Garden Blog

Tips and Ideas for a No-spray Garden.

Tobacco Hornworm preys on tomatoes as well as tobacco.

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.

Written by Chris Smith, author of The Whole Okra, and Executive Director of The Utopian Seed Project, follow him on Instagram at @blueandyellowmakes.