Ontario Cosmetic Pesticide Ban

The Ontario Pesticide Ban has passed and came into effect April 22nd, 2009. What does that mean for us home gardeners? Let's just take a look.

Fence Sitting

First, let me say that it's been quite a while that I've been thinking about this little writeup. There are always two sides to every story and this issue seems to hold extremists on both sides of the fence. We at the Richmond Nursery work with both sides being both agricultural growers in the field and greenhouse, and working with consumers dealing with problems in the garden day to day. Each side has valid points to offer. One side says chemicals are bad things they shouldn't exist, the other believes healthy plants make for a better environment. The argument can go back and forth for decades.

Knowledge is Key

This year, we've doing a major training on pesticides, though it's from the grower standpoint. We have about 15 of our staff that have taken the Ontario Grower Pesticide Course can legally apply pesticides for agricultural purposes. This is the course administered by the University of Guelph's Ridgetown College which is responsible for all pesticide licenses in Ontario. Needless to say, we're not about to have 15 people running around applying pesticides, but all of them will know exactly what to do, how to do it, and safely do it if they ever have to. Knowledge is never a bad thing.

Good Intensions

Now on to the cosmetic ban and what it says. First of all, there are some really good intension in the Bill. Number one is reducing the overall use of pesticides at the residential level. I think everybody who works at our nursery will agree that there are too many pesticides applied residentially. I've seen some of the records showing the sales figures of pesticides in urban areas and it's astounding. Farmers with far larger fields often use less pesticides than some urban areas, which is mind boggling. Now here's where it gets hairy. Most people can agree that it's not necessarily the use of pesticides but the abuse of pesticides that's the biggest problem. An inspector I met from CFIA had the best quote: "Why can't people just tell their kids not go out and like the lawn? Instead they just go out and ban everything." He had a very valid point in that the ban didn't address the lack of knowledge and responsible use of pesticides, instead the ban was the easy way out.

Pretty Little Weed

OK, so if nobody is allowed to spray for weeds in their lawn, is that a bad thing? Maybe that's not such a bad thing, really. At Richmond Nursery, we've not sold a weed'n'feed type fertilizer in quite a while and have always suggested spot treatment or a mix-and-spray application. We've learned those treatments greatly reduce the pesticides used for lawns. Now if nobody can apply them to lawns, now what? Well, starting lawns from seed is going to be an absolute nightmare. No amount of sugar-coating will mask that fact. Weeds germinate far faster than grass so controlling those weeds will be rough. If you have an established lawn, you'll need to deal with weeds the old fashioned method of digging and pulling. Once the lawn is really healthy, it can often sustain itself.

On the other hand, you can take the stance that weeds are pretty little flowers and deserve a chance to live in your lawn. That little spot of lawn you have is your land I can respect that fact. However, one needs to keep in mind that weeds and their seeds travel a great distance. So if you believe that those pretty flowers and poofs of seeds floating through the air are cool, remember that once those land in a farmer's field that's now his problem and chances are pesticides will be used to deal with them. Effectively, it reduces pesticides used one place in favour of pesticides used in other places.

Stop Bugging Me

Now we move on to more of the garden. Look at your roses, your flowers, your shrubs, and anything else plagued by insects. What controls are available? Essentially, very few. Soaps work sometimes, but not all the time and not on everything, and I've never seen a soap completely eradicate a pest. Remember, even if it's organic, that doesn't mean it isn't a pesticide and it isn't banned. Some of the organic pesticides out there were far worse than their synthetic counterparts. Using soap for insects and lime sulphur for fungus issues does help for suppression, but it's suppression only, not control and there's a major difference.

A Good Bug for Your Garden?

Biological Controls are great. At the same time, they can be tricky to use. Nematodes for are a great example and they work well, if you apply them correctly. Buying and applying nematodes in April or May is like spitting in the wind (we won't even sell them until June when they can do something). BTK is another biological control for caterpillars. The only problem is... I've never gotten them to work. Perhaps it works more preventively, but I'm really not sure. That being said, it did kill a few caterpillars, but I could squish more with my fingers (still, not enjoyable). Ladybugs work great as well, but they're rather dumb and keep flying away on me. We use lots of biological controls in the greenhouse, but it's taken us 10 years to figure it out and they don't work 100%, either.

So working with your flower beds is going to be more tedious with more applications of soap and more preventative work. Ugh. Rose growers will probably be rather upset since they're always plagued with pests. Watch those tent caterpillars in the spring on fruit trees. Really walk around your garden more often and look closely for problems since it will be very hard to deal with if they're out of control. At least Lime Sulphur for fungi is still allowed. I have my gripes that there are no other fungicides available to prevent resistance issues, but we didn't have many in the first place so I can't blame the ban for that one.

Now for where my biggest gripe comes into play. Since when is growing fruits and vegetables considered cosmetic? I work in agriculture and know all the pests that hit food crops and some crops are downright insect and disease ridden to the point of getting almost no crop if not controlled. Apple growers can attest to this one - apple scab anybody? Things like Broccoli, Cauliflower, and Cabbage are always plagued by caterpillars. Potatoes can be decimated in a very short time by the potato beetle and cucumbers by cucumber beetles. Strawberries can also lose their entire crop to one or two insects that you can barely even see (take my word, it happened to my father one year!). Granted tomatoes and peppers aren't that bad, but in a time when we're trying to get back to growing our own food, it's just downright wrong to call it a cosmetic act. Of course, many people don't want pesticides on their food and nobody is forcing anybody to use them, but forcing people not to is as wrong as forcing people to use them.

So what do we do? Grin and bear it, I guess. As a farmer, the ban has no real affect on me. I have my pesticide license and, although we've done our part to reduce pesticide use substantially, we still need pesticides to control problems in order to protect our crops. In the garden centre, I won't lose sleep over not selling pesticides. It's always necessary evil in my eyes anyway. Emptying those shelves on April 21st won't be a sad day in my eyes. What bothers me is that I can't help people with their gardening problems. Of course, I'll point to the insecticidal soap and bio controls on the shelf, but I know the results aren't always stunning. I know there will be many more frustrated new gardeners out there. To me, more healthy plants is good thing, even if pesticides are used - responsibly and only when necessary, of course. There will also be many more dead plants out there. That's what makes me sad.

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