Mother Nature is fierce. It’s a jungle out there, even if we’re just talking about a tomato-patch! There’s competition for every drop of precious water and every nibble and munch of plant material, and an Ark-load of critters will battle it out over the shoots and fruits we tend with such care.
The good news: you have many natural alternatives to using toxic pesticides. Check out these sustainable, natural methods to keeping your garden productive without using harmful chemicals.
CUT AND DRIED
Diatomaceous earth or “D.E.” is a fine silicon powder with abrasive and absorbent properties. It’s made from ground-up diatoms, or fossilized algae. The abrasive particles dehydrate on contact, and have microscopic, razor-sharp edges that slice into the tissues of insects, snails and slugs. Ouch. Before applying D.E., analyze the various zones of your garden and what types of pests are most pesky in each. Remember that diatomaceous earth kills all insects and snails, including those we’ve enlisted as helpers, so use D.E. strategically.
Sprinkle it directly on the ground, or apply a light dusting to affected plants themselves. Be sure to use food-grade D.E. for safety around people and pets. Check the packaging for this designation; the type used in swimming pool filtration is not the same, and is not safe for your garden.
Since diatomaceous earth is the remains of creatures which originated in pre-historic oceans, rain and watering eventually direct the silicon content of the D.E. used in your garden back to the ocean. Marine life species use this undissolved silicon to build their exoskeletons.
Shout-out to the hen-house: chickens that eat vegetation treated with D.E. are healthier, because dust-bathing in it and pecking at it kills worms in the gut, and rids their feathers of mites and lice.
OH NO, ESCARGOT!
Gastropod-on-gastropod gladiatorial combat is the best way to manage damage by the softest, slipperiest predators of all, the snails and slugs.
The enemies: the brown garden snail, and a few of the world’s more than 5,000 slug species (mostly likely only three or four are in your garden).
The hero: Rumina decollata, or the decollate snail. Besides brown snails and slugs, they also eat old leaf mulch, but they do not eat healthy plants.
How to tell them apart?
The brown garden snail has a bubble-like shell that’s round or oval, with a striped or bark-like pattern that spirals into the center. The decollate snail has a longer, more narrow, cone-shaped shell. Both types are big eaters...nom-nom-nom - Listen to the sound of a snail eating by NPR.
Here’s a surprising reason for wearing gardening gloves: some types of slugs are actually dangerous to people.
The field slug (Deroceras reticulatum) and the black slug (Arion ater) can carry harmful infectious bacteria that can infect pets and people. Don’t handle them without protection.
Some organic gardeners use copper mesh and foil to repel gastropods, and copper does effectively dry out the creature’s necessary slime-barrier.
The trouble is, copper will kill your decollate snails as well as the pests you’re after. If you’re interested in copper, try the copper mesh “bracelets” that fit around the stems of specific plants, rather than laying down copper barriers throughout your garden beds.
HELPFUL INSECTS AND ARACHNIDS
Insects which are helpful around the garden include ladybugs, ground beetles, green lacewings, hover-flies and parasitic wasps.
An especially non-cuddly but highly beneficial insect is the praying mantis. You’ve probably seen one especially shocking image on social media of a praying mantis devouring a hummingbird. This photograph depicts a highly unusual scenario. It’s possible, though unlikely, and we recommend that you continue to invite hummingbirds into your sanctuary even if ferocious mantises stalk the leaves and blossoms in search of a meal.
You can purchase live ladybugs and praying mantis egg cases online and in many nurseries.
Other especially powerful visitors are various species of garden spiders, particularly the Argiope aurantia or Black and Yellow garden spider (shown below, our garden resident).
Most nature-lovers know that these magnificent arachnids are welcome in the garden, but be sure to caution children and non-gardeners from disturbing them. They are harmless to humans, but may bite if harassed.
INVISIBLE BUT MIGHTY:
We’re talking about the beneficial nematode, heterohabditis bacteriophora. Nematodes are microscopic, unsegmented worms that you spray over your organic garden to fend off more that 200 types of pests -- slugs, thrips, larvae of fungus gnats, root aphids, Japanese beetles, ticks, root maggots, cutworms, and many others.
They arrive (by the millions!) as a powder in a sealed cold-pouch that you can store in the fridge for up to two weeks.
If possible, get a filter to attach to your hose, since your water-supply may contain metals and chlorine which can kill them. Check this home-grown video for thorough nemotode application tips from organic gardener Jeff Bernhard.
PLANTS THAT ATTRACT HELPFUL INSECTS: