Butterfly gardening without chemophobia
Just over a year ago, I noticed a tree trimming truck at work in my neighborhood. The limbs were being shredded, transforming into a truckload of finely chopped wood. The gardening potential of that much mulch caught my attention, and I impulsively asked if they could dump the shredded wood chips in my yard. A few hours later, I had a mountain of mulch on the grass in front of my house, a disbelieving husband shaking his head, and a huge project on my hands. It took weeks of work just to get the pile flattened, and months to gradually start planting. I also clashed with the HOA after they sent me a letter objecting to my newly expanded and quite visible flower garden bed (which was mostly still mulch at that time.) Luckily, I won that fight, after explaining the Florida Friendly Landscape I sought, and altering my design slightly to appease them. I wish I could win other battles so easily…
Fighting Misinformation and Fear
One of the perpetual battles I’m fighting these days is countering the misinformation about pesticides that gardeners like me responsibly use in our yards. I deal with this in person, trying to convince other parents and administrators at my kids’ school to use safe and effective commercial products to manage weeds and pests there, instead of DIY concoctions they assume will be safer. I also give out science-based advice to sometimes-hesitant homeowners when I do volunteer work with my local County Extension office.
The largest front in this battle, however, is online, in gardening groups and with news stories. The recent spate of headlines about the California jury ruling against Monsanto, and the agenda-driven report from the EWG on glyphosate (AKA Roundup) in cereals, are prominent examples of misinformation about science gaining popular cultural traction. These stories breed a culture of fear and distrust from consumers and the public around the use of pesticides. To communicate the actual science is often to starkly contradict these popular media narratives.
I honestly don’t blame people for getting scared, especially when they are inundated with news stories telling them a product is bad. I know most people are only worried about the health of their family, themselves, and the planet. They are just trying to make the best decisions they can.
I can’t do much to change the news, but what I can do is tell you why I’m not scared, even though I have that same desire to protect my family and the environment. I can explain why average people like me prefer to use products like glyphosate, despite not being an industry representative, a farmer, or a scientist — I’m just a mom, and a volunteer, with a butterfly garden. I can tell you what makes me feel confident in safely using glyphosate, despite the headlines, and I can tell you how doing so helps me achieve my gardening goals.
Scientific Consensus on Glyphosate
Science can be confusing. Again, I’m not a scientist, so I definitely get that layman frustration sometimes when trying to understand technical studies and complicated data. However, I love science and I consider myself a science enthusiast. One key element I always look for is scientific consensus. This starts when many studies on a topic are published in peer-reviewed journals. Those studies are then analyzed by scientists and by multiple scientific organizations over time, additional experiments are performed, and trends emerge. When we observe alignment between many independent studies and regulatory decisions, then that is scientific consensus. We see this with things like the validity of climate change and vaccine safety, where the vast majority of scientists, scientific groups, and regulatory agencies all agree because the evidence for these things is overwhelming. So it is with the safety of pesticides when used as directed, particularly when it comes to low toxicity herbicides like glyphosate. Virtually all scientific regulatory agencies around the world who have looked at the safety of glyphosate have said the same thing: glyphosate has very low toxicity and is not likely to cause negative health effects in humans.
The more I’ve asked questions and learned about glyphosate, the less scary it seems.
- How toxic is it? It turns out, glyphosate is LESS acutely toxic than caffeine, vinegar, tylenol, and salt. Additionally, the chronic toxicity of glyphosate is 40 times lower than caffeine. (Caffeine is an interesting chemical comparison, because besides being a key ingredient in many tasty beverages, it also happens to be a natural pesticide.) Scientific evidence also overwhelmingly and repeatedly shows no link between glyphosate exposure and cancer.
- How does it kill plants? Glyphosate works by targeting an enzymatic pathway that only plants, bacteria and fungi have. Mammals like us, birds, fish, insects etc, don’t even have this pathway and there is no known mechanism by which it would hurt us. It is unlikely to hurt our gut microbiome either, at the minute levels we encounter.
- Will it linger in the environment? Glyphosate gets tightly bound to soil soon after it is sprayed and then is quickly broken down by bacteria. Consequently, it tends not to build up in groundwater or the environment, although traces of it can be found. Evaluations by the USGS confirm extremely low levels in groundwater and waterways.
- Does it hurt the planet? While overuse and irresponsible use of any pesticide can cause problems, there are actually some amazing environmental benefits to glyphosate. It is crucially important in no-till cultivation, which prevents soil erosion, helps water retention, promotes soil health and biodiversity, and reduces carbon emissions
Balance and Trade Offs
The facts above are just a few of the many reasons that home-gardeners and farmers alike are happy we have glyphosate in our toolkit. It’s not perfect. There are legitimate downsides as well, such as glyphosate-resistant weeds, which are a consequence of the widespread use of this herbicide. However, this can be an issue with ANY herbicide that is overused. Those of us who value glyphosate are the very people most concerned with weed resistance to it, because we don’t want it to become ineffective. We prevent that by alternating our glyphosate usage with other weed management techniques. By using multiple strategies and thereby minimizing the risk of resistance, we can continue using glyphosate responsibly.
Glyphosate is truly one of the safest and most effective herbicides we have available to us when used properly. This is why it’s all the more galling to see popular culture trying to demonize it, making it harder for us to use this product. The result of such fear-mongering campaigns, if successful, is that farmers and gardeners will be forced to use different products that are likely going to be MORE toxic than glyphosate, again because that chemical has such low toxicity already. This would NOT be a win for the sustainable, environmentally friendly agriculture that I want just as much as anybody.
I started gardening about 9 years ago, when my husband and I and our infant son moved into our Central FL suburban house. I finally had my own little yard for gardening and I was hooked. I went to plant swaps, I joined gardening groups and I eventually got involved with my local Extension office as a volunteer, in order to learn more about horticulture and help my community. Over time, my family grew. Our son is now 9, our daughter is 6, and my backyard has transformed into a subtropical oasis with a variety of blooming plants and a small vegetable garden area. However, I felt like an important and colorful element was still largely missing: butterflies!
This is what launched my request to the tree trimmer for wood chips a year ago. I was running out of space in my relatively small backyard and wanted to use the large sunny lawn in the front for a proper butterfly garden. I knew mulch was vital to quickly build soil, retain moisture, and prevent weeds, so I seized an opportunity to get a quantity of mulch for free. Over the ensuing months, I spread the woodchips, slowly added lots of butterfly attracting plants, and waited…
This summer I got my reward. Over a dozen species of butterflies have regularly frequented my front yard garden this season, including at least 5 kinds of swallowtails! It has been a joy walking around my front yard, marveling at all the butterflies and photographing them. It’s extremely gratifying, both because I love seeing the beautiful pollinators and flowers around me, and also because I feel like I’m doing something beneficial for the environment. I’m doing my little part to encourage ecological diversity and protect important habitats for our fellow creatures that are all too rapidly disappearing.
Glyphosate Helps Me Help Pollinators
One tool that helped me achieve my goal of a pollinator paradise was glyphosate. In hindsight, I actually wish I had used it initially to kill all the grass in preparation for this garden bed. That would have made weeding much easier. Since the wood chip delivery was spontaneous and unplanned, I didn’t do that. However, heavy mulch is a good weed suppressant by itself, and it was reasonably effective. Even so, I still had grass and weeds appearing. I used glyphosate many times to kill individual weeds and grass within the garden which did not respond to being pulled; they just came back from the roots. Glyphosate stopped them from continually re-growing. Getting rid of the weeds reduces competition for resources and allows my flowering plants, and the pollinators that frequent them, to thrive.
Another advantage to glyphosate is being able to spot spray it very close to other desirable plants. It only kills the plant when the leaves are sprayed. Importantly, there isn’t a great consumer alternative to glyphosate out there. No other herbicide kills such a wide variety of weeds in such a systemic, non-persistent way. I run across many people trying to use things like household vinegar, which will often burn leaves but not kill the plant, or salt, which will poison the soil and not let anything grow. As for me, I will continue to use glyphosate when needed, since it’s very safe and effective, saves me time and energy, and because weeds in Florida are another kind of constant battle.
Being Environmentally Conscious with Chemicals
I’m very mindful of not hurting the creatures in my garden — including my two little humans! Even with glyphosate being as low toxicity as it is, I always carefully read the label on the product and use proper personal protective equipment (long sleeves, shoes and gloves) whenever I spray anything. I also always spray in the early morning or evening, when there is no wind or rain expected and the pollinators are not active. By diligently using these precautions and always following the label, I can responsibly and safely use all kinds of products and tools, not just glyphosate. I also treated my yard and entryways for mosquitos and fleas this year with insecticides. I treated for ants. I sprayed organic products like BT, which kills caterpillars, on my vegetable plants, and neem oil, another organic product, on plants that have sooty mold. I also use chemical slow-release fertilizers in the garden, in addition to supplementing with organic matter like grass clippings and leaves. This Integrated Pest Management approach recognizes environmental concerns and incorporates them to address agricultural problems with the best solutions available, including the judicious use of pesticides. The choice doesn’t have to be between “organic” or “chemical” (a fact made all the more true when you remember that technically everything is a chemical!).
So what is the way forward? To begin with, be skeptical of scary news stories from media interests more concerned with clicks than truth. Don’t give in to unsubstantiated fear and don’t demonize tools. And please don’t demonize people like me (as happens to me constantly whenever I try to talk about this online) who are using these tools carefully and responsibly. Just learn about them. Read labels on products and use them only as directed. Trust the consensus of the many scientists and regulatory agencies whose job it is to evaluate the safety of all of these products. Sensational headlines cannot overturn decades of research and hundreds of studies.
Talk to your local Extension office. They provide information to the public based on the best horticulture research coming out of Land Grant Universities across the country. They value the creatures that inhabit our planet, work to protect the environment, and still use the very best techniques available to support sustainable agriculture. We can, and we must, effectively manage destructive, dangerous, or invasive pests, while still preserving important habitats for threatened native plants and animals.
Explaining the benefits of a chemical linked in many people’s minds with danger and harm, is a difficult project. It’s draining, fighting to communicate science against a tide of misinformation. But it’s worth it, when glyphosate, used responsibly, helps farmers increase yields, promote soil health, and reduce carbon emissions. It’s worth it when it helps me and others achieve yards overflowing with color, beauty, and the fluttering of butterfly wings, with fewer hours spent pulling weeds. I wish I could change everyone’s mind instantly, but all I can do is plant seeds of ideas, and cultivate understanding through continuing conversations. I hope in the end all my effort will be worth it. Just like the hard work of gardening itself, the reward is priceless.