Imagine a world without cabbageworms, leafminers, or whiteflies… Or one without Sudden Oak Death, bacterial spot, or tomato yellow leaf curl… Such would be our gardens, had quarantines been in place and enforced sufficiently. Alas, it is not to be.
Imported plants that are not adequately inspected, nursery stock that is sold in spite of being infected or infested, and the use of grocery store produce to start a garden are responsible for a profound amount of damage to the environment. According to The Nature Conservancy, invasive species cost the U.S. economy $120 billion each year. The U.S. Forest Service echoes those figures, adding that 81 million acres of American soil are at risk due to these pests and diseases, and that 42% of threatened or endangered species are being pushed out by these invasives. Scale those figures down to the size of your garden and decide for yourself if it is worth the risk.
What is a quarantine?
To quarantine something means to keep it away from everything else, for a period of time, to avoid the spread of disease. In the world of plants, quarantines are used to halt the spread of diseases, pests, and other plants (weeds). In Italian, quarantina means 40 days and that’s where we get the idea behind quarantine. By isolating plants for 40 days, you are more likely to see signs of pests, diseases, or weeds, before exposing all of your other plants.
When to quarantine a plant?
Plants that are new, infected, or infested should be quarantined whenever possible. The easiest case, and the most useful, is when you bring a new plant home. As much as you want to add it to the landscape, 40 days in quarantine can prevent a whole lot of work later on. Plants new to your property can never be guaranteed disease-, pest-, or weed-free. Blithely adding it to your landscape may work out fine, or it may introduce a devastating disease that can stay in the soil for decades, introduce pests that you will have to battle every year forever after, or add even more weeds to your To Pull list. To avoid these risks, you can place new plants in quarantine until they have shown themselves to be safe for your garden or landscape. Containerized plants that develop problems are pretty easy to quarantine. Established plants are a bit more difficult.
How to quarantine
Ideally, new plants should be kept separate from all others for 40 days. This is especially true for houseplants, because there aren’t very many natural predators in your livingroom. This can be done by placing the latest addition in a different room, across the room, or in a clear plastic bag. The bag method is the most effective because it creates a barrier that you can see through. Established plants, such as fruit trees, are difficult, if not impossible to quarantine. In cases such as Citrus Greening, trees must be destroyed. If you suspect an invasive pest or disease in one of your established plants, contact your local County Extension Office for help.
Alternatives to quarantine
Some of us can’t (or won’t) invest 40 days of waiting before adding a new plant to the garden. When this is the case, use these tips to reduce the likelihood of problems:
Government mandated quarantines
In 1912, the Plant Quarantine Act was enacted, giving the U.S. government the right and responsibility of preventing the spread of pests and diseases through nursery stock and other plants. This act evolved into the Plant Protection Act of 2000. If you’ve ever driven across the California state line, you have seen the inspection stations and you may have been required to hand over an apple, a bag of green beans, or a butternut squash before being allowed in. From a visitor’s point of view, this Orwellian treatment may feel extreme, but it’s not. In fact, too many invasive pests and diseases are making their way around the globe because of too few precautions.
Grocery store produce
As tempting as it may be (I know, I’ve done it), do not use grocery store produce to seed your garden. Garlic, onions, and leeks look easy to start from your discards (and they are), but they can also carry fungal diseases that will never go away. Take a look at the current list of current quarantines in California to see some of the other vulnerable crops.
To quarantine or not to quarantine? That is the question. The answer is up to you. As you think it over, consider the fact that many pests can generate a surprising number of offspring pretty quickly. For example, a single aphid can turn into 600 billion descendants in a single season, according to entomologist Stephen A. Marshall.
Forty days of caution, or a lifetime of reactionary treatment…
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!