Pesticides free gardening can be easier than it first sounds. I learned that from personal experiences on the first organic farm I worked on. Later I used my own garden to experiment -quite a bit- with producing pesticide-free vegetables. In this post, I want to share what worked and what didn’t, so hopefully, you’ll have a great time growing organic.
Grow your Vegetables pesticide-free in 7 easy steps:
- Keep your plants healthy – Strong plants will vigorously defend against any threats
- Cultivate an Ecosystem – Building a natural balance between predators and prey will help to minimize the need for pesticides
- Don’t imagine a sterile Garden – Bugs are completely fine and necessary.
- Keep Pests away – use physical blockades to protect your crops
- Companion Planting – using beneficial side-effects of specific plants to protect neighboring plants
- Prevention goes a long way – Watch out for indicators, act immediately to prevent outbreaks
- Grow Disease and Pest resilient Plants if possible
Let us start by taking a more in-depth look at these Steps. First up, making your plants thrive.
Keep your plants healthy
For the sake of this article, I am going to keep the points relatively short, because there is a lot to talk about. I’ll link some of my posts, which go more in-depth about the topic at hand if you want more information.
Good Soil goes a long way. Plants depend on the nutrients they can get from the soil. Before Planting makes sure to add enough compost so your plants don’t run into any deficiencies. A lot of factors go into creating the optimal soil for plants, and to be honest it’s a process that will take a lot of time. An easy way to improve the nutrient content of your soil is to add organic materials. Furthermore supplementing specific minerals can help with immediate issues, later we’ll take a closer look at deficiency management.
Protect your plants from extreme Conditions. Drought, frost, heat or wind are all stress factors for plants. The more threats your plants have to fend off, the weaker their defense against pests becomes. These natural protective mechanisms are the first line of defense in any pesticide-free garden. So what should you do? Whenever the weather gets a bit rough give your crops a hand, protect them from extreme temperatures, make sure they aren’t exposed to direct -strong- wind and make sure they don’t suffer any physical damage.
Use mulch. Mulching will help your plants in many different ways. Firstly, water will be preserved much longer. Mulch will suppress weeds from growing and keep temperatures more steady. Over time it will also act as fertilizer, releasing nutrients at a constant pace. Furthermore, your plants will be protected from splashing water during rain and watering, this can help to prevent certain diseases, that thrive on wet crops.
Watering is another very crucial factor to keep your plants healthy. It’s important to provide your crops with a reliable supply of water once the soil feels dry to touch. Overwatering can also be a major issue, just as much as drought. I advise to water plants deeply, so the plants produce proper roots. For more details, I’ll link my recent post about watering here (this will open in a new tab).
Sunlight. Knowing how much sun your crops need is essential before planting them. Forcing Crops to adapt to unfavorable growing conditions puts a lot of stress on them, weakening their defense drastically. Make sure to plan the crops you plant, according to the amount of sunlight they will receive. Here is another of my recent Posts talking about this topic.
Prune trees and cutting. By removing parts of your plants you can nudge them to use their resources on more important tasks. This will not only help to improve yields but also keep the plant more healthy overall. Similarly, you should try to separate your Annuals so they don’t start to rob each other’s nutrients. Cutting Weeds will also increase the available resources, so make sure to keep them as low as possible.
Patience is the name of the game
Building an ecosystem takes time. A lot of time! It’s something that will constantly evolve and at one point you just reap the rewards of your constant efforts. Until then it’s hard work to provide good conditions for plants and animals – both wanted and unwanted ones.
Attracting beneficial animals is no easy task. Especially if you just started growing crops. Most beneficial animals prey on critters we want to get rid of. Problem is, why would they want to live in your garden if you kill all their food with pesticides? Once this ecosystem is destroyed, preying animals first have to repopulate your garden. There will be a lot of instability in population-level the first couple of years until they stabilize.
But it’ll pay off. At this point growing crops is wonderful. You still have to work to keep up this balance, but this is a lot easier than establishing one. Nothing stands in your way of going completely pesticide-free at this point. Until we’re there we just have to take some precautionary measures to reduce damage to our Veggies. And there are plenty of ways to do so, that doesn’t require the help of chemicals. But before diving into these Steps let’s first clarify something.
Your garden doesn’t need to be Bug-free
Bugs and other Critters are essential for a functional ecosystem. Problems only arise once a certain species overpopulates. Aphids, for example, can be devastating for any garden. With a healthy population of Lady Bugs and other insects, they unlikely ever reach a level at which actions have to be taken. They are still there, just not in numbers that will harm your crops.
Insects are an important part of any Garden. They pollinate, break down organic materials and will prey on things you want to get rid of. I already wrote an extensive post looking at Pollinators and their important role in growing crops. For more details just click this link.
Keep the unwanted guests out
It’s important to not let anything have a free go to your garden. Lot’s of wildlife will appreciate a donation if you offer it to them. Large animals can be kept away from your crops by setting up a fence. Protecting your growing beds individually is a good alternative if you don’t want to fence your property.
Last year, I struggled quite a bit with Voles and snails in my new garden plot. Growing Root vegetables was only possible in a raised bed, protected by a wire mesh at the bottom. So, in the end, the Voles weren’t that big of an issue. The snails, on the other hand, were a whole other story. For a bit of context, this garden plot is surrounded by a Hay meadow. Quite conveniently for the snails, it’s also the one that is harvested last.
Without any pesticides, the only solution to this problem was to make my garden less attractive to them. Snails will avoid direct sun exposure so the best way to make a wider gap between the shaded meadow and my garden. After doing so I tried a wide array of countermeasures to get rid of the snails, without the need for pesticides. Some crop-sacrifices later, the snails had dispersed.
Sometimes you have to get creative to keep pests away without the use of chemicals. Still, often it can be done with just a few changes. Another great way to discourage critters from nipping on your crops is by planting repellant plants.
Companion Planting is an interesting concept. Plants like Basil, Mint, Tansy, Dill, Cilantro, Marigold, Cosmos either attract beneficial insects or deter unwanted ones. When grown together these plants will help to protect their “Companion Plant” from being eaten. This is a great concept and will defiantly help to increase diversity in every garden. Just be aware that not everything that works for some also works in your garden.
Another way to use companion planting is to grow something that attracts pests reliably in close vicinity. Simply plant them a short distance away from your garden and all the pest (hopefully) don’t pay your Veggies a visit.
On a side note: Companion Planting is best used to deter a specific pest (like Diamondback moths) from your crops. In this case, Sage and Thyme will help to protect your Brussel sprouts. Other Crops/Pests need different Companion Plants, so make sure to know exactly what is giving you a hard time before planting.
Disease and Pest Resistant Plants
This one is pretty straight forward. If you want to transition away from Pesticides and still grow plenty of Veggies, your best bet would be to look into resistant Plants. Especially at the beginning of the transition, you will have a lot of things to take care of. So giving yourself some more room to breathe can help you to focus more on the issues at hand.
It’s important to remember, these plants are generally more resistant against specific conditions. That doesn’t mean they are immune to everything that might be living in your garden.
The goal is to establish a garden ecosystem, in which pests will take care of themselves. Partly-resistant plants can help to bridge the time until this is achieved.
Prevention goes a long way
Watch your plants. They will be the first indicators of an incoming pest problem. If any of your plants look unusual or show damage, make sure to take a closer look. Chances are, if any pests are around you’ll see them close or inside a weakened plant. If done early enough this gives you some time to react. You can do some research about the pests that just came into your garden: look up how to make your garden less attractive for them. Sometimes blocking off your plants completely with row cover will help to keep them away.
If it’s already too late and you got caught off-guard, inform yourself about their lifecycles and if they are persistent. If they will be back next year maybe consider not planting whatever they like the most.
Be vary of infested plant litter. Remove all infested or infected parts of a plant carefully, to not spread the disease or insects around. I usually will try to get these parts as far away from my garden as I possibly can. A lot of diseases can be spread through touch (bacteria, viruses, and fungal spores) make sure to disinfect your tools after cutting infected parts.
Build an Insect Hotel. Help beneficial insects move to your garden: give them a place to rest and sleep. Nothing keeps pests better at bay than introducing their natural predator, they will soon start to avoid your garden. An Insect Hotel can be built from old wood and some random thing you pick up in the forest is pretty much for free and offers a great opportunity to reintroduce some beneficial critters.
Change up your plants. Don’t grow the same plants in the same spot every year. Not only will this rob your soil of very specific nutrients, but this will also contribute to more pests in your garden. It’s best to let your garden bed rest for 2-3 years before growing the same plant again. In the meantime just grow something from another crop family.
Always work to improve the health of your garden. I think the most important thing we gardeners can do is trying to optimize the health of our garden. Improving one’s garden is the best way to prevent serious issues with pests. Gardening is a lot about patients and sometimes you’ll get the short stick. But we can always work hard to make the next year just a bit better,- one step at a time.
How about chemical fertilizers
How about chemical fertilizers are they indispensable? Well, fertilizers fulfill one purpose only: they add nutrients and minerals to your soil. There are many different ways to do so, but none of them is as instantaneous. Using fresh Compost to enrich your soil takes some time, the organic material first has to break down. (If you want more details about composting than I would recommend this recent article of mine).
On a similar note growing green manure is very effective to improve soil, but you still need to wait for the whole off-season. Thus the question becomes all about time. If there is an immediate deficiency your plants are facing, and you want to keep them alive some fertilizer might be a good step to take. However, in general I wouldn’t say chemical fertilizer is a necessity, organic one will do the same.
What to do when Pests get the upper hand in my Garden? First, the unpleasant answer: Accept some damage. Try to remove any large size pest by hand (snails for example), make your garden less attractive to them, and experiment with multiple planting sessions throughout the season. Sometimes a simple change in timing can make a big difference. But whatever you do just don’t give up, there is always a way to work around these issues without pesticides.
How do I transition away from pesticide, if my garden has lots of pests? This one is very hard to answer because it depends on a lot of individual factors. A pest ridden garden is a good indicator of an imbalanced ecosystem and will need a lot of time and care until it will stabilize itself. The hardest part about this is the frustration you will have while trying to grow something, which will seldom end up on your plate. The best thing you can do is just keeping at it, and thinking about what you want to create.- Focusing less on immediate results.