V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Pesky pesticides

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers May, 2009.

When it comes to plants, I'm an embarrassing cliche.

Ambitious attempts to grow a window-sill herb garden and cherry tomato plant in my condo last year ended with me staring wistfully at skinny, weak blades pushing up through the soil and willing for them to live.

"You, my pretty one, will play the starring role in my marinara sauce," I would say cajolingly to the basil plant.

"And you will be the finale for every dish," I would murmur to the flat-leaf parsley.

They all died.

As a condo-dwelling urbanite I envy homeowners who are able to grow their own foods and brighten up a room with backyard flowers.

On April 22, Earth Day, Ontario joined Quebec to become the second province in Canada to enforce a pesticide ban.

It was a long fought victory for groups such as Pesticide Free Ontario, a network of environmental organizations, labour unions, scientists, health professionals and municipalities who lobbied for years to ban chemical fertilizers across the province.

"One of the big concerns is that pesticides don't just stay on the lawns," said executive director Susan Koswan. "They're airborne, tend to linger and make their way into the water system."

In a review published by the Ontario College of Family Physicians, doctors found direct associations between solid tumours and pesticide exposure, including brain, prostate, kidney and pancreatic cancers. Pesticides have also been associated with leukemia, disorders of the nervous system and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Children are at particular risk of overexposure, the review said.

"The college's overall message to patients is to avoid exposure to all pesticides whenever and wherever possible," the review read.

Plant native species that will thrive in your climate, Koswan suggests, as well as trees and bushes that will attract birds. Maximize the land and plant fruits and vegetables.

"It's so decadent when you think about it," she said. "It's like starving kids in India. We're wasting a lot of water and land space. Grass is not a sustainable crop."

One of the most important ways to manage your lawn organically, Koswan adds, is to keep your lawn mower blade at a height of 7 cm. Never cut off more than one-third of the grass stem at a time, as cutting it too short stresses the grass.

"The longer you leave it at the bottom, the healthier the lawn will be."

Not only do push mowers spare the consumption of gas, they also cut the blades more cleanly and leave healthier lawns.

While groups such as PFO are savouring this victory, other battles are still brewing. A fight pitting NAFTA rules and the government's right to protect human and environmental health is unfolding in Quebec, where a pesticide ban was first enacted in 2003. Pesticide giant Dow Chemical Co. is seeking $2 million in damages for compensation of lost profits, saying Quebec's pesticide ban violates NAFTA rules and that the herbicide in question -- 2,4-D -- is safe.

The feds, however, have vowed a "vigorous defence" of the ban.

"We've been using pesticides for 40 years," said Koswan. "This spring will be the first time in 40 years we won't be spewing pesticides in the air."

Thankfully, many of us will breathe a little easier this spring.

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ORGANIC LAWN CARE TIPS

Here are some ways to care for your lawn organically

Water wisely: Your lawn needs only 2.5 cm (1 inch) of water a week. Water deeply and infrequently to promote deep roots. Early morning is best.

Feed it naturally: Leave your lawn clippings on the lawn after you mow: They make an ideal fertilizer. Use compost or all-organic fertilizer in the fall to feed the roots of your lawn.

Overseed: Keep your lawn thick and healthy by regularly adding grass seed in the early spring and late fall.

Mow smarter: Let your grass grow to around 6-8 cm (2-3 inches) in height. Keep your lawn mower blade at a height of 7 cm (3 inches). Never cut off more than one-third of the grass stem at a time. Consider getting a new push mower.

Aerate: It will remove small plugs of dirt out of the lawn so that air, water and nutrients can reach the roots.

Choose drought-tolerant grass seed and spread them on your lawn every fall (over-seed). A thick lawn will crowd out weeds.

Develop a tolerance for a few dandelions, weeds and insects. Most insects are not harmful and some are important to our environment.

For a natural insecticide, blend one litre of water with a whole garlic bulb, onion and one tablespoon of cayenne pepper. Add one tablespoon of dish detergent. Spray on infested plants.

Dig out weeds and their roots by hand. Pour boiling water on weeds that are growing between patio stones, etc. Use a stick or your hands to knock insects off plants into a dish of soapy water.

PROVINCIAL BANS

Quebec was the first to ban cosmetic pesticides in Canada but Ontario's plan is touted as the toughest in Canada.

Prince Edward Island has announced its intention to ban lawn and garden pesticides by 2010, while B.C. and New Brunswick have garnered much public support for a ban on lawn and garden pesticides.

Source: Ministry of Environment, Ontario; Pesticide Free Ontario; London Middlesex Master Gardeners

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