Our little garden is bursting with spring greens and berries. The tomatoes are finally inching their way up the trellis and tiny flowers grace the peppers. We’ve been enjoying fresh garden salads and bowls of sun-ripened strawberries.
We’ve also been battling bugs. Lots of bugs: asparagus beetles, squash bugs (despite not planting squash), rolly pollies, slugs, and aggressive ant colonies, just to name a few. These pesky bugs are an organic gardener’s nemeses.
I love knowing that our little garden spot is free of pesticides. It just means I need to find other ways to combat the big problem with organic gardening: bugs.
A ladybug on patrol (photo credit)
Fighting garden pests organically
Know your enemy (and ally)
The first step to fighting bad bugs in the garden is to know which bugs are enemies and which ones are friends. All bugs are not bad bugs. Even scary-looking bugs may end up being allies in disguise. Lacewing larva, for example, are fierce-looking allies that eat up to 100 aphids a day!
(Full disclosure: links to products in this post are my referral links.) From left to right, the bugs on book cover are: asparagus beetle (bad), lacewing (good), and potato beetle (bad).
Good Bug, Bad Bug is my favorite bug field guide. It has beautiful full-color illustrations of the most common garden pests, concise descriptions of what plants they attack, and how to organically fight them. The best part of the book is the section on “heroes in the garden,” which has descriptions of fourteen voracious good bugs organic gardeners should try to attract and encourage in the garden.
Water and feed plants regularly
A plant that is stressed from under (or over) watering makes a prime target for bad bugs. Plants that are struggling from lack of nutrients put up a feeble defense. Not only do vibrant, healthy plants not seem to attract as many bad bugs, they ward off attacks much better.
It’s much easier to squash the first bad bugs of a season than to deal with the colony once they’ve multiplied. A bit of vigilance in checking plants for bad bug scouts helps keep serious problems at bay.
Sometimes, despite my efforts, bad bugs get a footing anyway. Although bugs make me squeamish, I am trying to imitate Will’s enthusiasm for bugs of all sorts and get over it. Together, we have mounted all-out assaults on squash bugs and asparagus beetles. Much to my surprise, these “battles” ended up being quite fun mother/son activities, even though they involved picking up live bugs and dropping them into warm soapy water. I’m grateful I had my five-year-old to bolster my courage.
There are several simple, organic ways to proactively ward off bad bugs: covering vulnerable plants with gauze-like cloth, attracting good bugs with flowering plants, interspersing the garden with companion herbs that help ward off bad bugs, and clearing garden debris in winter.
For those of us with chickens, letting them peck through the garden at the end of the season and again in early spring might help cut down on overwintering bad bugs… though the chickens aren’t smart enough to avoid good lacewing or ladybug eggs.
Freshly picked lettuce, spinach, and kale. Even though it has a few bug bites, I think it’s beautiful.
As a culture, we’ve grown so used to “perfect” pesticide-protected produce that it’s hard to view a leaf of spinach with a bug bite or two as perfect. It’s time to redefine perfect. Flavorful, sun-ripened, pesticide-free produce should make the cut, even if it has a bug bite in it.
Overcoming the big problem with organic gardening
There’s something so invigorating and refreshing about tending my own little garden space. Not only is playing in the dirt a scientifically proven method for boosting your mood, it is so fun getting to serve my family freshly picked, pesticide-free food. It does mean fighting the organic gardener’s nemisis, but it is worth it.