“We kill all the caterpillars and complain that there are no butterflies”
― John Marsden, The Dead of Night
When people think of pests in their backyards, most will think of ever-hungry caterpillars, swarms of locusts, or aphids on your roses. I have pests most of the year round in my food producing backyard garden, though most of them don’t have wings or six pairs of legs. Our most destructive pests are our bored five and seven-year children with sticks. The freshly planted seedlings get up-rooted, all of the agapanthus lose their lovely heads and no green pea ever reaches maturity… Tempting though it is to reach for a pesticide, not really a legal option in this case.
In my research of organic methods of insect control, most of the suggested are certainly violent, often bordering on obscene. You have your standard vegetable dust (derris) which is touted and widely used as the preferred organic pest control method. I had used this without any guilt, up to the point when I discovered that the dust blocks the insect’s ability to breathe and they slowly suffocate. Some advocate drowning snail and slugs in stale beer. Or taking a bucket of methaylated spirits around with you, pulling off caterpillars and dropping them in the bucket to drown. Squashing, cutting, mangling…awful, awful ends to life.
We have a strict NO KILL policy in our garden. The kids are getting the hang of this now after many hours spent educating them about how important all the insects and animals are in our little backyard eco-system. The enthusiast dogs are not so easy to educate! Daisy (our Jack-Russell X) is a terribly efficient mouse and rat terminator. When you have a healthy backyard including a compost bin or two, rodents are inevitable. We don’t put any meat or dairy waste into the compost but they still like eating vegetable and fruit scraps. They all play their part in the system and after the initial ick factor, you do get used to them.
The best way to keep your garden healthy is to really be a part of your garden. You will be amazed at the big, complex world going on in your backyard (or front yard, or patio or whatever you have the space for). My family once spent a few hours looking for different species of lady-bugs in our garden. Maybe one or two, we guessed at the beginning. We discovered 15(!!) different types. Sit yourself down one day in your garden and just look closely and quietly. Incredible stuff.
Planting. I always plant some “sacrifice” plants in various parts of the yard which is often ones that we don’t like so much, but the bugs do. These include plants from the cabbage family and some others that I let go to seed purposely. These will naturally attract the most destructive bugs. This may entail some experimentation on your behalf, to note where they like to hang-out the most. I tried growing heirloom “Tigerella” tomatoes over many seasons but the Green Shield bugs wouldn’t leave them alone. I now grow this variety purely to keep them off my other tomatoes.
Compost. Consider having an open style compost bin. We have both an open version and a closed one (three growing boys make a lotta waste). Our open bin is just a few old car tyres stacked up beside the house, where it is too shady to grow anything. I throw plant clippings and some old cabbage/broccoli leaves/plants in there and I deposit the collected bugs there. That way they have some food and a way to get out if they wish.
Moving on. Another method is to take an empty bucket or container (No Metho, or beer, or anything else that they can drown painfully in) and carefully remove the caterpillars or other bug that you can spot. Take these to your ‘sacrifice’ plants or your open compost bin, depending on how many you have. Use gloves to do this as some hairy caterpillars can give you a nasty rash.
Trick ‘em. White cabbage moths, which look like white butterflies with black spots, will lay tonnes of eggs on your cabbage family plants (broccoli, bok choy, brussel sprouts etc) but you can trick them into thinking the plants are in a territory of other moths. Thread some of the white, Styrofoam peanut-shaped packing thingies (or cut out shapes from plastic containers) onto string and hang them above your plants. These look like other white moths have already taken those plants, and often encourages them to find somewhere else. Worth a try anyway.
Nice Predators. If you have aphids, you will probably have ladybugs in the vicinity. Most of the time they will migrate to the affected plants, however, if you find a plant covered in aphids and no lady-bugs, just take a look around for them else-where in your garden and carefully transfer a couple. I don’t know how they do it, but these freshly fed lady-bugs will soon send out the appropriate signals and others will come. I notice most aphid problems disappear after a few days.
Annoy them. My little boy loves looking for snails and big slugs which he calls “naked snails”. Our snails and slugs always seem to attack the freshly planted seedlings after a nice rain drop or too. We don’t use snail bait, firstly as they are dangerous to the kids and dogs, and as they are nasty to the snails. We use copper strips and saw-dust (along with the plastic barriers as detailed below) to stop them from getting into the beds. The copper gives them an annoying electric zap as they crawl across them and saw dust also irritates them. Be sure to use dust from non-treated wood as older-style treated wood can contain nasties like arsenic!
Distract them. Pill Bugs or slater beetles or roly poly bugs are the janitors of the garden, cleaning up all rotting fruit and vegetables. Sometimes they get a bit excited and eat stuff that you can use still. They love eating my ripe strawberries so I make sure that I pick them every day. Keep them distracted by leaving a few orange halves around your garden. They will flock to them. If you do find them eating something you don’t want them to, gently brush them off and give the fruit or veg a good wash before eating it.
Block them. We all have plastic bottles or cartons left over from juice/milk substitutes. Before putting these in your recycle bin, cut them into sections about 10-15 cms high. Simply cut through the middle section of the carton leaving a ring like section, open both top and bottom. Place these protective guards around your seedlings, pushing them a little way into the ground, until they are established. These will stop most slugs or snails getting to them. Make sure you take them off though as I have forgotten a couple in the past, on the large plants. Trickly to cut them off without damaging the plant stems. They will keep for many seasons as long as you wash well and store them out of the weather.
Build up. If at all possible, build your garden beds up with raised beds. We made ours out of second hand (imperfect) cement blocks which we picked up for just a few cents each. They have a lovely textured finish like bluestones and the slugs/snails don’t like crawling up them. Bonus: they are simple to keep weed free and are easy on your back. They are about 2 ½ feet high and you can overplant them to your heart’s content. Solves any rabbit issues too. Other products you can use are recycled tin, reclaimed wooden train sleepers, old bricks or whatever you can get your hands which is free or at least doesn’t cost too much $. Remember: one Person’s Garbage can be another person’s treasure…
Netting. Use netting to stop birds and bats from eating all of your fruit but make sure that they can see it (or hear it in the bat’s case). Add some old, shiny CDs to the netting that act as a further deterrent or warning. They also look pretty, reflecting light around the garden! Make sure you check your nets for any creatures that may have gotten stuck. Alternatively, if you are feeling generous, leave off the nets and share with your bird/bat friends.
A lot of pest control will be a bit of a hit & miss affair and require some experimentation. These are ways which I have found to work in my little patch of earth so I would encourage you to try these, and try out your own ideas. Just like most recipes can be turned Vegan, most problems in the garden can be solved cruelty-free. I would be happy to help out with any specific pest issues that you may be experiencing. Just drop me a line. I would love to hear any suggests that you may have too!
Happy organic gardening.
Cover image taken from Hyalophora Cecropia