Dealing with pests in the garden can feel like an ongoing battle. Naturally you don’t want pests to destroy the crops that you’ve worked so hard to grow, but reaching for the bug spray is not a good option, and it’s ultimately self-defeating.
A bug spray massacres pests. That may sound like a solution, but the problem is it also wipes out the beneficial insects – your own private army – at the same time. With no predators and no existing pests, this creates a gap in your garden’s ecosystem for other pests to surge in unchecked, meaning you need to apply ever more pesticides just to keep on top of the problem.
When it comes to dealing with pests, a two-pronged organic approach is the most effective in the long term: protection and making the garden less appealing to pests.
1. Protect Your Crops
As most growers of cabbages, broccoli or other brassicas will know, defence is the best form of attack. No food gardener’s armoury is complete without a length of fine mesh netting. Not only can it be used to create protective tunnels for the likes of brassicas (for instance to exclude cabbage white butterflies), it can be turned into a vertical ‘fence’ at least 60cm (2ft) high and placed around crops to help foil low-fliers such as carrot fly. Horticultural fleece can also be used.
For more targeted protection, cabbage collars are used to prevent cabbage root flies from laying their eggs. To make a cabbage collar, simply slit a circle of thick cardboard to the middle then place it around a brassica plant’s stem at the soil line.
If codling moths on your apples are a problem, you can use sandwich bags to make the fruits inaccessible.
Pests can sometimes infiltrate your garden among the leaves or in the potting soil of shop-bought plants, so if you buy (or are given) young plants always check them carefully for signs of pests before introducing them to the garden.
If you’re regularly affected by a particular pest, it can be worth looking for early or late varieties of plants which may avoid becoming part of a pest’s rations if they’re not growing at the high-risk time.
2. Improve the Garden Environment
Many pest predators, such as hoverflies (syrphid flies) are also nectar lovers and pollinators, so grow battalions of flowers near – or even in – your vegetable patch. Also try trap-cropping using a pest’s favourite food to make your crops less appealing to them.
Make sure your garden provides year-round shelter for allies such as frogs, toads, insect-eating birds and beneficial insects such as ladybirds (ladybugs) and hoverflies. Simply leave some areas of your garden unmanicured, or you can install a bug hotel.
It is important to keep the immediate vicinity of your vegetable beds tidy. Compost any remaining plant debris from the beds once the crop is cleared to prevent pests hiding out under leaves or in dead stems, and give greenhouses and polytunnels a good clean once a year.
Practice crop rotation to help prevent a build-up of crop-specific pests in the soil, and if you have suffered from a soil-borne pest such as wireworm it’s a good idea to dig or at least disturb the top few inches of soil with a fork between crops – this will expose any grubs or other pests to insect-eating birds. Or, if you keep chickens let them search and destroy for you!
Healthy soil helps to make your plants strong enough to resist insect attacks, so add organic matter regularly – annually at the very least, and preferably more often. Mulching will also help to suppress weeds (which can sometimes harbour pests) while encouraging pest-munching ground beetles.
Hold your nerve, and if your predatory platoon of frogs, hoverflies, ladybirds and so on is in place, you can achieve, if not an outright conquest, then at least peaceable relations with all the inhabitants of your garden. In very extreme cases, if all else fails, use certified organic pest control products. It’s important to follow the instructions on the label very carefully.
Despite my tongue-in-cheek warfare references, it’s important to remember that we’re not really in a war against pests. A pest is just a creature that likes the same food we do, so show some tolerance, protect what crops you can, and use nature’s own balancing system to ensure your crop doesn’t get munched before you have time to harvest it. And don’t forget to report any pests you see at BigBugHunt.com.
What’s your favourite earth-friendly way to protect your garden from pests? Share it with us by leaving a comment below.