Protecting My Pesticide-Free Garden

By Teresa Miller, NCAP Supporter

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Photo: Corn and garlic in Teresa Miller's garden

One Friday morning in late June of last year, just as my heirloom corn plants were hitting their stride, I looked out the kitchen window and saw a man spraying my neighbors’ lawn with something from a tank truck, which sent clouds drifting over the fence and onto my vegetable beds.

I quickly ran outside, where a strong chemical odor accosted me. Pulling the collar of my shirt over my mouth and nose, I walked toward the corn, which looked wet. The man got in his truck, emblazoned with the logo of a nationwide lawncare company, and drove away.

When I called the company’s local office, the rep didn’t sound concerned and asked me why I hadn’t told the employee to apply the pesticide differently. He was finishing up by the time I knew he was there, I said—besides, aren’t there regulations on pesticide application? What chemicals were we talking about, anyway?

Though my neighbors don’t have any unusual plants or signs of infestation, they’d signed up for a quarterly “insect, mite and disease control” treatment consisting of cyfluthrin, bifenazate and myclobutanil, in an application of 12 gallons per 1,000 square feet. The rep told me I could look the chemicals up myself, but they were all EPA-approved.

This information offered cold comfort—my spouse and I moved to unincorporated Clackamas County, Oregon, specifically to have a large, organic garden. I earned a certificate in horticulture with an emphasis on chemical-free methods that regenerate depleted landscapes. In addition to planting fruit trees and annual edibles, we turned part of the old fertilizer-addled lawn into a flower-filled meadow (see photo). Often, I watch whole flocks of starlings, robins and other birds happily foraging on our property, among many species of bees, while just on the other side of the fence, our neighbors’ traditional lawn is barren of wildlife.

I wasn’t sure about the law, but common sense dictated companies shouldn’t spray toxins on anyone’s property without consent. A Google search led me to Oregon’s Pesticide Analytical and Response Center (PARC) website, where I found instructions on filing a complaint. I opted to do so by phone, via the 24-hour hotline. I received a call back from an investigator that afternoon, and he came out to our house the following business day.

In the meantime, I called my neighbors to explain what had happened. PARC complaints are entirely against the company licensed to apply the pesticide, not the homeowner employing the service, so I didn’t have to worry that I was burning bridges or getting them in trouble.

The investigator said beyond a two-foot “gray area” along the property line, no pesticides could legally be applied to our property without our consent. He took tissue samples for lab testing. The hitch: The results wouldn’t come back for about five months, long after harvest time.

As it turned out, plants eight feet into our yard tested positive for the chemicals, which the investigator said would most likely result in a state citation for both the company and the individual applicator. He also said the company had only received a couple of complaints over the course of several years, which he concluded meant it mostly followed the law.

Having seen the negligent application in progress, I’d guess the low number of complaints has less to do with good practices and more to do with residents not knowing their rights. I’m glad to have put the company on notice. Fortunately for us, our neighbors also elected to stop using the pest-control package.

I’ve posted signs along our parking strip indicating our garden is pesticide- and chemical-free. You can purchase a sign for your yard here. I hope our example will spread through the neighborhood, as the people who stop to admire the flowers and abundant crops realize they can achieve similar results without the brew of unnecessary toxins big agribusiness wants to sell us.

If you see a chemical garden-care company in your area, I encourage you to talk to your neighbors about pesticide-free alternatives, such as those available here at NCAP’s website, and to report any negligence you observe to your state department of agriculture as soon as possible. Pesticides don’t respect property lines—they affect the whole ecosystem and everyone in it. To protect ourselves and the planet, we have to speak up.

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