Tuning In To Nature is the title of a book by Philip S. Callahan, Ph.D. (a University of Arkansas grad). The book is about infrared radiation and insect communication systems, and it deals with how insects are equipped to search out and attack weak plants. The plants emit specific electromagnetic radiation frequencies and certain insects are tuned in and attracted to those plants. Those antennae on the male cercropia moth (shown below) are not there for decoration, but for the functional sensing. This whole concept is a logical step from what starts as one of the Laws of Nature. Stated succinctly, this Law says "The Default Position in Nature is Health." Putting it another way, "Plants are Designed to be Healthy."
So how does that Law fit with insects and disease? Is it insects and disease that cause plants to be unhealthy? No. Plants are unhealthy because of stress caused by toxins or by mineral/biological deficiencies, which are generally soil problems. Excess minerals can also act as toxins. With that stated, it makes sense that insect and disease are the symptoms, not the problems. In fact, the corollary to the Law is this: "Insects and disease are the Appropriate Response to the Existing Conditions." They are the garbage collectors, the cleanup crew, appropriately taking care of the weak and waste in biological systems. When we approach the growing of plants in this manner, we tune in to nature and begin to cooperate with nature rather than try to control it.
The take home, practical lesson from understanding this is very simple. Apply the Hippocratic oath: "First, do no harm." In practice, first and foremost, don't apply toxins to the plants or the soil. Second, strive to fix the soil mineral/biological deficiency conditions. We can see what happens if we do otherwise. By applying toxins (chemical pesticides), the plant/soil system is weakened and insects and disease appears. So then we apply more chemicals (toxins) to kill the insects and pathogens, and the vicious, downward cycle continues. It's what many folks in alternative agriculture refer to as rescue chemistry. There are thousands of acres under alternative systems to demonstrate that farming/gardening does not have to be done that way.
The insect and disease phenomenon, as described above, is one example where organic and conventional garden/farming are viewed differently. I know from much experience that the concept is new to many gardeners. If it strikes you as a new idea and different from how you have always viewed insects and diseases, I hope you give the topic some study and thought. Take some time to digest the significance. It is a well accepted concept in the eco-agriculture arena, the place where gentle-on-the-land, low input, and sustainable farming practices abound.
More than ever before, I am getting questions about how to get started in organic gardening. I suggest, that even without knowing all things you need to do, make a commitment and begin. Vow to NOT use the pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Next, start concentrating on creating a healthy soil. That may involve compost, raised beds, minimum tillage, cover crops, and natural fertilizers. The important thing is to get started. We have all made some mistakes, and will make more in the future, but do not let that deter you. One thing is certain. If you stick with it, the organic adventure will serve you and society very well. You will be surprised how you can improve your soil in a few short years. Ask me for advice if you need it.