As I sat at a table with friends, the subject of my garden came up. One asked how I was able to garden successfully without the use of pesticides.
In the over four years gardening my 2,500+ square foot garden, I only used Sevin dust a couple of times and those were in the first two years, and on a few occasions have I needed to use organic BT spray for cabbage worms. Otherwise, I’ve managed to pull off growing a successful garden without using any pesticides.
I do believe some luck is involved, but I can point to four factors I believe have played a critical role in my lack of devastating pest problems.
A Healthy Beneficial Insect Population
Call me naïve, but I believe in the perfect garden, nature itself–when given an environment in which to thrive–takes care of pests. Most people ask me about aphids. I’ve never had a major problem with aphids, and the only thing I can point to is my healthy ladybug population. Ladybugs eat aphids and other pests.
But to grow a healthy ladybug population, chemicals can’t be applied to the garden. Those same chemicals–and even organic pesticides–that kill the bad bugs kill the good ones, too (which is why I NEVER use Sevin dust anymore).
I also let vegetables flower and go to seed, attracting beneficial insects. When a carrot, onion, cilantro, basil, or any other plant past its harvestable stage sends up a flower stalk, it may not look appealing, but if it attracts an army of beneficial insects, it stays.
In my mind, zero pesticides means that the good insects that prey on the bad ones can thrive and grow. Any good predator needs prey, right? If we get rid of all the bad bugs, the good ones won’t have any food, and when you need the good bugs the most, they’re nowhere to be found.
My goal is to have healthy plants that can withstand slight attacks from pests. To foster healthy plants, I only use organic fertilizer and work on feeding the soil rather than feeding the plants with synthetic fertilizers.
According to Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, gardens fed with chemical fertilizers aren’t as able to withstand attacks by pests as those grown under organic conditions.
I also work on creating an environment where the plants aren’t unduly stressed. For example, I mulch deeply in order to regulate moisture, which prevents drought stress during dry periods and moisture overload during wet ones.
A new approach I’ve learned to hasten the healthy growth of plants is to plant them at the optimal time. For example, I planted red beans shortly after the first frost passed. Just a row over, I planted green beans — with similar growth habit — a few weeks later. The red beans struggled with the fluctuating temperatures and rain, but the green beans grew larger than the earlier-planted red ones. It’s easy to tell which plant is more stressed.
There’s a lot of buzz in the garden world about certain plants repelling certain pests, but to my knowledge not much scientific evidence has been found to back it up. However, gardeners believe it.
I can’t say for certain, but I do know when I plant basil near my tomatoes, for example, I don’t have problems with the tomato hornworm. Marigolds are said to offer similar protection to tomatoes and other plants. My garden has had a plethora of marigolds the last two seasons since I let them self-seed each year.
Let the Scary Critters Stay
When I see a spider, I rejoice. I know they’re good for my garden and they are welcome there. If I see a snake, I get chills up my spine but as long as it is a harmless garden snake (which it always has been), it gets to stay, too. Toads are always a welcome sight in my garden, and I leave them alone. Spiders, snakes, and toads eat the enemies of my vegetables and fruits.
But, just one application of glyphosate (the active ingredient in Round-up) can decimate this important population.
When Bugs Get the Upper Hand
You must be wondering, then, do I not have any pest problems? Yes, I have had pest problems. My most significant problem has occurred at the hands of the squash vine borer, which has caused the death of every one of my squash, zucchini, and pumpkin plants the past four years. My hope each year is to get a good crop before it succumbs. I also plant several plantings throughout the season.
Squash bugs are always a nemesis, but frankly, if my squash plants can make it long enough before dying due to the squash vine borer to have an infestation of squash bugs, I consider that a win. Usually as the plant is dying, I’ll take the whole thing and give it to the chickens. They’re happy as can be eating the squash bug population on the plants.
I also had issues with the Colorado Potato Beetle my first two years. Hand-picking the beetles and squashing their eggs on the leaves by hand yielded the best results. The last two years I haven’t seen a beetle one. I’m still perplexed about that, but I’ll take it. My only thought is perhaps my large bird population gets hold of them before I see them.
It all comes down to accepting a some of damage for the greater benefit of the little ecosystem going on in my garden. The healthier my garden is, the more likely it will take care of itself.
Related: Ants on Your Plants?
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