Got bugs? Of course you do. If your garden is like most gardens, bugs abound, and this is not altogether a bad thing. Many invertebrates are actually beneficial for gardens. Worms till and aerate the soil. Bees pollinate our crops. Yet we do need to find ways to stop bugs from eating all of our prized vegetables. How can we do this while maintaining an organic garden?
Creating Diversity and Abundance Prevents Pest Damage
One of the first steps to controlling pests in the garden is not really a step at all. It’s more of a frame of mind. By creating a garden that embraces diversity, you will find that you attract all sorts of different bugs. Some will pollinate, some will till the soil, and some will damage specific types of plants. However, if you have a diverse garden, the damage will be less intense than if you grow a single crop.
Trap crops are also a clever strategy, if you have the space. Create abundance for the pests, and they will flock to it. Grow a crop or two that specifically attracts the pests, and grow this crop as a decoy. In an ideal world, your pests will move towards the desirable crop and will leave your desired vegetables alone.
Companion planting is an organic and no-spray solution that will set up your garden for success, all by using plants that work well with each other. Some plants are proficient at deterring pests, while others set up shop and attract hundreds of beneficial insects that each other bugs in the garden. Still other plants attract pollinators. Grow garlic, onions and pot marigolds liberally in the garden, since these plants deter many different kinds of pests. Borage repels worms from your tomatoes, while aromatic herbs like dill, rosemary, thyme and sage scare away pests that prey on plants in the cabbage family.
Companion plants often attract beneficial insects. Who are the beneficial insects? The most famous one is the ladybug, adored and even purchased by gardeners. Its alligator-like larvae munch voraciously on aphids. Other beneficial insects include the ichneumon wasp, which controls flies and beetles, and the syrphid or hoverfly, that little bee-like fly that darts around your garden. The hoverfly larvae feed on aphids and thrips, insects that eat plants.
Companion planting is an excellent way to grow vegetables that work well together. It requires a little bit of thought, but a little thought will avoid a lot of work in the vegetable garden. For more information, check out these pages on beneficial gardening insects and companion planting.
Block the Bugs: Row Covers and Netting
If you have a particular crop that is vulnerable to an air-borne disease or pest, row covers and netting may help stop the movement of this pest.
Row covers stop flying insects from laying their eggs on vulnerable plants. Choose a row cover that is made specifically for gardeners. This white fabric lets the light and rain in but keeps many of the bugs out. You can place the row cover on the ground or use arches of pipe to create a miniature tunnel over top of garden crops, so that the row cover is not lying directly on top of the crops. Anchor the cover with stakes or rocks so that it doesn’t blow away in the wind.
A floating net is a good choice when larger animals are the culprits in the garden. Garden birds are important pollinators and they eat insects that damage crops. However, they can also eat the crops. Choose a net with smaller holes that will not trap birds and other animals, and be prepared to check it regularly for animals. Alternatively, use the sounds of predators, spraying water, or brightly-colored whirling objects to scare the birds away.
Organic Pest Deterrents and Repellents
The best pest control is a judicious eye in the garden. Keep the soil healthy by using compost, manure, and organic fertilizers. This helps grow healthy, vigorous and pest-resistant plants. Find plants that are looking less healthy, and prune or pull these plants. Weak plants are more vulnerable to diseases. If you find plants that have attracted pests, remove or prune them.
Use spray-on pest control methods wisely. Any spray that deters pests may also damage soil life or beneficial insects. Synthetic pesticides are one of the worst offenders. Yes, they kill off pests, but it’s at the expense of the tiny animals in the soil, the ones that build the humus that feeds your plants. It’s also at the expense of the beneficial insects like ladybugs, the bugs that you don’t mean to target but are killed anyway. It’s best to move towards organic pest deterrents when a spray-on solution is required.
There are a number of commercially-available organic pest deterrents. One of the more promising organic methods is diatomaceous earth. The tiny particles in diatomaceous earth will kill the slugs and snails that love to munch on your lettuce and other leafy greens.
You can also make your own pest control at home. Oil and soap solutions will smother soft-bodied insects. Mix a spoonful of oil and a few drops of soap into water, and spray plants from top to bottom and bottom to top to smother insects. For fungal and mildew diseases, mix milk and water and spray it onto the plants that have been affected. A spoonful of oil, two of baking soda, and a few drops of soap mixed into water and sprayed on plants is a remedy for both invertebrates and fungal diseases.
Pest control is a gardener’s head game. When you see garden pests, what do you do? Take a close look at your garden and take a deep breath, and you’ll understand the role of pests in your garden ecosystem. By supporting the life of your soil and creating a healthy and diverse garden, you will reduce the vulnerability of your garden plants. Add companion plants and call the beneficial insects to your garden, and you have built-in pest control. After that, use physical pest control methods like row covers and organic sprays to address known pest problems. By treating pest control as a question that has multiple answers, you’ll find that your garden becomes a place where plants grow vigorously and invertebrates create their own ecosystem that balances itself, with a little help from the humans who live nearby.
Tricia Edgar loves her small garden. She is an organic gardener who is intrigued by permaculture, straw bale and cob building, and green roof design. She also runs a sustainable skills mentorship program.