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Your Best Friend in the Garden – Bacteria?   by Don Urbanus

          When we think of bacteria, we usually think of hospitals and infections and using anti-biotics to stop them. On the other hand, good bacteria in our gut helps us to digest food and fights off bad bacteria. We don’t think twice about eating some nice tasty yogurt loaded with billions of bacteria cultures because they are supposed to be good for us.

          There are plenty of bacterial diseases that kill or injure plants. There are sprays and drenches to fight them. Thankfully in nature, we have a lot of good guys fighting back and they are pretty effective against things that attack plants – including insects.

          Since the 1950’s, we’ve had BT or Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacterium, that is effective only against moths and butterflies and their voracious caterpillars. This is important because it doesn’t harm beneficial insects or mammals and because it is organic, BT has been used by organic farmers around the world with no problems of resistance by insects. Every garden store carries it.

          Recently, BT toxin has been genetically engineered by Monsanto and inserted into corn, cotton and soybeans. This toxin is persistent in the plant for a long time unlike the bacterium, which breaks down rapidly under sunlight and the elements. Like most overused chemicals, insects are becoming resistant to BT especially when the BT crops are planted year after year. This takes a great tool away from the organic growers. There is also a question of what effect the toxins in the corn may have on animals and people.

          There are other BT strains that are specific against other insects like beetles and mosquitos. There are mosquitos dunks that can be tossed in ponds or even horse troughs that will not harm fish or animals.

          In 1985, Saccharopolyspora spinosa, also known as Spinosad, was a bacteria discovered by chance in a vat in a sugar rum mill in the Virgin Islands. It turned out to be an excellent insecticide on many insects and mites but not on aphids. It also is not toxic to animals. Captain Jack’s Deadbug is one available spray that says “for organic gardens” but is not actually registered OMRI (Organic Material Review Institute). That would be important if you needed to use registered organic materials. Monterey’s Garden Insect Spray with Spinosad is registered. There are many formulations of Spinosad including hose end sprays, ready-to-use and concentrates.

Spinosad is also used in Sluggo Plus with the Sluggo part killing slugs and snails and the Plus part killing earwigs, sow bugs, crickets and ants. Now you can kill those insects and snails without worrying about harming your pets since Sluggo contains Iron phosphate instead of Metaldehyde.

The only down side of Spinosad is that it is toxic to bees. Be sure not to use it when you have flowers that bees might visit. If you have fruit trees, let the fruit set and then spray.

There is also a product on the market called Serenade, which contains Bacillus subtilis, a soil-dwelling bacterium, that controls diseases like leaf spot, mildew, rust, black spot, fire blight and other diseases. It works well on tomato blight too but does not harm insects or animals. Serenade is being used commercially as well as by home owners and is OMRI certified. It can actually be used on the day of harvest. Serenade is available in a ready-to-use bottle or a concentrate.

So we really can let nature help us in the garden using billions of bacteria to fight our battles. Instead of being the helpless gardener, you can be the mighty general, directing your minions by spraying them on your plants to defeat insects and disease. You might want to keep the sound effects down in case your neighbor is watching however. He might not understand either why you are spraying bacteria all over your yard. Just tell him it’s a war out there and you never retreat!

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