Do Do That Zoodoo

Step into a little corner of Seattle where Monarchs and Queens and Viceroys and Admirals will look you over, their curiosity punctuated by dark Commas and bright red Question Marks.

A thousand butterflies of more than 30 species flutter over your head, land on your arm and keep you spellbound in Woodland Park Zoo's "Butterflies and Blooms" exhibit.

They feed from brilliant nectar sources. Butterfly bush, heliotrope, yarrow and scores of other bright blooms flourish here. Not surprisingly, so does powdery mildew, that ugly fungus that disfigures leaves, flowers and fruit for every home gardener. It's a constant menace in the carefully enclosed, warm and humid environment.

Chemical fungicide? You've got to be kidding.

"We couldn't possibly," says horticulturist Barbara LeBrun, who oversees the exhibit. "Butterflies are supersensitive. It would destroy them."

Barbara and her gardening associates head off plant diseases with compost tea, once a week, twenty four gallons at a time. She soaks the plants—especially scabiosa, cosmos, verbena, all quite susceptible to powdery mildew—and drenches the soil. Sprayed on plants, the elixir of compost, aerated water and nutrients works magically against diseases like black spot, apple scab, tomato blight, and many more.

While powdery mildew is the main target here in butterfly land, experience has convinced LeBrun that compost tea is good for whatever ails a plant, even insect damage.

"The plants are just so much greener and more vigorous with the tea. You can ward off a lot of problems just by having a healthy plant."

Horticulturist Barbara LeBrun heads off powdery mildew in Woodland Park Zoo s Butterfly Dome. Barbara uses a backpack applicator to soak plants with compost tea.

Horticulturist Barbara LeBrun heads off powdery mildew in Woodland Park Zoo s Butterfly Dome. Barbara uses a backpack applicator to soak plants with compost tea.

The butterfly exhibit is one small piece of the Woodland Park Zoo's 90-acre domain, containing the most diverse plant mixture you could dream up, populated by an equally great mix of exotic animals, birds and insects. Nine thousand people check it out on a busy day. It has to look good. A lot of the wild animals (and some of the people) rub up against the plants. The landscape has to be poison-free.

That's E.J. Hook's challenge. He's the Landscape Supervisor. Follow him around for an hour, hear his enthusiasm for natural plant care, and you wonder why you might ever have considered using pesticides.

E.J. not only wants you to understand his craft, he insists on it. Bits of plant care philosophy fly off like ladybugs on the wing:

Plant disease?

"Compost tea to the rescue!"

Your favorite greenhouse plant overrun by insects?

"Dunk it in water, wait for the bugs to come up for air, then squish 'em.'"

Holes in the leaves of cabbage and broccoli plants?

"Tolerate, tolerate, tolerate!"

Tolerance is essential here. plant damage," E.J. says. "Some weeds, some aphids. That's all part of nature. We're not after exclusion, we're after control and management."

Total pest eradication wouldn't lead to a healthy garden, even if it were possible. The Zoo's landscape staff instead pursues balance. Balance between human desires and natural functions, and between different kinds of natural functions. You can't get such balance with pesticides.

Natural controls apply here, with two exceptions. First, the Zoo quarantines and "disinfects" newly-arrived exotic plants to eliminate any hitch-hiking insects that might get loose. Also, the Woodland Park Rose Garden gets a periodic dose of sparingly applied chemical fungicides. "This is one of only two dozen All-America test gardens for roses," E.J. explains. "People expect it to look exceptional."

It does look great, but E.J. wishes it could all be done with natural controls. "We'd love to use

These warm, humid conditions are conducive to dozing butterflies (as well as powdery mildew).

'Count on some compost tea here in the rose garden but we haven't figured out how to make our labor resources match up with what we want the roses to be. We just don't have the manpower to keep mixing and spraying it on five thousand roses."

E.J. and his crew do use compost tea wherever they can. The Zoo has an unending supply of raw material, from elephants, zebras, and giraffes. Tons of their byproducts are stacked in a dozen huge mounds in the zoo-doo yard. From the freshest to the ripest, the manure is systematically turned, stirred and re-stacked every two weeks. That process creates a huge pile of deep brown, crumbly compost that looks good enough to eat (well, almost).

From one of the middle mounds, part way through the natural digestion process, E.J. shows us how to find the best material for compost tea. "You look for the white fungus clinging to the plant material," he explains as he digs into the pile. "It means the beneficial organisms are at work, creating compost. You get 'em while they're at their most active, and that's the basis of your compost tea."

Unlike E.J. Hook, you can choose whether or not to use chemicals on your home garden. But he says it's a choice you should never have to make. He suggests that you think instead about ways to change your garden.

"Don't start by asking'What's the least toxic approach,' but by asking what the real problem is. If you have areas of your garden where you regularly have to go in and add water or pesticides, or weed-weed-weed, maybe you need to change that area of your garden. Could be the wrong plants are growing there."

"Look at the location, variety, and so forth," he suggests. "And make all the other decisions based on that. Then you shouldn't even have to consider using pesticides."

Thousands of delicate butterflies show that E.J.'s approach has a lot going for it.

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