Reducing chemical dependence

Incorporating manure, plant residues, cover crops or compost into your soil should limit its need for other additives.  If a soil test indicates something's still missing, you'll need to address the question of organic versus inorganic fertilizers.

Nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are the nutrients most soils need to be fertile, and all three can be obtained from organic sources, such as animal and vegetable matter, or from inorganic fertilizers produced by the petro-chemical industry.

Gardeners who favor inorganic fertilizers say they're less expensive than organic preparations, act more quickly and are often easier to apply.

Besides, this group contends, plants don't know the difference between elements from organic and inorganic sources.  They absorb and use either form of the nutrient in the same manner.

Organic gardeners, conversely, refuse to use any synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or weed killers because of the toxic effect they have on the soil over time.

They say overuse of chemical fertilizers kills beneficial soil organisms so that the soil itself eventually produces no nutrients.   At that point, the only way the plants can obtain nourishment is from more chemicals, which build up residues that eventually harm the plant.

Try integrated pest management, IPM

Integrated pest management draws on biological controls, such as natural predators of pests, planting patterns, pest-resistant plant varieties, and minimal use of chemicals to stabilize crop production while limiting hazards to health and the environment.

The goal here is not to obliterate insets and weeds from your garden, but to limit their numbers so they don't do too much damage.   Rather than as a first and primary line of attack, chemicals are used selectively and only when necessary.

Although no savings figures are available for backyard gardening, IPM programs practiced on nine crops in 15 different states yielded farmers collectively $579 million more in profits in 1987.

Intercrop to control bugs, weeds

This strategy relies on attracting good bugs to prey on the bad bugs.  To do this, simply plant a crop that attracts the good bugs in with another crop.

For example, planting some kinds of herbs along with your vegetables attracts insects that will prey on pests that could destroy the vegetables.

Irregularly shaped perennial beds that remain undisturbed year after year will also provide refuge for animals and insects that'll eat pests.  Mulched, with sodded or uncultivated paths between, these permanent beds provide a stable habitat so populations of beneficial animals and insects can build up.

Always having some small flowering plants, rich in nectar, will help by attracting plenty of beneficial flies and wasps.  Once well-fed, these insects will lay a maximum number of eggs to hatch into pest-eating larvae.

And a bird bath or a small pond, while pretty to look at, will also be inviting to honey-bees and parasitic wasps, which eat aphids.

Other strategies to prevent pests

Identify your pests

If you can't beat them, at least make sure you know what you're up against before you indiscriminately apply a chemical.

Either check your library or county extension service for picture guides that help you identify pests, or show damaged leaves or branches to the extension agent.

Once you know what's causing the trouble, try the least toxic solution first.  Spraying pests off with your garden hose is usually the first line of attach, followed by a diluted spray of liquid soap and water.  If both of these fail, try one of the insecticidal soaps available in many hardware stores and nurseries.

For more information...

Gardens Alive! sells predator bugs and produces a "Stay Organic" newsletter.  Write 5100 Scheneley Place, Lawrenceburgh 47025.  Or call 812-537-8650.

Ringer Natural Lawn and Garden Products has a complete line of organic lawn and garden fertilizers, insect traps and bug sprays.   Call toll-free for a catalog: 800-654-1047.

Bio-Integral Resource Center publishes "The Common Sense Pest Control Quarterly" and "IPM Practitioner."  This non-profit group provides practical information on the least-toxic methods of managing pests.  Write:  BIRC, P.O. Box 7414, Berkeley, CA 94707.

National Audubon Society publishes "Banquets for Birds," a complete description of what to feed birds to keep them in your backyard.  Write the society at 950 Third Ave., New York, NY 10022.

National Wildlife Federation publishes "Invite Wildlife to Your Backyard."  If you create a backyard garden plan showing where you'll plant, provide water and provide shelter and sent it to the federation, along with $5, they'll make recommendations and certify your yard as an official Backyard Wildlife Habitat.  Write them at 1400 16th St., NW, Washington, DC 20036.

Organic Gardening magazine offers a list of reprints and source lists that include "Quick Ways to Better Soil" and "Five Steps to Quick Compost," both 50 cents each.  Write the magazine at 33 E. Minor St., Emmaus, PA 18098.

National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides has pamphlets and articles, most for a small fee, along with a newsletter, "Pesticides and You."  Write them at 530 Seventh St., SE, Washington, DC 20003.

SOURCE: Barbara Damrosch.  The Garden Primer.  New York, Workman Publishing, 1988.