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To the rescue: organic pest remedies

You've invested time, money and hope in your garden, and then along come the destroyers: insects, molds, fungi and other diseases. There ARE organic garden cures, and using them is generally good for the soil and safe for the environment. But when it comes to pesticides "organic" is not always a synonym for "safe for children and pets."

Take pyrethrins and pyrethrums. Made from two types of chrysanthemums, they were widely touted as organic bug killers in years past. But according to the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, products with these ingredients cause almost as many accidental poisonings each year as chemical insecticides.

Nathan Jackson, assistant manager of Ladybug Indoor Gardens in Medford, which specializes in organic pest controls for all gardens, says many of the newer organic products are much safer.

Jackson accidentally got the new fungicide Serenade in his eyes. "It didn't hurt or burn at all," he says. "It's very safe." The active ingredient is Bacillus subtilus, a microorganism that attacks powdery mildew, gray mold, leaf blight and scab.

Today, the trend is to use microorganisms that are only harmful to specific diseases or pests. Safergro Mildew Cure, which contains cottonseed and clove oil and garlic extract, is designed to smother or otherwise harm the bodies of targeted pests.

"This isn't real new," Jackson says, "but it works." Safer Garden Fungicide kills powdery mildew, blackspot and rust. "The active ingredient is sulfur, and sulfur changes the pH on leaf surfaces. By changing the leaf pH, it makes it uninhabitable for molds and fungi."

Safer has also made Insect Killing Soap for several years. Its active ingredient is potassium salts of fatty acids. These dissolve the waxy coating many insects have on their bodies. It is a great pest control for aphids, mealybugs, mites and white flies.

SLUGGO is another older organic product designed to kill slugs and snails. Unlike all other products, this one claims that it will not harm cats, dogs or small children. Its active ingredient is iron phosphate, which breaks down into fertilizer.

Ajit S. Nehra is the resident plant scientist at Phoenix Organic Garden and Farm Center, in Phoenix. He recommends diatomaceous earth as an insect killer. "It is made from the skeletons of sea creatures," he says. "It is very sharp and you spread it around the plant. When slugs, fleas or earwigs crawl over it, it cuts them severely and they die."

Phoenix Organic Garden and Farm Center also sells several lines of organic fungicides featuring different strains of bacillus. Nehra recommends Complete Plus Microbial Rhizosphere Inoculant for treating soil. It contains six different strains of bacillus "which eat harmful fungus pathogenic to plants. Then plants grow really vigorous and healthy and can fight off disease attacks," he says.

Nehra also carries pure neem oil, made from an Indian plant that seems to be a natural fungicide and insecticide. Another product, Kaligreen, is made from potassium bicarbonate, which creates an ionic imbalance to destroy harmful organisms.

Another source of help comes from predatory controls - specific insects (beneficials) that kill insect pests. Jackson feels green lacewings are the best buy. For under $15, you get 1,000 lacewing eggs. They hatch in two to five days and spend the next three weeks eating aphids, spider mites and thrips. Each lacewing will eat 200 insects a day, and they usually lay their eggs where hatched, creating a new supply.

With many local nurseries and garden suppliers featuring more organic products, it pays to talk to knowledgeable people and do a little research. Your reward will be healthier plants and a safer garden for you, your children and pets.

The Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides lists ingredients of garden products and potential dangers on its website. The listings are by chemical name, with brand names of the related products in parentheses. www.pesticide.org/factsheets.html#pesticides

To the rescue: organic pest remedies