Toby juggles words as ethical approach falls at first hurdle

Well I haven’t been around on the blog much recently, for which apologies. There just seems to be too many other things on the go at the moment. Thanks to all those people who listened to me as I read from my book Curious Incidents in the Garden at Night-time the other night in London and thanks very much to Helen Babbs of Look Both Ways for inviting me down to participate in such a lovely event. I’ve never read from my book before so it was a strange feeling to have people actually become quiet and listen. Apparently it was like a bed time reading – I only hope no one dropped off.

After I got back from London Garden News dropped on my door mat with a story headlined “‘It’s common sense to use pesticides’ says TV’s Toby”. Assuming that Toby was organic and ethical this came as quite a shock to me – especially as Toby used to write for Organic Gardening magazine (he dropped his regular column when he became head of Gardeners World).

I don’t want to pre-judge what Toby will do in the programme because quotes can often be miss-represented out of context but I think it is fundamentally wrong to suggest that using chemicals is a common sense approach – on so many levels. Not only is it harder to garden once you get into the cycle of using chemicals – because chemicals invariably kill off predators as well as pests and because pests become resistant to chemicals over a relatively small period of time – they are produced using a material that is running out – oil – at a high price to the environment in terms of CO2 emissions.

My hope is that Toby will explain these complex issues on TV, as he seems to be promising in his interviews. Common science – in comparison to common sense – is telling us that conventional agricultural and horticultural products are part of the problem and that we would all be better off learning how to sustain are gardens without resort to too many things bought from shops made from oil. Throughout the last century we have been taking – to steal a quote from presidential hopeful John McCain – a holiday from history. Our industrial and agricultural systems (along with the billions of people that rely on it) are all maintained because we have taken a credit note from the past (oil) and spent it today. This cannot go on. We have to find alternative ways of sustaining ourselves without using chemical pesticides and without spoiling our environment. Long term there is no other option.

Garden News article about pesticide use

This is the full article I wrote for Garden News magazine this week. Unfortunately during the editing process some key words got left out of the magazine article I submitted so I’m pleased to be able to put the full one up here complete with links. The key phrase that got left out was ‘higher than the 25 point mark’. As you read on you’ll notice how important this phrase is!

I’m sorry the blog hasn’t had much going on recently. Hope to get back into the swing of it next week when I get back from London. Remember the Look Both Ways gig on sunday (see previous blog) if you’re in Central London.

Best wishes




The Truth About Organic Gardening is the arresting title of a new book I ‘picked up’ whilst browsing the cyber shelves of an on-line bookstore recently. The books author – Jeff Gillman, a professor of horticultural science at the University of Minnesota in the US (though don’t let the US bit put you off) – answers a few questions I’ve been thinking about recently?


Namely: Is it better horticultural practice to follow a mixture of organic and non-organic techniques than remain a slavish devotee to one system or the other? Do ethical beliefs get in the way of practical common sense? If I wanted to use chemical controls (I don’t in case you’re wondering) are some safer to use than others? If I did use chemicals and wanted to reduce my dependence on the most dangerous could I switch to something less harmful?


What’s good about Jeff Gillman, apart from the clear easy to read writing style he uses, is his refusal to take one side or the other. He looks objectively at both systems and draws his conclusions from scientific study rather than ideological belief.


The good news for organic gardeners is that organics comes out on top on most counts as being a sensible, scientifically acceptable gardening practice, with many years of study backing up what people like me say in columns like these. What we do works, and it works for sound scientific reasons. There’s no muck and magic (as the saying used to go) about it.


The gist of his argument is that organic techniques such as composting, the use of green manures, cover crops and intercropping (something I’ll talk about in a future article), the emphasis on biodiversity, the use of natural predators and the design of sensible planting regimes where pest problems are avoided or much reduced are all good for gardening; they should be adopted by all gardeners, because they are more skilful, make gardening easier and provide better results.


So far so good! When it comes to the use of pesticides however he argues organic science has failed to deliver. In his opinion organic standards allow the use of some pretty harmful pesticides, some potentially more dangerous than the chemical alternatives.


Measuring the dangers of pesticides is complicated. To make it easier for us Jeff Gillman uses a scale devised in America called the Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQs). This measures the risk to the farm worker or gardener, the risk to the consumer and the risk to the environment of various pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Although we have different standards to the US the EIQs are good for making an at-a-glance comparison between different pesticides, helping you to make a sensible decision about which products you will buy. The higher the EIQ the more dangerous the product is. You wont find EIQ’s on product labels but you can get them from the internet (see below) or from Jeff’s book.


Under UK organic standards – organic gardeners are allowed to use Pyrethrum (EIQ of 18), Insecticidal soap (EIQ of 19), rapeseed oil (EIQ of 27.5), Bordeaux mixture (EIQ of 47.8), Sulphur (EIQ of 45.5) and up until this month Derris (EIQ of 33 although Gillman thinks it should have a higher (and therefore higher risk) rating). By comparison popular chemical controls include Glyphosate (EIQ of 15.3), 2, 4 D (EIQ between 15 and 20), imidacloprid (the active ingredient in Pravado Ultimate Bug Killer amongst others: EIQ of 34.9) and bifenthrin (the active ingredient in Bug Free and Bug Clear amongst others: EIQ of 87.8).


To give you an idea of how risky these products are Jeff Gillman suggests that you should shy away from using any pesticide that carries an EIQ higher than the 25 point mark – organic or not; and only use these once all other options have been exhausted.


And I suppose this is the point of good organic practice. It has a built in precautionary principle that non-organic styles do not: to use pesticides as a last resort. What Jeff Gillman’s book reinforces is the idea that we should not just switch from one bottle marked non organic to another marked organic but change our gardening habits from the ground up.


The Truth About Organic Gardening, Jeff Gillman


EIQ’s available from

List of approved pesticides from

Independent information about pesticide risk from The Pesticides Action Network,, 020 7065 0905.


Rare performance from yours truly…in London

I’m giving a very rare reading next week from my book Curious Incidents in the Garden at Night time. In fact so rare it has never happened before. Me being basically shy and all. So why now? Well, its part of an evening of arts and environment related stuff called Look Both Ways and having been invited by organisor Helen Babbs it only seemed polite to say yes. So there we are, put my best foot forward and join in. The event is in London – details below – a week next sunday so come along if you’re in the area and say hello. Its an amazing line up and from clips I’ve seen of previous events they’ve held I think it will be a really lovely evening.

an evening of artsy magic upstairs at the gorgeous Old Queen’

s Head

Sunday 21st September 2008
Upstairs at the Old Queen’

s Head, 44 Essex Road, London, N1 8LN

Angel tube
Doors 6pm, acts from 7.30pm

performances, projections, spoken word, music and more!

The growing line-up:

Elo-Mall Toomet: an outstanding poet visiting especially for Look Both Ways from Estonia

Allan Shepherd: the writer and gardener heads over from north Wales to read from his magical book ‘Curious Incidents in the Garden at Night-time’ 

Anthony Elvin: fabulous comic lounge pop that romances the ears

Jasmine Anne Cooray: Farrago Slam winning poet, Jasmine delivers spoken word that is perceptive and strong

Bethia Beadman: an enchanting songstress whose music charms the ears

Felisa Skibicki: an amazing voice that will be with us in spirit!

Vinnie Gibbons: a man of extraordinary imagination. Comedy and spoken word combine, you’

ll giggle!

Viko Montezuma: music from a man with a beautiful voice and beautiful vision.

Buffy and Bruno: trying to pin down the animal in ourselves, they knit words and guitar into strange shapes.

Carly and Martin: adding a touch of animation magic 

Monica: a short film, especially for us…we can’

t wait!

Offerings: a special treat of words, pictures and sounds for you to take away…

Check for the latest line-up

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