Some Thoughts on Responsible Gardening from Mr. Yuk

In the 40+ years that I have gardened, I have seen increases in the selection of plants, mulches, herbicides and pesticides available to home gardeners. I have also seen decreases in natural pollinators, increases in public health concerns regarding water pollution from herbicides and pesticides, increased information about invasive species, and changes in the demographics walking around gardens. All these changes have prompted me to propose the concept of “responsible gardening.”

As gardeners, we can be stewards of a small, personal patch of the earth. We can take our own actions to increase plants available to pollinators, butterflies and other beneficial insects, birds and other animals, while enjoying our own harvests of food and beauty. We can share this beauty with our family and neighbors.

For example, my garden is on a corner in a suburb without sidewalks. Many people and animals pass my garden on a daily basis. I’m delighted to see them enjoy the plants, birds and butterflies that are daily visitors to my garden. Strangers frequently comment to me on what they see, ask for names and samples of particular plants, and tell me that this garden gives them joy. Neighbors engage in discussions about plants, herbicides, pollinators (mason bees), and water pollution. My garden has become a focal point for community, and I am delighted.

Responsible gardening is making decisions that improve your stewardship of your personal garden, and at a minimum, do not contribute to the harm of anyone or anything in your community. Gardening decisions include your choice and placement of plants, use of herbicides and/or pesticides, and use of mulch. These choices can impact your community, and are addressed as questions and answers below. Websites are listed to encourage people to find more information on specific topics, and help people make informed decisions.

Plant Choices

What should I do with plants that are toxic to people and/or animals?

We grow poisonous plants because we enjoy their appearance or fragrance, their use as food (e.g. cherry – eat the fruit only), and their contributions to improving the physical conditions in our homes (shading, boosting humidity, moderating wind and providing privacy).

We should remember that adult humans, children, and animals do not always have the same responses to poisonous plants.

Inform yourself about toxic plants, using the Friends School Annual Sale catalog, the my other post on poisonous plants, and some of these web sites for information about toxicity to animals. Decide whether there are nontoxic plant alternatives that will satisfy you, and/or where your toxic plants can be safely placed (e.g. not on the boulevard).

Websites listing SAFE (nontoxic) plants for humans:
Ohio State University Non-Toxic Plants list (PDF)

Website listing SAFE (nontoxic) plants for animals: safe plants page safe plants page

Website listing TOXIC plants for animals: toxic plants page toxic plants page

What is meant by disease-resistance or disease-tolerance, and what plants do these terms apply to?

The term “disease-resistance” refers to the ability of a plant to escape infection by a particular plant disease-causing organism (pathogen). The term “disease-tolerance” refers to the ability of a plant to grow without severe symptoms of the disease that has infected it. In other words, these plants will produce a crop, regardless of any particular disease symptoms. Specific disease-resistance / tolerance / or susceptibility is genetic.

These terms are applied to economically important crops, such as tomatoes, grapes, cherries, etc.

Below are examples of some disease-resistance terminology for tomatoes.

V = Verticillium wilt disease
F = Fusarium wilt race I
FF = Fusarium wilt races I & II
N = Root know nematodes
T = Tobacco mosaic virus

A particular tomato cultivar with disease / pest resistance genes will be described as Cultivar (xx), e.g.: Roma (VF) is the Roma tomato. Roma is resistant to the tomato diseases Verticillium wilt disease and Fusarium wilt race I. If no information is provided, assume that the cultivar is either susceptible to everything, or has not been tested, e.g. Brandywine (none).

What if the plant I want to grow has not been evaluated for disease-resistance or susceptibility, or has been evaluated as disease-susceptible?

Many plants, including heirloom varieties of popular plants (such as tomatoes) have not been evaluated for disease responses. If you choose to plant these or identified susceptible varieties, just realize that they may become infected with a particular plant disease, which may reduce plant growth or your harvest. If your plants become infected, and you choose to use an herbicide or pesticide, you can impact water quality, pollinator populations, and possibly your own health.

I am planting a hummingbird and/or butterfly garden. Are there any things I should take into consideration regarding my plant choices?

There are many things to consider in creating a hummingbird and/or butterfly gardens. Some of these websites should be helpful:
Hummingbird Gardening guide (University of Wisconsin PDF)

Remember to check on the toxicity of particular recommended plants, if young children and/or pets can be exposed to these. For example, Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica) is a highly rated hummingbird nectar plant, but is toxic when eaten in large quantities.

What are “invasive species” and why should I care?

“An unofficial definition could be that an invasive species is a species that does not naturally occur in a specific area and whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” From

Invasive plants are plants that can thrive in regions outside their natural range, and can replace native species of plants. Examples in Minnesota include buckthorn and purple loosestrife.

You should care because invasive species crowd out native species and reduce the biodiversity of a region. You are aware of invasive animal species in Minnesota, including zebra mussels. The seeds of many invasive species can be spread by birds and animals, resulting in an increased distribution of the particular plant. Growing identified invasive species in your garden contributes to the spread of the invasive species, and is irresponsible.

You can learn more about invasive species at these websites:
Minnesota DNR

Products Available to Gardeners

Are there downsides to using herbicides and/or pesticides in my garden?

Herbicides and pesticides contribute to water pollution and a reduction in natural insect populations, including pollinators (bees and moths). If you have not harvested as much fruit or vegetables as you expected, it may well be due to a pesticide-caused reduction or elimination of a pollinator.

Are all garden mulches equal, except for their price?

  • Garden mulches are not equal in their impacts on the environment and/or dogs.
  • Rubber mulches are flammable, and they contribute to water pollution by leaching toxic chemicals.
  • Cocoa bean mulch is toxic, but attractive to dogs. Dogs eat the mulch and can be poisoned.

Mr. Yuk, AKA Sara Barsel, Ph.D., is a local scientist, educator, and passionate gardener. She volunteers for the Friends School Plant Sale as Mr. Yuk because she values the plant sale, maintaining healthy life forms, and responsible gardening.

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