As the temperature heats up, the veggies and flowers we so diligently planted in the spring are really starting to jump…and so are the bunnies, beetles, and borers who want to munch on the fruits of our labor! Here are a few easy ways to control the critters, prevent disease, and feed your garden in a manner that is safe for kids, pets, pollinators, and the environment.
1. Aphids can be knocked off with a strong directed spray of water from your hose—no chemicals involved (and it’s kinda fun too). Ladybugs are natural predators of aphids…if you see ladybugs on your plants, leave them there! Take a minute to Google “ladybug larvae”…they are strange-looking creatures but also eat aphids and will eventually grow into adult ladybugs. Learn what they look like so you don’t mistake them for a pest insect!
2. For more serious pest infestations, you can use an insecticidal soap. Commercial preparations contain fatty acids that are harmless to plants yet toxic to pests by dissolving their cell membranes. You can also make your own insecticidal soap/repellent using 1-2 tablespoons of soap (Dawn, Dr. Bronner’s), a few drops of canola oil, and some cayenne pepper in a gallon of water.
3. If you have to resort to stronger chemical controls, look for the OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) designation on the label. This means the product is suitable for organic gardening and has passed a rigorous review for safety and efficacy. Keep in mind that these organic products can still kill bees, butterflies, and butterfly caterpillars so only use as a last resort and treat in late evening when bees and butterflies are not on the plants. One organic biological control that is particularly effective on chewing caterpillars like canker worms, is Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis).
4. Don’t forget to mulch! 2-3 inches of mulch can lock in moisture, prevent weeds, and help stop the spread of fungal spores that cause diseases like black spot. Pine bark mulch in particular (vs. hardwood mulch, pine straw, or gravel) has an added benefit:–it slowly breaks down, adding organic matter to make healthier, richer soil. Try to keep a few nooks and crannies in the garden unmulched so our beneficial ground-nesting bumblebees can find a home.
5. Blood meal is a natural deterrent of herbivorous critters like rabbits, deer and voles because it signals that a carnivore is in the area. When mixed with botanical oils it is even more effective (Try I Must Garden™ Animal Repellent granules). It’s safe around kids and pets and really works!
6. Try companion planting, the ancient practice of interplanting herbs and flowers in the vegetable garden to attract beneficial insects while repelling less desirable critters. Marigolds, sweet basil, and zinnias are three great all-purpose companion plants to try around your veggies.
7. To control powdery mildew, try a weekly spray of one part milk to nine parts water. This has the added benefit of acting as a foliar fertilizer, boosting the plant’s immune system. For black spot on roses, alternate between a fungicide containing sulphur and one containing copper. Ask for disease-resistant varieties of perennials and roses at your local nursery.
8. Throw out all of your Miracle Grow™ products! Healthy soil is a living entity, rich with beneficial bacteria, fungi, nematodes, earthworms, etc. Harsh chemical fertilizers can upset this delicate ecosystem and basically “kill” your living soil! Chemical fertilizers also cause artificially rapid top-growth that is weak and susceptible to insects, disease, and mechanical damage from the elements. Fertilize slowly and gently with your own compost, aged manure, and/or a slow release organic fertilizer such as the Espoma Tone™ series of fertilizers.
9. AVOID NEONICOTINOIDS! These are systemic insecticides that enter the vascular system of the plant, thus affecting the nectar and pollen to the detriment of bees, butterflies, and other important pollinators.
10. Finally, hang up bird houses, bat houses, and bird feeders. Songbirds are only too happy to patrol your garden for delectable worms and beetles… bats can eat up to 8000 flying insects in a single evening…they’re both fun to watch and they work for free!