Search For The Answer
Click here to access our database of
Plant Answers
Search For The Picture
Click here to access the Google database of plants and insects

Milberger's Nursery and Landscaping
3920 North Loop 1604 E.
San Antonio, TX 78247

Open 9 to 6 Mon. through Sat.
and 10 to 5 on Sun.

Three exits east of 281, inside of 1604
Next to the Diamond Shamrock station
Please click map for more detailed map and driving directions.

Return to Gardening Columns Main Index

Ancient and Modern Day Pest Control

Many modern pest controls began in Socrates' garden. The ancient Greeks and Romans excelled in many endeavors besides philosophy, architecture, orgies and war. They also pioneered many agricultural practices that are used by farmers and gardeners today. In fact, ancient agriculturists developed many forms of pest control that provided a foundation for today's battle against plant pests.

Life on the farm was never as well documented as many other aspects of classical Greece and Rome. However, several writings remain from the ancient Mediterranean period. Products used by Greek and Roman farmers had to be derived from animals, plants, or minerals. They also needed to be easily obtainable. In addition to what may be loosely termed "chemical pest control methods", there were other remedies based on folk magic. However, ancient chemical controls of fungus diseases, weeds, insects, and rodents may be considered forerunners of modern pesticides.

Ancient farmers of the eastern Mediterranean grew cereal grains, fruit
and vegetables similar to our present crops. Not surprisingly, they were plagued by many of the same weeds—wild oats, burrs, nightshade, thistles, and bindweed; and insects—beetles, caterpillars, and locusts—that threaten crops today.

Crop protection was in the hands of the gods, according to the Greek writer, Xenophon. He wrote that men offered prayer for crops and asked the blessing of the gods. Farmers and gardeners today, of course, still heavily rely on celestial assistance.

Ancient husbandmen also practiced a peck of folk remedies to help rid their fields of pests. Hanging a crayfish or a mare's skull in the garden would deter caterpillar infestations. Worms (caterpillars) come in a variety of colors and shapes, but all of them damage plants by eating holes in leaves. They feed on most garden vegetables. Entire plants can be eaten by these caterpillars if they occur in large numbers. These can be easily controlled by using Dipel, Thuricide, Bio?Spray or Biological Worm Killer. These materials contain the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis that kills only caterpillars and does not harm beneficial insects. Good coverage and wetting upper and lower leaf surfaces are necessary for best control. To insure that wetting occurs, mix one teaspoon of a liquid detergent per gallon of spray.

Diseases of millet could be prevented, it was said, by toting a toad around a field at night—as long as the beast was later buried in the middle of that field. On a more scientific side, ancient agronomists discovered a relationship between leaf rust and damp growing conditions. To control mildew, they mixed ground?up roots and wild cucumber leaves with water and sprinkled the mixture on vines. To fight rust and fungus infestations, they used seed treatment and fumigation, including smoke. They burned straw, crabs, fish, dung, and animal horns in orchards and vineyards. Diseases of vegetable crops must be prevented, not cured. There are two main diseases that cause this disaster every spring. Early blight (Alternaria) and Septoria leaf spot are the culprits. Early blight is characterized by irregular and brown spots that first appear on older foliage. With age, the spots show concentric rings forming a target pattern. A yellow diffuse zone is formed around each spot. Although this fungus disease can be observed throughout the year, it is most common during the fruiting period. The more fruit a plant has, the more susceptible to and disastrous are the effects of an early blight infection. The fungus is favored by both high humidity and high temperatures. The only control is prevention that begins when the plant is transplanted. During periods of high humidity, which includes most of the spring, apply a fungicide weekly. The best fungicide to use is one containing chlorothalonil (Ortho Daconil or Fertilome Broad Spectrum Fungicide).

Varro can be credited with discovering the first chemical weed killer in the first century B.C. He noted that amurca made from crushed olives was toxic to ants, moles, and weeds. Further, whenever amurca flowed from olive oil presses, the ground became barren, although this was possibly due to salt being added to olives before they were pressed. In any case, Varro began recommending amurca application for all noxious weeds. Amurca was the base ingredient for many pest remedies. It was usually boiled in copper vessels and often mixed with salt. Both copper and salt have pesticidal properties. Amurca was used to fight insects as well as weeds. Palladius wrote of mixing amurca and extracts of cucumber or lupins spiked with urine to knock caterpillars off cabbage.

Virgil mentions the beginnings of a systematic approach to weed control—that of burning cereal stubble after harvest to cook weed seeds. In the fourth century B.C., Theophrastus noted that certain weeds were associated with specific crops. The phenomenon is akin to allelopathy, or the ability of some plants to exude substances that are toxic to other plant species nearby. Today's weed scientists are incorporating allelopathy into weed control systems.

To battle the many insects that thrived in the mild Mediterranean climate, farmers used the juices of hemlock, lupin and squill, which packed a gladiator's kick when they were used as seed treatments. These and other plant species contain poisonous compounds that are capable of killing insects, larvae, and small animals, as well as certain non-target species such as people. To kill rats and mice that pilfered their granaries, Roman growers set out poison bait laced with hellebore, hycoyamus, hemlock or wild cucumber.

Some animal fats also have insecticidal properties, so Corinthian orchard owners coated leaves with bear and goat fat. They also dipped pruning knives in animal fat to reduce the spread of bacterial and viral infection from tree to tree. Dedicated fruit growers sometimes sprinkled tree leaves with a cow?dung?and?water slurry to protect foliage from pests. Obviously this was the first use of foliar feeding via manure "tea".