Tricky question! My old vegetable garden in North Asheville was separated from my neighbor’s vegetable garden by a very thin line – a chain link fence which offered zero protection from pesticides. I think this neighbor gardened organically, but his neighbor definitely sprayed pesticides that I could detect in the air. It is frustrating to find that your tiny patch of earth is vulnerable to a neighbor’s pesticide applications.
You can’t dictate your neighbor’s agricultural practices, but you can take steps to buffer your garden and property from pesticide drift. Here are a few ideas:
Plant a wide buffer zone. Assuming you have enough space to plant – plant trees, shrubs, and perennials that will act as a buffer zone and capture or divert pesticide drift before it reaches your garden. Position your plants in a zigzag formation to maximize their ability to slow down any pesticides coming your way. You can also plant tall, fast-growing annuals and vines. In my old vegetable garden, I didn’t have room to plant a wide buffer zone, but I could have planted some sacrificial beans on the fence line. The beans would quickly grow into a curtain of protective vegetation. When planning, consider the mature height of any plants slated for your buffer zone. Don’t let the buffer zone block sunshine from your garden.
Consider a barrier. If financial resources allow, you could build a board fence between the farm field and your garden. Ideally, the fence would divert the pesticides. The fence would need to be at least six feet tall to be effective. Allow room for airflow around your garden plants to prevent disease issues.
Move the garden. Can you move the garden to another full sun location on your property? Can you situate the garden so that a structure like your house, barn, or garage acts like a fence to provide further protection for your garden? Place the garden as far from potential pesticide drift as possible in an area with full sun and good air flow.
Time your plantings. If your neighbor sprays every year around the middle of May (for instance), delay your garden planting for about a week to avoid any spray drift. Later, if it won’t compromise the quality of the crop, harvest a little early – before any predictable late summer sprays of insecticides, herbicides, or pesticides. Your neighbor may be willing to share his annual crop schedule with you.
Windy days are the worst. Pesticides sprayed on a still day are not as likely to affect your garden as those applied during a windy day. Most pesticides labels discourage application during windy conditions.
Talk to your neighbor. With a non-confrontational approach and considerable forethought about what to say and what not to say – you could speak respectfully with your neighbor about your garden and your concerns about pesticide exposure. You might mention that the small bodies of your children are more easily affected by pesticides than adult bodies. However the intricacies of human communication are often difficult to navigate and conversations of this type can easily backfire and actually make the situation more contentious. Proceed with caution if you take this approach.
Post a sign. Post a sign stating that your property is a pesticide free zone or a pollinator protection habitat. This can be helpful or can have the opposite effect of making the neighbors more cantankerous.
Legal precedents have been set on this issue. Tom Elmore sent me a fascinating article from Ecology Law Quarterly that discusses how various courts have ruled on issues of pesticide drift. Claims may be difficult for plaintiffs to prove, but some courts have ruled in favor of the plaintiff – usually under trespassing claims or nuisance claims.
Information of interest: The North Carolina Department of Agriculture recently announced a collaboration with a voluntary program called FieldWatch designed to improve communications between farmers and pesticide users. North Carolina is the fourteenth state to join this program. Specialty crop producers, organic farmers, beekeepers, and pesticide applicators can register to be included in, and have access to, a database set up to protect pesticide-sensitive areas by mapping out field and hive locations. Although this program is not meant for home gardeners, homeowners can support the program through donations. Home beekeepers may register their hives on this site.
Best wishes and good luck!
Gardeners: Got a question for Ruth? Email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, and local food advocate who wants to see organic farms proliferate and organic gardens in every yard. She serves on the Organic Growers School Board of Directors, and in her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.