Pest control doesn't have to be toxic.

Pest control doesn't have to be toxic.

Homeowners these days want to preserve their lawns and plantings, but not at the expense of the environment.

It may take some investigation to find environmentally friendly materials, but if you start early and plan properly, you can have a garden that is pest-free and full of thriving, blooming, buzzing, fluttering life from spring into fall.

There's a rapidly growing list of natural remedies for the garden and landscape — a fix for everything from poor soil and weeds to insects and disease. Environmentally friendly materials are being developed from seaweed, soap, sand, gravel, garlic, corn, castor beans, canola oil, marigolds, trees, fish, eggs, expanded slate, landscape waste and other substances.

Many simple actions can help your plants fend off pests and diseases.

Start with healthy soil. Good drainage, aeration and nutrients are the goals. Use soil amendments, especially in heavy clay, and consider composting.

Healthy soil is not the only prerequisite for a thriving garden. You need to start with plants that are going to grow in the conditions you have. Think about using more natives, plants that already like the growing conditions in your region.

Keeping the garden clean is another simple way to avoid disease and insect problems. Cut or pull diseased plants and don't put them in your compost. Get rid of debris in the yard, such as old lumber, which can harbor disease or provide havens for pests such as slugs and rodents.

Do research based on last year's gardening experiences and check with your local cooperative extension service on diseases and insects that might harm your plants (See the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center's Web site at

Don't use any product universally or haphazardly. Many are effective only at a particular life stage, and some are specific to certain plants or pests.

Here are a few of the natural products on the market. They are available at many garden centers:

For slugs, new less-harmful products containing iron phosphate are replacing methaldehyde, a toxic material spread in pellets or a molasses paste that can attract and harm pets. Several brands containing iron phosphate are Sluggo, Escar-Go!, and Worry Free Slug and Snail Bait. Spread some around the base of plants that you know might sustain slug damage. The slugs eat it, stop feeding and die, even if they ingest a very small amount. Neem oil is versatile natural oil extracted from the neem tree (Azadirachta indica), which is a renewable resource native to eastern India and Myanmar. It kills insects, mites and funguses, and is said to repel mosquitoes. Canola oil is an edible, refined vegetable oil that can be used to control insects on a wide variety of crops with no adverse effects on humans or the environment. A product called Pyola combines two natural insecticides — canola oil that coats and kills eggs, and pyrethrin that kills actively feeding larvae, nymphs and adults. Pyrethrin, an extract from plants of the aster family, is a powerful insecticide. This combination of materials provides a broad-spectrum insecticide that's natural and leaves no long-term residue. Corn gluten-based pre-emergent crabgrass killers are another all-natural product safe to use around children and pets. Crabgrass is best controlled before seed germinates in spring.

— There are natural products that discourage small burrowing, chewing mammals such as moles and voles. Castor oil-based substances can be spread on lawns to make the moles' food sources, such as grubs and worms, taste disagreeable.

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Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md., and author of "Anyone Can Landscape"(Ball 2001). Contact him through his Web site,