Can you really garden without pesticides?
Bugs in the garden can be a real challenge. But is reaching for a can of spray the best first choice? Organic gardening is a great idea, but can you really garden without pesticides?
Whether you have slugs sliming up all your lettuce, squash bugs sucking the life out of your cucurbits, or hornworms munching your tomatoes, there’s a lot you can do without pesticides.
There are many things to consider before you take drastic measures. Remember when you use spray, it kills more than just pests in the garden and it can be harmful for you and your family.
For a month by month garden planting guide, check here.
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Pesticides are harmful to beneficial insects such as pollinators that need protection. They also harm ladybugs and other bugs that eat the pests in the garden. If you disturb the balance and ecosystem, you can do more harm than good.
Healthy soils are full of life
Building healthy soil is the first step to fending off pests in the garden without pesticides. If the soil is healthy, it grows healthy plants. Healthy plants are not as appealing to pests. When plants are lacking in something they need, they emit chemicals that draw pests to them. So, the healthier your plants are, the fewer pests will approach them.
What is healthy soil
Healthy soil is full of microorganisms that protect plants. It’s also full of all the micro and macronutrients that plants need to grow optimally. Soil is alive, it’s teeming with life and soil health matters. For the dirty secrets to soil success, click here.
Plant the right plants for your climate. What grows in your area? You can’t try to plant okra in the north, it’s just not warm enough. You can’t grow onions in the summer in Oklahoma. Onions need cool weather. If you live on a windy plain, tomatoes may not be the best choice because the plants will always be battered by the wind.
Maybe you can plant some trees as a windbreak or some kind of fencing could be built.
Start with healthy plants. When you purchase seedlings, make sure they don’t have bugs on them already. Don’t try to save the plants that are on clearance, you won’t be doing yourself any favors. Get the healthiest ones that look nice and green. If all the plants are yellowing, the store wasn’t taking good care of them and they won’t grow great for you at home.
Don’t buy seedlings with flowers or fruit already on them if you are going to transplant. If you do buy plants with just flowers, you can pinch them off before planting. But if you find a tomato plant that already has a tomato on it, it’s not going to transplant well.
Plant plants together that support each other. Intercropping is where you plant two kinds of plants that support each other. Also, try companion planting. Companion planting is more than just intercropping, it’s about growing multiple things together that feed each other and repel each other’s pests.
Onions repel hornworms. Basil repels aphids. Radishes repel squash bugs. Check out this article for more ideas on what plants support each other well for companion planting.
Planting a kind or family of crops in a different area each year is called crop rotation. If you planted tomatoes in a bed last year or the year before, don’t plant them again until the 3rd year. This is a very effective way of preventing pests from taking up residence in one area.
The families of plants are nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant), cruciferous (broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, and kale), cucurbits (squash, melons, and cucumbers) and so on. Move those groups of plants around from place to place yearly.
One more way to discourage pests is by planting different varieties of each thing. Choose three different types of tomatoes instead of three plants of the same one. Plant 4 or 5 types of squash. Usually the pests will feast on one and leave the other varieties alone.
Succession planting is another way to cut down on pests. Plant a few pea seeds and two weeks later plant some more and continue that throughout the season. This helps in several ways.
Vegetables will ripen at different times avoiding a large glut of produce to deal with at once, but also, a pest may only eat the plant at one state. They may eat the seedlings while the larger seedlings and mature plants are left alone to produce. It’s all about diversity.
Practice smart watering
Don’t overwater your garden or underwater it. Underwatering is obvious, it causes your plants to be stressed. But overwatering can cause just as much stress. It can also cause funguses to grow that harm plant health.
Alternatives to pesticides
Learn to live with a few insects. Plant a little extra knowing you may not get every single fruit. It’s okay if roly pollies munch on your sweet potatoes a little bit. Just trim that part off. It will scar over and heal just fine. If squash bugs overtake one squash plant and leave you one, you’ll still harvest squash. Gardening isn’t an all or nothing science.
Hand-picking is another line of defense. It’s the best practice for squash bugs and tomato hornworms as well as other pests. Go out early in the morning and maintain the bug population on your plants.
Some pests can be controlled with a hard spray of water such as aphids.
Healthy beneficial insect population
Planting plants to draw beneficial insects such as herbs and flowers will help your pest problem. The beneficial insects come in to see the flowers and herbs and will be present when your pests are.
Ladybugs have a voracious appetite for aphids. Lacewings do as well. They also love mealybugs and small caterpillars. Those are two beneficial insect powerhouses. Tachinid flies and ground beetles feed on squash bugs.
Lizards and birds eat hornworms and other caterpillars such as cabbage looper worms. Birds, toads and lizards eat slugs as well. If you put out small dishes of water and plant diverse plants, you will attract all of these animal and insect predators to your garden.
How to grow a garden without pesticides
There are many things to try before pesticides in the garden. Can you grow one totally without pesticides? We have tried. The past few years we have had far less productions, especially because of squash bugs and occasionally squash vine borers.
The squash bugs have taken over our garden so it’s time to look for a natural solution. The first thing we are trying is NO cucurbits of any kind. So, no cucumbers, no melons, no squash, no gourds this year. I’ll let you know if that cuts down our overrun problem.
Make sure your crops are diverse, rotated, healthy, watered well, and you plant flowers and herbs to attract the good bugs to your garden. And then if all of that doesn’t work, think about some pesticides.
There are many organic pesticides and natural pesticides available such as pyrethrin made from chrysanthemum flowers. You can also use neem oil. But be careful when using natural pesticides because they too can harm beneficial insects. Don’t just broadly spray them everywhere. Don’t spray them on the flowers where bees and other pollinators eat.
If you spray for squash bugs, spray the underside of the leaves where they lay eggs and right on an individual bug, but don’t cover the whole plant.
Try diatomaceous earth, click here to see how to use it. It can be effective on slugs, larvae and other soft-bodied pests and does not harm adult bees or butterflies.
Remember to use pesticides, even natural ones as a last resort. Your garden, your planet, and your family’s health will thank you!
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