Fewer things are more aggravating to a gardener than walking out to check the crops and finding some pest has destroyed the produce. This frustration is especially true if the goal is to live a sustainable, self-reliant lifestyle and you are depending on your garden as your main source of food (not to mention your peace of mind!). Here are some ways to fight back against garden pests without resorting to many chemicals and contraptions purchased at a store.
Insect Control: Plan A
There are many methods you can use to control insects. The most crucial point in avoiding insect problems is before you ever set anything in the ground. It is in the winter, before the planting season, when you are making the most important decisions about what to plant and where to plant it.
The first thing I think of when planning the garden is what insect problems I have run into in the past, and then I plan my seed and plant choices accordingly. For example, every other year, our farm is surrounded by soybean crops, and this tends to bring more problems with bean beetles. Our solution has been to plant royal burgundy bush beans, a variety that is resistant to bean beetles. While the plants do eventually get chewed on, the beetles tend to go for the nearby soybeans before finally deciding to try out the royal burgundy beans. This allows us time to get a few good harvests in before our beans start looking rough.
The royal burgundy beans are purple as they grow, but have no fear: they turn green when they are cooked. In fact, if you are preserving your green beans for later, the time that they change color while blanching is the perfect time to cool and freeze them— no timer needed. I have also dehydrated them with success.
Another way to circumvent insect infestations is to experiment with ideal planting times in your area. One thing we learned last year was that if we waited at least two weeks after our usual planting time (second week of May) to plant our summer squash, we missed a crucial step in the squash bug life cycle. Our zucchini and yellow squash had a much better chance of survival. We did get squash bugs later in the season, but our plants were much more mature and already producing prolifically and better able to handle the bugs. Let’s face it: by August, when you have zucchini coming out of your ears, losing a few zucchini plants is not nearly as terrible!
Keep in mind that it is a good idea to rotate your crops from year to year. This has been done since Biblical times, and it’s still a good idea. Planting the same type of plant in the same plot year after year not only leads to nutrient depletion in the soil (and in your food), but it can also weaken plants and make them more susceptible to insect invasions. Often, pests will lay their eggs in the area immediately near their favorite plant, ready to hatch and be fed easily in the spring. Rotating your crops makes it harder for juvenile bugs to find their food source.
Another consideration is that plant diseases may be resting in the soil you used last year, only to come revisit your same crop planted in the same spot this year. A diseased plant is much more prone to insect damage. Rotate your crops to reduce this risk. Don’t plant your tomatoes in the same spot you planted them last year. Instead, plant them on the opposite side of the garden. This applies to all annual garden plants. Keep a diagram of your garden from year to year to help you keep track of what is planted from one year to the next.
One of my favorite ways of controlling pests in the garden is with the use of companion planting. Certain plants with their characteristics and needs tend to mesh well with certain other plants. You can employ this technique using only vegetables, a mix of vegetables and flowers, or, if you want to get really fancy and gourmet, you can add herbs into the mix as well.
In addition to the mutual benefits of companion planting, mixing your plants also confuses and slows down insect pests. This is better than a monoculture setup, where one type of plant is grown over a large area, which puts the crop at greater risk of pests finding it and alerting the rest of their buddies to the party at your crop.
Depending on your garden setup, you may not want to plant perennials in your vegetable garden patch. I prefer to use mainly annual flowers and vegetables in the main garden, and have perennial plants elsewhere on the property. We tend to till every year, and we don’t want to go around too many patches in the main garden. However, if you employ no-till methods in your garden, you may not need to be concerned about putting in perennials.
Encourage Beneficial Insects
We all know that bees, butterflies, and ladybugs are good to have in the garden, but did you know that wasps (not yellow jackets) are good for keeping “bad” insect populations in check? Their methods range from hunting and killing certain insects, to the parasitic method of laying eggs on larva (such as tomato worms), which then hatch and feed off of the larva.
Encourage beneficial insects to your garden by planting the plants they love. Some good general plants to encourage beneficial insects would include: marigolds, zinnias, sunflowers, dill, fennel, potted plants from the mint family, and yarrow (again, in a pot). A warning: mint and yarrow will invade your garden if planted directly in the ground!
There are plenty on resources at your local library, bookstore, and online to find out more about what to plant for your particular insects.
Insect Control: Plan B
Even when you think you’ve planned everything perfectly, some insect pests will still show their faces in your garden. Here are a few ways to deal with them:
Seek and Destroy
The simplest means of taking care of many types of bugs is to go out in the morning, look at your plants to find the bugs, and manually remove and kill them. This works well with the likes of tomato worms (a tasty high-protein treat for your chickens, by the way), cabbage worms, and squash bugs, if you are fast enough.
For those bugs that love to run and hide at the first hint of danger, you can lay cardboard out in the garden the night before. The bugs will often run and hide under this and they will be easier to find and take care of. One other thing to take note of: if you notice bugs running under your mulch or other moveable material, you may want to remove it from around these plants. The fewer places they have to hide, the better.
Make Your Own Insect Spray
For insects that are too numerous to destroy by hand in a reasonable amount of time, or those that come out in the night while you are asleep, here are a few other options:
- Bug Juice. Some may be disgusted by this suggestion, but sometimes it’s the simplest solution. To make this, you will need an old blender and an old spray bottle. Collect one cup of the offending bug, add two cups of water, and blend to combine. Spray this on the plants that are having the bug problem, and those particular bugs are likely to run the other way.
- Plant Juice. Some plants, known for their insect-deterring qualities, can be used to make a “juice” as described above. Garlic is one of these plants, as are hot peppers and other nightshades. This might be something to try if you don’t have a spare blender to make the bug juice.
- Simple Soap and Water. For soft-bodied insects such as aphids or juvenile insects or newly laid eggs on your plants, a mixture of dish soap and water will often do the trick. Spray this only on the affected areas either early in the morning or in the evening, as direct and intense sun can harm your plant if the soap solution is still wet. This may need to be repeated. If eggs or insects have matured and hardened at all, this may not work.
Slugs: To Beer or Not to Beer? While not insects, slugs are still a garden pest. Slugs love beer. They also love rotting and diseased vegetation. If you have cleaned up what you can of the vegetation, now it’s time for the beer. Take an empty container, dig a hole in your garden near the slug problem area, insert the container into the hole and fill in around it with dirt, and pour a small amount of beer into the container. The slugs will find their way to the tasty treat and fall in to their demise. Remember to empty the container and refill the beer periodically.
If you don’t want to waste your beer on the slugs, another option would be to sprinkle fine gritty sand around your plants to deter the slugs from crawling across getting on your plants.
If you have access to them, barnyard fowl can be an aid in pest control. In addition, if you keep these birds on your property, you can use their manure to naturally supplement your garden.
Guinea fowl are most often recommended for bug control on rural properties. Guineas will hunt a bug down when they see it, will not peck your vegetables, and will eat some weeds and weed seeds. They need a safe place to sleep at night, away from predators. A few months of confinement in their “guinea house” should be enough to let them know where home is. After this confinement period, you can let them out during the day to do their work and expect them to return in the evening, when you can close them in for the night.
Chickens can also be good for pest control. I do not recommend allowing the chickens to roam free in the garden all day long, but I have been known to let them out of their run/chicken tractor in the evening about an hour or so before dusk and let them forage around. This works best when you are there to keep them from, say, your chard or other greens, which they can decimate in a matter of minutes. (Yes, I was pulled away from my chickens for fifteen minutes or so, and came back to a row of skeletonized chard stems!) I would hesitate to let them near your red-ripened tomatoes as well, unless you like your tomatoes pock-marked. Consider yourself warned.
Diatomaceous earth consists of the fossilized remains of diatoms, which are microscopic forms of algae. When diatomaceous earth is sprinkled in problem areas, and insects walk around in it, these tiny diatoms work their way into the shells of the insect and eventually grind the bug to death. I don’t recommend using this as a first resort pest control, as it will also kill beneficial insects such as ladybugs, bees, wasps, and butterflies. However, diatomaceous earth is a good option to sprinkle around your home if you are having ants invade your home.
Diatomaceous earth can be purchased at garden centers or even in the health-care supplement section of your big box store or vitamin store for a higher grade product in a smaller container. Be responsible and use a dust mask when applying diatomaceous earth, as you don’t want to be breathing that dust into your lungs.
Sometimes the pest in your garden is not an insect, but rather, an animal. Or it may be a family of animals. While a shotgun may be one solution (if you live in the country and don’t have close neighbors, that is), as is putting up an electric fence, here are a few other solutions to try first.
Plan A: Try the Classics
Scarecrows. Scarecrows will help deter many unwanted creatures in the garden, as long as the scent remains on the clothing on the scarecrow and it moves from time to time (both in location, and by parts of it moving when the wind blows).
Fake Predators. For birds and many small animals, a fake owl or toy snake may do the trick. Other toys may also work (such as plastic dinosaurs) if the eyes are realistic enough. As with the scarecrow, these will need to be moved periodically.
Bling. Reflective pie tins, cans, or old CDs or DVDs that are hung in such a way as to move in the wind are also an easy thing to use to scare animals away.
Physical Barriers. Installing netting over plants can be enough to keep birds from eating your berries and nearly ripened fruit on your trees. Chicken wire installed around plants can be effective to keep rabbits and ground hogs from eating your garden produce. This may not work for creatures that have more determination and a love of climbing, such as raccoons.
Plan B: Species-Specific Methods
Sometimes the classics get old and no longer do the trick. Here are a few methods organized according to each type of animal.
Deer and Rabbits. These creatures tend to shy away from places where human scent is prevalent. Human hair scattered around the perimeter of the garden or hung in onion or apple bags on posts around the garden will tend to deter deer and rabbits from the garden as well. Cut your kids’ hair and save the clippings, or ask a local hair salon if you can have a bag.
For the plants that the deer and rabbits are eating, you can make a puree of hot peppers and water and spray this around and on your plants. Alternatively, you can sprinkle cayenne pepper powder on your plants. When the animal takes a bite, they will be rewarded with the hot taste and should refrain from trying again. The application of the hot pepper will have to be repeated, as the spray will wash off in the rain and the powder will wash off or blow away over time.
Irish Spring soap, hung in mesh bags around the garden, is said to repel deer and rabbits as well.
Diggers. Whether your problem is with squirrels, possum, skunks, stray dogs, or some other annoying and destructive digger, there are a few simple measures you can use. The simplest is to put some chicken wire or old fence in the area around the plants. This will make digging harder for the critters to do, and hopefully they will find some other place to dig that doesn’t ruin your garden. Alternatively, you could use stepping stones, larger rocks, untreated lumber, or situate some heavier potted plants in the area.
Tunnelers. If moles and their like are tearing up your garden, you can go to the store and purchase a mole trap, or you can make your own. To make your own mole trap, take a full size coffee can and leave it outside for a few days to get human scent off of it. Put on your gardening gloves and grab a shovel or trowel and locate a mole tunnel. Dig a hole across the mole tunnel, deep enough to submerge your coffee can and have the rim flush along the bottom of the mole tunnel. Rub dirt all over the coffee can and position it in the hole, packing the dirt around it. Expose the mole tunnel about a foot on either side of your submerged coffee can, pack the bottom of the tunnel leading to the coffee can on both sides, and carefully cover the packed tunnel and coffee can area with a board. The moles should then go along in their existing tunnel, to the area near the coffee can, and fall in. Check it ever so often for moles and empty it far from your garden (but not in the neighbor’s yard, unless you have their permission).
Raccoons. These creatures can do significant damage in even one night, whether it be on your chickens or in your corn. They are very intelligent, and I find that you have to keep changing things up to scare them away….or else you will have to resort to the trap/shoot method. Many sources say to keep your area clean of any rotting foods, but for those who are into sustainable living and have a compost pile, this is often impossible to varmint-proof. And if you do manage to varmint-proof the compost pile, the raccoons will have more reason to go to your garden. Some methods to try before the trap/shoot method are: Motion-sensor lighting or sprinklers, leaving a radio on a talk radio station all night long, and sprinkling copious amounts of cayenne pepper in the area and on the plants they are drawn to.
Groundhogs and Other Annoying Creatures. We have some old outbuildings on part of our acreage that the local ground hogs find to be the perfect place to raise a family. They also saw fit to dig huge holes and tunnels on our property and help themselves to our garden plants. My husband thought he was doing well to shoot them and offer them up to the turkey buzzards, until one year we decided to try trapping them and then taking care of them. He simply found a place where the animals walked through the grass and set the live trap right into the trail. No bait. That year, we ended up trapping and disposing of fifteen ground hogs! That was many more than we knew were living on our property. We also caught a few raccoons and a possum. When you use a live trap, you have the option of relocating the animal you catch. Decide for yourself what the best option is for your situation.
Gardening can be grueling work, and sometimes fighting against pests can be more than a challenge. Regardless of these many challenges, gardening can be a very satisfying, rewarding way to provide for your family through the summer and into the winter months. Even if you don’t have access to a store or modern convenience, you can still find plenty of ways to fight back and help ensure a good harvest.
©2012 Off the Grid News