It's not easy going organic

Dianne Ellis-Smith is willing to do a little experimenting to keep her garden organic — even if that means mixing up a cocktail of bugs and water in her blender.

Ellis-Smith, a master gardener and a member of the Ashland Garden Club, collected insect pests such as stink bugs from her garden last year, stored them over the winter in her freezer in an old vitamin bottle, and now plans to make "bug juice" with her finds for this growing season.

The recipe calls for blending together bugs and water, straining the mixture with cheesecloth, then spraying the liquid on plants to keep bugs at bay.

Gardeners theorize that insects are repelled when they find body remnants from their kin on plants. Bug juice might also help spread insect diseases to healthy marauders and attract bugs' natural predators.

"One of the most important things about gardening is that you can't have a fear of failure," Ellis-Smith advised. "You have to try different things. Acquire as much information as you can, and then try what you think might work in your situation. Keep track of what works and what doesn't."

Ashland has long been a hotbed for organic gardening, and interest in avoiding synthetic products — especially pesticides — increased even more when the Ashland Parks Commission decided this spring to use only organic pesticides on most park property. The Oak Knoll Public Golf Course will still be treated with synthetic pesticides, which include herbicides, insecticides and fungicides.

Ellis-Smith doesn't use many commercially made organic pesticides, but she has tried out products such as Safer Brand organic herbicide, which she said works by interfering with leaf photosynthesis.

She has also tried natural iron phosphate to kill slugs and snails.

White vinegar sprayed on weeds can cause the unwanted plants to die, while a spray made with garlic and soap is effective against aphids, Ellis-Smith said.

Local stores including the Ashland Grange Co-Op carry a range of ready-made organic products for lawn and garden care.

WorryFree Slug and Snail Bate contains iron phosphate, which is found naturally in soil. It causes slugs and snails to stop feeding and eventually die.

WorryFree weed and grass killer uses citrus oil, while BurnOut II wipes out unwanted plants with citric acid and clove oil.

Down to Earth Corn Weed Blocker inhibits weed seeds from germinating and comes in a compostable cardboard box.

However, consumers still need to use caution, even with organic pesticides.

Bonide Hot Pepper Wax insect repellant for plants is made with cayenne peppers. The label warns that the product irritates eyes and is toxic to aquatic organisms.

Anne Thayer, horticulturist for the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department, said people should always read labels carefully and follow the instructions.

"Just because it's organic doesn't mean it's not toxic. It can be just like a poison mushroom — it's still organic, but it's deadly," Thayer said.

She recommends that gardeners wear protective goggles, gloves and clothing that covers their skin when using any product, but especially those that come in concentrated form and must be mixed with water.

Test the product on a small area of the lawn or garden to see how it will work, she advised.

Thayer said the parks department will be experimenting with different products to see what works best.

She said reliable information about pesticides is available from the National Pesticide Information Center.

The center can be reached by calling 1-800-858-7378. Information is also available on its Web site at

Thayer said that consumers should also look for an OMRI label from the nonprofit Organic Materials Review Institute. That label means that a product is approved for use by a garden or farm that is certified as organic, she said.

The institute's Web site at has a searchable list of more than 2,100 approved products.

Thayer said that most organic pesticides work best when they are applied during times that the temperature is between 60 and 70 degrees.

To cut down on pesticide use — whether synthetic or organic — the parks department has taken a number of steps, including using mulch, organizing volunteers to pull weeds, and installing concrete along hard-to-mow fence lines and under bleachers.

Homeowners can take their own steps.

Ellis-Smith said the latest research shows people shouldn't till their gardens. Instead, plant seeds and starts in holes and keep the garden under a layer of mulch, such as hay, leaves, grass clippings or newspapers.

"If you keep year-round mulch, you won't have as many weeds," she said.

Mulch not only suppresses weeds, it helps dirt retain moisture and adds organic material to the soil, she said.

Just avoid using black walnut leaves, which are toxic to some plants, and fish acorns out of oak leaves so they don't sprout. Grass clippings that include dandelions and clover show that the grass hasn't been sprayed with weed killer, she said.

Ellis-Smith said people should embrace a little variety in their lawns. Before dandelion plants flower, their leaves are not bitter and contain nutrients. The yellow flowers feed pollinators.

Clover helps fix the nutrient nitrogen in the soil, according to scientists.

Ellis-Smith said a lawn with healthy grass, dandelions and clover can out-compete unwanted weeds, and is better for the environment.

"Monoculture is not healthy," she noted.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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