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GARDENERS CHANGE TUNE TO HARMONIZE WITH NATURE

Living in harmony with nature seems to be developing as the dominant theme of gardening. The disposable era has made a 180-degree turn. The signs are everywhere.

Nurseries in this area advertise beneficial insects for sale. Praying mantises or ladybugs retail at $4.99 a container (about 1,500 baby ladybugs or 800 baby praying mantises). The nurseries also pay for the return of empty, plastic plant containers, offering 5 cents for the 1-gallon size to 50 cents for the 15-gallon.The public television station in Tempe, Ariz., recently had a three-hour program devoted to native or desert-adapted plants. The focus was on color and quick shade possible from drought-resistant, low-maintenance plants.

Xeriscaping, the use of such plant material, has become a buzzword in areas facing water shortages or rationing.

The latest national magazine of the Perennial Plant Association, a trade group, features an article by horticulturist Luren Springer of Denver, who says in part:

"The key to growing perennials successfully is to choose plants that will thrive in the climate where they are planted. Native plants are making inroads into our perennial palette. Many of these tolerate heat, humidity, drought and even hail with the greatest of ease. It's time hybridizers and plants people devoted more time to selecting and developing better strains of these, instead of the newest almost-white daylily, variegated hosta or huge bearded iris."

Toro Manufacturing Co. of Minneapolis has been promoting a "Don't Bag It, Compost It" program. The company says 20 percent of the solid waste generated in this country comes from grass clippings and tree leaves and claims compost from a typical yard can provide up to $100 of free humus, fertilizers and soil conditioners a year.

Toro, of course, like many other manufacturers, sells lawn mowers and other equipment designed for such recycling. But it wasn't too many years ago that talk of composting brought guffaws from many college horticulture instructors. One of my years-ago professors at Arizona State University, Vic Miller, was among the dissenters, saying, "If we would keep these materials on our own property, we probably would cut our landfill needs in half."

National companies catering to gardeners also have been taking pains to tell how they are working to preserve the environment. For example, Smith & Hawken of Mill Valley, Calif., which has offered first-rate equipment for years, includes this opening declaration in its new catalog: "We plant two trees for every one we use; we use recycled paper in our offices and our catalogs, and we sell only ecologically beneficial garden products."

A few years ago when my wife asked for an insectional soap at our area's largest nursery, the folks claimed they never had heard of the product. They recommended popular insecticides that kill beneficial as well as harmful insects. This spring the store featured the same soap (which relies on potassium salts to control insects from aphids to thrips) and a clerk told Virginia: "It certainly is a pleasure to see someone use something that isn't harmful to the environment."

It used to be fashionable to spray insecticides on a definite schedule. One of my outdated books, printed in 1939, even recommends spraying pesticides to kill lacewings. Now pesticide labels often recommend spraying only when pests are noticed and urge protection of beneficials.

Dave Langston, a University of Arizona entomologist, discussed the value of beneficial insects at a recent meeting of the Valley of the Sun Men's Garden Club in Phoenix. Many in his audience grew up in the spray-pesticides-on-schedule era. From the questions, his arguments made a strong impact.

He also cautioned against relying too much on beneficials and natural controls. Sometimes, he said, things will get out of hand and pesticides will be needed. As to the value of buying beneficials, Langston said when summer temperatures hit the 100s "the ladybugs fly away to the cooler mountain regions."