Growing Beyond Petroleum and Pesticides

Spring fever usually sets in for me about the time my seed catalogs arrive in the mail in February. I obsess over them, daydreaming of the day I plant my first tomato seed indoors, notice the first spinach seed sprouting, and harvest my first sugar snap pea!

I garden because I eat. I love eating so much that I do it at least three times a day or more! I garden because I feel funny buying an apple from New Zealand when, turns out, I can grow an apple in my own back yard. Eating something, putting it in your mouth, is an intimate act. Call me old-fashioned, but I want to know my food before I put it in my mouth and send it on a journey through my body. I want to have a relationship with it. Where did it come from? How was it grown? How did it get to me? I garden to gain an understanding of the intricate biological processes that must take place in order for the earth to produce a bounty that is fit for my body to consume. Our need for food and water is what connects us most intimately to the Earth.

In order to supply ourselves with food and water, in the broadest of terms we are dependent on the planet’s ability to cycle water and minerals. The water and mineral cycles are dependent on the energy from the sun which fuels all biological processes. When these cycles are in balance, nothing is wasted. To the extent to which these cycles are disrupted, waste is produced. These are the natural processes we are dependent upon.

In our country’s system of producing food we are dependent on petroleum for fertilizers, pesticides, planting, irrigating, feeding, harvesting, processing, distributing, packaging, and constructing and repairing equipment. This adds up quickly, when you consider the study done by John Hendrickson of The Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems which found that with our present system of food production, 10 to 15 calories of fossil fuel energy are necessary to produce one calorie of food. With this system we are dependent on petroleum before we are dependent on food to live.

Fossil fuel dependence puts us in a very vulnerable position when the day inevitably comes when we run out of fossil fuels. Agriculture’s increased dependence on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, which use petroleum in their manufacturing process, has stripped the soil of the microorganisms, nutrients, and organic matter necessary for healthy soil and a healthy mineral and water cycle. The more depleted the soil becomes, the more pesticides and synthetic fertilizers are needed to produce a yield, setting us on a cycle of petroleum dependence that has all of the characteristics of an addiction.

The chemical industry, selling 9.3 billion dollars worth of pesticides in a year, has a lot invested in this addiction. And this addiction has many detrimental effects on our health and the health of the environment. Many pesticides have been linked with birth defects, reproductive effects, neurotoxicity, disorders of the endocrine system, liver or kidney damage, childhood leukemia and other cancers. Runoff from pesticides and synthetic fertilizers pollute streams, lakes, and groundwater. Many pesticides are toxic to dogs, birds, bees, fish and other aquatic life. Check out the Beyond Pesticides website at for more facts and figures on pesticides.

The good news is that neither petroleum nor pesticides are necessary for people to live on this planet. I garden to learn about the natural cycles I am dependent on in order to eat, so that I don’t have to rely on the destructive effects of the chemical and petroleum industries in order to live. We all have the power to take a step in the right direction. We can start by thinking about what we put in our mouths and supporting food grown locally by farmer’s who use sustainable farming practices. We can take community action; already in Canada 125 municipalities have by-laws in place that prohibit the cosmetic use of pesticides on private lawns. We can start right outside our own front doors by assessing how we are contributing to the health of water and mineral cycles in our own lawns and gardens and choosing to use alternatives to pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

Use corn gluten meal, a natural by-product of the manufacturing of corn syrup, to control weeds. When spread on your lawn in the spring and fall it prevents the germination of weed seeds. Apply compost to your lawn in May to improve soil structure. Mow your lawn no shorter than 3 to 3 1/2 inches. Leave grass clippings on the lawn to provide it with a healthy nitrogen fix.

To conserve water and decrease runoff, plant more flowers, shrubs, and grasses. This will provide the soil with more organic matter and more extensive root systems, enabling the soil to hold more water. Consider native plants; they require less overall maintenance and watering because they‘re accustomed to the local environmental conditions. Collect rainwater from your roof to water your garden and at the same time, cutback on the runoff that flows into the lake. This is especially critical living in Duluth–this city on a hillwith all sorts of impervious surfaces which route water off of the hill and directly into Lake Superior.
There are also environmental benefits to growing edible plants in your yard. It’s amazing how much produce you can grow in the small space of an average city lot. The more we can harvest and consume from our own yards, the less petroleum, and synthetic chemicals we’ll be dependent on, and the more prepared we’ll be to grow and live beyond our petroleum addiction.

Katie Schmitz
Organic Gardening Specialist
Safe Lawn and Garden Campaign
EAGLE (Environmental Association for Great Lakes Education)

%d bloggers like this: