The Earth’s population continues to grow, but the amount of land available for growing food is disappearing rapidly. Erosion, development, pollution, dwindling water supplies, and other human-induced and natural disruptions threaten safe food and water supplies. Plant and animal species continue to disappear at alarming rates as humans damage and encroach on their habitats.
Many gardeners work to improve this grim picture by making personal choices that, at the very least, do as little harm to the environment as possible. The way you choose to grow flowers and food and to maintain the landscape can actually improve the quality of the soil, air, and water, as well as the lives of the organisms that depend on them.
Organic gardeners strive to maintain a balanced ecosystem in which all creatures, even garden pests, play a role. They rely on nontoxic techniques, such as row covers and repellents, to manage pests, not eradicate them. By allowing the presence of some pests, organic gardeners encourage the pests’ natural predators to take up residence. And when pests and predators are in balance, everyone wins.
Sometimes, even organic gardeners may choose to use pesticides as a last resort. When they do, they keep in mind that, while pesticides kill pests, they can harm innocent bystanders as well. When possible, organic gardeners choose products that affect only the pest they’re trying to control.
Most organic pesticides break down quickly into harmless substances once they’re exposed to air, sunlight, and/or water. Many synthetic pesticides, on the other hand, are formulated to keep working — killing — long after the need is passed. These long-lasting pesticides not only continue killing pests, they can also accumulate in the bodies of animals, harming them over a long period. In the case of the infamous DDT, which was banned in the United States in 1972, the chemical accumulated in fish, rodents, and other animals. When predators such as hawks and eagles ate those animals, they accumulated increasingly larger quantities of DDT, too. As a result, they laid eggs with thin shells that broke before they hatched, destroying generations of birds and sending many species to the brink of extinction. Even today, tens of millions of birds are killed each year as a result of pesticide use.
Pollination occurs when pollen is moved within flowers or from one flower to another of the same species, leading to fertilization and successful seed and fruit production. Some plants, like corn, are pollinated by wind. However, nearly 80 percent of the world’s crop plants, including alfalfa, apples, blueberries, cotton, and melons, depend on insects or other pollinators to transfer their pollen. According to the North American Pollinator Protection campaign, 30 percent of the foods we eat require the presence of a pollinating insect.Although concern for the welfare of pollinating insects has been growing among scientists for decades, it wasn’t until a crisis dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) caught the media’s attention that the general public took notice. During the winter of 2006 2007, U.S. beekeepers reported losses of 50 percent to 90 percent of their hives. Researchers are still trying to determine the cause, but many think that a combination of disease-related and environmental factors may be involved.Whatever the cause, CCD has awakened us to our utter dependence on the honeybee — a non-native species that was brought here from Europe by early settlers. Before that, plants relied on native pollinators, such as solitary bees, bumblebees, wasps, butterflies, and beetles. Unfortunately, the populations of these native pollinators have dwindled, due at least in part to pesticide use.
Using organic growing practices can help reverse this trend. By growing diverse plants, choosing plants specifically to attract and feed pollinators, and minimizing pesticide use, home gardeners can play an important role in increasing the populations of pollinating insects.