Gardening is not for the faint of heart. It is one of the more nerve-wracking and rewarding tasks we can take on. Our heart flutters and mouth's salivate as that perfect tomato is nearly ready to be harvested. Our hearts have a tendency of sinking when birds, squirrels or other less cute critters beat us to it. The perfect amount of ripeness does not matter to the hungry stomachs of rabbits, as long as it is food!
Each yard or farm throughout the Valley (and the world) have its own set of challenges. Depending on where you live your challenge could be high winds, voles, deers, nasty little earwigs, or all of the above. It's never a good start to a day to have your mug of steaming coffee in hand, merrily heading out to the garden to see all the new wondrous growth to find *GASP* it being chomped to bits. I know for myself, I begin to see red. Those cute innocent bunnies do not seem very cute or innocent in that moment of utter disappointment. Yes, gardening is playing a game with nature and usually nature wins. No wonder people have resulted to poisons to get a leg up on the competition.
Using the toxic chemicals to combat every creature under the sun has it's own detrimental drawbacks. Take a step back and simply think on this, that same poison you are using to kill those mice is now being absorbed by the plants and you are eating that fruit. If you have pets or children, bags laying around or simply having it in the dirt can be deadly to them. Breathing in the chemicals as you spray, absorbing it through you skin is a heavy dose of carcinogenic. Let's be frank, we don't all buy coveralls and masks for a couple quick applications of these chemicals during the gardening season. We're not like the "professional" gardeners who work with this yuck day in and day out, right? Wrong. The wind blowing, you breathing it in, you kids breathing it in is not good for anybody. We are unfortunately in a world where our bodily systems are under attack each moment, from our food to our water to our environment. I am not a doctor or expert but I do believe in protecting the health of my family and myself wherever possible. There are other ways to garden that will not have the potentially deadly consequences of the more conventional methods.
Here at Sierra Flower Farm we are not certified organic but we do grow sustainably and only use organic products. We're growing all our flowers and starts in our tiny yard. This is the yard that my Houdini of a dog plays in (and eventually escapes from when he gets bored), where my kids dig in the dirt, and my cat lounges in the sun. This little backyard is more than grass and gardens; it is a sacred refuge for my family. I do not want to poison our little paradise. Besides all of those reasons, I have found working with nature and embracing the disappointments (while learning from them) result in better flowers and vegetables. Toxic chemicals are not needed to have a successful garden, and in fact, relying on synthetic chemicals can result in an even worse garden.
Writing about different methods and products can and have taken up books. You can google for hours and get sucked in by blogs of everyone’s “secret methods” and such. There is a lot of information on how to handle plants when problematic pests have become too much. There isn’t much information about preventative measures. In this post, I’m going to attempt to condense a lot of information about some early steps to take that will help combat garden pests. The best part is these steps don't require any kind of pesticide, organic or not! These steps will not prevent all pest problems but will give your garden a good head-start. This post is more directed to the health of the plants and to preventing problematic bugs. We will dive into the more furry and adorable garden pests in a a future blog post.
1. Build healthy soil
The first step in combatting garden pests is to have healthy soil and only transplant healthy plants into that soil. This may come across as obvious, but it does tend to get overlooked quite often. Getting a simple soil test can tell you a lot of where to start from. You can send in a soil sample or get a cheap kit from your local nursery to get started with. The simple kits will tell you the basics, the pH of you soil and the levels of vital elements needed (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potash). A soil that is not balanced creates a welcoming environment for garden pests to thrive in. Creating a balanced environment in your soil will attract beneficial insects, microbes, nematodes (the good ones), and bacteria. Nature is very good at checks and balances when provided the right nutrition.
Having a balanced soil is not just nutritionally but also texture wise. The goal is to build a loamy soil, it is the Holy Grail of the soil world. It will drain water well, but hold enough water, it will allow for healthy root growth, etc. When we originally tested our soil we found that it was incredibly alkaline and had high amount of potash. It pretty much lacked everything else. It is mineral rich due to the rocky/clay nature of our soil. We’ve been working the last three years on building up the health of our soil. It’s a work in progress to say the least, but each season it gets a little bit better. We’ve added aged manure, quality compost, and organic amendments (such as bat guano, feather meal, chicken poo- you know all those yummy treats!). Even with amended soil, plants are hungry (some more than others). Giving them a weekly foliar feeding of fish emulsion, kelp, and/or compost tea will keep plants healthier and more resilient of the garden pests. To learn more about the nutritional needs of plants please read our blog post “The Nitty Gritty on Plant Nutrition.”
2. Crop rotation
This can prove to be difficult in smaller gardens, but by rotating the different families of plants into different beds you can help diminish and avoid certain pests and diseases that have wintered over. For example, planting cabbage in the same soil as the year before, the overwintered cabbage worms will find their way to your new cabbage (and a lot sooner). Planting anything from the nightshade family into the same bed where a tomato plant had blight in the year before will infect your new plants. Also, some plants deplete the nutrition in the soil, while others actually add to it. By rotating the crops, you are keeping one type of plant from going hungry and other soil from becoming too rich (in a very simple way to put it). For example, sweet peas are really heavy feeders. They grow vigorously and take a lot of nitrogen to do that. If I were to plant them in the same spot year after year, even with amendments, they will not get the amount of nutrition they could have if I rotated them with crops that actually would add to the soil (such as legumes).
3. Start with healthy plants
Plant only the healthiest plants. . If you have a sickly plant, most likely planting it in the garden is not going to improve its health. A sickly plant can be harboring disease (think tomato blight, which lives in the soil for up to four years!), pests (ew…), and will actually send out distress signals (which attracts garden foes!). It is just not worth it. Growing heirloom varieties also helps. They have been handed down for generations, been open pollinated, have weathered different growing regions, pests, and diseases making them more resilient. They will not get wiped out by a certain bug or disease like some of the modern hybrid varieties would. Grow your own plants from quality seed or source local growers to buy plants from. Get to know your growers, ask them questions! See if their methods of growing provide you with your ideal product. Are they growing healthy plants that therefore are more disease and pest resistant? Or are they combatting these issues with chemicals that further weakens the plant? The products that have been sprayed on the transplants will inevitably be transplanted into your garden along with the plant. Some easy tell-tale signs of an unhappy plant are yellowing, wilting, spotting, pest track marks or eggs. Sure, people have successfully nurtured a sickly plant into a healthier one, but is the risk worth it? If you’re growing them yourself- be heartless. Only plant the champion seedlings. If you’re purchasing, be heartless. That is your hard-earned money, be selective. If that department store or nursery doesn’t have happy looking plants, move onto the next place.
4. Companion plant
A lot of bugs have quite the distaste for pungent herbs, such as mint, thyme, basil, oregano, and rosemary. Planting mint directly in the garden is most likely not the best idea but planting it in pots around the garden can help deter garden pests. There are also other benefits to planting certain herbs with certain vegetables. For example, planting basil with tomatoes is said to make them more flavorful. Not every herb and vegetable play nice, therefore, be sure to research the friends versus the foes before planting. Aside from herbs, FLOWERS. There are some amazing benefits to planting flowers in your vegetable patch. Not only do they bring beauty and pollinators, but they can also trap and deter the unwanted pests. French marigolds are an exemplary example of a protective flowers. Most insects do not like their pungent scent, and their roots act as traps for parasitic nematodes. In the southern states, French marigolds are often used as a cover crop and then tilled into the ground to help combat pests. Not only can flowers serve as to deter pests but they can also be used as a sacrificial crop. Nasturtiums is a great example of that, planting nasturtiums with your squash plants can help trap pests. Unfortunately, once they serve their purpose you cull them but that’s why it’s a sacrifice.
5. Inspect your plants daily
Check your plants daily for signs of pests. Look under the leaves and in the nooks and crannies of the plants. This is a tedious task but a necessary one. By checking the plants frequently, you can catch all the little buggers before they become A LOT of little buggers that become competition for the food or even worse, make your plant sickly. Last year I grew some beautiful swiss chard, it was time to harvest! When I began to harvest the leaves I noticed a blister looking thing on a lot of them, it didn't look appetizing. I popped it open and these gross wiggly worms came spewing out. I gagged, maybe shrieked a little, then fed the infected leaves to my chickens (the mamas loved it!). Naturally, I had to turn to Google. A leaf miner, I didn’t even know what a leaf-miner was! The track marks in the leaves and the eggs under the leaves looked the same. Of course, I caught them too late and only enough chard for one incredible pasta dish. Not only did the leaf miners (which are baby flies in my case but could be beetle or moth larvae as well) make the chard their home but quickly moved onto the spinach and orach! I learned my lesson, and this year I have been checking my orach even twice a day! Squash bugs were another problem, their population got out of hand very quickly! They are just the nastiest bugs and are tough to kill! The best way is to catch them early, and check under squash plant leaves and on stems for eggs. Some masking tape will become your best friend, just stick it to the eggs and they come off the plant easily without any damage or squishing the eggs between your fingers (ick!). Squash bugs and vine borers (yeah had those too, dirty little vine vampires!) love their "naughty time." They will not stop for anything and are not as speedy when (you know) leaving them vulnerable to the dish soap spray of death (recipe at the end of post). It was gross, the spray worked by suffocating them but to have to get up close and personal with them really tests your gag reflexes. If a population of a pest becomes out of control, then it’s time to cull the plant. It’s better to sacrifice one plant than to lose many.
6. Invest in a drip irrigation system
Lastly, it’s not really a “step” but more of a recommendation. Invest in a decent watering system, preferably drip. This will ensure that your plants get enough water to grow vigorously. The less stress on the plant, the less pest problems there will be. We live in the high desert, even though it's beautiful it is incredibly dry. Think of how often you need to put moisturizer on! Yes, the dryness of our area has an affect on plants too. By investing in a drip system you are eliminating water waste, avoiding stressing the plants out with overhead watering, and ensuring that the water will get deep to the roots on the plants.
There are many amazing non-toxic and organic options for pest control. In the next part we’ll dive into some organic pesticides and other gadgets that we have used with some pretty amazing results.
For now, here’s our favorite homemade recipe. We use this directly on squash bugs, earwigs, aphids, and even wasps. Be careful of spraying directly on the plant’s foliage (especially in the heat of the day) because it could burn the foliage.
All you need is: a spray bottle of your choice filled with water, a couple tablespoons of dawn dish soap (or organic castile soap), a tablespoon of cooking oil (such as olive oil). Shake it all up and spray away! This can help when you spy a few buggers but once the population gets a little out of hand this method can become senseless and other options will need to be explored.
I know this was a long post this time that had a ton of information! If you made it to the end of this you are one dedicated gardener!! Hope this helps you get started in your gardening adventure this season!