One of the most frequent questions I come across is how to prevent insects from demolishing your garden. The answer is both extremely complex and incredibly easy. The first step is always to check your soil health. What color is your soil? Is your soil healthy enough to sustain worms? Do you have an active ecosystem working with your roots? Just as our immune system is weakened when we are stressed and nutrient deprived our plants are less likely to to be able fight off insects and illnesses when they are stressed. Plants don’t have to juggle paying the bills every month and making sure our minions are alive and not assholes. Instead their stress comes from having improper nutrients, water, temperature, and sun. In later posts I will go into more detail on these, but here is a brief summary:
The sun part is easy, make sure your plants are in the correct shade for their species and you are good. Have a garden that is full sun but are planting some things that like partial shade? Plant them with some of the taller full sun plants. Corn and sunflowers are excellent for this.
Temperature is also easy, but not as easy as the sun. Plant your vegetables depending on the season. if there is frost predicted with your spring and fall plants make sure you cover them. If it gets too hot in the summer running a drip waterer can help alleviate some of the stress and keep things from bolting too early.
The next two, nutrient and water stress, are some of the most difficult to manage and can take a season or two to tackle in a regenerative manner. You want the soil to be a nice coffee colored loam with a layer of organic matter on top. While this can be artificially achieved by adding soil and compost tot he beds the real trick is to not have to spend money on adding soil to have optimum soil health. The best way to achieve this goal is by covering your soil. This can be done with compost, or grass clippings, leaves, even cardboard. I personally use grass clippings and straw. You want a thick enough layer that you don’t see your soil and you want to use a product that can be organically broken down. Decomposition is always your friend. Always. You also want to make sure to disturb your soil the least amount possible. Do not till anymore. Stop. You are hurting your plants by tilling every year. If your soil is so compact that you have to till every year in order to plant then your soil isn’t healthy enough to sustain plant life. You want to cultivate your fungal and bacterial life in your soil. This is what will help maintain proper nutrient and water content. I will expand on this in a later post, but for now just trust me. Once you have your soil working properly for you there will be less insects and disease. This takes time though, time many of us asking these questions don’t have. You have a plant that has insects, you need a solution now.
My eggplant bed covered in straw and grass clippings.
This is where companion planting comes in. I love companion planting. Companion planting can be utilized two ways. The first is as a bug repellent. Most bugs have a plant they really don’t like, plant it near the plants they do like. I plant borage in between my tomato plants every year to keep the hornworms away. In the past two years I have had three hornworms attack my tomato plants. It looks beautiful and the bees love it too. Flea beetles love eggplant, but hate garlic. I plant my garlic in the rows between my eggplants. When an annoying insect pops up in my garden the first thing I do is look up what plants repel them, then I try them out until I find what works.
borage next to a very thirsty tomato plant
You can also use companion planting to encourage beneficial insects into your garden to eat, or lay eggs on, the pest insects. One of my favorite for this is buckwheat. As a high nectar producing flower they attract insects like lacewings, parasitic wasps, ladybugs, and hoverflies. Each of these are voracious predators that help keep the bug populations in your gardens down. The bees love the buckwheat too, which is a huge plus when you are running an apiary by your garden. This year we sprinkled buckwheat among our garden beds, but in the following years we plan on dedicating at least 4 beds to buckwheat cover crops, rotating every year. Looks like I’ll be learning to harvest buckwheat soon! Pancakes anyone?
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