Bug-proof your garden naturally
Love your garden, but also love the wildlife? Gardening editor Alice Whitehead looks at chemical-free ways to deal with kitchen garden pests, so you can reap your harvest without a grim reaping.
© National Trust Images/John Millar
Taking tea at Attingham Park in Shropshire is a tradition that stretches back to the 1920s. The former Lady Berwick would serve up a brew to guests using a silver tea set in the Sultana Room at the 18th-century mansion – and today visitors still tuck into the National Trust property's dainty club sandwiches layered with fresh salad leaves from the walled garden. And it's not just the kitchen staff that contribute to Attingham's famous afternoon tea, senior gardener Katherine Dowd plays an important part too – in her role as chief slug sleuth.
Battle of the bugs
During spring and summer, Katherine conducts daily inspections of the lettuce patch for those telltale trails, but heading up Attingham's certified organic garden means chemical sprays and blue pellets are not part of her arsenal. Instead, she runs rings around them. 'With 15,000 lettuces supplied to the tearoom each year, we have to make sure we win the battle of the bugs!' says Katherine. 'Last year was a perfect storm of conditions for slugs – a warm winter and wet spring – and this led to huge numbers of them, so we started putting rings of wool pellets around vulnerable plants to keep the slugs away and they have worked really well.'
But it's not just the slugs that are dealt with naturally at Attingham, weevils and beetles, mites and moths are all given a reprieve from toxic chemicals and lethal remedies too. And, with so many garden pesticides being withdrawn from garden centres these days due to their damaging effects on the eco-system and soil, isn't about time we all began gardening more in harmony with nature? 'Many of us enjoy growing and eating our own veg, but sometimes we forget that other creatures find them tasty too! Why should we should dictate where they can and can't live?' says Katherine. 'In the Victorian era they would have accepted holes in carrots and potatoes, but today we expect things to be pristine.'
Finding out more about our garden foes is crucial in understanding them better, and learning how to live with them. Gastropods, such as slugs, are often regarded as the scourge of the seedbed, but in fact they do some valuable jobs: breaking down plant matter, dispersing seeds and mulching with their slug poop. Much maligned insects such as beetles and wasps are actually 'winged pesticides' that keep the real pests, such as aphids, under control. Encourage and attract these natural predators by providing shelter and habitats for them. For instance, by providing lacewing chambers, butterfly feeders, ladybird houses, or simply just a stack of tree prunings, and you'll see a dramatic change in the number of green, white and black fly you see.
Of course, it's easy for this finely tuned eco-system to get out of balance – especially if climatic conditions conspire against you – and if a bug infestation occurs there are still many things you can do, without reaching for the toxic sprays. Try confusing the critters with companion planting. This means placing strong-smelling plants next to plants that don't, in order to confuse the pest's smell-based navigation system, such as marigolds next to tomatoes or onions and leeks near carrots. Or plant a row of more attractive 'sacrificial' plants next to the ones you want to keep, like nasturtiums next to cabbages (very attractive to butterflies looking to lay eggs). Crush garlic into water and spray onto your cabbages and flea beetles will bolt; while slugs will be less likely to munch on young leaves that have been sprayed with water laced with coffee granules.
Creating a barrier between the bug and your beloved crops can also be a good deterrent. For slugs, a ring of sharp-edged eggshells works well or copper tape, which is thought to give the slug an unpleasant tingling sensation when they cross it. For flying insects, such as cabbage white butterflies, you can't beat netting – and this can discourage the bigger creatures too. 'Squirrels seem to instinctively know exactly when our cherries and apricots are ripe,' says Katherine. 'One morning, the fruit will be ready to pick; by the afternoon the squirrels have stripped the tree bare! Now, we've learnt to net the entire tree canopy with fine mesh just before the fruits ripen.'
Ultimately any protection has to start with prevention. Growing crops in different locations each year and good housekeeping can help reduce a build-up of pests and diseases. And just as the root of all good cream teas starts with the quality of tea leaves – a productive garden stems from the soil. 'The very best way to tackle pests is to make the plant as healthy as possible at the beginning. Improving and enriching the soil will give plants the best possible start and help them withstand any poor weather or pests that come along,' says Katherine. 'Once the foundations are set, nature will do the rest for you.'