Herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides… which for what, what for where, how and when?

Farmers who love farming, and gardeners who love gardening would much rather be outside in the sunshine with their hands full of dirt, than toiling through mountains of material safety data reports. Pest and disease prevention is, however, an unwavering commonality for every grower; and there are as many chemical “solutions” available as there are pests.

How do you decide which ‘icide to use, which is most beneficial for the dollar, which has the least fallout for your land, which are the longest acting – and most importantly, do they work at all and if so, are they safe to use around children, pets and the food you will be eating?

Generally speaking, chemical solutions to natural problems rarely work beyond the very short term.  And when fighting nature with synthetic strategies, there is always a price to pay… sometimes just a dollar price, but often with the price of your own health. Chemical deterrents for insects and animals are indiscriminate killers. Chances are, if it isn’t safe enough for you to eat, you don’t want it on or near your food crops… and you certainly wouldn’t want it in the bodies of your children. In fact, the reason why a vast majority of people grow their own food to begin with, is to provide a safer, healthier alternative to commercially grown food.  

035squareOur natural world offers healthy alternatives to nearly every difficulty that growers are faced with. Whether it be inviting native wildlife to eat up rodents who are otherwise eating up your crops, or utilizing the natural properties of certain plants to repel insects from other plants, or even nurturing soil properties to prevent disease processes in your vegetables, nature has already created strategies – we just have to identify and implement them.

Farmers and gardeners who work with nature, instead of against it, will find that the answers are more plentiful, and even less difficult, than they seem. Natural pest control options are available to every backyard, every garden, and every farm – no matter where you grow.  Just take a real close look at our natural world and learn to incorporate natural solutions. These methods are almost always safer, healthier, smarter and cheaper than modern approaches to primitive problems.

Earth has been a grower since the beginning of time and the secret of her success is in the “law of least effort”. Instead of fighting natural rhythms, the planet flows with them by nurturing multi-species relationships and encouraging all the living creatures within an ecosystem to perform the work that keeps that system in balance.  It’s a lot like we were taught growing up – if everybody does a little bit of the work, then nobody has to do all of the work… that kind of fairness creates a harmony that’s healthy for everyone involved. We can learn from this ancient arrangement – we can even manipulate and exploit some of these natural processes in order to maintain a nice balance in our own cultivated ecological endeavors.

Think of your farm, your garden, your back yard and even a singular flower bed as an ecosystem in itself. In a healthy, natural environment, there is a method of checks and balances that keeps the plants and animals fed, thriving and useful. There are means to prevent diseases and to limit pests by using the same techniques that have been at work in our natural world from the start. Sure, there’s a little work involved, but trust me, it’s much less mind-numbing than decoding chemical data sheets. Nature’s ways are much more beneficial to the health of any biotic network, including your organized ecological community.

Your first step is to identify what is living in your ecosystem. Take a day, in three shifts, to really look at what you’re trying to create from your dirt and your sunshine. Spend the morning quietly watching which animals and insects are gathering – and then do the same thing in the middle of the day – and again at the end of the day.  In between shifts, enjoy a nice walk-about to familiarize yourself with what kinds of wild plants are growing on and around your property.  You’ll most likely notice that in addition to native bushes, trees, grasses and vines, you may also have many foreign plants that have taken root there as well.

After you’ve gotten your inventory, take a look at what plants and animals are native to your area – which  birds, reptiles, mammals, insects and plants are supposed to be there. Many native wild animals provide beneficial services to growers, such as regulating the populations of others.  With a little thought, these helpful creatures can be incorporated into your space – usually it’s as simple as inviting them to dinner.

Native wildlife prefers a native diet. It’s true. Ask any bunny and he will tell you that he’d rather have a tummy full of dandelion and clover than anything in our boring old gardens anyway. By discovering which plants should naturally thrive around you, you’ll be a step closer to balancing your mini ecosystem.

For instance, most songbirds are omnivores, in addition to berries and seeds they do a great job of regulating insect populations – so get rid of invasive plant species that are uselessly taking up your space, and add the things that the birds would naturally eat. Lure them in with native grasses, huckleberries, elderberries, trumpet creeper and such -then watch as your pesky garden insects become the icing on the cake for many a happy songbird. Stay a step ahead of the bugs and get sweet bird songs to boot.

You’re going to be digging and planting anyway, why not garden for your wildlife too? By mimicking nature’s solutions to ecosystem imbalances, you achieve a more organic approach to your own ecological creation. An added benefit to gardening for your wildlife is that many native plants provide you with a delicious treat as well. Who doesn’t enjoy a pocket full of muscadines, or fresh blackberries in their pancakes?

Encouraging beneficial insects to patrol the garden helps keep the “bad bugs” to a minimum. We all know that pollinators like honey bees and butterflies are essential for a healthy garden. There are many other little bugs that are garden-friendly as well. Lady bugs, dragonflies, spiders, fire flies and wasps are just a few that enjoy dining on the insects (and larvae) that reap havoc in our garden spaces.

In addition to songbirds and beneficial insects, another way to discourage the bad bugs is by companion planting – tuck herbs and flowers in between your vegetable plants. Many herbs – like garlic, chives, basil, mint and rosemary – repel harmful insects. An herb garden is valuable in many other ways too, from jazzing up your kitchen creations, to delicious teas and organic remedies, growing herbs is a “should do” for anyone who enjoys encouraging the soil to bring up life.

A truly healthy ecological structure requires diversity in order to keep that balance of “enough but not too many”.  Don’t limit your wildlife invitations to just the birds, they’re great for daytime work, but most of them clock out when the sun goes down. For this reason, you’ll also want to invite bats, toads and frogs to help you keep your mosquitoes and other nocturnal insects to a minimum. On sultry August evenings, you’ll be glad you did.

Hawks, owls and snakes should join your community as well, they will be glad to keep the birds, squirrels, rabbits, rats and mice in check. Some raptors, especially red shouldered hawks, will help prevent snake populations from getting intrusive. Hawks and owls go hand in hand, by staffing both the day shift and the night shift you get 24 hour rodent coverage – and some of your owls will even eat skunks, opossums and armadillos too.

Even though your guest list is growing, don’t worry, this system is self regulating. By offering your hospitality to the wild things, you keep niches filled with what works. With plants and animals alike, if you take away one species, another will quickly slide into its place. This is why trapping and/or killing garden pests doesn’t work in the long run – something is standing at the backdoor ready to take its place.

By letting natural patterns work for you, that balance is more readily achieved. Just like a natural ecosystem, your garden is circular in nature, with everything touching something else in the loop. Taking the time to nurture this natural balance within your cultivated spaces will not only start to pay off quickly, it does eventually learn to keep itself – giving you more time to enjoy the fruits of your labor instead of just working for them.