Organically grown radishes from the author’s garden. (Barbara Damrosch)

To the little people, it never felt right. The readers of the old Organic Gardening and Farming magazine saw no logic in spraying poisons on their vegetables.

The magazine was founded 75 years ago, with no glamour or gloss, and its circulation reached more than a million at its height. It featured tales and photos from real home gardeners, bursting with pride in the healthy, vigorous, chemical-free plants they had grown.

The sad history of pesticide use in horticulture bears their hunches out. One product after another has been found unsafe to use. In the 19th century, a concoction named Paris green was the insecticide of choice before being replaced by lead arsenate — an unholy marriage of arsenic and lead first used in 1892. When that proved deadly to humans as well as insects, it was followed right after World War II by DDT, which reigned until Rachel Carson disgraced it with her book “Silent Spring” in 1962. So all these were sold commercially for a long time before their dangers were recognized, and to this day many pesticides are considered harmful to humans, wildlife, and the quality of soil, water and air, even as they are kept in widespread use.

That reality is reinforced in a new report from the United Nations, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food.” Pesticide regulation has largely failed. Pesticides are “responsible for biodiversity loss and water and soil contamination and for negatively affecting the productivity of croplands, thereby threatening future food production.”

This prediction runs counter to the claim made by powerful food industry giants that pesticides are needed to feed the world’s future population. Rather, the report says, the industry’s “inequitable production and distribution systems” keep food from those who need it. It’s cheering to read that a “rise in organic agricultural practices in many places illustrates that farming with less or without any pesticides is feasible.” Green agriculture, it states, “is capable of delivering sufficient yields to feed the entire world population.”

Meanwhile, there are other hopeful signs. Increasing numbers of us buy fresh organic fruits, vegetables and meat from local farmers who not only try to keep the food pure but also use practices that protect their workers and the environment.

Because the least sustainably grown crops tend to be commodity foods such as the corn and soybeans that find their way into packaged, highly processed goods, taking the time to cook from scratch with wholesome basic materials is a positive step, too.

When we grow food at home, we can guarantee its quality and make sure that it does no harm to the ecosystem. We are not convinced that sustainable practices will work only in home gardens and on small farms.

Cultivating, mulching, solarizing and flame-weeding can all be used to reduce or eliminate weeds without herbicides.

Handpicking can keep pest-
insect pressure down. You can speed up the process by using a wet-dry vacuum to suck them up. Larger such machines are used on big farms.

Vegetable oil squirted into the young silks of corn ears will banish corn earworms. A strong hose spray will reduce the number of aphids and spider mites.

Spun-bonded polyester covers, set over crops at sowing or transplanting time, can exclude many kinds of garden pests.

Rotating crops will help avoid overwintering insects in the soil, such as potato beetles and carrot maggots. This requires a diversity of crops, but diversity in itself leads to fewer pest problems than one finds with monocultures.

Maintaining soil fertility will help plants repel pests. The more vigorous plants are, the more they are able to produce natural chemicals for pest resistance.

Keeping poisons off the property will help sustain populations of beneficial predators in the form of birds, amphibians and predatory insects.

These are just a few tactics one can pursue. In the end, it may still be up to all of us, the little people, with our hunches, our “anecdotal evidence,” our creativity, and our power to vote with our dollars and our hoes, to set things right.

Tip of the Week

Garden beds for vegetables and annuals should be enriched and dug before the growing season. Leaf mold combined with dry nutrients such as kelp, bone meal or greensand makes for a perfect top layer to be turned into the soil with a shovel or, better, a garden fork. Work backward in rows to avoid treading on newly turned soil. Don’t dig if the soil is wet.

— Adrian Higgins