Organic Pest Control for the Home Gardener

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The Angelina County Extension office in Lufkin will feature Jay White, owner and publisher of the Texas Gardener magazine, this Tuesday evening, May 16 to tackle the subject of organic pest control. Our local Extension office receives an unending stream of questions to identify pests and suggestions to get rid of them. Often enough, clients ask for organic pest control options.  And for years, I thought I had a good understanding of what folks meant when they spoke about organic pest control.

Presently, when someone says they want something to be “organic”, I’ll pause and ask them to define what that means for them. To date, I’ve heard and compiled five different answers for organic control.  There is a social-media home-remedy definition, a “my grandparents did it this way” reason, the absence of ANY pest control justification, a scientific definition including the element carbon explanation, and lastly, the legal definition.

Let’s look at it legally.  To be clear, if you sell any food product and want to label it Organic, you must first make an application with the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA).  The TDA is an accredited Certifying Agent by the United States Department of Agriculture National Organic Program.  ‘Organic’ is a labeling term that refers to an agricultural product produced in accordance with the Act and the regulations in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 National Organic Program, Part 205.2, Subpart A.

To be legally certified organic, a grower must comply with the rules and regulations, following a list of approved pesticides.  For my farm in Clawson, I’d have to submit my forms, pay $2,400.00, be inspected, and wait three years after not applying unapproved pesticides on my farm. Only then could I legally sell “organic produce.”

Now we all know there are scores of home gardeners who garden following organic inputs and haven’t gone through the legal processes.  To many, organic may be the most recent recipe they find on the internet.

There are so many “home remedies” circulating today that I don’t even know where to start.  Some favorites include the use of vinegar, tobacco, beer, urine, salt, and others.  Yes, there is truth and pest deterrence to each of these, but without an understanding of the rate of application and subsequent troubles, one could do more harm than good.

Let’s pick on vinegar.  Vinegar is the common name for acetic acid (CH3COOH).  We can all agree that applying acid to living tissues will cause damage.  It is realistic, then, to suppose the application of this household acid to weeds could kill them.

But the devil in is the details.  Research shows that the 5% vinegar from the grocery store isn’t a strong enough acid to do the job, yet concentrations from 10-20% provide an 80-100% control.  This higher concentration is not what you’ll find at your local supermarket.

And is that strong a product ‘safe’? Acetic acid stronger than 11% can cause burns upon skin contact.  Indeed, eye contact can result in severe burns and permanent corneal injury. Using a rate double or triple what is harmful to people increases the risk to the applicator. Imagine the damage from drifting acidic spray to other plants nearby and the impact on microbial life in the soil from over-application.

Others have explained to me that growing organic implies whatever was used in previous generations.  While grandparents may have certainly used some of the now-listed USDA-approved pesticides, there are some products grandpa once used that are no longer available.  They are no longer available because their residual was too long, or they harmed the environment.

As steeped in tradition as I am in many areas, just because something was an old method, doesn’t still mean it is the best today.  No matter how long you, your parents, or your grandparents have used Sevin dust, it still is not classified as an organic pesticide.

In college, I took a class in Organic Chemistry. According to my professor, and the rest of the scientific community, organic chemistry is a chemistry subdiscipline involving the study of the structure, properties, and reactions of compounds and materials which contain carbon atoms.  Following the scientific definition, almost every pesticide I can think of has carbon!  2,4-D, glyphosate, horticultural soaps, Malathion, diatomaceous earth, and Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) all contain carbon.  But… that definition only works if you follow a chemistry discipline that has little bearing on everyone’s interpretation of practiced organics.

To help local growers navigate the truths of safer pest control in the garden, the Angelina County Extension office is providing an Organic Pest Seminar on Tuesday, May 16 at 6:30 pm.  Our featured speaker is Jay White, owner, and publisher of Texas Gardener magazine. White is an avid gardener who grows vegetables, herbs, native and improved flowers, flowering shrubs, fruit trees, and native hardwoods on his two-acre Brenham property. He is a huge supporter of local produce grown in an ecologically responsible manner.

There is no fee for the program.

Cary Sims
Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is cw-sims@tamu.edu Educational programs of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service are open to all people without regard to race, color, sex, disability, religion, age, or national origin.

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