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Tips and Ideas for a No-spray Garden.

Originally published in Smoky Mountain Living Magazine, Gardener’s Corner (a Q&A series for gardeners by Chris Smith).

Spotted cucumber beetle eating an okra leaf - yellow body, black dots.

I like having a vegetable garden because of all the delicious food I can grow, but sometimes I feel as though I’m feeding the local wildlife more than my family. I don’t like the idea of spraying chemicals, even organic ones, so what are my options?

As someone who shares your no-spray philosophy, I really feel your frustration! Last year I spent at least 15 minutes every morning squishing yellow Mexican Bean Beetles, feeling worried about karmic ramifications, and still losing all the leaves on my bean plants. However, bees still frequented the small pink and yellow flowers, pods still grew and I still had a respectable bean harvest. Also, because this particular bean seemed to be their favorite, my other bean varieties were less affected and produced a good crop.

Mexican Bean Beetles chewing a lacy pattern in legume and cucurbit leaves.

So, we’ve already covered a few options here. Hand-picking is a go to tool for the home gardener. If finger-squishing makes you squeamish then carrying a bucket of soapy water and knocking the pests into the bucket is a less gruesome control method. Planting a sacrificial crop is another worthy tactic. My Cherokee Trail of Tears were hit bad, but their sacrifice allowed my Mountain Rose and Kentucky Wonder beans to thrive. I’ve found these ‘trap’ crops also work well for Brassicas (cauliflower, broccoli, kale, collards etc.). In my garden Dinosaur Kale seems popular amongst the cabbage moths, so a row of that keeps the caterpillars happy and my cabbage and broccoli survives relatively pest free.

Harlequin bugs are orange and black shield bugs that cause a lot of damage.

My favorite tool for no-spray gardening is nature. It’s a battleground out there, but the ecosystem approach to control is beautiful to see. Last year I noticed a few tomato hornworms chewing up my tomatoes. I decided to leave them be and sure enough, within a week or so, parasitic wasps had mummified the poor hornworm. You can help sway the tide of the battle by supporting the good guys. I have ducks to eat my slugs, bluebird boxes for caterpillar control, ladybug eggs to fight the aphids and host plants for the beneficial bugs (at Sow True Seed we sell a beneficial attractant mix for just this reason!).   

Tobacco hornworm succumbs to the parasitic wasp with white rice like eggs.

Chris Smith is Sow True Seed's Marketing and Communications, Chris comes from a green thumbed British family but has lived in the Southeast since 2012. He's a garden writer for local and national publications and is working on a book titled, In Defense of Okra, to be published by Chelsea Green. A student of permaculture, a seed saver (hoarder) and a homesteader committed to sustainable food systems. See more at www.indefenseofokra.com and www.blueandyellowmakes.com


4 comments

  • Sarah – it is not a cure all for all things and both products are easily washed around with rain or watering. Diatanecious earth is generally effective against soft bodied insects. I think ash is generally used as a soil amendment, but there is some evidence it can be used as a barrier against things like slugs.
    Carol – flea beetles are a common contender for putting holes in eggplants. Can you email a photo or tag us on instagram?
    Maybe bugs develop specific tastes in specific places…!

    Chris Smith
  • does sprinkling ashes or diatanecious earth help keep bugs and caterpillars away?

    Sarah
  • Something is eating holes in my eggplant. I examined the leaves and can’t find anything on them. The squash in the next bed is fine. Guess I’ll see what happens.

    carol
  • I think it’s funny that your dino kale attracts the cabbage worms from your other brassicas. Just this morning I was marveling at how the dino kale in my garden was relatively bug free, but the collards in the next row over were full of holes. The collards were also the only thing that the harlequin bugs were going after too. I was thinking of pulling them out, but after reading this, I might just let them be and keep a close eye on the bugs that way!

    Carneiros85

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