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Just Say No to Chemicals E-mail
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Sunday, 05 March 2006
Just Say No to Chemicals

2/11/2006The Olympian (Olympia, WA)

By Linda Tarr

Just say no to chemicals: Seminar offers tips for a natural, healthy garden

Feb. 11--Chemical-free gardening actually can be more effective than using shot-in-the-arm manufactured products, says a local garden center owner. Kellie Petersen, owner of Gordon's Garden Center in Yelm, said using organic materials doesn't necessarily mean more effort, either. "It really isn't more work. If you go through the motion to put on a chemical fertilizer, for example, you will go through the same motion to put on an organic fertilizer," she said. Petersen will present six steps to creating a healthy and chemical-free garden Feb. 18 at the Lacey Timberland Library. She'll also discuss the advantages of going chemical free. Slow, steady One of her steps involves using organic fertilizer, which stays put longer than chemical varieties and contains trace minerals that chemicals leave out, she said, adding that most chemicals don't last long enough for plants. Most are available only 48 hours. "It's kind of like feast and famine," she said. "It's like sitting you in front of a buffet and saying, you can eat all you can eat, but then you can't eat for two weeks.' " The other benefit to organic fertilizer is that it provides a well-rounded, balanced diet for organisms in the soil that feed plants. "They listen to the plants, and they feed the plant what it needs when it needs it," she said. Chemicals might produce quick results, Petersen acknowledged, but the long-term effect is wimpy, watery growth. "Plants need slow growth so they have the strength to withstand insects. The important thing about strong plants is insects are not attracted to them," she said. "Insects have a job to do, and it is to help decompose the plants that are weak." Plants with steady, mature growth and sweet sap are not attractive to the bugs, she said. Other advantages to going chemical free are more obvious, she said. For example, if you grow a vegetable garden organically, you won't have chemicals on your dinner table. "The old adage of  “You are what you eat' is true," she said.

Also, for those using wells, eliminating chemicals in the yard means they won't seep into the ground and end up in drinking water.

Not having to worry about pets and children walking through the chemicals is another boon, she said. "If we take a world view, it's better for all of us," Petersen said. That's because chemicals are turning up in fish and birds that consume exposed insects, she said. "When we're finding chemicals in fish, it's kind of a wake-up call," she said. Leanne Ingle, communications specialist for Timberland Regional Library, agreed. "Keeping gardening chemicals out of our water supply is a topic that interests more and more local residents," Ingle said. "The library responds to local needs for information, so we're glad to offer a program about chemical-free gardening for Northwest conditions." Award winner She added that Petersen has established herself as an expert. Gordon's won the state Department of Ecology's Environmental Excellence Award in 2005 for eliminating chemical products from its offerings and for Petersen's commitment to educating the community about the benefits of chemical-free gardening. Petersen said even customers who had been staunch chemical users have converted since she bought Gordon's in 2001 -- usually because their lawns look better and their vegetables are tastier. "You don't want grocery store-flavored stuff coming out of your garden," she said. "You want really sweet, wonderful vegetables coming out of your garden. You won't get that if you don't give plants the full meal deal." Chemical-free gardening isn't necessarily more time consuming, either, she said. "I believe that it can take as little or as much time as you want it to -- that would go for whether you use chemical or organic products," she said, adding that she'll present six steps for a healthier garden at the seminar. She describes it as similar to a person who wants to go on a health kick. He could start by drinking more water. Plants are the same -- regular watering is a big benefit. Then, a person could replace chips with vegetables, as a plant could replace chemicals with organic food. There are further steps a person can take. Plants might enjoy a compost tea, for example, she said. "Add exercise," she said, "and it's more work, but you're healthier." Ingle expects the program to be well attended. "Gardening programs have been offered at the Lacey Timberland Library for years," she said. "They're like signs of spring. People look for them like they look for robins and snowdrops." Chemical-free gardening tips Water regularly.

The most important step in pest management is to maintain healthy soil. It produces healthy plants, which are better able to withstand disease and insects. You can use a foundation mix that replaces what's missing in local soils and ensure the web of micro-organisms that help plants get what they need to be healthy is intact. Use a slow-release fertilizer, such as one that works over three months, to ensure steady and healthy growth. Remember that natural fertilizers, compost and organic materials encourage native earthworms. Earthworms are nature's tillers and soil conditioners, and they manufacture great fertilizer.

Because organic fertilizer and soil-conditioning materials are work slowly, they should be mixed into the soil at least three weeks before planting. Soil also needs to be thoroughly prepared for the seed or transplants. Clumps of organic materials interfere with the seeding operation and could result in nutrient deficiency soil-borne diseases and "damping-off" of young seedlings. Where animal manures are available, they probably are the best fertilizer. Use manure that has been aged for at least 30 days or composted. You can use a "compost tea," which is available at local stores, to create an environment for beneficial bacteria and fungi to grow. Keep composting simple. You can simply rake your ingredients into a mound and they'll eventually compost, just like on the forest floor. The best organic matter for bed preparation is compost made from anything that was once alive, such as leaves, kitchen waste and grass clippings. Add 1 to 3 inches of compost or mulch to planting beds each year. Also, garden mulch -- such as pine straw, leaves or other material -- will help to keep weeds from growing if the mulch is thick enough to exclude light.

Feed your plants seaweed concentrate or molasses. Use calcium lime to kill moss, not dolomite lime. Other plants need calcium for good, strong growth, and this is a good way to provide it. Mulch acid-loving plants with a thick layer of pine needles in the fall to deposit the needles' acid in the soil. If you have aphids, spray infested stems, leaves and buds with diluted soapy water, and then clear water. If you have weeds, you can spot-spray them with common full-strength household vinegar on a sunny day. It's an organic weed killer that's safe for you and the environment.

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