Being an ecological gardener does not begin - or end - with using organic products. Nor is it merely a philosophical approach. Many Americans regard themselves as environmentalists, and gardeners in particular fancy themselves stewards of the land.
But there are different levels of stewardship. Vegetable gardeners tend to be more sensitive to the environment than ornamental gardeners - after all, they eat what they grow. Even the most ecologically sensitive gardener, however, might not realize the harm certain garden practices cause. Finding out should be one of the guiding principles of the responsible gardener.
The most damaging elements are obvious: chemical pesticides and fertilizers, especially those applied in wrong concentrations, at the wrong times of year. Often, these chemicals are the first, automatic reaction to a problem that could be handled far more gently. For example, diseases and pests may emerge because the plant is denied its proper culture - a shade plant in sun, or vice versa - or because the gardener has failed to select an improved, disease-resistant variety.
Even when chemical weapons are used discreetly, we still are adding poison to our world and we are obliged to consider the cumulative harm to the environment. The back-yard garden plot might be small, but it is a complex and delicately balanced part of the whole.
Many gardeners know this and try hard to keep to the organic path. They know materials derived from nature make the best plant nutrients - manures, compost, living mulches, dying plant matter, debris that has been chopped or aged.
Other practices build on this ethic: pulling unwanted plants instead of spraying them; leaving the wasp's nest so that there are natural predators to attack the caterpillars in the broccoli patch; or using highly selective, natural organisms against a specific pest.
Other less-obvious approaches are available. Is a …