Eco-friendly solutions for garden pest-control
Springtime for gardeners means planting, weeding, and enjoying the beauty of flowers and new veggie plants. It can also involve dealing with such unpleasant visitors as aphids, gophers, slugs, snails and marauding scrub jays pecking away at just-ripening fruit.
In most pest situations, the key to mitigating damage is to increase biodiversity in your garden. Grow plants from different families such as umbelliferae (includes parsley, carrots, celery and dill), compositae (asters, daisies and sunflowers), boraginaceae (borage, comfrey, forget-me-nots and more), and rosaceae (roses, as well as apple, plum and almond trees, and strawberries), which flower at different times and attract birds, bees, ladybugs and butterflies. Combining plants from different families will attract insects that are predators of the insects you don’t want.
Leaving a few unkempt patches of grass along the edges of your garden will offer a place for spiders to live—and spiders eat plenty of insects. A small pile of rocks, branches, or broken concrete will offer a home for lizards, which will also help keep insect pests in check.
It is worth taking the time to work on creating biodiversity in your garden, as spraying insecticides is a bad idea for both the garden and the gardener. Insecticides are generally non-selective and will kill beneficial insects as well as insect pests. Plus, they are poisonous, and can be bad when in contact with people (especially children) and pets.
Aphids are one of the most common garden pests, and are comparatively easy to deal with. They are most effectively disrupted by a good blast with the hose. Spray them with the hose every day. Do not use insecticide because you want to encourage ladybugs to come and feast on your aphids. If insecticides are used, the population of beneficial insects will be depleted, and the surviving aphids will reproduce more quickly than the other bugs, and thus will have free reign.
Evening snail hunting can work (bring a flashlight). Stomp them as you find them. Delicate plants can be protected from slugs and snails by using copper rings. Some people put a circle of pennies around young plants, and the copper makes an electrical charge in the slugs and snails, which will repel them. Garden centers sell thin copper strips that can be used for this purpose.
Creating a place for a toad or two in which to spend the day, such as a half-buried flowerpot, or a shallow, partially covered depression in a shady spot, will go far in helping control slug and snail populations. Toads like a cool, dark place in which to live during the day, and they’ll roam around at night to feed.
Western scrub jays are ubiquitous around town. These blue, gray and white birds will take a taste of a ripening apricot, peach, or plum. They’ll peck at just-forming apples, chip away at ripening cherries, making noisy entrances and exits all the while. Bagging fruit offers fairly good protection from scrub jays—covering the fruit clusters with used mesh onion bags or small paper bags (using clothespins to attach the bags is advisable). Sharing some of the fruit with the birds is inevitable, so a good attitude about that will assist with the disappointment at the loss of some fruit. Scrub jays will eat rodents, insects, and snails too, so they aren’t entirely bad.
Gophers—mostly underground-dwelling rodents, which can take down rows of garlic, onions, and mature fruit trees, among other precious crops—are a pest problem that is not so easily solved. Do we really want predatory gopher snakes roaming around our yards? Perhaps some might like that. Carl Rosato at Woodleaf Farm uses cats, one per acre, for gopher control. Owls, those nocturnal hunters, will also help, since gophers actually travel above ground at night.
Trapping, however, is the best way to slow gopher activity and damage. A couple of good traps on the market are Macabee and the Victor BlackBox, both of which are available at most feed stores and some hardware stores. The traps are placed into the gopher tunnel (a bit of digging is required) and set. Using a few cut green onions as bait will help lure the gopher into the trap. Gophers love to eat onions, garlic, potatoes, and a whole host of other plants that might be grown in a garden.
Finding a good tunnel will possibly yield several gophers, over several days. The traps will need to be emptied regularly. Burying the rodent in an out-of-the-way spot in the yard will feed the soil food web (free fertilizer). Three days of empty traps in a tunnel, though, and it is time to move on to another tunnel. While trapping is unpleasant at first, many will find that it becomes easier when the crop damage reaches heartbreaking levels.
Keep in mind the option to first “do nothing” when it comes to controlling garden pests, and accept some loss. This is a good step toward ecological pest management.
It is best to get nature to do the work when possible. Ladybugs eat aphids. Accept the aphids until the ladybugs arrive in your garden. Ladybugs can also be purchased at local feed stores (release them at night when they will be less inclined to fly away). Toads eat snails. Make a toad-friendly habitat and stomp the snails until the toads take up residence. Lizards eat earwigs, so make a lizard lounge in the garden. Nature will generally keep things in check, when given the chance to do so.
Before panic sets in, let things go a bit, step back and watch nature do her thing. The environment will be better for it, and so will the gardener.
Carla Resnick is a permaculture designer and teacher. She lives and gardens in Chico.