Ten or fifteen years ago, a national survey found that 70 percent of American gardeners considered themselves “organic,” yet at the same time sales of home and garden chemicals continued strong. In 1988 an estimated 27 million American households (39 percent of the total) bought chemical or synthetic controls, while only 1.4 million households opted for less toxic alternatives. To a great extent this is due to direct misrepresentation by advertisers trying to sell gardeners unnecessary products for a profit. We are sold a “system” of gardening; pesticides are called “plant medicines.” We are surrounded in our daily lives by this kind of linguistic meaning-theft, drummed into our collective consciousness by the steady stream of ads, and by “news” stories fed to an unsuspecting, misinformed, or uncaring press by the chemical hucksters that know most garden writers spend much more time at the keyboard than in the garden.
One spring I was looking over the seeds at a local garden center when an older gentleman came in, walked straight up to the sales clerk and said, “I need something for moles.” He was directed to the pesticide area, where he found a bag of “multipurpose” granules, a combination of pesticide and fertilizer all too commonly applied to American lawns, often using a base of “recycled” (but still potentially toxic) sewage sludge. Later, as I waited at the checkout counter, I overheard him telling another customer about his problem. It seems that the birds, which he treasures, had so scratched the lawn around their feeder that not only was the grass destroyed, but the soil was loosened sufficiently (he felt) to become attractive to moles. Whether his analysis was right or not is beside the point.
Apparently his hope was that the fertilizer would help the grass grow again, while the pesticide in the mix (diazinon) would kill the moles. But he could not have read the label on the bag very closely, because diazinon is toxic to birds. So while he may get his lawn back he will likely lose that which he most hoped to save: the birds. I suggested that he just move the bird feeder occasionally, but that simple a solution wasn’t convincing to him. Perhaps it didn’t seem as powerful as a product designed by highly paid experts and sold in four-color bags.
But there is a world out there in our yards and gardens we are too seldom aware of, large and small, day and night. It is hubris to smack it down without even knowing what it is.