A Poison is a Poison is a Poison

gardenspider and wasp moth

A garden spider captures a polka-dotted wasp moth.

The Poison Cycle

In a balanced ecosystem, predators will be in the minority. In other words, in a natural environment, there are many more prey organisms to ensure a continuous food supply for the predators. In such an ecosystem, there are huge numbers of prey including, aphids, white flies, cabbage worms, leaf miners, mole crickets, spider mites, and others that may be eating your crops, lawns, and landscape plants, but relatively few predator bugs such as praying mantids, assassin bugs and relatively few bug predators such as lizards, toads, birds, and bats.

Let’s consider what happens when you attempt to poison pests. A general insecticide (organic or not) will kill the majority of bugs in an area, but more than 90 percent of them were beneficial or benign. Predators such as bats, frogs, lizards, and birds will go elsewhere to feed and even the microbes in your soil may die.

Praying mantis

The praying mantid: A general landscape-wide insecticide will kill this wonderful predator.

As your landscape recovers from the poisoning, bugs will begin to multiply again, but since you’ve killed off the beneficial insects that used to keep them under control, the birds, bats, lizards, and the toads that survived the poisoning have moved away to areas where they can make a living. Many harmful bugs, possibly including new pests that were previously controlled, will recover in even greater numbers than before. You spray again and the process repeats itself and each time the most damaging pests will recover in ever increasing numbers. Repeated poisonings often foster resistance to that pesticide, and people then switch to even stronger poisons in higher concentrations. It’s time to break that cycle of poison escalation and manage your landscape as a complete ecosystem by using Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

Relying on insect predators and other eco-friendly strategies to control your pests is not a matter of sitting back and doing nothing. As with any other effective gardening method, it requires awareness, education, experimentation, effort, and patience. While it’s easy to recognize the larger pest predators, identifying the good, the bad and the bugly bugs is more challenging, but it’s a vital step for ecosystem gardening.

Poison Propaganda: Can garden writers be bought?

Item #1: A few months ago P. Allen Smith invited some garden bloggers to his place in Arkansas.

Recently there was a post to his blog written by one of the event sponsors, Garden Safe.

Screen from P. Allen smith blog

This screen shot from the post shows Smith eating a carrot that had just been sprayed with insecticide.

Their claim is that it’s perfectly safe for edibles, because it’s made with pyrethrin, a botanical extract of the chrysanthemum flower. Maybe it’s not particularly harmful to humans, but it affects the nervous system of insects and kills them on contact.

I’ve read a couple of posts from the invited bloggers saying what a great time they’d had and how much they learned, but were they convinced by the sales pitch on the poisons?

Item #2: At last year’s garden writers’ association (GWA) annual meeting, I heard that if you wanted breakfast, you were subjected to Scott’s spiel one morning and a Bayer pitch the next morning. The association’s website claims that there are 1,700 members and promises that sponsors will have “direct contact with all of the GWA attendees through the special PR opportunities only available to sponsors.”

GWA sponsor

GWA limits its sponsors to only certain types of companies; agrochemicals is an allowed category. (Full disclosure: I am not a member of this group.)

What bothers me about these two items is that the chemical companies are targeting and trying to influence the garden writers in order to gain free publicity through supposedly unbiased articles. And that the garden writers are allowing this blatant lobbying to happen. It is a good thing that I was not at either of these get-togethers, because I would have spoken up for the ecosystems that are being destroyed by these supposedly safe insecticides.

I understand that it’s hard to run a good conference without a bevy of sponsors and that Smith is trying to make a living. But should makers of landscape poisons be on the programs? Is there anyone speaking up for the environment that will be damaged when poisons are used willy nilly because they are organic and therefore “safe”?

Swiss chard

Swiss chard or Swiss cheese? Would an insecticide have save this crop?

I also understand that in some cases poisons are an appropriate measure, but we must do our homework before applying any poison. We need to use most specific, the fastest to decompose, and the least amount possible. Case in point: A few years ago my Swiss chard looked like Swiss cheese! I don’t know what ate the chard, but I’d guess slugs. In this case will that insecticide do any good? Probably not. I’d have been better off with some beer-filled dishes in the area to trap those pests. So before any poison is applied you must determine if it will actually be effective against your particular pest.

What to do from here?

I think we, as environmentalists, need to respond with scientifically sound and unemotional arguments when someone touts these poisons as being a good thing in the garden. If we are to support wildlife, we must first support their food sources—the bugs! We do not need to support chemical companies’ bottom lines.

Here is one of the comments to the P. Allen Smith blog post:

i have a “question”—i have 3 butterfly bushes in full bloom-i have a water feature to supply water they need.why is it that i do not see butterflys arround my bushes??????-last season they were “loaded!!!

He may have been playing dumb to see if he could get a rise from someone, but I would have responded:

Dear Louis L., If you’ve been spraying your landscape with these poisons, you’ll kill the butterflies and their larvae. It doesn’t make any difference how cute the container is. A poison is a poison, organic or not. P.S. Replace those invasive butterfly bushes with natives that support not only the adults with nectar but also plants that are larval hosts.


a poison is a poison is a poison…


As wildlife gardeners, we hope for a moth (or butterfly)-eaten landscape!

Also see my article “Just Say NO to Poisons” and my guest rant on GardenRant.com about Smith, “How NOT to Plant a Tree” (Yes, I’ve railed about Smith and his sponsors before.)

© 2011 – 2014, Ginny Stibolt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    I could not agree more. As farmers, we plant only the open pollinated, heirloom variety vegetables. No F1’s here, as I have no interest in growing and eating sterile food, thank you. We never spray or use any pesticide, fungicide, herbicide, insecticide of any kind..and we grow chicken, eggs, beef, pork, turkeys in addition to all the vegetables. We put down seeds every week and know that weather conditions will allow bug populations to expand and contract..and we have many frogs, snakes, bats, birds in addition to bugs of all kinds. We do pick bugs by hand off many of the vegetables..but our simple solution is to plant plant plant and know that at several points in the growing season each type of bug does not grow. And the plants thrive and we, and our 40 member vegetable CSA members, eat well. And so does all the poultry, they love bugs!
    Dru Peters recently posted..clean, clear lines

  2. says

    Thanks for the comments. Let’s all stand up for the environment–it may not pay the bills, but it’s extremely important that misinformation and propaganda about “organic” pesticides being safe for the environment be refuted. So when you see misinformation, step forward and speak up. Thanks.

  3. Gil Martin says

    Your comments are a bunch of hogwash and bad science. There are selective pesticides that can be sprayed that do not damage predators. Some selective only attack sap feeding insects such as aphids and whiteflies and do not harm beneficial insects that feed on aphids, thrips, and whitefly.

    • says

      Gil, I guess you didn’t read where I said “general” insecticides and that I understood that in some cases poisons might be called for; “but we must do our homework before applying any poison. We need to use most specific, the fastest to decompose, and the least amount possible.”

      The rant is about people promoting organic, but general, insecticides as being “perfectly safe.” Yes, when necessary Bt, may be called for if you have a problem with cabbage worms or if you are going after mosquito larvae.

    • says

      Sorry, Gil, but if you think that using a poison to wipe out all your aphids and whiteflies and yet “do no harm” to the natural predators of those aphids and whiteflies then I have two words for you: food chain.

      Or try this thought experiment: Dow Chemical invents a “selective” pesticide that can wipe out all the pigs, chickens, cows, and goats but isn’t toxic to humans. Surely all the people who feed on pigs, chickens, cows, and goats are – therefore- completely unharmed. Right?
      Vincent Vizachero recently posted..Native Plant Cultivars – Good, Bad, and Ugly

  4. Carole says

    In rereading Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, I felt this sentence guided my gardening perfectly, “…the wild creatures we enjoy and would like to have in our lives will not be here in the future if we take away their food and the places they live.” For me, that starts with the lowest fungus. I hesitate to use fungicides as there are wonderful fungi being eaten in my soil by other organisms which in turn enrich my soil and become food for something else. Most plants can take a certain amount of being chewed or sucked on. With native plants fighting off native pests, their natural defenses will kick in. Fingers crossed, I think I’ve achieved a pretty good balance and don’t even consider pesticides.

  5. says

    Doug Tallamy’s book made things so clear about the ‘food chain’ in our gardens. “…the wild creatures we enjoy and would like to have in our lives will not be here in the future if we take away their food and the places they live.” Thanks for pulling that sentence out for us, Carol.

    Ginny, your post was well put, about an issue that we need to talk about. People just don’t know what to use and think ‘organic’ means ‘okay’.
    Kathy @nativegardener recently posted..Topanga is a Special Place

  6. Suzanne says

    I recently attended a series of lectures sponsered by the Master Gardener program where Roundup was consistently promoted as a viable herbicide for gardens and public spaces. I did the research into just what kind of damage Round Up causes animals (spontaneous abortions in cattle is suspected, amphibian life killed has been proved.) Now, there is some suspicion that is being tested that Round Up Ready seeds are causing severe problems to animals who eat their produce which could extend to humans. Yet, Round Up is ubiquitous (check out Home Depot and CostCo) and being recommended by university lecturers.

    I think what you are referring to in this blog is similar and the only way environmentally concerned gardeners and farmers are going to have any effect is to speak up as well as not purchase the products recommended for even so-called organic methods of insect and fungus elimination.

    Our environments are so out of balance – it’s a one person, one farm at a time prospect toward elimination that we are facing: education about the lifecycle of nature one by one. GWA allowing Scott as a sponser in order to present their conference could only be a reasonable thing if the Scott representatives have to be educated as well to what their products are doing to harm the earth or don’t do business with the big ag business at all.

    • says

      Suzanne, I think extension agents do a wonderful job with the master gardener programs with ever decreasing budgets. But sometimes, the universities, with which they are affiliated, have restrictive research grants from big agricultural companies. This limits their freedom to some degree.

  7. says

    Nice post that speaks the truth. It’s weird but some garden writers are so smitten with P.Allen and being invited to the garden 2blog event that all objectivity is thrown out the window.


  1. […] Toxic chemicals like pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers are dangerous to birds and also contaminate our streams and waterways. Pesticides can build up in bird’s organs and tissues with every contaminated bug that they eat. When certain levels are reached, these chemicals can interfere with bird reproduction and even cause death. […]

  2. […] Toxic chemicals like pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers are dangerous to birds and also contaminate our streams and waterways. Pesticides can build up in bird’s organs and tissues with every contaminated bug that they eat. When certain levels are reached, these chemicals can interfere with bird reproduction and even cause death. […]

  3. […] If you want your landscape to support more birds, then you’ll need to invite the bugs, reduce the lawn, and plant more natives.  Okay, so maybe this isn’t the easiest item on this list, but it’s important and you can accomplish it in small steps over several years. a) The first step will save you money: Stop using pesticides. For a detailed explanation of the poison cycle, see my post: A poison is a poison is a poison. […]

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