Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pest and Disease Control The Organic Way

Keeping pests and diseases under control means a lot more than grabbing for a chemical spray - especially if you're an organic gardener. I've already raved on about why organic is better and why you should ditch chemical gardening practices. It's better for your soil, it's better for your little micro environment, and of course, it's better for you.

So how do you achieve this organic bliss? The answer is easy - instead of fighting nature, make nature work for you. It just requires a little planning beforehand.

Pests and diseases can be combated in the organic garden by breaking reproduction cycles, confusing pests - which keeps them away from your garden, getting good insects to eat your bad insects, getting other animals to eat your pests, and making your veggies and fruit unpalatable to pests.

Crop rotation

Cutting a long story short crop rotation is about moving your vegetables around your little patch each year. This way not only do you give your soil a rest from having specific nutrients depleted each year, you also help break the reproductive cycle of soil borne diseases and some pests (eg nematodes).

Companion planting

This is another one of those little organic miracles. By planting certain vegetables, or herbs, together you can ward away pests, plus boost your garden's growth.
One of the best known examples is planting onions and garlic with carrots (the allium's smell confuses pests, keeping them away from your carrots). Any organic vegetable gardener should make companion planting an important part of their planning.

Don't reintroduce disease back into your garden

This sounds pretty obvious but it's amazing how many gardeners slip up. Organic gardeners get fanatical about our compost - it's fantastic stuff, full of basic elements and packed with micronutrients and micro-organisms. But make sure your never put diseased plants in your compost bin or heap. All you'll end up doing is bringing the disease back into your garden. So toss diseased plants in the bin instead.

Beneficial insects

Get rid of bad insects with good insects. Confused? Don't be. There are many insects you can encourage into your garden that pray on pests, or use pests as the host for their young.
To get them into your garden try growing herbs with umbrella-style flowers like coriander, fennel, parsley and Queen Anne's Lace. Their flowers attract parasitic wasps (good wasps) that like laying their eggs into grubs, aphids and other pests in the garden. The eggs hatch, and the larvae feast on the host. Gruesome sounding stuff, but use it to your advantage.
These flowering herbs will also encourage ladybirds, which also enjoy chewing on aphids. If you sow your beneficial herb mix but still don't get any good insects, you might need to buy them in, try mail order, the Internet or even some nurseries.

Other beneficial friends

You can also keep down the number of insects in your garden with other animal friends. If you've got chickens or ducks you let them loose into your garden and can just about guarantee you'll have no snails or slugs left. Plus they'll dig up and eat other insect eggs on or just under the soil. But keep on eye on your feathered friends, as they'll start into your veggies too if you're not watching!
Or try turning to your natural environment and build a frog pond. Native frogs and toads can make their way into your veggie patch where they'll feast on your insect population (indiscriminately though!) But you can't go past their croaking in summer storms, or finding an amphibian acquaintance when you're out harvesting.

Pyrethrum - the big organic gun

When you want to indiscriminately (but organically) kill bugs you can't go past pyrethrum sprays. A sweet smelling flower extract (bought from nurseries) it should only be used on pests that you know (we've used it on aphids when our ladybird population was low.
But be warned, pyrethrum residue lingers for a number of weeks, so it can also kill beneficial or neutral insects that come by.

Deter pests with organic sprays

If you don't want to kill everything organically using pyrethrum, you can always deter plant eating pests using handmade organic sprays.
These are aimed at any leaf eating insects - grubs, caterpillars, grasshoppers, snails, slugs, etc, for almost all plants.
The idea is to create a foliar spray that will make the plant taste so terrible, the pests will go away and annoy your neighbors, leaving your vegetable patch alone. Not nice for your neighbors, but hopefully this'll help you convert them to organic gardening!
Try mixing water with a mix of crushed garlic, chili (hot pepper) or onion. You might need to water it down a bit, otherwise it might be so strong you mightn't want to eat your homegrown vegetables either!
Other gardeners swear by a mix of kelp (to help the veggies grow strong and fast) and neem oil - which apparently tastes terrible. Neem oil is a concentrated extract from the neem tree, native to India. We're currently trialing this spray in our garden, so we'll let you know how well it goes in the coming months. The only bad thing I can say about it at the moment is that it is not cheap. I guess we'll soon find out if you get what you pay for!

Don't forget with any spray you'll need to reapply it after rain, or if you water overhead with a sprinkler.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Invite Butterflies and Hummingbirds to your Garden

Butterflies and hummingbirds can add magic to any garden, and it's easy to invite them in. Just select the right plants - butterflies like bright colors while hummingbirds and butterflies both like blooms with plenty of nectar.

Easy-to-grow plants that attract pollinators include butterfly bushes, Rose of Sharon, and Weigela.

Butterfly bush (Buddleia) is a favorite of butterflies and hummingbirds. The sweet fragrance and bright summer flowers are appealing to people, too. Unfortunately, traditional butterfly bush varieties have a tendency to get overgrown and leggy. Regular pruning is often needed to keep them in check.

New Lo & Behold 'Blue Chip' Buddleia is a miniature butterfly bush with all the fragrance and butterfly appeal of older varieties but in a smaller package.

It stays just 24"-30" tall and wide without any pruning, and produces abundant lavender blue flowers from midsummer to frost. This continuously blooming butterfly magnet does not need deadheading, and makes a fantastic low-maintenance mass planting. A noninvasive hybrid, Blue Chip is perfect for anyone who wants to attract butterflies and hummingbirds but doesn't have space for a big plant. It can be incorporated into container gardens.

While not as petite as Blue Chip, 'Miss Ruby' is a compact new variety with intense flower color. Its vivid magenta flowers are richer and brighter than those of other varieties. Miss Ruby matures to approximately 4'-5' tall and wide, not as small as Blue Chip but much more manageable than the 6'-8' range of many older varieties.

These new varieties are easy to grow in full sun and are hardy to USDA Zone 5. Butterfly bushes tolerate most moist, well-drained soils. Buddleia may be trimmed back in later winter or early spring, although pruning is usually not necessary with these new varieties.

Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) is another easy-to-grow plant that attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. They bloom in mid- to late summer and are available in a wide variety of colors.

The pure white of White Chiffon is especially nice in the evening, while gardeners looking for deep color will appreciate the rich violet of Violet Satin.

Check out the assortment at www.provenwinners.com to see which variety best suits your color scheme. All Rose of Sharon varieties do best in full sun.

Weigela are even more diverse in size, shape, color and foliage. Wine & Roses is popular for attracting hummingbirds. Fine Wine is a smaller version of this favorite, and dwarf Midnight Wine is smaller yet.

My Monet is another miniature Weigela. Its green and white variegated leaves often blush pink to match its pink spring flowers. The chartreuse foliage on reblooming Ghost Weigela transforms to iridescent buttercream in late summer. Weigelas are fast-growing plants that thrive in full sun.

So instead of looking hard for butterflies and hummingbirds, choose these plants for your garden and sit back and enjoy the show!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Observant farmers and gardeners have long noted that certain crops or plants give higher yield or are stronger growing when grown with another plant as a companion. Recent research bears out some of the benefits of mixed plantings, as opposed to the practice of monoculture.
The long taproots of carrot-like herbs, such as caraway and angelica, serve to break up heavy soils for easier cultivation of fine rooted herbs or vegetables. Many herbs in the mint family repel insects by aromatic oils in the foliage or stems. Root excretions from certain plants can affect the growth of other plants.
Much research remains to be done on the symbiotic relationships among plants, both above and below the soil. However, your personal experience can be of value in learning what plant combinations can prove beneficial in your garden. Below are listed a few combinations that you can try.

Vegetable or fruit / Companion Herb / Benefit

Beans / Summer Savory / Improves flavor; deters bean beetles

Beets / Chives, Garlic / Improves growth

Broccoli / Nasturtium / Attracts aphids away from crop

Brussel Sprouts / Borage, Dill / Improves growth

Cabbage / Mints, Hyssop, Sage / Deters cabbage moth

Carrots / Sage, Chives / Sage deters carrot fly;
Chives improves growth

Cucumbers / Tansy / Deters striped cucumber beetle

Eggplant / Tarragon, Thyme / Improves growth

Fruit Trees / Chives, Southernwood / Chives protects against apple scab;
Southernwood repels fruit moth

Grapes / Hyssop / Increases yield of vines

Lettuce / Wormwood (at a distance) / Will deter animals from entering garden

Peppers / Marjoram, Lovage / Enhances flavor; improves growth

Potatoes / Horseradish / Helps crop resist disease

Radish / Chervil / Planted in alternate rows improves growth
and flavor

Raspberry / Rue / Deters Japanese beetles

Roses / Garlic, Chives / Increases fragrance

Squash, Pumpkins / Nasturtium, Tansy, Borage / Deters squash bug & striped pumpkin beetle

Strawberry / Borage / Improves flavor

Tomato / Basil / Improves growth and flavor

Combinations to avoid: Cabbage and strawberries; tomatoes and cabbage; rue and sweet basil; fennel and green beans, tomatoes; fennel hinders the germination of caraway and coriander; fennel disturbs the growth of tomatoes and green beans; wormwood inhibits the growth of fennel, sage, caraway, and anise.

Add to your compost pile: Comfrey is the ideal compost builder; Melon leaves add calcium; Stinging nettle stimulates humus formation; Tansy concentrates potassium; Valerian attracts earthworms.