Hartley Magazine

All the latest news, hints, tips and advice from our experts

Choosing delusion

We’re told that whether or not to use garden chemicals is a personal choice. That may be so, but it needs to be an informed choice – and we’re not being told the whole story. 

Choices, including those we make as gardeners, have consequences, both for us and for other living things. We make choices every minute of every day. Choices can affect what happens immediately, or at some point in the future. Choices can send out far-reaching ripples, and their repercussions can change things for good or ill.

Of all the gardening choices we make, whether or not to use chemical weedkillers, insecticides and fungicides is perhaps the one that vexes us most. It’s a perennial dilemma with all the staying power of bindweed. Read or listen to any debate about garden chemicals and you’ll soon spot a familiar, weary pattern, one captured perfectly by this line in a recent magazine article (imaginatively entitled ‘To spray or not to spray?’): ‘Now I know admitting to using chemicals is deeply frowned upon by organic tub-thumpers among the organic movement, but it’s a personal choice.’ There are two messages here. First, folk who garden in an earth-friendly way are inherently aggressive and determined to make those who don’t feel bad. Second, this isn’t just about choice, it’s about don’t-dare-question-it personal choice – in other words, the apparently inalienable right to do something, regardless of what ripples it makes.

The bright blooms of pot marigold (Calendula officinalis) abound with pollen and nectar. In spring they help me create one of nature’s most consequence-free ways of taming the spread of sap-sucking aphids.

Next spring it will be all go in my greenhouse; I’ll be sowing and potting, and harvesting crops which have been ticking over during winter. I know that my overwintered crops, as well as my sprightly spring-sown plants, will be irresistible to sap-sucking aphids; it’s a dead cert they’ll turn up during the first warming spring days. So, to avoid a ‘to spray or not to spray’ moment, I’ve chosen to do something which will send out only positive ripples, with consequences as benign and earth-friendly as they get. I don’t need to thump any tubs, scowl at anyone, or make them feel bad. Choosing to sow a few seeds in the autumn sunshine was fun.

The seeds, which I gathered from my garden – purchase-, packaging- and transport-free – were Calendula officinalis or pot marigold, a hardy annual. I chose seed-heads from the strongest plants with big, single flowers. I sowed them in late September in pots of home-made (and repercussion-free) peatless compost, and they germinated in my unheated greenhouse, which is warmed by renewable, modern sunshine. I recently moved the seedlings into bigger pots (which I rescued from a skip), and they’ll now grow on slowly over winter.

In early spring, when pure, non-polluting sunshine turns the tables on winter, my calendulas will start growing more strongly and develop fat green buds. With luck, these will unfurl into orange and yellow saucers, weeks ahead of any self-sown plants outdoors, just as the aphids touch down. When I move the pots just inside my greenhouse doors, they’ll effortlessly set up one of nature’s most beneficial gardening diversions.

It won’t just be aphids on the wing on a warm spring day; there’ll be insects of all denominations, including bees and, crucially, hoverflies, all searching out early flowers packed with nectar and pollen. Calendula flowers abound with both, and they’re too enticing for adult hoverflies to resist, so into my greenhouse they come. Once there, they don’t just fill their own faces, they’re also on the lookout for a food source for their offspring. Soon, pill-like hoverfly eggs will appear alongside any aphids, hatching into larvae which just happen to like eating them. The problem’s solved, and the ripples sent out across our natural world are all to the good (unless you’re an aphid).

But what if I’d made a different choice, under the illusion that even to consider gardening without chemicals somehow erodes a divine right – one denied me by a frowning, tub-thumping – and wholly fictitious – ‘organic movement’? If I hadn’t sown my seeds, the aphids would still have landed. Squishing between finger and thumb will hold them at bay, but there’s nothing like voracious hoverfly grubs to hoover them up. Devoid of natural allies, I might have made a choice which sends out ripples with much less benign consequences for our natural world. Garden chemicals are sold hard as a quick, convenient ‘fix’, but we need to wake up and see just where those chemical ripples reach, and what the knock-on effects of buying them – let alone using them – are.

Most synthetic garden chemicals are made from oil and use energy, derived by burning climate-polluting fossil fuels, in their manufacture. They need to be tested for ‘safety’, which might include animal testing. They need to be packaged, usually in relatively small (i.e. inefficient) ready-to-spray plastic containers, which are also made from oil, but are not readily recyclable (some weedkillers even come as all-in-one sprayers complete with battery-powered pumps). This all adds to growing underground mountains of non-compostable garden waste. Then there’s the transportation of the finished chemical, using more energy and creating more pollution, not to mention its advertising and finally its sale to us.

We have little or no idea of what the consequences of choosing to use garden chemicals might be when they enter our shared air, soil and water, where they might mix with other chemicals to form impromptu ‘cocktails’.

That’s already a good few ripples clocked up by our seemingly harmless ‘personal choice’. And then, when we do finally pull the trigger, releasing these synthetic substances into our shared environment, things become much more uncertain, both for us and for other living things.

Although no one knows how different garden chemicals might react when they form impromptu ‘cocktails’ in our air, water and soil, or what the consequences of those reactions might be, we do know something about the ‘neonicotinoid’ band of insecticides. These are the chemicals, used extensively in agriculture, but also found on garden centres shelves, which have been linked to problems with bee and other insect populations. Any insect-killer which is ‘systemic’ – which the neonicotinoids are – and enters the sap of a plant, polluting its minute pollen grains, as well as its nectar, is bound to come with unwanted consequences. It might be good at zapping aphids in early spring, but the ripples from its use are unlikely, as we’re now seeing, to end there. And let’s not forget that bees don’t get to choose.

The writer of ‘To spray or not to spray?’ recommended three garden neonicotinoids but, curiously, failed to mention either that they are from this chemical group, or that they are linked to problems with bees. By not doing so they made another personal choice, with its own consequences.

Telling gardeners that it’s down to personal choice whether or not they use garden chemicals is all well and good, and it certainly helps to calm the nerves of those who flog them, but that’s just the start of the ripple effect. Without honest explanation of the wider consequences of the everyday choices we make as gardeners, most of the bigger picture stays conveniently hidden.

Sowing a few calendula seeds, or turning to chemical sprays? I know which I’d choose – and why.

Text and images © John Walker