Using chemicals in your garden is like using a hammer to swat a fly. It’s overkill. It’s also expensive. Giving up the chemical habit does not create more work for you, if you approach your garden as an ecosystem. Rather than killing off all the bugs, including micro-organisms that contribute to plant health, just to get rid of the pests, you can use old-timer techniques to manage the entire system.
One year, my garden became infested with large spiders. I’m afraid of spiders, so I was tempted to spray them. Yet, they were not harming the fruit or vegetables, so I left them. As it turned out, the late season brought swarms of grasshoppers, which were caught in the spider webs before they could devour my harvest. Had I used chemicals on the spiders, I would have lost everything to the grasshoppers.
To get the hang of chemical-free gardening, think of your garden as an ecosystem made of three layers. The underground layer supports plant health by hosting worms that aerate and fertilize the soil, and micro-organisms that release natural, helpful chemicals. The ground layer, which I like to call the mulch layer, protects and nourishes the garden. The top layer is the plant life that lives above ground, and encourages healthy insect activity.
The Underground Layer
Tilling is not the worst thing you can do to a garden, but it does upset the ecosystem by disrupting micro-communities and killing a lot of worms. The longer you manage your garden naturally, the better the soil composition, so that tilling becomes mostly irrelevant. When the soil is well-tended with compost and mulch, worm and insect activity does all the heavy-lifting for you.
If the soil is very compact, tilling the first year does more good than harm. Add at least a foot of mulch that year to help the soil establish healthy communities.
The Mulch Layer
The mulch layer is your trump card in the garden. Play it and you’ll win. Installing this layer is a lot of effort at the beginning of the season, but saves you hours of weeding and tending in the long run.
First, place layers of newspapers on the ground. Make it as thick as you like; alternatively, use cardboard. Spread grass clippings, compost, shredded office paper, even leftover popcorn from family movie night over the newspapers. The mulch must be at least three inches thick, and can be as deep as a foot.
Soak it thoroughly the first day, and keep it watered as needed. This layer conserves moisture, so you may not have to irrigate the garden until the spring and early summer rains subside.
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Besides walking on the mulch layer to tend to the plants, leave it intact. Turning it exposes weed seed, negating the whole point of installing the layer. Leaving it also allows putrefaction, which accelerates decomposition, thereby providing consistent nourishment to the underground layer.
Although the mulch layer keeps most of the weeds at bay, unwanted seeds will blow into the garden throughout the season. Since they are anchored in loose mulch, they will be easy to pull. Spraying vinegar on weeds also works, but there are reasons to avoid it if possible. First, vinegar can kill and repel your beneficial bugs. Secondly, many weeds will not die without two or three applications, which is two or three times the work of simply pulling them.
The Top Layer
The open area above ground presents some of your most difficult problems. Rodents will eat most fruits and vegetables they can reach. Cats will come in to prey on the rodents, and might end up deciding to roll all over your plants. Bugs and slugs will try to chew off all the leaves, or infest stalks. In some areas, even deer will get into a garden.
I repurpose five gallon buckets into barriers by sawing out the bottom. Tapping the buckets a few inches into the ground keeps some types of underground pests away, while the bucket protects the upper plant from rodents. Be certain to drill a few holes at ground level, so rainwater can drain out before drowning the plants.
About two times per week, spray your plants with a natural insect repellent. I steep several cloves of garlic and hot peppers in water, and spray onto the leaves and stalks when they are dry. Be careful about using the pepper spray too liberally. While it repels pests, it also repels your helper insects like ladybugs and bees. Use it only as necessary. Be willing to accepting a certain level of insect damage to your plants in order to support the good insects.
A common organic practice is to scatter crushed hot peppers throughout the garden to repel rodents and bugs. It works, but it also damages the overall health of the garden by crippling insect activity. Your plants need interaction with insects to survive and thrive. Crushed hot peppers can also burn your pets’ feet, and end up in their mouths or eyes. If you must sprinkle hot pepper, place it strategically to reduce harm to the ecosystem or animals.
By viewing your garden as a three-layer ecosystem, you will have more gardening success, year after year.
What gardening tips would you add? Tell us in the comments section below.