The word “organic” is ubiquitous, and therefore rather annoying, because one wonders if it, like “artisanal,” is merely a fad. Okay, “artisanal” does actually mean something, but it has become a little gross, a little yuppie. I should know, I am a righteous yuppie, and sometimes I think about how revolting the whole thing is while I’m testing aromatherapy oils at Whole Foods.
But the question begs an answer. Is the organic movement becoming ridiculous? Does “organic“ actually mean anything important? Are we wasting our hard-earned dollars on organic products? The answer is no. Because what we now call “organic food” we used to just call “food.” It’s the vocabulary that has shifted, not us.
This extends to gardening. If you’ve ever gone to a gardening store and bought any kind of bug killer, I can make your life a little easier, cheaper, and more fun. I will open up your garden to a cast of characters known as the good bugs. My sister Susan Lyne, a certified organic shiitake mushroom grower (and real estate broker) explains that using chemical sprays is not wise, because in the long run you’ll upset the environmental balance and create more problems. It’s not just a philosophical issue, it’s practical.
Some of the coolest bugs that are good—either because they prey on smaller pests, or because they pollinate—are ladybugs, hummingbird moths, honey bees, the praying mantis, and the parasitic wasp, a beneficial insect that thrives on plants with juicy, sticky stems, like calendula. The adult wasp attacks the aphid, injects its eggs into it, and uses it as a host. Susan likes the wasp because “the dead aphids leave cool, bronzy shells all over the garden.”
And did you know that larger moths come out later at night? It’s as though you have to earn the privilege of seeing them by staying up, like waiting for the Great Pumpkin. Most people don’t realize that moths are pollinators too, and that plants with white flowers often release their scent at night and attract them. It’s obvious that this is not the kind of setting one would want to lay waste to with Roundup. That would be like squirting your fairy godmother with Clorox. And although most of us already love ladybugs, did you know they milk aphids like cows? (Except, well, aphids don’t have udders.) Even though a praying mantis is an indiscriminate predator (eating both good and bad bugs), the word mantis comes from the Greek word for “prophet” and, frankly, I would have a hard time spraying anything toxic on that.
So, now that we love the good bugs, or at least want to give them a little mercy, how do we deal with pests? Familiarize yourself with Neem oil, which you can find at any Indian grocery store or online. Neem oil comes from the tropical Neem tree. Mix about an ounce per gallon of water, with a few drops of dish liquid, to spray on plants. Neem is safe for humans to touch, and even ingest. Bugs hate it, and will stay away.
Here are some remedies broken down by pest:
Scale: Tend to go after orchids, but infest all kinds of plants. Remove with the neem/dish soap mixture, or rub off with a Q-tip soaked in alcohol.
Aphids: I’ve had luck with the Neem, but I think I’ll try ladybugs next, so I don’t have to keep re-spraying. You can also spray hard with a garden hose to knock them off.
White fly: Neem solution, and remove leaves that have been infested more than fifty percent.
Ants: A good bug in the garden, but annoying in the house. For inside, splurge on some diatomaceous earth (fine, crumbled sedimentary powder), which the ants won’t cross. You can also rub this into your pet to repel fleas. Make sure that you wear a mask when you handle diatomaceous earth, because it’s very fine and dusty.
Slugs and snails: Set beer out in a dish, the slugs will drink it until they drown, and then when birds eat the slugs, they get so drunk they can’t fly.
Caterpillars: Best to pluck them off. I have a running war with the caterpillars that devour my heliotrope. For a while, I sprayed them (before I was enlightened), but the spray smelled awful, looked worse, and gave my husband the creeps. Spraying with the Neem/soap mixture works, but when I find a giant caterpillar, I just give him an airlift to another location.
According to Catherine Cash, an organic certification specialist for the State of Virginia, “The best physical barrier for fruit crops is Surround, a kaolin (clay)-based product that physically coats fruit on the tree. The best fungicide is Storox.”
An extensive list of good and bad bugs can be found at The Gardener’s Supply Company .
For more information about how to control pests organically, Susan Lyne advises checking out the Rodale Institute , and “Integrated Pest Management”  on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site. Finally, if you’re in New York State, the Cornell Cooperative Extension  is a great resource. Not only is there an office for every county in New York, they provide free advice, many have hotlines, and you can ask them to analyze a soil sample for you.