The Trials And Tribulations Of A Landscape Horticulturist – To Spray Or Not To Spray – That Is The Question!

By Mick O’Brien MAIH RH, Profound Horticultural

The Author: Mick O’Brien in his element! Image/ Mick O’Brien

I remember over 20 years ago as a freshly qualified horticulturist – wide eyed and bushy tailed so to speak, I was eager, knowledgeable – and my god, I was motivated to get out there and carve out my mark. Unfortunately, back in those days, the award wage for a landscape or nursery worker position was low paid, so while I was still bushy tailed and motivated, I still had to feed my family and the reality kicked in as I dearly loved my new career path, but how can I sustain myself, and make a career?

The magic word here is – sustaining – indeed, the more I worked in the field the more I realised there was more call for herbicide and insecticide applications in programmed maintenance than the so-called sustainable approach. Back in the year 2000, I remember the teachings of the Integrated Pest Management Program strategies etched into my mind but unfortunately in the commercial landscape fields back then the solutions needed to be solved quickly and it is still a business model today in the paid contract environment.

Applying insecticides was not part of my aim and I certainly did not want a fulltime job spraying them as I was a nature lad who would always try and save any creatures and relocate them if they were in our way, but I do remember distinctly looking up at the sky while standing in the middle of a field wearing disposable overalls with a backpack spray unit loaded with chemicals on my back and spray wand in hand saying to myself – “Is this why I studied horticulture, to spray chemicals 8 hours a day?”

No chemicals needed here. Biocontrol happening in progress; ladybird beetle Harmonia conformis, feasting on Cowpea aphids on citrus! Image/ Mick O’Brien

Fast forward 20 years, my focus is on organic and sustainable solutions as much as possible including correct plant choices, initial soil building, using mulch that protects the roots, but which also accepts all irrigation applied, choosing the right plant for long term that will grow well and have a better chance to survive the environmental extremes such as drought, wind, or floods.

I do not recommend troublesome plants (plants known to be continuously needing attention in the subtropics) to most clients who neither seem to have the time or inclination to look after them.

“I can hear you thinking”, what is the difference between a sustainable horticulturist and a standard horticulturist?


Now here is a natural biocontrol agent, a spider web – totally enveloping and protecting this Cycas revoluta from the dreaded leaf destroying- Cycad blue moth- “Theclinesthes onycha” Image/ Mick O’Brien

Well in a nut shell, if one works for themselves in their own business they can offer advice and let their heart speak freely and make informed decisions based not only on the benefit of the plants health but take into consideration the importance of supporting our local endemic wildlife and offer long term solutions that may have a more subtle impact on the environment and perhaps turn down the jobs that go against your natural sustaining environmental beliefs – in comparison to my previous escapades 25 years ago, to do what you’re told and use and recommend chemicals and fertilisers to “add on sell” for your employer as first priority to boost sales.

Back home in the patch on Bribie Island, we have mostly sandy soils which have trouble holding on to moisture and much work is needed to improve our soils to become fertile and thriving with microbial life.

“Interestingly a comparison could be made to the cells in humans as we consume food. It is broken down and assimilated into our system via the gut, therefore the healthier nutritious foods we eat, the better chance of absorbing the necessary vitamins and minerals for us to function optimally, this is also regulated by acidity and our internal chemistry just like the soil food web.

Soil micro-organisms are readily available because atmospheric conditions are ideal in compost and have been broken down and assimilated with bacteria and various strands of fungi, which thrive with just the right amount of moisture and oxygen to allow soil life to replicate and flourish.

When we add this “magic breath of life” compost, to our own impoverished soils the microorganisms further decompose the organic matter to create humus, the worms also oxygenate heavy soils and incubate new soil life while providing nutrient dense castings which can be utilised by the plant roots as they tap into natural plant available minerals in the pore spaces.

The sprout of thriving life! Image/ Mick O’Brien

This is the first step in re-creating a sustainable landscape, by utilising a holistic approach to nourishing your soil and in turn creating balance and harmony in your garden, but it does not stop there.

We need to continue a program of organic principles with the intention of attracting as many earth worms to your patch as possible.

On the other side of the fence, the more chemical fertilisers and fungicides added to our soils can contribute to reduced earthworm activity and hence reduced fertility”. It pretty much hits the nail on the head for Sustainable gardening practices indeed!


Speaking of hitting the nail on the head! – I hereby name this new species: Yucca elephantipes- ‘Thieving Barstidious’- indeed!  My hat was stolen! Image/ Mick O’Brien



Leave a Reply