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April 14, 2005

'Our Water Our World' Program
comes to Humboldt County


FROM TIME TO TIME, I'LL GET A NOTE from somebody who has a question about a problem with a plant they bought, or a pest they can't identify, or a disease they don't know how to handle. It's not easy to diagnose these kinds of problems by e-mail, so I usually suggest that they take the thing down to their favorite nursery and ask.

"Oh!" people will say. "I never thought to ask at the nursery!"Choose less toxic products! shelftalker art

I understand why somebody would be reluctant to ask for help at a store. Walk into an office superstore, for example, and try to find an employee who can help you figure out what kind of fax machine you need to buy if you want it to share a line with your home phone, or what kind of external DVD drive to buy for your ancient PC. Go ahead, I dare you.

But nurseries are different. There are a lot of hard-core plant lovers out there who have made satisfying careers for themselves working at nurseries. It's a great place for a retired landscaper or a master gardener program graduate to get a job. On a busy Saturday, a good-sized nursery is quite likely to have a fruit tree expert, a rose lover and a tomato farmer on hand. So go ahead, ask.

And the answers you'll get will be even better now, thanks to a new program called "Our Water Our World" that provides training to nursery staff and free literature on how to take care of common garden problems using less toxic methods. The program originally started in Contra Costa County as a way to reduce the runoff of garden and household chemicals into the waterways (thus the name), and then expanded to Marin and Palo Alto. Now, thanks to a state grant, it runs from the Oregon border to Santa Barbara. Annie Joseph, a consultant and trainer for the program, explained how it works.

"We go into nurseries and help them label the less toxic pesticides and fertilizers that they already have on their shelves. Now there's a label in nurseries all over the state that can help people figure out what are some less toxic alternatives they can buy."

She also provides nurseries with a rack of handouts on how to manage common home and garden problems like aphids, ants and spiders. Weed control, rose care and lawn care are some of the other topics covered.

But most importantly, she trains nursery staff so that they will know exactly how to recommend safer methods to control pests, diseases and weeds, and to keep plants healthy. "It was very exciting for me to come up to your area," she told me. "I found a real commitment in Humboldt County to these methods. None of the stores I approached turned me down. The management at each nursery really made time for the staff to come get trained."

The philosophy behind the "Our Water Our World" program is to start with the least toxic alternative and then add more heavy-duty solutions if it's absolutely necessary. In the case of aphids, for example, the first line of approach would be to knock the aphids off with a strong blast of water from the hose, or simply to squash them with your fingers. Planting flowers that attract beneficial predators like ladybugs would be a good first step as well. If that doesn't work, an insecticidal soap would be the next step. But even a less toxic product like insecticidal soap or horticultural oil should be used sparingly, she points out. "Just because something's organic, that doesn't mean you should spray it all over the yard. Use it sparingly, and only when you know you're targeting the pest it's designed to work on."

She also encourages the nursery staff to manage customers' expectations about organic or less toxic controls. "Take a pet-safe iron phosphate snail bait like Sluggo," she said. "The slug or snail will eat the bait and then go away and die. But you know this isn't a pleasant thing to say but customers like to see the body count. They want to use the product and then see all these dead snails around. So you have to let people know what to expect. And encourage them to tolerate a little pest damage."

Joseph trained staff at 14 nurseries, including Miller Farms, Mad River, Pierson's, most of the feed stores in the county, and Hensel's and Shafer's Ace Hardware. She's already gotten requests to come back and train more nurseries. "Your community in Humboldt County is very environmentally conscious already," she said. "The stores already have a wide variety of less toxic products. With your frequent rains and all the creeks and rivers, people are already concerned about nutrient runoff from fertilizers, so those slow-release organic fertilizers really make sense in your community."

Mary Barber at Miller Farms agrees. "We already offer a lot of these products," she told me, "and we use them to manage pests in the nursery, too. So now it's even easier to just peruse the aisles and find some better alternatives." Some of those alternatives come from Fox Farm Soil and Fertilizer Company in Arcata, whose owner, Willy Winer, said, "We do manufacture our products with an eye to environmental stewardship and conservation. The idea is not just to benefit the plant, but also the soil, and that includes making sure we don't damage the ecosystem, the waterways and the bay."

So look for the little blue labels in the nursery, and if you've got a question, by all means, ask the staff. You can also find out more about the program by visiting The program, by the way, also is sponsored by the Humboldt County Division of Environmental Health and the cities of Arcata, Eureka, Ferndale and Fortuna.

And speaking of good city programs, Fortuna is selling Earth Machine compost bins to Fortuna residents for the dirt cheap price of $25. Stop by City Hall or call 725-7615 to have one delivered. There will also be free composting workshops throughout the year, including one coming up on April 30. Call that same number to find out more.

There's also a compost festival at HSU's Campus Center for Appropriate Technology on May 1 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call 268-2225 for details.


garden-related announcements and news to Amy Stewart.


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