There is a rising interest in growing organic food here in the USA. There are number of things contributing to this interest, the biggest of which is the recession. People want to save some money and grow their own eats. But there are other concerns that drive the interest, too and these include the food scares we’ve had enough of over the past year, from Ecoli on peppers to salmonella in tomatoes. More people are concerned about the planet and trying to cut down on eating meat, which has been named as a big source of CO2 and methane and so are looking to grow their own, safer and greener, food. I am sure there are other concerns driving this trend, including my own which is simply to have inexpensive, safe, organic food for my vegan diet.
Along with growing organically comes the big concern of how to control pests and diseases. The preponderance of pests that eat up the garden and diseases that fell the best intentions are the sole reason why mankind created tons of chemicals that poison everyone to begin with. If we could just grow a healthy, productive garden by plugging in a seed and letting nature take it’s course, we wouldn’t be in such a quandary. But after years of trying, failing, succeeding and struggling with one garden after another, I can tell you that the bugs will come, the disease will appear and environmental factors will rear their ugly head and put an end to your veggie dreams. So how do you grow vegetables organically? It’s just not as easy as it seems, believe me.
What I am going to try to do in this post is touch the tip of the iceberg with some tips and solutions for common problems you will face when trying to start the organic garden. This will be the first of many posts to come throughout the summer, as the topic is huge and can’t be covered in a single article. But today I will give some basic tips on how to keep those bugs and diseases out of your veggie stash.
Organic pest control #1: Animals
Oh, I know, you haven’t even thought about this problem. Perhaps you live in an area where you don’t see many animals that are not someone’s pet. However, even in those areas where you don’t see the critters, they are there. Possums, skunks, rabbits and squirrels will run all over your garden when you’re not looking. There is nothing worse than finding harvested veggie plants in your garden when some unseen interloper did the harvesting. This is true, as well, of birds, who have no trouble eating seeds, nuts and small veggies you are trying to grow.
Creating a fencing barrier will help with animals like skunks and rabbits. Make the fence high enough that they can’t just step over it. Low crawling and hopping creatures can’t get over a fence easily. Raccoons love water, so pools and ponds will attract them. Birds also come to water sources and end up picking off your plants. Keep water away from your plant area and this includes buckets, barrels, bottles or bowls where you are storing rainwater for use. Just cover these water sources or move them away from the plants. Opossums come to food and this is any kind of food, even things you don’t think of. Cat food left out in a bowl on the patio, garbage bins that are not capped, food tossed in the grass after a bbq, bags of dog food kept in an outdoor storage area that is accessible. All of these food items will bring the opossum and other large scavengers. While they are there, they are not above snatching ripe tomatoes or fresh green peppers on the way out. Some of these animals actually dig holes in the area, causing the plants to uproot or get damaged. Keeping garbage tightly locked away and water sources covered at night can diminish the attraction to your yard.
Be wary of home remedies, such as placing moth balls around your garden. These products not only drive off unwanted pests but can end up killing the family cat or the neighbor’s dog. Common household items that are safe when used as they were intended should not be used around the lawn and garden. Without extensive knowledge of what you are using and how it might affect a large array of creatures, both human and animal, you are better off leaving these “remedies” alone. Better to choose an organic product specifically designed for the purpose and tested for safety. And always use these products as directed. Some ideas for products to consider are: 7 Million Live Beneficial Nematodes, Orange Guard Water Based Indoor/Outdoor Home Pest Control, Monterey Sluggo Snail & Slug Control For Organic Gardening, Safer Brand Caterpillar Killer With BT, Garden Safe All Natural Fungicide3, Safer Brand Insect Killing Soap and Safer Brand 3-In-1 Insect Control Organic Garden Spray.
Organic pest control #2: Bugs
This is going to be your largest problem of all. Bugs are everywhere and you will be surprised to find them where you did not expect them at all. In fact, you could spend the rest of your life trying to figure out how cucumber beetles found your yard when you’ve never grown a cucumber in your life before now. This will be useless. They will find the darn cucumbers no matter what and you must be ready for that.
The number of pests that can appear is mind boggling so it’s a good idea to get a printed guide to show you which is what before you start gardening. Some good guides I recommend are:
The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control, 1001 All-natural Secrets to a Pest-free Property, Natural Pest Control, Natural Enemies Handbook, The Gardener’s Bug Book: Earth-Safe Insect Control and The Organic Manual: Natural Gardening for the 21st Century. In fact, I am currently holding a copy of The Organic Gardeners Handbook (the first link) which I consider to be my bible and I could not imagine gardening without it. In fact, if you do not buy or consider buying any other guide, this is one you should not pass up.
Once you know what you are dealing with, the easier it is to find a solution to the problem. But be prepared to plant and replant seeds over and over again as some crops will be lost to the bugs. Have on hand some insecticidal soap or garlic spray just in case. I will give recipes for these handy pest controls at the bottom of this section.
Some plants have natural pest control properties: lavender will protect roses from aphids and radish will protect carrots from pests in the vegetable garden. Planting pennyroyal, mint or rue among the vegetables will drive off a lot of the hungry critters. I have used both rue and pennyroyal with great success. I have heard raves about mints. Mothballs are made from camphor and this is also a herb so consider adding camphor plants to the garden as well. Just fence it well enough to keep small animals out and teach your dogs and cats not to use the garden as a playpen.
There are also certain bugs you can purchase in bulk and release into the garden to effect a natural form of pest control. Ladybugs will eat up aphids, mealybugs, spider mites and scales. Lacewings eat just about anything. Ichneumon Wasps, which look like ordinary wasps, will predate on caterpillars, sawflies and beetle larvae. Hoverflies eat aphids. Ground Beetles eat slugs, snails, cutworms, cabbage root maggots, gypsy moths and caterpillars. Damsel Bugs eat aphids, leafhoppers, plant bugs, thrips and small caterpillars. Centepedes eat mites and insect larvae. Brachonid Wasps kill off codling moths, elm bark beetles, cabbageworms, hornworms, corn borers, armyworms, aphids and some flies. Big Eyed Bugs eat aphids, leafhoppers, plant bugs, spider mites and small caterpillars. Assassin Bugs eat all kinds of insects, including flies and caterpillars. In sheer desperation you can acquire Praying Mantid, which will eat anything and everything, including the “good bugs”. Only use these is you just can’t control the damage.
Of course, the kind of beneficial insect you acquire will depend on the type of crop you are growing or the kind of damage you have already witnessed.
Slugs are one of the worst decimators of the vegetable garden, eating the leaves, the stems and the fruit. They can single handedly chew your plants down to stubs in a few hours. I have always controlled mine with a simple home remedy: Cut a beer can in half and bury it up to the lip in the soil near the plants. If this is difficult, then cut a styrofoam or paper cup in half and bury it the same way. Fill the buried container half way with beer. The slugs crawl in, drink the stuff and drown. If the problem is too great or widespread for this simple method, then go the store, hunt down organic slug control pellets and spread them around. These will knock them off in a day or two, I guarantee.
This will take care of most bugs that crawl on the plants. Use it one a day during the infestation but no more than that. Use around the time when you are also watering, to keep the stuff from drying hard onto sensitive leaves and burning them.
Tbsp Vegetable Oil (any kind)
Tbsp Dish Soap (any kind)
Use a plastic spray bottle with a working nozzle. Add the vegetable oil and dish soap. Fill the remainder of the bottle with water. Shake well before using. Coat the leaves with the spray no more than once a day.
Homemade Garlic Spray:
This is a very strong insect control mix that will destroy your plants if it’s overdone or used too strong. Be careful to make it weak, like you would make compost tea.
3 oz minced Garlic Cloves
2 tsp Mineral Oil
1 Pint of Water
1/4 oz Liquid Dish Soap
Soak the garlic cloves in the mineral oil overnight. Add the water to a bowl or container and mix in the dish soap. Stir well and then add in the garlic and mineral oil. Let the mixture sit for an hour or so. Strain the garlic out of the mix and put the remaining water/oil/soap mix into a container. Use a spoonful at a time, mixing into a spray bottle filled with water. Test it on a few bottom leaves first to be sure they don’t get burned or die off. This may take a few days of watching to be sure. If they do get burned or die off then it is too strong and you need to lessen the amount of water/oil/soap mix you add to the bottle full of water. When it has been watered down and does not harm the leaves, use it daily but no more often. Spray full coverage on all the leaves and fruits when you do.
Organic pest control #3: Weeds
Weeds are the scourge of every garden and a lot of the work you do in the field will be attempting to rid of the weeds. This can be backbreaking, hard labor and it is in your best interest to set up your garden to be “weed free” or close to it when starting. This would include laying down mulch, including plastic mulch that is buried under the planted area; double digging to rid of weeds down to the roots; hoeing or hand digging to clear the area before planting; hand pulling visible weeds before planting the veggies. The best way I have found is to mulch heavily around the plants. The thick layer of mulch keeps weed seeds from germinating or finding sunlight, which makes them wilt. At the same time, it helps moisture retention and reduces soil erosion around your prized vegetables.
If you do get weeds, get down and pull them when they’re small, which means checking the garden every day. The smaller and fewer they are, the easier the job. If you wait until they are large with deep roots and when there are many of them, you will be hating how hard it is to clear them from the soil. A little bit every day is much better than a backbreaking job at the end of the month, believe me. If it comes to that, you might want to consider buying an organic weed control agent. Some products I might recommend include: Monterey Weed Impede All Nautral 2-In-1 Weed Killer/Control, Espoma Organic Earth-Tone 4-In-1 Weed Control, Organic Traditions Corn Gluten Weed Preventer and Weed Pharm.
I hope this little starter post helps get you off on the right foot and maybe even help if a problem has already taken hold of your garden. I will be posting more on this subject, as I said, throughout the summer. God bless all of you who have chosen to work with the land and grow your own special food. Good luck in your wonderful endeavor!