May is a tough month for gardening in the Valley. One day it nears Eighty-Degrees-Fahrenheit, and the next cold winds run rampant and freezing temperatures settle at night. To plant, or not to plant is the big question to ask. If you plant too late, you may never get tomatoes before the freezing temperatures return. You plant too soon; your garden may never have stood a chance. Following the local guidelines of not planting cold tender plants until after Carson Valley Days or when certain peaks have no snow is pretty helpful but being a stone throw’s distance from the Sierra Mountains, never guaranteed.
Wind, freezing temperatures, lack of nutrients, pest pressure (whether cuddly or icky alien looking kinds), there are a lot of elements to stress a plant out. A stressed out plant can quickly succumb to disease and buckle under the nibbles of bugs. Stressed plants will flower too early or not at all, it will set unhealthy fruit, if any. Not the results any grower wants! We want zucchinis coming out of our ears to the point even our neighbors are sick of zucchini bread! We want enough tomatoes that we can eat on our salads and can salsa for that midwinter taste of summer. With the limited window of growing cold sensitive crops, this makes it even more imperative to nurture them with foliar fertilizers, plant in healthy soil, only plant thriving transplants, and protect them from pests. This time we’re getting into the nitty gritty of some popular organic and non-toxic alternative pesticides.
Before diving into organic pesticides that can be purchased, I want to touch on some old fashioned methods. In the first part of this series I mentioned inspecting plants and removing eggs. When you go into your garden to inspect, have a bucket of soapy water with you along with the duct tape. If you are able to handpick the buggers off your plants, hopefully you won’t have to resort to any chemicals- natural or not. Simply because something is natural does not mean it does not have consequences to yourself, family, or beneficial insects. The organic pesticides I’ve listed below should be a last resort. With that said, I have researched and decided that when used correctly and respected these are not threatening to humans, fur babies, or beneficial insects. Treat them like you would any chemical. Cover up, glove up, lock the kids and animals inside while you’re spraying. Spray in the early morning hours before the bees wake up or at dusk when they’ve gone home for the day.
For a quick contact spray I like to make my own couple tablespoons of dish soap, cooking oil and water shaken up in a spray bottle. This is my go to on late night hunts in the garden for earwigs or taking out a wasp nest.
The best offense is a great defense:
Floating Row Covers
For certain buggers, really the best thing is healthy soil, some weed cloth, and row covers. This method can also help deter birds and other critters as well. Row covers are pretty inexpensive to make and you can get some fine meshed netting or invest in some light weight agribon. From transplant to harvest the plants can remain under this cover or until you feel the plant is big enough to handle itself or the pest problem is either past its prime or a non-issue. Even with row covers, I advise still checking your plants. Buggers are determined, so don’t assume it’s all taken care of.
Along with row cover I will mention using organza bags on individual blooms. Mainly, this method I reserve for my dahlias. Dahlias need to be fairly open before harvesting them, they do not open much once plucked from the plant. I have found all kinds of foes hidden in the security of the fluffy petals plus I don’t want them pollinated, thus the organza bags. This is time consuming and something I hope to work towards not needing to do, by creating a healthy thriving ecosystem in the garden!
This is another popular organic pesticide: to purchase beneficial predators. For example, ladybugs are amazing little vaccums and are pretty savage with aphids. Wasps are mean little suckers but they not only pollinate, they also love to chomp on some earwigs. Green lacewigs love to nom on some aphids, whiteflies, and leafhoppers. If you can spy a praying mantis, what luck! If you have a problematic bug, there’s a bug counterpart to that problem. There is some controversy surrounding this method, especially when you get into special ordering some combative buggers. Introducing insects from other regions is risky, they can bring in a new disease or can disrupt the natural environment. We prefer to attract the natural predators and create comfy environments for them to stay and do the dirty work for us. The lady bugs really saved us from an aphid infestation in the ranunculus patch last year! By naturally attracting the beneficial insects, there’s minimal risk of introducing disease and they can move onto the next yard when they’ve cleaned ours up. If you find yourself desolate of predatory insects and desperate, your local nursery would be the next best option. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions of where they source their beneficial insects.
How do we attract the beneficial insects? Well, they will find their food. The ladybugs quickly figured out we were a haven for aphids and they had cozy quarters in our flower beds. Plenty of shelter, water and food- they were happy campers! If they don’t have those necessities, they won’t stick around for long.
Neem oil is a concentrated oil derived from the seedss of the neem tree. This oil is a popular pesticide to use an an alternative of some of the other toxic choices on the market. It is safe to use around pets and children but as with anything don’t breathe it in if you can help it and wash skin immediately if it comes in contact. This product is best used early on in the garden as a preventative. Neem is considered the “blanket” organic pesticide, in that it targets many different insects. Neem is said to help prevent and eliminate aphids, whiteflies, scales, pill bugs, thrips, parasitic nematodes and bonus points it is also good as a fungicide. The compounds of Azadirachtin in the neem oil is what is targeting the pests. Its more than a simple poison, it actually messes with the buggers on a biological level, attacking their systems and confusing them. This makes the bugs not eat, drink, or mate. Sounds pretty good, huh? Neem oil is best used in fall and early spring, but can be used as a spot treatment as well. As with anything there are some downsides. First off, neem oil is pretty pungent. Spraying directly on flowers is not recommended. If the flowers are for cut flowers, they will hang on to that smell. If the flowers are to produce fruit, your fruit may hold the neem and then you’ll have tomatoes with a dash of neem flavor (bleh!). Also, if neem oil comes into contact with beneficial insects, it can impact them negatively. The best way to avoid this is to use neem during the seasons that the pollinators are not yet active. If you find yourself needing to use neem oil during the growing season, use it at dusk, before it gets too late and it sits on the foliage but after the pollinators have gone home for the day. By the time they become active again, the neem should have dried and therefore should not become problematic. Its also better to spray neem at this time, when the sunlight is not directly on it because it can burn the foliage. We’ve used neem and do prefer it as a preventative, we’ve also used it around ladybugs and have not had a problem- as long as we don’t directly spray them. This leads us to the next popular pest control: beneficial insects.
Spinosad is a concentration of bacteria that is already found in the soil. Nature is great at it’s own checks and balances, the manufacturers just take something naturally occurring and make it more potent. This bacteria attacks Spinosad is pretty much my best friend. It only affects the munchers and bugs that live on the plants. It attacks the nervous system of the bugs in all stages of life but has the most impact on larvae. It has minimal impact the beneficial pollinators and insects. Following the same protocol as the neem will help lessen any negative impacts on the beneficial insect populations. Spinosad breaks down in the sunlight and does not travel deep into the plant’s vascular system or into the soil (unless intentionally drenched into the soil). Pretty much where you spray on the plants, is where it stays (unlike some other products). Spinosad is used to combat earwigs, aphids, ants, mites, thrips, leafminers, roly poly bugs, cutworms, pill bugs and even mosquitos! We had some major battles with earwigs, they were so out of control and eating plants they weren’t even supposed to like! Going out with a flashlight and some dish-soap solution or diatomaceous earth got old fast, and we weren’t making any headway. Nothing worse than all your seedlings being chomped to bits or perfect blooms with nasty holes in them! We did some research, and invested in some “Sluggo Plus.” I’ll cover a little more on the “Sluggo” part in a bit but the “Plus” part was spinosad. It was a game changer! Sluggo plus is a natural, non-toxic, organic pelletized pesticide that you shake at night in your garden bed (while the soil is damp), it lasts about fifteen days and then breaks down into fertilizer for your plants. We also invested in some concentrated spinosad that you use as a foliar, we sprayed heavily in the fall and it has really knocked down the population that was to winter over. You also want to spray in early spring, then we begin the regime of every fifteen days. Spinosad is non toxic, but like everything, should not come in contact with skin or breathed in, especially around children. It’s not harmful but can cause skin irritation.
Iron phosphate is a non-toxic compound used to eradicate snails and slugs. The high levels of iron consumed by the snail or slug is the death sentence for the slimy garden foes. Iron is also an essential component for plants. It is safe and organic, plus it adds to the health of your soil! A popular (and the brand we love!) is Sluggo Plus. Its pelletized, you sprinkle on damp soil every couple weeks. Sprinkling at night is recommended, since the sluggers are more active at night. We used Sluggo plus, as previously mentioned, with great success.
Bacillus Thuringiensis var Kurstaki ( or B.T for short)
Oh caterpillars and cut worms. Moth babies. Those buggers are great at hiding and usually by the time you find them quite a bit of damage has been done. B.T is a bacteria naturally found in the soil and is concentrated. It is used to combat cutworms, tomato hornworms, and catepillars. It is a spore that has a crystal in it, when ingested by certain insects it creates a very alkaline environment in the digestive track which basically keeps them from producing stomach acid and blocks them. Death by constipation and stomach poisoning cannot be too pleasant. The good news is, this particular strain of B.T is harmless to humans, pets, and beneficial insects. It affects the moth and butterfly family and they must actually ingest it to be affected (so don’t worry about the future of the milkweed loving monarch larvae!). When using this product, spray either early in the morning or in the evening/dusk (much like when using neem or foliar spinosad).
PyGanic (Pyrethrin Concentrate)
Okay… this stuff is the big guns. When the Department of Agriculture guy came out to inspect our gardens (yes this has to happen) I picked his brain on pest control, since he was previously a flower and vegetable grower himself. He named PyGanic for the serious, desperate times.
This stuff is organic and is derived from chrysanthemum flowers. What?! A flower battling for other flowers! Yes, nature definitely has some amazing things! PyGanic can be applied even on harvest day and is safe to use around the the home. Always be sure to gear up and glove up when using this product, keep little humans and fur babies out of the treated areas for about twelve hours, this is according to PyGanic’s label. This is why we save it as the big guns. It affects over 100 different insects and it’s a contact spray without prejudice. Meaning, you do have to hit the bugs in order for them to be eliminated (unlike some of the other pesticides we’ve been discussing). We’ve used it on insect populations when they’ve been out of control, such as on those darn earwigs. I have also used it on aphids in the past, before the ladybugs entered the scene and took care of them for me.
Diatomaceous Earth (or DE)
Some people love it and swear but its effectiveness as a pesticide, others do not. I am personally in the camp of “do not” but I will cover a little bit about DE since it is a popular organic pesticide. DE is made up of fossilized diatoms. The idea is that critters that walk through it, digest it, or get covered by it basically get sliced and diced (inside and out). DE has been praised to be a pesticide for all kinds of bugger and parasites. Some make a foliar spray with it, others say that DE loses it’s effectiveness once wet. For the most part, my garden soil is always damp and I don’t want to apply and reapply. A common method is to “dust” your crops with DE. I have a few problems with this. It’s time consuming. The dusting covers the foliage and disrupts photosynthesis, which in our area that seems to get wildfire smoke much of summer, I don’t need the added disruption of photosynthesis. Perhaps not on a crucial level, but it blocks the sun. We live in a windy area- it’s not going to stay on long enough to even make an impact, with that said, kind of a waste of time. So it didn’t do its job and blocked some sun rays. Lastly and most crucially, that stuff is nasty to breathe in and is incredibly drying to your skin. If you decide to use it, you need to cover up, if will dry out your mucous membranes and your lungs! The last thing I want are little daggers in my lungs. Also, we live in the high desert- I don’t need anything else helping me to have dry skin. If you do want to try DE, use food grade that doesn’t have a bunch of filler added to it. If you have found success with DE, I applaud you but it just wasn’t cutting for our uses.
Combatting Peter Cottontail (and other fluffy critters)
Now there are pests that are cuddly and larger than aphids. Part of growing is playing nice with nature. There are poisons and trapping but if that can be avoided, I highly recommend it. It’s brutal (I do understand necessary at times) and your family’s pet can easily fall victim to those methods as well. The best solution is deterrence. Plant icky tasting and pungent crops around and throughout your garden such as rosemary. Invest in raised beds, netting, and fencing. It’s said that coyote urine or blood meal can deter bunnies and deer, research carefully and decide if attracting predators is a tradeoff you want to take. In the neighborhood we are in, there are a lot of feral cats. I have seen a glimpse of a mouse once, and never have seen a squirrel. Barn cats can have there uses, but you need to be prepared to care for a cat in the long run. Disrupting nests and tunnels can help. And if all else fails, people have had great success with container gardens, and it’s a lot cheaper to protect with some chicken wire and such!
This is a battle that we are currently facing with our new property and we will be experimenting and then sharing our methods, along with our results, with you! As of now, the bunnies are coveted by our girls to have them as pets but those bunnies are not so cute nibbling on our bale twine outlining our garden beds. Graham things he’s funny suggesting I plant extra chamomile for all of Peter Rabbits tummy aches!
Hope this gives you some confidence and tools to combat your garden pests with nature, rather than synthetic poisons.
Happy gardening and as always, I am looking forward to handing you blooms soon!
To help you out here are some Amazon links to the products we have personally ordered and used: