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A garden should be a symphony, not a battle zone

I have *almost* no insect pests in my garden.

I’m not bragging so much as wishing to share some wonderful principles that I have learned.

I like to browse the Internet garden groups, and am seeing large numbers of gardeners who are losing all or a major part of their garden crop to aphids, grasshoppers, tomato worms, flea beetles, squash bugs — you name it, and somebody, somewhere has a major problem with it.

If these are a problem year after year, something is wrong. We often treat our gardens as if we are fighting a fire. We stamp out a spot fire here, and another pops up there. We are in constant damage-control mode. A garden should be a symphony, not a battle zone.

Here are some of the important principles to consider:

1. Learn to work alongside Nature instead of fighting her. Simply by tilling the soil, we are altering Nature a great deal. Then we plant monocultures, add herbicides, spray poisons for pests, add extremely concentrated nutrients, and generally totally disrupt Nature’s balance in multiple ways. How can we reduce our impact and get things back into balance?

My garden is no longer tilled. The only soil that’s disturbed is the spot where I put a seed or a plant. Minimal! I don’t pack it down either. All my gardening is in raised beds that I can reach without walking on it. I let the worms till it, the natural way. I can wiggle my fingers and easily dig six inches into the soil.

2. Feed the soil. Our southeastern soils are naturally heavily leached, so they are mineral poor. They tend to be higly acid. Organic matter is near zero because of burning of crop residues and scorching of the sun. I add about an inch of compost each spring on the top. The worms till it. Then I use lots of leaves and grass clipping for mulch around the growing plants. This cools the soil, preserves moisture, and promotes biological diversity in the life of the soil.

Yes, plants grow much better when the soil is teeming with life – much of it too small for you to see. These organisms feed the plants. Plants grow sturdy and resistant to pests. If used at all, fertilizer is used sparingly. We don’t want an artificial growth spurt, especially one from overuse of nitrogen, which actually makes plants more susceptible to insect pests and disease.

3. Aim for as much biodiversity as possible. Mix it up. Yes, plant your flowers intermixed with your veggies. If you choose your flowers well, you can have nectar and pollen sources that run continously through the garden season. Some folks do this for pollinators – and this is good – but most don’t realize that you also gain pest control. Many pollinators, soldier beetles for example, in their adult stages are voraceous predators in their younger life.

Marigolds add to the biodiversity of the garden

Tomatoes in raised bed, marigolds in the cells of the concrete blocks, asclepias and borage also planted alongside - result - not a single pest this season!

4. Don’t freak out when you see a pest, and go to battle to eradicate it! Identify it. Learn about its life cycle; its food preferences; its enemies. The more you know, the better you are prepared to deal with it.

A lot of folks dust their garden at the first sign of any insect. This is very bad policy; first the insect may well be a friend. And second, using a pesticide that’s not labeled for an identified pest is a violation of the label (pesticide misuse), and it may well be ineffective or add risks that you don’t need.

5. Learn to accept some damage and the sight of a few pest insects. Ten years ago, we had a plague of Japanese beetles. Today, I can count on my fingers the number I see each year. The reason – we are practically overrun by assassin bugs, who love to eat Japanese beetles.

Now when I seeĀ an occasional Japanese beetleĀ here or there, I am glad. I don’t want a pest to die out completely – as its control may then also die or leave the area. I just want to keep them in balance.

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