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Five Tips on Gardening With a Living Safety Net

  • 1. I don’t spray for pests. I don’t use anything, not even garlic, cayenne, diatomaceous earth or other tried-and-true organic methods.  Why? Because I don’t want to discourage helper species like ladybugs, toads, frogs, wasps, lizards, lacewings, predatory beetles, parasitic wasps, snakes and other soldiers fighting on my side. There are times when things hit plague levels – but usually by the time that happens, I’ve harvested what I want and am ready to put in the next set of crops.

    2. I leave lots of weeds around. WEEDS? Sure. I don’t let them starve out my plants or drop their amazing amounts of seeds into my nice beds, but I do let them grow all around the edges of my garden and my yard. There are wild patches everywhere for lots and lots of insects to live. This means that for every pest, there’s most likely a predator. I also get the benefit of seeing lots of butterflies, bees of all types, neat moths, beetles, and other interesting visitors.

    3. I plant lots of things together. Sure, sometimes I put in rows of corn, beans, etc. for convenience; but for a lot of plants, I put a ton of variety into small spaces. One of my beds in spring might have cabbages, peas, tomato seedlings, collards, mustard, beans, basil, tobacco and other disparate species all sharing the same real estate. If you were a sphinx moth, say, and you wanted your little hornworm babies to feast like kings… my beds wouldn’t be the best place. Pests will build up according to the quantity and availability of their favorite foods. If your tomatoes aren’t all next to each other, it’s harder for pests to jump along and eat them one after the other. Many of our garden enemies only eat one thing… or one family. Put a crucifer next to a nightshade next to a legume and they’ll be lost in the woods.

    4. I feed the soil and plants like crazy. Healthy plants don’t seem to attract pests like unhealthy plants. Sometimes they’ll totally outgrow a problem, too. I believe God made “pests” to be little clean-up machines that ensure strong genes are passed on to the next generation. If you’ve got struggling little Brussels sprouts that are low on water and food, they’re more likely to get attacked. Tend them. Feed them.  Water them. Make sure they have good immune systems and they’ll be better equipped to ward off assault.

    5. I let some pests live. Yes – I do blast the aphids off tender growth with the hose now and again, but I often leave them for a while. Many pest species have a shorter and quicker life cycle than many predator species. A case in point: a very friendly USDA inspector visited my house a while back to get me approved for a nursery license. She happened to notice my grapes while she was there and said “Look at this – you need to flip these leaves over. See the aphids?” I had in fact seen the aphids and let them be. I told her as much… then flipped some more leaves over. In about 2’ of vine, I pointed out five ladybugs, two of which were in the act of mating. “Look at these,” I said, “ladybugs everywhere. And these two are making more ladybugs. They’ll catch up to the aphids soon.” She rolled her eyes and laughed, “you organic people …” The really funny thing? I looked for aphids on those grapevines a couple weeks later … and couldn’t find a single one.

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