The products and potions lining the shelves of local nurseries and big box centers used to mesmerize me so much that it was as if I’d thrown the rational part of my brain onto the compost pile with the rotting squash rinds. Overpowered by the sights and smells of floral abundance nearby, I didn’t even think to question what was really in those packaged promises of gardening nirvana.
I can’t remember what finally activated my B.S. detector, but once it went on, many things smelled rotten, and it wasn’t just the contents of the bags of festering cow poo from industrial feedlots. Plenty of products billed as eco-friendly have negative impacts on our fellow species, either directly or indirectly. Some come from cruel operations that confine animals in cages and pollute the broader environment, while others contain ingredients harvested from fragile ecosystems that provide critical habitat for wildlife.
Rather than supporting exploitive industries or robbing distant ecosystems to improve our own, we can purchase more humanely manufactured items or, better yet, rely on materials we already have in our backyards. Here are just a few of the strange products of 20th century commodification that we’d do well to avoid in the 21st, along with tips for finding humane alternatives.
1. Predator Urine: Cruelty in a Bottle
Marketed by one company as “the all natural, organic and humane way” to defend garden borders from wild nibblers, bottled urine is anything but humane. The product comes from fur farms, says Mary Beth Sweetland, senior director of investigations and research at The Humane Society of the United States. Produced also for hunters as a way to hide human scent, the urine is collected from coyotes, foxes and other animals raised in wire cages. Earlier in her career, Sweetland was part of a 1990s investigation that captured sickening images of the animals’ pitiful lives, including a particularly haunting one of a fox with his right front leg bone exposed. To feed the animals, the company ground up live hens in wood chippers. “Nothing has changed insofar as how urine is collected,” says Sweetland. “It’s all from caged animals on fur farms.”
The best alternative? Adopt a dog and enlist her help in marking your territory, or make your project even more DIY. Every couple of weeks in the summer, I ask my husband to go on pee patrol—an effective way to protect Joe Pye weed and other plants from nibbling so they grow tall enough for the butterflies to enjoy. It may sound ridiculous, but isn’t it so much more sane than imprisoning wild animals and bottling up their waste products for interstate transport to unsuspecting consumers?
2. Mail-Order Ladybugs: A Not-So-Special Delivery
Those ladybugs billed as natural biocontrols for the home garden are vacuumed up from where they congregate in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. “If you’re an organic gardener, this goes against everything organics is about,” says entomologist Suzanne Wainwright-Evans, owner of Buglady Consulting, “because organics is about being good to the environment, being sustainable, being ecological.”
Though companies harvesting ladybugs claim there’s no real impact on the populations, “I don’t know if they have any science to back that up,” says Wainwright-Evans, who recalls one season when ladybug sellers ran out of their supply. “But just from a common sense standpoint, if you go to an ecological area and remove a major portion of the population or even 25, 30 percent, there is going to be some impact.”
And if you don’t already have the habitat to attract ladybugs, these voracious feeders aren’t likely to stick around anyway. Companies selling “conditioned” ladybugs claim to ship them ready to eat, having held them until they are practically starving, Wainwright-Evans says, “but how do they know when they get to that point?” Rather than importing animals to release in your garden, make a home for those already present in the region by adding wildflowers, shrubs and trees where many insect species can eat, reproduce, and provide natural balance.
3. Animal-Based Fertilizers: A Bloody Business
Many organic potting mixes and fertilizers sold en masse contain byproducts of slaughterhouses and industrial operations raising animals in intensive confinement. The lists of ingredients—bone meal, blood meal, feather meal, and pasteurized poultry poop—aren’t just nauseating to read. They can also sicken pets tempted to snack on them.
Yet you wouldn’t know it for all the corporate greenwashing. Marketers for the most visible brand promise a “simple, down-to-earth gardening” experience with soil made “simply from organic things.” Their green bags pair kitschy cartoon drawings with verbiage that sounds like it was adapted from the script of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure; on the packaging for blood meal, a devious-faced eggplant dons a cape above the promise of a “luscious way to feed your plants for bodacious blooms and vibrant color.”
A product summary on Home Depot’s site takes it one step further by warning consumers about what they’ll get if they don’t accept the pitch: “pale, sickly, lifeless gardens.” It’s an interesting assumption to make, as my free-of-slaughtered-animals garden is anything but lifeless, buzzing and humming with bees, butterflies, birds, and countless other organisms making their home here.
Rather than seeding the “bodacious blooms” we grow for butterflies among the sad remains of once-sentient beings who spent most of their short lives packed into dark warehouses and feedlots, here’s a better idea for reducing the waste and misery of factory farms: Don’t buy anything they’re selling. Nature knows what she’s doing, and plants grew for millennia without our help.
In fact, many native species such as purple lovegrass don’t fare as well in overly composted or fertilized soil. And vegetables proliferate among natural materials from our own gardens—namely compost and leaves that are all too often sent to the landfill. “Why waste those nutrients?” asks Jim Nardi, author of Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners. To enrich his gardens, he doesn’t go to the store; he shreds leaves gathered from neighbors and mixes them into the soil, adding food for millions of underground creatures and creating a far better substrate for root and water penetration than any bottled product could, whether organic or chemical-based. “You can add synthetic fertilizer, and you’ll add plenty of nutrients,” he says, “but it doesn’t do anything for the structure of the soil.”
4. Mystery Mulches: A Masquerade?
What’s in that mulch from the local big box center, and where did it come from? It’s hard to know for sure. Some bags could be filled with the wood of cut-up virgin forests that take centuries to regenerate. Despite efforts to limit the logging of mature bald cypress trees, these stalwarts of rich wetland ecosystems—which help control flooding and provide food and shelter for many wild species—still meet untimely ends as garden mulch.
Other mulch products may be filled with raw construction debris; cloaked in red and chocolate brown dyes, some could contain contaminants invisible to consumers blinded by the bright color choices. “That’s an example to me of sort of treating your yard like the inside of your house,” says William Cullina, executive director of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. “You have to kind of think about ecological function when you go outside too, and it’s beyond just the sort of color-of-the-rug decisions.”
Cullina recommends using soft-wood mulches that break open to reveal spongy insides with a dark color that matches the exterior, indicating the product has been composted. Mulch from local landfills is recycled and potentially more environmentally friendly, but, as Cullina notes, this recycled yard waste could still contain harmful mystery ingredients such as persistent pesticide residue: “The problem there, obviously, is you really have no idea what the people that rake up those leaves are putting on their lawns.”
Leaves, grass clippings, and shredded branches from your own yard—or from the yards of neighbors who avoid using chemicals—are the most effective and sustainable mulch, not only suppressing invasive plants and other weeds but providing nesting and foraging areas for birds, small mammals, frogs, toads, and insects.
5. No Re-Peats in the Canadian Bogs
Peat moss comes from sensitive wetlands that have evolved over thousands of years and provide habitat for rare flora and fauna. While industry marketers say they harvest only a fraction of the peatlands in Canada—and that restoration efforts post-harvest help the bogs regenerate—ecosystems are fundamentally altered by such disturbance. For a product that isn’t even as useful as the natural materials already in your own backyard, this scraping of the land seems especially wasteful. Often used inappropriately as mulch, peat moss in the garden dries out and blows away. Mixed into soil, it adds little to no nutrients. Compost and shredded leaves are much better alternatives.
It can be hard to avoid potting mixes containing peat moss, which is added to improve water- and air-holding capacity, but it’s possible to make your own or at least reduce your use of peat-based mix by blending it with compost. Many gardeners have tried coconut coir as an alternative, though the long-distance transport from overseas introduces other environmental issues. Cullina suggests peanut husks as a potentially sustainable alternative sourced closer to home—something I plan to try this year.
Do you have any other tips for alternatives to products that exploit animals or harm their habitats? Share them here!