Sisters and Associates throughout the Congregation are growing their own food. True to the mission to “care for Earth,” they are employing the use of alternative, environmentally-friendly pesticides and herbicides. Globally, conventional agriculture uses an increasing amount of toxic chemicals to fight weeds, pests, and diseases. While the chemicals may increase production in the short-term, they have a negative impact on the health of humans and the planet.

Sisters and Associates have gotten creative in finding organic ways to protect their crops. Denise Hibel, SCN, in Pittsburgh keeps birds from tearing at the stems of her young plants by putting steel cans around them. She uses grass clippings to mulch around her plants and dampen weed competition. Sister Denise puts vegetable and fruit peelings around her plants and then turns them into the soil at the end of the season as compost.

Sisters in Chandapura, India sprinkle wood ash on the leaves of plants to deter insects. The ash sucks the water out of the insects, which they do not like. Sisters also dilute neem tree oil with water and spray it on their plants. Neem oil contains a chemical which interferes with the normal life cycle of insects and mites, and also acts as a fungicide.

Sangeeta Ayithamattam, SCN, brought her knowledge of the effectiveness of neem oil to Sisters in the U.S. She mixes up a batch of neem oil spray for her tomatoes. Brenda Gonzales, SCN, and the Sisters in India plant marigolds in between rows of vegetables to deter unwanted insects.

Ray Patterson and his wife, Shirley Patterson, SCNA, who live in the Nazareth Villages, cull the plants that have suffered too much damage in an effort to minimize damage to other plants.

The Grounds Department at Nazareth, under the leadership of director Paul Haney and gardener Joshu Primer, use an array of alternative methods.They spray a citrus oil product on weeds that naturally strips away the waxy plant cuticle, causing it to dehydrate and die.They use several organic pesticides, including a neurotoxin derived from chrysanthemum plants.It kills beneficial and unwanted insects indiscriminately, so they are careful about the timing of when they use it on plants. Another pesticide contains a familiar ingredient: neem oil.To fight fungus, they use a product which boosts the plant’s own natural defenses to inhibit plant pathogens.

Haney says that all of these ‘tools’ are band aids.“The best defense against plant pests and disease is to optimize soil health.Once we optimize the soil’s balance of macro- and micro-nutrients, only then will the need for external controls like those mentioned above become largely unnecessary. Healthy soil is a curative for plants; if the soil is in optimum condition, then the plant’s health is optimal, thus its defenses against predation and pathogens are [maximized].”