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Fend off pests organically

Part 10: Most Insects Help a Natural Garden

During the early years of this century, decades before chemical pesticides made their debut, I learned to garden. Our family plot produced sufficient vegetables to feed my parents and two boys _ enough for fresh and surplus for canning. All without potent poison sprays.

I fondly remember eating luscious, sun-ripened tomatoes, corn right off the cob, cucumber slices and carrots after no more than a desultory washing at the well pump.

Birds, encouraged to visit our garden, ate insects and fed some to their nesting young. We also depended on beneficial insects to eat offending, plant-chewing bugs and we zealously guarded their garden presence. In those days, you couldn't order more "beneficials" from a mail-order supplier.

Will the natural method of gardening work today? I've been asked that question so many times.

Well, I've used the method for more than 70 years, the last 26 of those here in Florida, where I still maintain a backyard garden. The non-chemical method also has worked for millions of organic gardeners throughout the United States and in other countries. There are even some large farms, 1,000 acres or more, which use organic methods successfully.

An organic garden permits nature to maintain an insect balance. One type of bug lays eggs, and its hatching larvae eat growing plants. Another group harms no plants at all; it eats only other bugs.

According to Lewis Regenstein, environmentalist and insect authority, no more than 1 percent of bugs in a garden actually damage plants. That's one in 100. The other 99 not only control plant-eating bugs, but some pollinate flowers or help decompose organic matter to provide nutrient-rich compost for another growing season.

Even plant-eating pests play a needed role. They provide part of the food chain for birds and other insect-eaters.

What if, despite your best efforts to encourage beneficial insects, your garden suffers an invasion of plant-eating bugs that threaten to destroy your crops?

My next column will explain emergency measures to use if natural methods fail.

This series of columns on the basics of organic gardening appears twice monthly. It is adapted from Van Meer's book, Natural Gardening, which is available from Van Meer Publishing, P.O. Box 8127, Clearwater, FL 34618 ($10.95 post-paid, plus 77 cents sales tax). Address questions to Garden Naturally, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.