Blackfly on nasturtiums

If there’s one thing that makes gardeners gnash their teeth with frustration, it’s watching their favourite plants being eaten by pests. We’ve moved on from the ‘any bug is a bad bug’ mentality, and many chemical controls are being removed from sale amid safety fears, but this doesn’t mean that we have to abandon hope of an attractive and productive garden.

The organic approach to pest control is a holistic one. It begins (as with everything in organic gardening) with the soil. Keeping your soil in good health allows an extensive ecosystem to develop, and many soil microorganisms are beneficial to plant health. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers disrupt this ecosystem and prevent it from functioning properly, which is why they have no place in an organic garden. Feed the soil with compost and manure and the ecosystem, and your plants, will thrive.

Gardens have a huge advantage over farms in terms of pest control because they don’t, as a rule, have large areas of the same plant. Mixed planting helps to prevent some pests finding a home in your garden and adding flowers to your vegetable plot will attract beneficial insects.

Making your garden more attractive to wildlife draws in birds and animals that eat garden pests. Nooks and crannies for spiders and beetles, damp places for frogs and toads and food and nesting sites for birds are all easily achievable even in small gardens. If you can add trees, a source of water and some untidy areas your garden will be a wildlife haven.

Even so, a garden is not a natural ecosystem and a balance between pests and their predators is hard to build and maintain. There will be times when the gardener needs to intervene – not to wipe out the pests, but to reduce their population and help restore the natural balance.

The simplest chemical-free option for controlling pests is removing them by hand. This is easy enough to do for large pests, such as slugs and snails, but more difficult for aphids – a jet of water from the hosepipe will dislodge larger populations without harming plants. Yellow sticky traps are ideal in greenhouses and conservatories. They may not look attractive, but they catch many flying insects and will give you advance warning of which creatures are trying to attack your plants.

Traps and barriers are more often seen in the vegetable garden than flowerbeds. Everyone is familiar with the use of ‘slug pubs’, but a ring of bran around vulnerable plants may also offer some protection. Insect netting is perfect for preventing moths and butterflies from laying eggs that develop into caterpillars, but you need to check regularly that none have found a way inside and also that birds and other wildlife haven’t become entangled.

As a last resort, there are organic products available for controlling pest attacks. Biological controls introduce more predators (usually microscopic) into your environment to help restore the balance. Biological controls are targeted to specific pests, such as red spider mite or slugs. More general insect sprays will deal with aphids and other flying insects, but need to be applied carefully to avoid killing beneficial insects at the same time. And if slugs are your nemesis then you can even buy environmentally friendly slug pellets that aren’t harmful to other wildlife, pets or children.

Chemical-free slug control

  • Slugs and snails won’t cross copper barriers. Copper rings are ideal for protecting individual plants, copper tape can be applied to the rims of containers, or you can stand pots on copper mats.
  • Cloches made from clear plastic drinks bottles will shelter seedlings from bad weather and protect them from slug and snail attacks.
  • Rings of coffee grounds and other gritty substances encourage slugs to look elsewhere for a meal.
  • Collecting slugs by hand is not everyone’s idea of fun but can be very successful. Looks for slugs hiding under stones or leave grapefruit peel out for them to congregate underneath. Planting a row of sacrificial lettuces will ensure you know exactly where your slugs are, but you will then have to find a way to dispose of them. If your compost heap has a lid then try confining them inside, where they can help decompose your plant wastes.

This article is brought to you in association with Crazylegs Pest Control, the best exterminator in southfield.