In what turned out to be a perfect metaphor for the rest of his life, Gerard Amerongen planted his first carrot seed when he was 12.
“What that tiny little seed turned into was just stunning to me,” says the grower in charge of the Muttart Conservatory’s arid pyramid.
“From then on, I was hooked on growing things, starting with vegetable gardens every year, which led to post-secondary horticulture studies and my work here at the Muttart for the last 7 years.”
The icing on his working world cake, he says, is the fascinating, intricate process of keeping on top of insect pests which, if not controlled, would within a few short months reduce the Muttart to a place that people wouldn’t want to visit.
In former times, growers would have resorted to strong pesticides to control plant-juice-sucking insects like aphids, mealy bugs, thrips, spider mites and white fly. But these days, the Muttart employs a range of non-chemical attacks in their Integrated Pest Management Program.
Growers prune succulent new growth to reduce the food supply that some of the bugs prefer. They tinker with heat and humidity to create a ‘cultural control’ that discourages bugs from flourishing.
As a rare last resort, they use very low-toxicity chemical treatments, but even though there is no effect whatsoever to the public, they prefer not to do this.
Gerard says that since the Muttart adopted the international ENVISO environmental standards, the Muttart has reduced its use of all kinds of pesticide by up to 70%.
‘By far the most fascinating method of controlling insect pests is through bio-controls, which involves the use of beneficial insects and organisms to control harmful insects,” he says.
“For example, we release ladybugs to eat aphids. We buy them from suppliers, then let children involved in programs release them. The kids just love doing it!”
Growers buy and release ‘good’ parasitic bugs like nearly-invisible wasps that feed specifically on certain kinds of insect pests. Finding the right parasitic insect often requires painstaking identification of the type of ‘bad’ bug they want to wipe out. They’ve even gone as far as importing ‘bios’ from Europe to control specific pests.
“The parasitic bugs either kill off the pest completely, thereby robbing themselves of a food source and dying off as a result, or they reduce the pest numbers to the point where the pest is no longer a threat, and there’s an equilibrium established,” says Gerard.
Bio-controls also can include benign forms of bacteria which attack specific pests, such as powdered Dipel which is mixed with water and sprayed at early in the morning to combat leaf-curl caterpillars. “By the time the public arrives at 10 am, the residue has dried, and there’s no effect at all on humans,” says Gerard.
Gerard almost can’t find words to describe the love he has for his work at the Muttart. Words like wonderful, fantastic, special and fascinating come up again and again.
And keeping the bugs at bay is one of the most ‘fantastic’ aspects of his work, he says.