April 1991

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The Garden Battlefield:

An Historic Overview


John Rezelman

Gardening history could be treated from many different approaches. Mine here concerns the enemies that prey upon our crops, which we designate by the general category of "pests." Yes, I mean "bugs" and things like that.

Such pests are found far back in history. The Bible tells us the Lord caused a phenomenally fast-growing plant (which has been thought to have been a gourd vine) to spring up and shade Jonah—but then He "appointed a worm" which killed it off swiftly. That duly-appointed worm sounds to me very much like that unpleasant insect, the squash vine-borer, with which I must presently do battle for every winter squash I may grow.

The Indians grew crops and gardens on our North American continent, but very little has been recorded about their encountering pests. Probably pests were little or no problem for them. The Indian population was so small relative to the total area here, they lived with such a light impact on the environment, and their settlements were so widely separated that insect pest populations may never have received any encouragement to become established and build up to serious proportions. Wild animals could have come to like their food crops then as they do ours now—but there was so much wild food for them, and the animals did not co-exist with man in such proximity as they do now, that they had limited chance to acquire a taste for human food crops. Indians had children, whose task it has always been in primitive societies to drive away marauding animals and birds from the crops, except for the more dangerous ones, like bears and moose, which were left to the warriors.

Old-timers have maintained that pests and diseases of crops were not troublesome a hundred years ago. I have not found this refuted anywhere.

As settlements and crop acreages increased, however, so did numbers and varieties of pests. New ones appeared, introduced from all over the world through overseas commerce. Finding concentrations of crop plants in substantial acreages, these newcomers increased and thrived mightily.

In my boyhood we had about every major crop pest we have today. Codling moths infested every apple orchard. We picked Colorado potato beetles from the vines by hand and crushed their egg clusters between our fingers. Commercial growers applied chemical poison controls with sprayers and dusters, as did the more sophisticated home gardeners. The weapons available were chiefly lead arsenate and calcium arsenate for chewing insects, supplanting the earlier "Paris Green," along with nicotine compounds for sucking insects and sulphur compounds for fungous diseases. Lead and arsenic residues on sprayed fruit, were of some concern, calling for careful washing, and there was some fear of lead build-up in orchard soils. But more growers did not use these poisons than did. Their presence was not universal. So we went our heedless way, the farmers and gardeners as a group poisoning rather haphazardly, the consumers accepting less-than-perfectly-unblemished products, and the pests determinedly multiplying.

Somewhere along here organic insecticides appeared, such as rotenone, sabadilla and pyrethrum. Rotenone especially became widely used by gardeners against a variety of insects and by farmers, too, against the then-lately-introduced Mexican Bean Beetle and others. These pesticides presented a little less hazard than most from residues and general toxicity to people.

Following World War II came a new phase in the battle against insects. With higher price levels, food became more valuable and crop losses therefore more serious. DDT was a legacy of the war, and for a few years was freely used and thought to be a wonderful solution to most insect problems. That lasted only until it was found to build up in animal tissues and to threaten some species with extinction, when DDT was outlawed.

Until very recent times ever more powerful insecticides were developed and introduced as insect populations built up resistance to existing poisons—the organophosphates, chlorophenyls and other such formidable and complex chemicals in staggering variety, including "systemic" types that permeated the entire plant. "Kill 'em all" was our approach, by any means we could.

A backlash, a call for reversal, resulted, as it was perceived we were poisoning our environment in such ways as polluting ground water and destroying beneficial life forms along with the targeted "bad guys." Many pesticides are now restricted by law; some say too much and others say not enough. The debate is heated and ongoing, as some claim we are on a destruction-bound course, and others maintain we could not otherwise have enough to eat. Laws and regulations are constantly being modified and up-dated, mostly in the direction of becoming more stringent.

The good and encouraging thing coming out of all this is that we have at last seriously set about learning more about the complex natural world and finding other ways than piling on poisons to solve the problems. Agricultural research is beginning to work seriously at alternative approaches like increasing plant resistance by breeding, encouraging natural predators of harmful insects, and, when poisons still are used, employing them frugally and carefully, limiting them severely to the least amount possible. It appears to me likely that we are going to end up on a higher level of living responsibly on this planet of ours, and that we have taken a turn decisively in that direction.

While the war with insects has been going on, another battlefront has been developing between gardeners and a different kind of pest.

In my boyhood there were enough raccoons around to give coonhounds something to do, but not enough raccoons to be a plague in themselves. Coats of raccoon fur were "the college-boy's trademark." It paid trappers to catch the raccoons for these coonskin coats.

Now raccoon coats are not in demand, but every garden magazine, on the appropriate pages, contains letters from gardeners sharing their attempts to keep raccoons from devouring their sweet corn crops. You can see it's a serious problem to them.

In the 1920s in the farming areas of the Northeast, finding a deer track or seeing a deer was not an unknown experience, but it was an uncommon one, an exciting event and a source of conversation for days. How that has changed! Some friends who moved from Bath to an area of Pennsylvania that is city-suburban residential, but close to wooded mountains, report that deer traffic through their yards down there is heavy, constant and regular. Deer eat the ornamental shrubs that grow, or try to grow, right against their house foundation. In Bath my friends had good gardens. Where they are now they are advised it is useless to try to grow a garden, a claim which the evidence clearly supports.

A Rochester, New York, newspaper describes a similar situation in close-in suburbs of that city.

Other friends as recently as ten years ago could leave their winter-storage carrots in the ground until really cold weather. Now as soon as the leaves turn and deer start travelling more, the gardeners must harvest their carrots at once. If they don't, the deer will do it, pawing the roots out of the ground, leaving them nothing. These same friends have tried to grow soy beans, peanuts, and sunflowers on their farm, and in each case the crop has been destroyed by deer .

Even though I live near the center of the village of Bath, I must protect every young apple tree and some other species with wire mesh collars and not allow snow to build up high around them, or the wild cottontail rabbits, and there are many in Bath, would de-bark and kill them all.

Farmers living along the migration routes of red-winged blackbirds have had fields of corn reduced to almost no yield, a loss they can ill afford.

Woodchucks are numerous in many places, more than you might expect, and voracious everywhere, as you would expect. We have them in the village of Bath. Leash laws keep them safe from their traditional predator, the domestic dog. The story is the same wherever you go.

This class of pests is further protected by a variety of laws. Many of these creatures are wards of the State. You may not attack them except in a very limited way as prescribed by law. The problem they present is a complex one of many facets, including philosophic and emotional issues, as well as legal.

A review of history naturally leads one to try to peer into the future. It is my opinion that "wildlife" will become a major issue and source of contention in this battle to grow crops. We are now engaged in ongoing efforts to find the solutions to this problem—efforts that include hunting laws, repellant substances and pesticides, modes of fencing, and other forms of protection. With the drastic changes in the countryside—more houses, more woodland, less farming—and the separate complex issues involved, I think this situation will get worse before it gets better (which, please note, is not the same as saying it will never get better.)

© 1991, John Rezelman
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