Written by Dale Richardson - Updated: June 23, 2023
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Just like a weed is any plant growing where you don't want it, so a pest is a bug that is eating a plant you don't want it to. But just because we happened to plant a succulent green in a spot where a bug decides to stop for a meal, does not mean that we have the right to kill this bug with some of the most noxious chemicals known to science. Let us look at how to grow vegetables without pesticides.
To grow vegetables without pesticides, the most important place to start is to cultivate a healthy garden. A healthy, infestation-free garden should also be home to beneficial bugs, birds, and other animals. Avoiding monocropping and practising crop rotation will also reduce "pests" in your garden. Planting according to the insect life cycles, and mulch between your plants will also help your garden without pesticides.
Applying pesticides has become a common practise in many gardens. However, by changing how we manage our garden, our home-grown vegetables can become pesticide-free.
Read Next: How big to make your vegetable garden.
Benjamin Walsh, The Practical Entomologist (1866)
Even 200 years ago, and probably since the creation of vegetable cultivation, people have been looking for a miracle quick fix to the pests that invade our food crops. And while nature does perform daily miracles, there are no quick fix solutions in the natural world. Pesticides are an unnatural quick fix.
A vegetable garden is about life. Pesticides are about killing pests, and this doesn't mix with the cultivation of living things. Using pesticides views the natural world as a problem that needs human correction. Our garden is a piece of land where we collaborate with nature to grow our food. In most cases, bugs infest our garden because something is out of sync. The best way to grow without pesticides is to look at our vegetable patch and put it back in balance as nature intended it to be.
A healthy plant will be able to survive an insect invasion and can ward off the assault. A distressed plant is susceptible to bugs, so our first goal of the garden should be to create ideal growing conditions to support our plants.
The first place to start is with good soil health. Adding compost, manure, or green manures to your soil will provide vital nutrients to each plant so it is healthy enough to ward off bugs. Organic matter like this will also help ensure that each plant has adequate moisture and drainage, and it will balance soil pH to stimulate healthy plant growth.
When planting your garden, it is also important to provide good air circulation around your plants, and ensure that the plants have enough space to maximize photosynthesis in the foliage.
Read Next: The pros and cons of a west-facing garden.
Image by Carmen Edenhofer
While it might seem that attracting more bugs would only make a "pest" problem worse, the key is to attract the right kind of insects . Many bugs will prey upon the bugs that are invading your garden, and bringing in these good bugs will get rid of the bad ones. This can be as simple as growing a few wildflowers that naturally attract the bugs you want . Alternatively, some plants will deter the bad bugs, so planting these beside a vulnerable crop can help protect it.
Our gardens should be a haven for all life, and we should try to attract all the creatures we can. Birds, rodents, amphibians, and other critters will all move into a healthy garden and eat the bugs that are devastating your crop. If any of these critters become an "issue" something else will come and keep them in check, and nature will continue in a positive direction. When we spray pesticides, we not only kill the "bad" bugs, but we drive off or kill everything else that could be beneficial.
Monocropping is one of the most detrimental practises used in modern agriculture. Not only does it strip a large area of the soil of nutrients, but it opens up an entire field to disease, and creates an all-you-can-eat buffet for insects. In a home vegetable garden, the plantings are usually small enough to avoid these issues. However, if your garden is particularly susceptible to a certain insect, you might want to avoid monocropping even on a small scale.
For example, if your carrots are being harassed by the carrot fly, consider dispersing your carrots amongst other plants. This way, the carrot fly won't be as drawn to your garden, and if they do come, they won't be able to eat your whole crop in one go. From our point of view, a few feet of carrots is a small planting, but to a tiny bug, this is a huge neighbourhood to settle and raise a family.
Unless there is some imbalance, plants in nature do not grow in straight lines of a single species, and we can mimic nature's irregularities to remove imbalances in our own garden. By mixing your vegetables together, you can confuse or even deter bugs from moving in en masse.
Image by Carmen Edenhofer
Crop rotation is a very valuable tool to stave off pests. In nature, when one plant becomes too abundant, something will come in and destroy it to put nature back in balance. In some cases, such as Monarch butterflies moving in to feed on an over-populated thistle patch, this is a good thing. In our garden, however, the carrot fly eating our entire crop is not.
In your garden, move families of plants around so they do not grow in the same area year after year. On average, a four-year rotation is best since it gives bugs plenty of time to die off or move on. So, if your one plot grew lettuce last year, do not plant any green leafy crop there for the next three years.
When planning your crop rotation, remember that some plants may seem unrelated but are in the same family. For example, kale and Brussels sprouts are related, and thus affected by similar bugs.
Another way to minimize insect issues naturally is to plant according to the bug's life cycle. If a particularly nasty bug in your area hatches and feasts at a certain time of the year, consider delaying sowing susceptible plants to miss the bugs completely. Alternatively, you might be able to plant earlier to harvest before the bugs become a problem.
Barren soil rarely exists in nature. Where it does, you often have a desert and not many people would want to try and grow a vegetable garden in the Sahara. In the garden, insects see bare soil as a chance to thrive and breed. Mulching with any natural substance (straw, newspaper, cardboard, leaves, etc.) will cover this dead space and make it less inviting for pests. Not only that, it will retain moisture and help strengthen your plants.
This is where green manures shine. A green manure is a crop that is planted between your vegetables as a living mulch and then tilled into the soil to add organic matter. Here is a link to help you choose the best green manure for your garden .
Image by Carmen Edenhofer
Even in the best managed garden, problems will always arise. If you do have bug problems, the ideas above will take time while nature gets back in balance. When bugs do become an issue, we should never reach for that tantalizing can of poison. Instead, here are a few other temporary solutions to try.
The surge of chemical pesticide use came after World War II. Most of the pesticides used today to grow food are derived from the chemicals produced in Nazi concentration camps and gas chambers. Today, many of these chemicals have been developed to eradicate a selected insect but still do more damage than intended. In 1962, the highly controversial Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published (and subsequently banned in many places), which pointed out how pesticides were adversely affecting the environment.
Though some may say this book is extreme and overly dramatized, reading the label on a modern agriculture pesticide clearly shows how damageing these chemicals still are. Many agriculture chemicals are so toxic they require special certification to handle. Yet large tanks of them are loaded onto tractors and sprayed on our food, the soil, and into the water.
Quality in our gardens must always go up, and not only the quality of the food but of the soil, water, relationships, birds, flowers, trees...and the bugs, too. Spraying pesticides takes all our hard work, and takes a step backward. Our self-sufficient garden should always be a step towards a sustainable future.
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