Pacific Northwest | August 3, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineAugust 3, home
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Purging The Pests
The chemical-free Butterfly Conservation Garden is filled with plants to nurture and attract Northwest butterflies in all their life phases. Every Friday at 1 p.m., right outside the Butterflies and Blooms exhibit, zoo horticulture staff give talks on how to plant and care for an organic, butterfly-attracting garden.
Do what the zoo folks do: The simple stuff

INTEGRATED PEST MANAGEMENT sounds intimidatingly technical, perhaps most appropriate for professional horticulturists. Not so, I learned on a recent trip to the Woodland Park Zoo. Called IPM for short, this kind of pest control is nothing more than pursuing the least toxic solution first — as useful a concept for home gardeners as for those maintaining public grounds.

E.J. Hook, the zoo's lead horticulturist, describes IPM as simple common sense. "The driving force here at the zoo is all the visiting kids — we don't want to have to worry about any poisons," Hook says. He points out the north lawn, where thousands of people gather to sit and eat on the grass while listening to outdoor concerts. The smooth expanse of green is kept that way with a chemical-free regime of organic fertilizer, water and aeration.

Despite the fact he manages 92 acres visited by 6,000 to 9,000 people a day, Hook's concerns are similar to ours at home: how to make a garden that isn't too much trouble to care for, and do it safely. "It should become as self-sustaining as possible," says Hook. He has kindly taken a few minutes away from last-minute primping of the new jaguar exhibit to explain that no herbicides are used inside the exhibits, and only sparingly elsewhere on zoo grounds.

As we wander past elephants and emus, Hook explains the techniques used to plant and tend all these acres. It's clear he pays close attention to nature's rhythms and focuses on results rather than the science of it all, and the results are stunningly good. The plants serve not only to clothe the zoo in lush green and fragrance but also to immerse visitors in the animal's far-flung worlds, as well as screen views and muffle noise.

I ask Hook to enumerate the principles of IPM and how to apply them to home gardens. It sounds like the wisdom of the ages, too often overlooked in the rush for a quick fix from the store shelf:

Soil preparation is always the first step. Hook extols the idea of $10 soil and 10-cent plants as being the key to healthy landscapes. Only organic fertilizer is used. Hook points out the zoo's brewmaster, the guy responsible for making vats of compost tea from zoo doo and leaf mold. "Our bacterial count is off the charts," Hook says proudly of the rich residue that encouraged the cosmos in the Butterflies and Blooms exhibit to grow 8 feet tall last summer.
Illustration Now In Bloom
Ceanothus griseus horizontalis 'Diamond Heights' is nearly unrecognizable as a California lilac because instead of the small, dark-green leaves on other ceanothus, this new cultivar has bright chartreuse foliage accented with darker green variegation. It has the familiar pale blue flowers in springtime, though, as well as the need for full sun and well-drained soil. 'Diamond Heights' is a creeper, hugging the ground to grow just 12 inches high and 3 feet wide.
"It always goes back to thinking about what you're getting into before you put the plant into the ground. It's really just 'right plant, right place,' " says Hook, showing off a leafy bed surrounding a bench. Maintenance, irrigation and sun and shade conditions have all been considered, and mortar has been set between the rocks to prevent weeds from sprouting.

Weed control is so often the breaking point for gardeners. The key is to know your landscape and to balance resources with expectations. Zoo staffers plant thickly and mulch to discourage weeds, which are hand pulled when they do pop up. The swift hand pulling also keeps weeds from flowering so future generations can't take hold. Staff people are especially careful to get after true invasives such as bindweed. Hook zones the level of maintenance, differentiating between landscapes designed to be seen up close, such as those around signs and at viewpoints, and the "45-mile-an-hour landscape" on the bank facing Aurora Avenue. Close-up landscapes are hand weeded, while on the bank the staff just makes sure to whack them back before they go to seed. Little tricks help, such as weeding after it rains when stubborn roots are easier to coax from the soil.

Plants growing in good soil and supplied with adequate moisture and air circulation are sufficiently healthy to repel pests and diseases. "It's paying attention to all the simple stuff," says Hook.

Maybe integrated pest management is just a complicated phrase emphasizing the importance of paying attention and taking care. And it seems so much more rewarding to focus on plant needs instead of problems.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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