Controlling pests both in the garden and in the home is one of the big challenges facing the organic householder.
In my experience controlling them in the home (and on or inside kids and pets) is more of a problem than in the garden, because to a large extent, I can let the garden do its own thing, without much need to spray.
But last summer I had to knock back the aphids because they seemed to have peak conditions for a plague-like population explosion. So I had the chance to go for it with soapy water, and then a baking soda spray, and to see for myself the success of these sprays.
The soapy water spray, made with a squirt of eco-detergent in a recycled household cleaner spray bottle, was serviceable, but left an oily residue on plants.
Baking soda spray
As I was going through a born-again phase of happily dispensing vinegar and baking soda as cures for every household nasty I could get my hands on, I couldnít wait to get out there with my baking soda spray to see how the aphids liked that.
The great thing about baking soda spray, made with just a teaspoon of soda to a litre of water, is that I could make up a spray bottle for four-year-old Jake to help with Ė and he still hasnít tired of this fun. He seems to have a fascination for the spray bottles of vinegar (or if heís really on a spraying spree I swap it for water). I often have to send him outside to spray the plants because the furniture, the cats and everything are getting his treatment.
So we got the aphids under control, not completely wiped out but down to a manageable level. Mostly it was the roses and aquilegias that were covered with them, but also, I used the baking soda on the cauliflowers, and that kept them in pretty good shape.
Broccoli and cauliflower
Normally, I donít use sprays in the garden at all, probably in only three seasons out of 11 years of gardening. I just crop what isnít affected and forget about the rest, and I work on having broccoli and cauliflower ripening either early or late in the season in the cooler weather.
This worked really well in our last garden in a milder climate with short mild winters. I planted the broccoli in autumn and in early spring when there was still plenty of dew around. The broccoli heads would sprout quickly and cleanly. Iíve had mixed success where we are now with cold frosty winters and later springs, but I figure itís always something I can fine tune down the track.
Vinegar and baking soda as cleaners
Inside I have mainly used eco detergent and water as an all-purpose cleaner for years. But last year I got the white vinegar and baking soda bug and switched over big time!
When I was younger I didnít fancy the idea of cleaning without bubbles. It didnít give me satisfaction. But I kicked off my vinegar and b. soda spree this time by spraying vinegar and sprinkling baking soda onto the vinegar to get the chemical reaction bubbling, and it gave me a gleeful sense of an organic event in the making.
For years now, my oldest son has been periodically trying to get his hands on my vinegar and baking soda stash for his volcano experiments. There is something innately fascinating about the explosion of bubbles that has him fossicking in my cupboards for the magical ingredients year after year. Now that I am buying the vinegar and b. soda in bulk, he can happily do his thing without using up a bottle of my precious organic vinegar in the process.
Mould, bacteria and germ killer
For those not yet in the know, white vinegar kills most mould, bacteria, and germs, due to its level of acidity, and can be bought in bulk, along with baking soda, at bulk food stores.
Vinegar leaves a bright sparkling shine, while baking soda has the scouring power.
On one day I started with the bathroom basin, moved onto the bath (just using the vinegar as the bath is a plastic one), and then with mounting zeal, whipped open the oven door and started attacking the darkness within.
I kid you not. I am not a fan of housekeeping as everyone who knows me will attest. I go to great lengths to avoid it, in the name of polishing my intellect not my floors.
Organic oven cleaning and kitchen grime
I have to admit that cleaning my oven has been an unsolvable mystery for me for as long as I have been cooking. I rely on the heat of the oven to keep it sanitized and do not look too closely when opening the oven door. Part of my problem is a major aversion to chemical oven cleaners, especially given the fact that an oven cleaned this way pongs of chemicals afterwards - and I am supposed to put our food in there?
I thought I had solved the problem a few years back when I got hold of an eco cleaner, but was overwhelmed by the pine smell which was as strong out at the mailbox as it was inside. So that one sits in my collection of unused cleaning products.
I was greatly enthusiastic to find out how the vinegar and baking soda would tackle the baked on oven grime Ė it seemed unlikely it could really do the job but by then it was the new Miracle Cleaner and I was expecting miracles.
Actually, it did not do a bad job. For one, it was fun. Secondly, it was non-toxic so I didnít mind having my head surrounded by it. Thirdly, with a bit of enthusiasm and elbow grease, it removed a good proportion of the grime on an old and well-used oven, and I could be satisfied it was clean to boot.
Vinegar also works really well on the kitchen grime that comes from not having a range hood Ė it just dissolves with ease.
Next I went on to the windows, with the vinegar and newspaper bringing up a great sparkling view. This was already a major dayís cleaning for me, and not unnoticed by my 12-year-old son, Luke, who said something like, ďyouíve got a craze for vinegar havenít you mumĒ.
I had earlier seized the chance to get both him and Jake into the bathroom to see the chemical reaction on the basin, sensing that this would appeal to the cleaner in them as well. Indeed, Luke wanted paid work the other day, so cleaning the basin was one of the jobs I assigned him to. He did a fabulous job with the vinegar and the entire thing was sparkling beautifully, and knowing him he was whistling while he did it.
Anyway, I wasnít finished with the windows. Next I moved on to test out the deodorant properties of baking soda, by sprinkling it on the carpets, and also spraying a bit of vinegar around as well, on carpets, cushions, lounge suite and shower curtain. The air seemed to feel cleaner and crisper afterward. I don't like the smell of chemical cleaners, and air fresheners are downright pongy in my opinion, so to deodorise naturally and then use essential oils or incense works for me.
Since this inaugural day, vinegar has become my standby. I have an undiluted litre spray bottle ready to go and while I also have baking soda in a sprinkle jar (made from a jar with a bean sprouting lid), I tend to use mainly vinegar as it works with everything, including the toilet. I still generally clean the floors with just detergent and water, but must remember to do them occasionally with vinegar to brighten them up.
Freshening up clothes
I have washed clothes in vinegar to deodorise them Ė this works well when you get a great find at the op shop, but the perfume wonít wash out of it. And at the end of summer I got very enthusiastic about the idea of trying baking soda and vinegar as a substitute for chlorine in the kidís large paddling pool. I got to the point of stocking up on the vinegar and baking soda, and locating a pool pH testing kit, but things got busy and then the summer was over Ė but Iím all geared up for next year.
Vinegar has been a sanity saver when it comes to our two cats. The older one, once perfectly house-trained, has gone backwards since we moved houses three years ago. We are in town in a high cat density area, and she has lost most of her outdoor territory. Also, we got a second younger cat, which has really upset the toilet training, as cats are more likely to spray if they have competition for territory.
But with my undiluted vinegar spray bottle (normally people recommend diluting it, but I use it neat), I can deodorise any patches, very effectively (unless I canít identify where its coming from). Iíve gone off the smell of white vinegar, but it soon evaporates.
Organic flea control
Another big challenge from owning cats and dogs are the dreaded fleas. In fact, the only thing equally if not more depressing for me than a plague of head lice, is a plague of fleas.
I have tried various approaches to them over the years including ignoring them, telling myself the scratching process was good for stimulating the blood flow; even resorting to fly spray out of desperation. Anything to avoid the flea bomb solution.
But last summer, the situation got desperate. It was the second year running of an unbearable flea infestation that was threatening the domestic harmony, and eliciting threats of more nuclear-sized solutions to the problem from the male department.
So after much research, I decided to give diatomaceous earth a go (make sure itís food grade). The first problem was locating it (and remembering how to spell it). First of all, sometime after first reading about it, and relying on my memory, I went and bought a bag of dolomite from the hardware store. Fortunately I rechecked on the Internet before applying that liberally about the house. It was reassigned to the clay bank we are trying to build up the top earth on.
The second problem was sifting through the information on the net and not ending up with the impression that it was more dodgy than a flea bomb Ė some writers dwell a little too much on the cautionary side of things. Fortunately I found a great website written by people with a vast amount of experience in caring for animals organically, and managing a lot of dogs on the one plot of land, and their straightforward commonsense information enabled me to forge ahead with confidence.
Food grade safe
The proviso with diatomaceous earth, although approved by the US in its food grade form to be mixed with grains to control pests, is that you need to protect against breathing the dust. Having said that, according to Wolf Creek Ranch, home of Whispering Winds Wholistic Animal Sanctuary, manufactures who mine the stuff five days a week advise there are no problems inhaling it. But as Wolf Creek Ranch says, ďthough of course, donít be snuffing itĒ. They advise people with asthma or other lung ailments to use precautions, but say they themselves have not had problems when inhaling small amounts.
Iíd heard mixed results about the effectiveness of diatomaceous earth, so I knew that to get it right I would have to blitz the whole house in one go Ė not just sprinkle here and there. It stood to reason if I could give the fleas nowhere to escape to, then as long as they came into contact with the powder, it would work. It has a purely mechanical action, drying out the fleas.
So, on a day when the children were away, I donned gloves and a paper face mask, filled my sprinkling jar, and sprinkled room by room Ė covering the entire floor with a light sprinkle, and being careful to keep the dust down. My research suggested not to lay it on too thick or it could affect the vacuum cleaner. An hour or so after each room was sprinkled I vacuumed it. I left patches under couches and furniture where it was inaccessible to children. The whole process took three hours or so but I was mentally prepared to make a day of it to ensure the house would be flea free at the end of the job. In the end I used about half of the $NZ58 worth I had purchased.
The success of this process was immediately evident. In the following days I received one or two bites (compared to several daily) and then that was the end of it Ė no more fleas. Ahhhhh Ė what a relief!
Earthwise diatomaceous earth
I purchased my diatomaceous earth online, choosing Earthwise's diatomaceous earth, which can be bought online at Earthwise Direct. Earthwise manager Tom Robinson said diatomaceous earth is safe if used wisely. He said he was not in favour of it being eaten as a health supplement as some recommend, as there are different grades of the earth, and the differences are not visible to the eye. He feels there are a number of steps in the process from mine to shelves where the wrong grade could end up being labelled as food grade, and says children, especially should not be eating it.
Earthwise's product also uses a dampener so that the fine dust doesn't blow about. He says their diatomaceous earth can be used on cats, dogs and poultry, and also as a swimming pool filter, but does not recommend its use as stock feed.
He said diatomaceous earth is safe if used properly, and if used in the house as a natural barrier for fleas, cockroaches, ants and so on, is safe as long as care is taken to ensure children are not crawling through it, and breathing it. The best place to put it inside is behind fridges, etc, so that insects are exposed to it, but not children. In our case, our flea population was out of control, so I doubt using it sprinkled in restricted areas alone would have gotten rid of our infestation. However Mr Robinson said I did the right thing ensuring the children were not home, and being careful not to breathe it myself. Before the weather warms up, I will reapply it as a precautionary measure in restricted places, working on preventing an infestation before it begins.
What is diatomaceous earth?
Diatomaceous Earth is made from the shells of one-celled plants called Diatoms. About 30 million years ago countless one-celled plants called Diatoms lived in the sea and built protective shells out of silica. The mined product looks like a fine talc powder.
The milling of the product cracks apart the Diatom skeletons to expose microscopic needles of silica that are razor sharp. As earthwise says in their product information it is not a poison, but works mechanically. As insects walk through the barrier, Diatomaceous Earth becomes stuck to their feet. As they clean their feet they ingest the Diatomaceous Earth and in turn, it shreds their internals causing them to die.
The problem with humans ingesting it is that the sharp diamond structure adheres to the stomach lining "and that's where the problem arises - as long as people use it with a bit of sense" there's no problem, Mr Robinson says.