Gardens Alive

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The Gardens Alive!™ Story

Gardens Alive! is one of the country's leading mail order companies dedicated to biological control of garden pests. Sales are nationwide and the company traces its roots back to the early 1980's and the kitchen and garage of founder and President, Niles Kinerk.

In 1984, after many years of gardening as a hobby, and ten years experience in the direct mail industry, Niles started by testing a natural gardening catalog. After successfully testing, Gardens Alive! began in earnest in the fall of 1985 by renting space in Sunman, Indiana.

Six years later, in the fall of 1991, Gardens Alive! expanded into new space in a vacated Schenley Distillery in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. This facility has enabled Gardens Alive! to consolidate its growing operations of rearing beneficial insects, organic plant foods, and fostering research activities with leading universities and specialists in the field of biological control.

Gardens Alive! sells its products to home gardeners who are purchasing increasing amounts of organic products. To satisfy the increased interest in organic products, Gardens Alive! uses test plots and other research efforts to test products before selecting new items for the catalog.

The Gardens Alive! retail store was opened in 1992, mainly to provide a place for customers, who had received our catalog, to see our products in nicer surroundings than we have in our warehouse. (Of course, this also kept customers from being run over by fork trucks) The store, located in the Greendale Industrial Park, also allows us to sell "scratch and dent" merchandise from our mail order division.

Environmentally Responsible Products That Work

"Environmentalism wasn't a dirty word when I was growing up on the family farm in Yoder, Indiana. For all intents and purposes, it wasn't a word at all. This was back in the 1950s, in a kind of Lassie-come-home rural America. And though I was growing up in a typical, self-sufficient family farm rather than a corporate-owned agricultural business, we used all of the new miracle pesticides that the so-called "green revolution" had to offer. Fact is, we felt sorry for our neighbors who hadn't yet been so enlightened.

To us, the then-recent breakthroughs in chemical pest control and fertilization were little short of miraculous. They made everything seem so simple. Every problem had an answer. From borers in our corn to worked-out soil to parasites in our Poland China hogs, we had only to grab the right chemical. Every problem was distinctive, and there was a specific solution to each; it was a pie-in-the -sky promise of farming by the numbers!

It's no wonder, then, that we weren't fearful, or even cautious, about using these miracle chemicals. Let me give you an example, one that certainly wasn't as uncommon as you might think.

Something in the Air...

There was a drainage ditch on the farm that had to be kept clear of the kind of opportunistic plant life that thrives in such environments. We were modern farmers, so we solved the problem in a modern way. Namely, young Niles was sent out to drive a tractor along the borders of the ditch, mid-summer sun heavy on my back, and liberally douse the offending waterside vegetation with the contents of a 55-gallon drum of the miracle herbicide 2,4,5 T (which later evolved into the notorious Agent Orange). I was young, all alone under a scorching sky, and maybe a little bored. When the winds shifted occasionally, blowing the spray back my way, I lifted my face to the cooling liquid like a boy dancing beneath a lawn sprinkler. And it still gives me the shivers to remember that.

But I survived that chemical misadventure (and others) and my love for gardening, born when I helped my mother with the family vegetable plot as a very young child, survived as well. And then, in the early 1970s, out of simple curiosity and the openness of youth to new ideas, I picked up a copy of a strange little magazine called Organic Gardening. I wasn't far into its pages when the light bulbs started going off in my mind. What I had known by instinct, by observing nature all of my young life, suddenly became intellectually clear: Everything is interconnected. Despite what the "green revolution" promised, no problem exists independent of the systems surrounding it. In the words of the early environmental movement, I began to realize that you can never do just one thing.

It seems that when we first learn a new word or concept, we suddenly notice it everywhere around us though it seemed invisible before. My growing ecological awareness was fed by the public groundswell of environmental concern that occurred in the years following the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. I began to experiment with organic gardening methods, to see for myself which ones worked and which were combinations of folk tale and blind faith. And I quickly found that, though information about products to control pests and build your soil "naturally" was becoming more and more easy to come by, the products were not. Just identifying myself as an organic gardener to the clerks at the local nursery would usually earn me a chuckle, followed by some serious advice about whatever new product was guaranteed to do the job right.

And the fact is, as I learned through trial and error in my own gardens, some environmentally responsible products worked, and some didn't. I began to wish that someone would take on the job of sorting the eco-wheat from the eco-chaff, and making tested, organic products available to gardeners like me. It was a fairly short jump from wishing someone else would do the job to tackling it myself.

Working on "What Works"

I started Gardens Alive!, then called Natural Gardening Research Center, in 1984, and set about finding products that I could sell and that I believed in. Our first catalogs focused on such now commonplace but then hard to find products as Bacillus thuringiensis (a bacteria that targets specific pests but is harmless to birds, worms, wildlife, and people), rotenone (a natural pesticide derived from the roots of a tropical plant) and, as the concept of using insects to fight insects began to gain popularity, the first beneficial insect species that Gardens Alive! still sells today.

In 1988 we changed the name of the company to Gardens Alive! (try saying "Natural Gardening Research Center" three times fast), and we've continued to search out environmentally sound products that our customers couldn't find elsewhere. Products that work.

I discovered, for example, that a product called M-One, a form of Bacillus thuringiensis that specifically targets the Colorado potato beetle, was available to large scale growers but not in quantities suitable for backyard gardeners. Well, it took a year of negotiations, we had to purchase quantities far above the means of our little catalog to move them quickly, and we ended up filling bottles ourselves, using a hand-pump to empty the manufacturer's 5-gallon buckets, but we were able to offer our customers one more environmentally sound product that worked. (M-One has since evolved into an improved product called M-Trak, which we sell to this day!).

Sometime later I was attending a meeting of the Entomological Society of America. I was chatting with the head of the National Biocontrol Institute, when another gentleman walked up and asked what was to be done about the parasitoids that he claimed were carried by as much as 15% of the lady beetles being sold for pest control. Gardens Alive! had long championed lady beetles for pest management, and the notion that we might be shipping parasitoids that could hatch out and kill local ladybugs really took me aback. So much so that we began to look far more closely at our own beetle program. It took a good bit of time and money, but we eventually solved the problem and another, potentially bigger one, to boot.

You see, when lady beetles come out of hibernation (which is when they're usually shipped) their stored food reserves are all but depleted. Thus they arrive starving, and perhaps as many as 50% of them are too weak to feed themselves when they're released in our gardens. They starve to death in the midst of plenty.

We learned, too, that lady beetles have a strong flight urge after hibernating, a necessary adaptation as it spreads the population of these little predators out and lessens competition for food. Of course, gardeners that purchase lady beetles want them to stay put, to feast upon the aphids in that grower's own plot rather than in another garden miles away.

So, after a good bit of experimentation, we started feeding our lady beetles after they came out of hibernation, and doing so in cages that would allow them to fly and to fulfill their wanderlust imperative. And, of course, since this gave us a chance to observe the insects before shipping them, we were able to separate out the parasitized 15% before filling our customer's orders. We call the result our "Sta-home" lady beetles. They reach the garden strong, healthy, ready to feed, and content to settle down where they're put. No other supplier of lady beetles has invested the time and money necessary to ship well-fed, parasitoid-free insects. But we make sure our environmentally responsible products work.

And it's on that ground that I urge you to try some of our products on your lawn or garden. Not because they can help slow the turning of our groundwater into a toxic chemical soup (though you can consider that a bonus); and not because they're healthier for you, your family, your pets, and the birds and animals that share your little corner of the ecosystem (though most people would consider that a pretty potent added value); and not even because many of them will help you build a living, vital soil that helps your garden vegetables, flowers and lawn shrug off insect pests and diseases. No, we want you to try them to prove to yourself that they work, that quality, tested, environmentally sound products can match the chemical alternatives penny for penny and result for result. If you do, and prove to yourself that you can "do well by doing good," we all (including humans, plants, beneficial insects, pets and wildlife) come out on top.

And There's More

I've only touched upon a couple of items in the line of Gardens Alive! "environmentally responsible products that work." Whether you want to control fleas in your home, pests in your garden or moths on your fine woolens; whether you want to keep deer from destroying your landscape plants or want to raise spectacular roses without chemicals; or whether you're growing bulbs or vegetables or fruit trees or grass seed, Gardens Alive! has a product that will help you succeed without turning your garden, yard or home into a minefield of chemical worries, a product that can save your peace of mind and soothe your budget.

"Environmentally responsible products that work?" You bet, and it's about time!

-Niles Kinerk

Click here for the Gardens Alive Comprehensive Pest and Disease Guide



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