have provided: fresh new plants, rich compost, plenty of water, sunlight and nutrient material. What more could a pest ask for?

Borrowing a line from the Dunkin Donut baker...time to prepare the pesticides.

If you have a pest problem, it is best to capture the critter or take a sample of soil or a leaf-cutting to a local nursery for evaluation. In most cases they will be able to prescribe an appropriate pesticide that will rid the problem. In addition, they will probably recommend some gardening tips that will lessen the invasion. For instance, watering early in the day lets the plants dry before evening and usually prevents infection by fungi and other water-loving organisms.

The types of garden chemicals can be divided into several categories:

Systemic — chemicals absorbed by the plant and transferred to insects that suck or eat the plant. Because the plant absorbs these chemicals, rain or general watering cannot wash them away.

Non-Systemic — chemicals that work by being in direct contact with pests or by being ingested by the pest. These chemicals can be swept away by rain or general watering. Run-off could pose a problem to adjacent bodies of water.

Contact — chemicals that adhere to the outside of the plant and kill insects that come into contact with them.

Selective — Chemicals that are designed to kill specific pests or weeds without harming beneficial organisms or plants.

Non-Selective — Non-discriminate chemicals that kill anything they touch or with which they come into contact.

Baits — Lures or traps that often contain pesticides or attractants.

As a guide, I recommend that you select a pesticide that specifically targets the organism causing damage to your plants and is least toxic to beneficial organisms and the environment. Also, it is desirable to use the smallest amount that produces the desired effect.

Finally, ask your nursery to suggest organic rather than synthetic chemical pesticides. The organic compounds, while still toxic, are almost totally biodegradable and break down leaving little residual toxicity. Organics are best used on houseplants, fruits and vegetables. In general, manufacturers such as Safer, indicate that their compounds are “gentle” to the environment and to beneficial animals and insects such as bees. Organics, like their synthetic cousins, come in a variety of different compounds for specific and general pesticide applications.

Homegrown varieties are the most interesting. Long before the neighborhood nursery and chemical engineers became vogue, mom and pop knew exactly what to do when bothered by garden pests. For instance, let’s briefly discuss the nuisance-unshelled snail, more commonly known as a slug. Slugs love practically every part of your plant, most particularly luscious-tasting roots and new shoots.

The first approach is to form a barrier against the slugs. Around the perimeter of your garden sprinkle wood chips, sand, crushed eggshells, or diatomaceous earth, which is a naturally occurring pesticide made of crushed fossils. Since the rough, abrasive surface will damage pests’ soft underbelly, slugs and snails will not cross them.

An extract from Quack Grass has been shown to be particularly deadly to slugs and snails. The good news is that the toxin does not harm other creatures. A synthetic product may be available at your local nursery.

A more popular method is to sink tuna cans into the ground up to their tops, and fill them with beer — the staler, the better. Snails and slugs are drawn to the smell and drown in the fluid. Empty the containers in the morning and refill at nightfall.

Sprinkling salt on slugs in the evening is rather gross, but it works. All you need is a flashlight and some packaged salt product.

Placing some large lettuce leaves near your garden surely will attract slugs. Collect the munchers in the morning and dispose of them in a container of salt water.

Plant Tips

Rose bushes thrive on the nutrients found in banana peels. Simply cut two or three peels per bush and bury them near the plant. What a great way to recycle — less garbage and nicer foliage.

Drooping palms, ferns and bromeliads seem to respond to one or two tablespoons of olive oil placed near the root of the plant. Repeat the process at least once a month and watch for the amazing revival. Caution: Although you may be prompted to add tomato sauce to the remedy, simply let the urge pass by.

Questions or comments on gardening and plant care can be addressed to The Plant doctor, C/o Queens Publishing Company, 41-02 Bell Blvd., Bayside, New York 11361. Or e-mail at Harvey.Goodman@att.net.

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