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Killer instinct

08/15/07 5:55PM By Henry Homeyer

(HOST) When it comes to getting rid of garden pests, commentator Henry Homeyer employs what you might call the Dirty Harry method - that is: up close and personal.      

(HOMEYER) To be a good vegetable gardener, it really helps if you have a bit of the killer instinct in you. You have a big advantage if you don't mind squishing bugs or picking up snails and slugs to drop them in soapy water. It's all part of getting your veggies to harvest in good condition.

I know, there is another way to control bugs, but I don't choose to. Yes, I could visit what I call "death row" at my local garden center, the row where they sell all those toxic powders and liquids. I could buy chemicals that would kill every bug that chews on the cukes, every snail that perforates my broccoli leaves, every slug that sucks the juice out of my potential coleslaw. But I don't choose to.

Here's why: Broad-based pesticides don't kill just the bad critters, most of them annihilate everything that wiggles - including the good ones.

For example, I recently learned that there's a tiny parasitic wasp that attacks Japanese beetles.  If you see a single white spot on the back of a Japanese beetle that you're about to toss in soapy water, you may want to reconsider.  Soapy water will kill the culprit today.  The parasite may take another week or more to finish off the beetle, but I like to encourage the good bugs.  I know I can't find and pick every Japanese beetle that's lurking in the raspberries, so it helps to let the predators multiply.

And then there's corn. I don't grow my own sweet corn because there's too much raccoon in my temperament: I'd want to stuff myself. But it's tough to find organic corn for sale. I asked my neighborhood grower why he sprays pesticides on his corn. He explained that customers want perfect corn. That finding a corn worm will shock and dismay some customers, and he fears they'll go elsewhere. So he sprays.

Me? I'm always delighted when I do find a corn worm. I mean, it only takes a quick flick of a sharp knife to get rid of the worm,
and it means the farmer didn't spray that batch. I know that the government has rules about spraying, and that properly sprayed corn
is said to be 100% safe for me to eat. But it's not just about me. I wonder what the chemicals do to the farm workers, the birds and fish, and of course, the good bugs.

When I buy corn somewhere new, I ask if pesticides have been sprayed on it.  I say that I'd be willing to pay more for unsprayed corn. If enough of us do that, we may influence the choices our local farmers make. I may be a cold-blooded killer in my own garden, but I do it just one bug at a time. That generally works okay, and I won't starve if I lose part of my crop.

Henry Homeyer is a gardening writer and columnist.
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