We’ve All Got ’Em
By Greg Peterson
Garden pests … we’ve all got ’em. The question is, what do we do about them? Over and over I have found two things that make the whole bugaboo less of a concern: soil and balance. First, build healthy soil. Healthy soil grows happy plants and happy plants are less susceptible to pests of all kinds. Healthy soil is composed of five important components and when one of them is missing … well, gardening is a huge challenge and is not fun.Dirt and organic material are the basis for good soil and perhaps the two most obvious ingredients. Dirt is decomposed rock that contains many of the micronutrients and minerals that plants need to thrive, while organic material is made up of sticks, leaves, compost and mulch. Organic material breaks down very quickly in our desert soils and needs to be added often. Air space and water are the next two items that contribute to the success of the garden. Highly compacted soil (dirt without air spaces) leaves no place for roots to venture, giving them no place to grow. Water, for obvious reasons, makes the whole process go. One caveat: Roots do not travel to find water—the water needs to come to them.
So what else could there be in healthy soil? In my humble opinion, the most important component for a successful garden is all of the living things that occupy the space … worms, bugs and a plethora of valuable microorganisms whose names I cannot pronounce and without which our gardens cannot thrive. This is where adding a chemical of any kind shortchanges the growing process. This leads to our next big issue … keeping your garden in balance. Nature brings a certain order and balance to our gardens. When we nurture this process, the success of our plantings is much greater. By adding harsh chemical fertilizers and pesticides, we are throwing nature off balance, making the environment more vulnerable to pests and other varmints. Adding lots of compost, which is rich in microbial life, supplementing with organic fertilizer and using only natural pest controls will take you a long way toward keeping your garden in balance.
So, you have been working on all this and you still get bugs … it happens. It’s only natural to want to repel those pesky predators that buzz around your head on a warm, sunny day, munch your tomatoes and/or sneak around the darkest corners of your home and garden. Unfortunately, most pest-control products on the market contain toxic chemicals. While they are highly effective at repelling insects, some doctors have recommended against exposing yourself or your children to them. Further, when pests bug your plants, spraying them with toxins leads to the possibility of ingesting those chemicals yourself later as you enjoy your garden salad. Plus, your children can absorb the toxins through their skin when they play in the yard or even indoors, where crawling toddlers are especially vulnerable to pesticides.
Home and garden pests are numerous. Here are the most common ones I have encountered in my garden and my suggestions for dealing with them.
• Aphids and other sucking bugs puncture the skin of your plants and suck on the juices. The first line of defense against this type of bug is spraying it off the plant with a strong burst of water. If it continues to appear, mix one teaspoon of natural dishwashing soap with a quart of water and spray it on the plants. Warning: Don’t use the antibacterial soaps, as agents in these soaps can kill the life in your soil.
• Caterpillars can also cause me fits in my garden. The simplest control method is to watch for the telltale signs of leaves being eaten, then look under the damaged leaf and pluck the caterpillars off. I then send them sailing to the coop, where the chickens get a morsel to fight over. If the caterpillars get really out of control, most nurseries sell a natural nontoxic bacteria called BT, which can be sprayed or dusted onto the plants and is very effective.
• Roaches and ants also pose a pesky problem both indoors and out. The most effective natural cockroach deterrent is boric acid, found at drug and hardware stores in the form of a powder. Mixing the boric acid with something the bugs like, such as honey, will attract them. They then consume the bait, take it back to their nests and the problem just seems to handle itself. I use bottle caps to mix this concoction in and then set them in corners of the yard and house and wait for them to work. Mixing garden-grade diatomaceous earth (which is unpolished) with boric acid and spreading it around your problem areas is also very effective. Diatomaceous earth is a fine powder with very sharp edges, which essentially cuts the bugs. Then the boric acid helps finish the job. Both of these substances are naturally occurring and, in the quantities you will use, are nontoxic to humans and animals.
• Birds are always an interesting pest to deal with in our gardens. Mostly they like to dig up the sprouting seeds of corn, beans and other large-seeded plants. The solution is to bury the seed farther down. I use my index finger to poke a hole (about three inches) into the ground and drop the seed in. The big seeds of corn and beans have no trouble getting through the soil and are hardier for their travels.
Additionally I save the old bed sheets and use them as a top mulch for the newly seeded garden beds. Plant your seeds spread the sheet with rocks on each corner. Then for the first 3 to 5 weeks water the sheet. The plants will let you know when it is time to remove it. This handles two issues - mulch and bird protection - in permaculture we call this “stacking functions.”
• Mosquitoes pose a pesky problem with few options for controlling them. The first thing to do is to peruse hidden areas in the yard for abandoned cups, buckets or toys that might accumulate water. Also change out your pet dishes frequently and dump those planter bottoms. All these areas collect enough water for mosquitoes to breed in.
If you are barbequing, throw some sage and rosemary on the coals to repel mosquitoes. There is also a great mosquito repellant from All-terrain called Herbal Armor. It is free of DEET and other chemicals, uses only natural ingredients and comes as lotion with SPF in it.
Pests come in many forms and this is by no means an all-inclusive list. The trick to managing them is to pay attention to what is going on in your garden. Experiment with these and some of the many other natural controls that are out there.