Organic gardeners have to think differently than those who just putter about in the dirt.
They have just as many diseases, insects and weeds to worry about, but lack the option of grabbing a pesticide off the shelf and hosing down the offending pest while screaming .
The closest most of us get to organic gardening is to put down a layer of mulch. Even though it takes a bit more thought than most of us are used to, it is to your benefit to at least try some of the methods organic farmers use.
To begin with, good gardening, organic or otherwise, begins and ends with a healthy soil. Healthy plants grow in healthy soil. And, healthy plants are better able to fight off diseases, insects and environmental stresses. Too much fertilizer, contrary to popular opinion, isn’t any better for your plants than stuffing yourself with cheesecake. It actually causes plants to have thinner cell walls and make them much more vulnerable.
Think about what you’re going to plant before you plant them. Different plants can behave differently under the same conditions and can display greater or lesser resistance to pests. Try more than one type to get a good idea which ones are best suited for your situation. Rotate your “crops.”
We’re not talking about farming the back 40. The same principle applies no matter how large or small your garden is. It’s just the smart thing to do. This is especially true with tomatoes and root-knot nematodes.
Not all bugs and weeds are bad. Ladybird beetles, lacewings, spiders and wasps should be welcomed into your garden with open arms. They consume their weight on the bad guys every day and are a cost-free benefit. If your garden doesn’t seem to have enough hanging around, you can purchase many of them.
A number of websites sell ladybird beetles, lacewings, and preying mantids You can also purchase a tiny wasp called Encarsia formosa for controlling whiteflies. You can use “weeds” as trap crops. If the bad guys are feeding on the weeds, they may not be attacking your veggies. Weeds also offer a place for the good guys to hang around.
Also, try using physical barriers. Copper sheets or strips will repel slugs and snails. Once your veggies and fruits have stopped blooming, a fine-meshed cloth can be placed over your plants to protect them from insect pests. Netting will also protect your ripe fruit from hungry birds.
If you have to use a pesticide, there’s options. Neem oil has both insecticidal and fungicidal properties. Pyrethrum and nicotine are among the first insecticides (arsenic was the third). Both are plant extracts. Pyrethrum from Chrysanthemums and nicotine from tobacco. Pyrethrum should be available at most garden centers. Nicotine is available over the internet.
The successful gardener, organic or otherwise, anticipates their gardens needs. If you have to react to a problem, it’s probably too late to do anything about it. It’s easier to pinch a small caterpillar between your thumb and forefinger than to try and get rid of it after it’s eaten most of your tomato plant.
Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535.