The following was first published (in a slightly different form) in The Southern California Gardener in 1996. An updated and abbreviated version was published in the Silver Lake Press in December, 2002.

TRUCE?

The elegant restaurant in Lucca, Italy, was a temple of gastronomy; exclamations of delight rose above the tinkle of silverware with regularity.
My husband and I were plenty impressed, too. Among other fare, we shared a delectable tagliatelle with duck and an order of polenta with fresh porcini mushrooms. For dessert, he had baked fruit, and I had fresh strawberries and slugs.
But did I gasp at the two tiny intruders, and topple my chair and goblet? No, I just relocated the things and thought, with indulgence, this is my kind of country, a place where gardens are actually alive. I knew that was one of the reasons my strawberries tasted so great. Besides, as a seasoned gardener back in L.A., I'd made my peace with insects and learned to live with them. Might as well. I knew you could never wipe them out.
Not that most of us don't keep trying, of course, with a chemical arsenal, but to no avail. Despite annual sales in California alone of some 600 million pounds of pesticides, we're still no more than one step ahead of the bugs, which inevitably develop resistance. Sometimes we're one step behind. Never heard of Strain B of the sweet potato whitefly, or the Mediterranean fruit fly?
But before you fling yourself out the window, consider this: the National Academy of Sciences, in a 1989 report to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found that farmers who apply little or no chemicals to crops can be as productive as those who use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
Naturally, agribusiness isn't listening. Why should they? With their links to petroleum companies, they're making gravy with the status quo. But nothing should stop the home gardener from learning to coexist with bugs. You'll have more money in your pocket (those chemicals aren't cheap), plus produce that tastes like a million and won't make you sick.
How's that for a tidy peace dividend?



The ground rules for natural pest control are as old as the hills:

* Cultivate good soil. Keep your soil healthy and pesticide free, and your plants will prove surprisingly resistant to pests. Well-grown plants have their own defenses. Some, such as lettuce and tomatoes, absorb antibiotics produced by soil microflora. Tomatoes are also known to thwart insects by producing repellants their attackers can't stomach. Other plants produce salicylic acid -- aspirin -- to help ward off virus attacks.
* Choose resistant varieties. This doesn't mean you need to grow modern hybrids. Many heirloom vegetables and fruit trees are still around precisely because they've proved resistant to bugs and pathogens.
* Grow appropriate crops. Plants that appreciate your particular climate and soil will not only be stronger and more productive than unadapted types, they'll be more apt to fend off insects. In hot climates, for instance, this may mean growing Swiss chard instead of spinach.
* Rotate crops. But few in Southern California have the acreage. If you find you have to plant vegetables from the same family in the same place, year after year, don't lose any sleep. After all, nobody rotated the wild relatives of our crops, and they've survived through the ages. Be sure to mulch heavily, though, to keep your soil fit.
* Plant for diversity. Some vegetables, when grown next to each other in "companion" plantings, are supposed to have mutually beneficial effects. Do "This" and "That," the endless charts say, and more power to you if you can. Personally, I can't keep a record collection that organized, no less a living garden. I just plant what I want to eat -- besides, what's mostly at work here is the principle of interplanting. As long as a garden includes a variety of crops, supporting a variety of insects and microorganisms, no single bug is likely to get out of control. Interplant your vegetables and fruit trees with flowers, too, even let weedy plants into the vicinity. They're a big draw for beneficial insects.
* Don't be greedy. If you want a 100% yield, you're thinking like modern agriculture. Instead, plant more than you need, and accept your losses with grace. "These things come and go" and "That's life" and all those other cliches are nonetheless grounded in reality.


If you're faithful to the above measures, you'll find you won't have a significant pest problem. If you still do, it's probably your fault. You planted your crop in too much shade, for instance, or you planted it too late in the season. Sir Albert Howard, an English botanist in India in 1905, and later knighted for his work as a wheat breeder, has put it succcinctly: "Insects and funghi are not the real cause of plant disease, but only attack unsuitable varieties, or crops imperfectly grown."
Still, I know how it is to wake up one morning to a decimated lettuce patch. Screw the noble Sir Howard -- you're ready to KILL. So go ahead, get rid of your aggression, but make it one-on-one combat, okay? Think of Mel Gibson in a kilt and bravely skewer those slugs, then transfer them to a stomping ground where they can be swiftly and mercifully dispatched. If it's earwigs that are eating you, leave newspapers rolled up near their moonlit battleground. Next morning, unroll the papers and stamp out the fleeing hoard and thump your chest in victory.
There are a thousand other natural remedies, of course, some good, some bad, some beyond belief (e.g. the liquefied-bug spray you're supposed to whip up in your blender). I've tried a good many of them, with mostly mixed results. Take that beer-in-a- saucer trap for slugs. An Italian garden magazine informs me I should've known better than to use cut-rate beer, but fat chance I'm going to put out a bowl of pale ale for slugs, as though they were Santa Claus. At one point, early in my education, I was convinced I couldn't garden without a hedgehog. They were supposed to devour insects, besides which, they were cute. My husband actually tried to buy me one for my birthday, but the pet shops weren't selling (turns out they're virtual fleabags). In the meanwhile, I found I didn't need one. Plus now we've got that family of possums.
There's another pest control technique no one's talking about, and I don't know why it's so taboo. Eating insects is not unusual in Africa, and we've all tasted escargots by now, haven't we? So what's stopping us from trying sauteed grasshoppers, or hot mealworm bisque? If we elevate bugs to foodie status, I guarantee you their populations will drop. Some people will have to shop gourmet emporiums, of course, and pay for the "very latest" by the ounce. But you -- you can regale your dinner party guests with a menu straight from your garden, fresh and pesticide free.
For dessert, might I suggest strawberries and slugs?
Just hold the strawberries, please.

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(c) copyright Elizabeth Stromme. All rights reserved.

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