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Between the Rows

Pesticides: a complex subject

Smith College Bulb Show open through March 16

 Photo by Pat Leuchtman
These pink tulips, daffodills, azalea and wonderfully fragrant hyacinths are among the flowers you will encounter at the Smith College Blub Show, which opened today and runs through March 16.

Photo by Pat Leuchtman These pink tulips, daffodills, azalea and wonderfully fragrant hyacinths are among the flowers you will encounter at the Smith College Blub Show, which opened today and runs through March 16.

Banish the winter blues and get In the Pink at the Annual Bulb show at the Smith College Lyman Plant House. This annual show, always fabulous, is running from now through Sunday, March 16.

It is no surprise to me that the powers that be would choose In the Pink as the theme for this year’s show. I love pink, as anyone who strolls down the Rose Walk can attest. But there is something spring-like about all shades of pink, from the most delicate aqueous shell pink to vibrant pinks, all of which find their most perfect expression in flowers.

Walking into the Lyman Plant House rooms, which are perfumed with the fragrance of pink hyacinths and an early spring, it is hard to imagine all the planning and work required on the part of the greenhouse staff. I once asked Rob Nicholson, manager of the greenhouse, what it took to open the Bulb Show on the assigned date. His reply was succinct, “Patience and careful monitoring of temperature.” That almost sounds easy.

Of course, there is work to do in the greenhouse all year to keep this wide array of plants — from the tropical jungle to the arid desert — in good health. I asked if they had to use a lot of pesticides and things to keep the plants in good shape.

“Of course, we’d prefer never to use pesticides, but when a collection of rare and exotic plants is kept in an enclosed greenhouse, it sets up a situation where the plants inevitably are infested since they are not in a complex ecosystem where there are checks and balances. When we need to use pesticides, we tend to use very mild ones that break down very quickly as we have to be able to allow visitors in the next morning. Pesticides are rated with an REI (re-entry interval) that dictates how soon humans are allowed back into the space, so we are limited to those with REIs of four to 12 hours. Then I try to use ‘biologicals,’ which are geared to disrupt insect metabolism, such as molting cycles, rather than the old-style neurotoxin types. We also use insecticidal soaps ... which suffocate the insect pest. I find the pesticide laws are pretty inconsistent as any consumer can go to any box store and buy materials more dangerous than what we use and misuse them,” Nicholson said.

I asked if they used neonicotinoids, nicotine-based chemicals that have become controversial and are in so many pesticides. He said “The neonics we used were systemic. Granular material is applied to the soil, dissolves and gets absorbed into the plants. They have a long-term effect. They were very low toxicity to humans, easy to apply and worked well to keep our mums clean of mealy bugs.”

However, he added, “There is a lot of concern about this class of pesticides contributing to collapse of beehives. The European Union banned them last year ... the pesticide gets into pollen, bees collect the pollen and bring it back to the hive and taint it. As our Chrysanthemum Show in November can attract a large number of bees if the weather conditions are right (and greenhouse vents are open), we felt we could no longer use these on flowering plants that could draw in outside bees.”

Nicholson expressed his concern about the importance of protecting bees, which are so vital to our food system: “Our country needs to take a hard look at this class of pesticides, do the proper research and then act accordingly.”

Nicholson feels strongly that we all need to be informed consumers, buy as little of any pesticide as possible and follow instructions to the letter. All pesticides should be stored under lock and key. “As a toddler, I drank pesticide stored in a Planter’s Peanuts can in my neighbor’s garage. It almost killed me,” he said. Then, he reiterated the necessity to educate ourselves about “a very complex subject and industry,” especially since there are so many pesticides available that are not dangerous to the bees or to our children.

Recently there has been research that suggests acetamiprid and imidacloprid, the two most dangerous chemicals in the neonicotinoids, may cause damage to young children’s brain development. Because I have young children on my lawns from time to time, I would never knowingly use products that contain neonicotinoids. That means I wouldn’t dare use common pesticides like Ortho Flower Fruit and Vegetable Insect Killer or Knockout Ready to Use Grub Killer, which are only two of the many products that contain acetamiprid or imidacloprid. Further information about which products contain these chemicals are on the Xerces Society website, www.xerces.org.

The purpose of the Xerces Society is to protect invertebrates like bees, butterflies and many other creatures, including mussels and crabs. I take Nicholson’s advice to do my research seriously. Education is key, for all of us, and the Xerces Society is one place to start. Of course, I believe that using pesticides on the lawn is totally unnecessary and agree with Nicholson that there are many safer products to use on plants.

To feel In the Pink through March 16, the Lyman Plant House is open every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The suggested donation is $2.

Mount Holyoke bulb show also open

The Mount Holyoke Spring Bulb Show at the Talcott Greenhouse will also run from March 1 through March 16. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and there is no charge. Flower Show attendees may expect to see fragrant favorites such as hyacinths, narcissus, pansies, freesia, primroses, canary broom, as well as tulips, anemones, ranunculus, crocus, scilla, muscari, cineraria and calceolaria or pocketbook plant.

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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