Starting Your Garden – Part Eight

This final segment of our series deals with our least favorite part of organic gardening – those pesky unwanted insects.  Here’s how to keep them out without using chemicals.

Part Eight – Garden Pests

The worst thing to a gardener is seeing a beautiful plant begin to produce its bounty, only to come back at harvest time to find some insect pest has ruined it.  This most commonly happens with things like summer squash and tomatoes, but all veggies are susceptible to something.  There are plenty of resources out there about how to organically and physically control garden pests that are particular to each type of plant.  These few ideas pertain to all plants and your garden in general.

Row cover

Row covers are great for protecting young plants from garden pests.

Physical barriers.  Depending on what you’re growing, garden pests may prey more on the youngest of your plants before they can develop a strong defense.  Row covers can help prevent many of these, especially on brassicas like broccoli and cabbage.  Place row covers tightly over the plants and secure them along the sides to prevent pests from getting to the seedlings.  For plants that are susceptible to cut worms and slugs, simple collars placed around the base of the plant (made from paper cups or recycled soda bottles) can protect the seedlings until they are too big for the pests to conquer.

Hand picking.  This is the most organic, and time consuming, way to rid your garden of pests.  As we tend our gardens, we are constantly checking our plants for signs of problems.  For example, we turn up the leaves of squash plants to look for eggs of squash bugs.  When they’re spotted, the entire leaf is removed and taken from the area.  It’s much easier to remove the eggs than the bugs themselves, but sometimes it just can’t be helped.  We often pull insects by hand.  Just be sure you know what the pests look like and distinguish them from the beneficial instects.  Insects, like wasps, garden spiders and Praying Mantis, should be left in the garden.

Trap crops.  Trap cropping involves planting one type of plant to draw pests away from another.  The trap crops are often a plant within the same family as the ones you want to protect; other times, it’s a flower or herb.  We’ve discovered the pests that enjoy eating our lettuce and arugula enjoy mustard greens even more.  So we plant mustard between our rows of other leafy greens and get a much better harvest.  The same goes for blue Hubbard squash planted along the perimeter of rows of summer squash.  The squash bugs are attracted to the blue Hubbard and we can remove the plant, along with the bugs, before they infest the remaining plants.

With trap cropping there are a few key things to remember: First, plant the trap crop so that it matures before your main crop.  This way, the bugs are more likely to leave your main crop alone while they go for the trap crop.  Second, monitor your trap crop closely.  Removing eggs before they hatch is much more effective than removing the insects themselves.  Third, remove the trap crop (and the insects) if necessary.  If the insect pressure gets too great on the sacrificial plants they will die and the pests will move on to your main plants.  In this case, you may want to make successive plantings of your trap crop to give yourself time to harvest your main one.

Dusts and Sprays.  There are many sources for different concoctions you can put together yourself from items in your own kitchen that will deter or kill garden pests.  We’ve used a spray made from vegetable oil, dish soap and water as a spray for white fly.  Or, sprinkle a combination of flour and cayenne pepper on squash plants to kill squash bugs.  There are also organic commercial sprays on the market you can buy, like Neem oil.  See our article on using herbs for protection in the garden for a few homemade sprays that may help.

Three sisters garden

Three sisters gardening is a classic example of companion planting. Picture courtesy Univ of Minnesota

Companion Planting

Companion planting is the idea that certain types of plants do better when paired with specific other types.  It’s been said for years that tomatoes love basil.  Native Americans planted corn, beans and squash together to benefit each other for both nutrients and weed suppression.  We frequently plant marigolds around our plots to keep pests away.  These companion plantings can be helpful in home gardens, especially, since they are more likely to be planted in closer proximity to each other than in commercial operations.

Keep in mind there are also bad companions for certain plants.  For example, don’t plant tomatoes near sweet corn.  They both compete for the amount of nitrogen available in the soil.  For more information, see our Companion Planting Guide.

Through this series we’ve tried to give you as much information as possible about how to plan, start and maintain your own garden.  This information is nowhere near comprehensive: there are so many resources out there you can use to continue your journey.  We do this for a living and are still learning year after year.  We suggest you read as much as you can about the different aspects we’ve touched on, try one or two new ideas each season, and keep what works for you.  The important thing is that you enjoy it and continue it.

Starting Your Garden – Part Seven

Don’t forget about the nutrients your garden needs before and after planting.  Keep the soils healthy, without chemicals, and you’ll keep your garden healthy, too!  This part of our Starting Your Garden series focuses on adding nutrients naturally to your garden.

Part Seven – Nutrients

There are many organic ways to get nutrients into your soil system.  These methods are especially important for gardening in containers or raised beds, since the soil is contained and plants will pull the nutrients out more quickly.  In any case, continually building the nutrients in your soil is important for plant health.

Compost Sack

A compost sack is an inexpensive and easy way to create your own compost for your garden.

Compost.  Composting is a great way to turn leftovers from your garden, kitchen and landscaping into viable nutrients for your garden.  Starting a compost pile is simple and there are all kinds of options now for doing it neatly in your yard. Or you can buy compost in almost any quantity.  We create our own and buy in bulk from Missouri Organics when we need more; smaller quantities are available from many garden or farm supply centers.  Add compost to your garden as your getting it ready for planting in spring and then add small amounts around plants during the growing season to keep those nutrients flowing.  You can also compost directly in the garden by adding yard clippings around the plants or using natural mulches that will break down into the soil over time (like straw).

You can also create compost tea to use while watering your plants.  This is especially good for container gardens.  The plants will get the nutrients without overfilling the pots with solid matter.  You can create your own tea from your own compost or purchase plant foods that contain compost tea.

Manure.  If you have access to livestock manure, it can be a great addition to your garden.  Manure from rabbits can be added directly to the garden without composting first.  Other manures, like horse and chicken, need to be composted first before using in the garden.  These manures are considered “hot” and can actually burn the plants while they’re breaking down.  Add these to your compost pile to break them down before using in the garden.

You can make manure tea just like compost tea and then there is no need to compost it first.  Just like compost tea, you can make your own or there are pre-mixed bags made specifically for creating manure tea for your plants.

White Dutch Clover

Low-growing clover adds nutrients and makes for a great living mulch.

Cover crops.  Never underestimate the power of plants to help other plants in the garden.  Cover crops are beneficial plants you grow in your garden to add nitrogen and organic material back to the soil.  Some can be grown at the same time as other plants, creating living mulch, and others are grown at the beginning or end of a season to be worked in later.  Some of our favorites are clover and oats.  Clover can be grown as a ground cover between plants (kept mowed) to keep out weeds while adding nutrients; oats can be grown between crops like strawberries to provide a natural mulch for the winter.  We’ll do an article specifically on cover cropping soon.

Natural additives.  If you’ve done your soil test before planting, you’ll see what basic nutrients your soil is lacking.  Even if you add these nutrients at the beginning of the season, it’s important to keep it coming.  See our article on Natural Soil Amendments for more specific information on adding nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and calcium to your soils.  Remember, continually adding compost, manures and yard waste to your gardens is better than adding amendments each season.  Only use amendments if you’ve tested low in a specific area.

Now, how to take care of those garden pests?  We’ve got you covered in our final segment.

Starting Your Garden – Part Six

The next part of our Starting Your Garden series takes us through the basics of controlling weeds, without the use of chemicals, while retaining moisture.

Part Six – Weeds and Moisture

One of the banes of a gardener’s existence is weeds.  Many, many hours can be spent pulling these invaders out of the garden to keep them from competing with our plants for nutrients, moisture and light.  Mulch is one of the gardeners’ best friends and the best ones help retain water in addition to keeping out unwanted weeds.

Straw mulch

The straw around these young broccoli plants will help keep the weeds out and the moisture in.

Straw.  Straw is fantastic, natural mulch for your garden.  Using straw around the plants and in your pathways serves multiple purposes.  First, if you lay it thick enough, it will choke out most weeds.  What few do poke through are easy to spot and easier to pull before they get out of hand.  Second, straw will retain the moisture around your plants.  This is especially important in times of drought.  The more moisture you can preserve in the garden, the less you need to supplement Mother Nature with water from the hose.  Third, straw will decompose slowly over time.  This is great for your soil as it adds needed nutrients and biological material necessary for plant growth.  Once the garden is done for the season, leave the straw on the ground.  You’ll come back in the spring to find the soil easier to work and richer than before – you probably won’t even have to till the soil (which is even better for long-term soil health).

Keep the straw from touching the base of your plants.  If they’re too close, it can encourage slugs or rot from excessive moisture.

We don’t recommend using hay.  Hay, which is really just dried grasses, will contain lots of seeds of those grasses.  These seeds will quickly germinate in your garden and cause you to have to manage the resulting grass.  The hay will break down into your soil more quickly, and provides more nutrients for your soil than straw, but those pesky grasses are the trade off.

Other Organic Materials.  You can use grass clippings, dried leaves, pine needles and even sawdust as mulch for your plants.  These will all slowly break down and work their way into the garden soil as a boost to the soil integrity.  Glass clippings are especially good sources of nitrogen, so plants that need that boost will enjoy them.

Newspaper mulch

Layering newspaper in the raised bed will help kill grasses and prevent weeds.

Paper.  Using thick layers of newspaper or other discarded paper in your walkways, in the bottom of your raised beds and under straw mulch is also effective at keeping weeds at bay.  The paper will also break down and work into the soil like a form of compost.  Don’t use slick, shiny papers, as the inks in them can harm the soil in your garden.  If you’ve got access to a lot of paper, this is a good way to go.  If you’ve only got a few, use them strategically along with other mulches in the most weed-prone areas.

Landscape Cloth.  This weed barrier is sold in rolls and is placed beneath mulch in landscape beds to prevent weed emergence.  You can use landscape cloths in the bottom of raised beds to achieve the same effect.  The problem with this cloth is that they do break down over time, but don’t help with the nutrients in the garden soil.  Using a thick layer of newspapers is just as effective.

Black Plastic.  Black plastic mulch can be used as a very effective barrier against weeds and a way to retain moisture.  The problem with it is that it needs to be removed at the end of the season and, once it can no longer be reused, it can sometimes be hard to find a place to recycle it.  Some plants also don’t like to be in contact with black plastic, like cabbages, and can rot where they touch it.  It’s also more difficult to get water to the root systems of plants, usually requiring a drip line to be run beneath the plastic.  It’s not one of our favorites for small gardeners.

Wood Chips.  These are the types of mulch you see used in flower beds.  You can make your own by simply chipping up trimmings from your yard.  Or you can buy it in bags at your local garden center.  Just know that these chips can contain pesticide residue and will not provide much in the way of nutrients for your soil, since they break down more slowly.  Also, they may get in the way when you try to work the beds the following year.  This is our least favorite choice for the garden and don’t really recommend it, except in perennial areas.  They do work well for areas where oregano, sage and other plants return year after year.

Stones and other inorganic materials.  Decorative stone is generally good for areas where perennial plants, including herbs, will stay put for years.  They are good to keep an area looking nice, combat weeds and retain moisture.  In the annual vegetable garden, though, it’s not recommended.  Like wood chips, they will be in the way for working the garden the next season.

Our next article will talk about maintaining the nutrients in your garden.