With the weather getting a little warmer – and wetter – this cottage dweller’s thoughts turn to the garden. Every morning, as Little Missy and I feed our hens, I try to incorporate a few seasonal jobs: weeding around the blackcurrant bushes, poking at the pots of perennial herbs to see if they’re still alive, a little apple tree pruning. It’s time to take out the box of vegetable seeds and see what we’ll be growing this year. But mind the pests!
Are you fed up with carrot root fly attacking your lovingly tended seedlings or your hostas being reduced to Swiss cheese by slug attacks? Caroline Hennessy takes a look at some common garden pests and finds out how to deal with them organically. First published on SilverCircle.ie in 2009.
Violent death, mass murder and bloodshed – just another day in the life of a gardener trying to cope with the numerous pests to which a typical garden is prey. However, when you use poisonous pellets for the slugs and toxic sprays on the aphids, you are also endangering friendly wildlife that could help you with those problems.
Jean Perry of Glebe Gardens in west Cork has been growing organically for more than 30 years. She firmly believes that avoiding pesticides builds a self-regulating micro-environment. Situated just outside Baltimore, Perry’s five well-managed acres include a highly productive kitchen garden and two polytunnels that supply the on-site café with fruit and vegetables. Despite the larger scale and the fact that the café is dependent on the garden produce, the pests that Jean has to deal with are the same as anyone trying to grow a few plants in their back garden.
Slugging it out
The number one problem, and one that she is constantly asked about at her weekend gardening classes, is slugs and snails. “There isn’t any one real answer,” Perry says, pointing out that she relies on a multi-pronged attack of distraction, barriers and removal. “With new lettuce plants or anything very tender, I try to put down old cabbage leaves or a scooped out grapefruit shell. I think they prefer decaying organic matter.” With the slugs gathered together, you can easily collect and dispose of them.
Surrounding plants with barriers of dry material is also effective: “I dry out egg shells, whizz them up in the blender and scatter them around plants like hostas, delphiniums and cana lilies.”
When all else fails, Perry heads out at night with her torch to pick the snails and slugs directly off the plants. If you have a small garden, she observes, biological controls such as nematodes (tiny worm-like animals that kill slugs) are useful, as is surrounding particularly precious plants with copper barriers.
Methods of disguise
Glebe Gardens is close to the sea so it avoids the worst effects of carrot root fly because that particular pest doesn’t like the wind. However, it can still make its presence felt. Despite the name, it doesn’t limit itself to carrots but also attacks parsnips, celery and even parsley. Perry needs a regular supply of carrots for the café and she swears by horticultural fleece. She covers the crop with a layer to prevent the flies from laying their eggs.
Other methods that she recommends include: putting a polythene barrier around your carrots – the flies travel low and, if they hit something, they tend to go up and over it; planting garlic and onions to disguise the smell; and sowing sparingly so that you don’t have to thin and release carrot scent into the atmosphere.
Ultimately, the best way of dealing with destructive garden insects is in a proactive manner. Make sure your seedlings are strong before planting them out so that they are less liable to succumb to attacks. Encourage biodiversity in the garden with log piles for slug-eating beetles and hedgehogs; some overgrown grass for ladybirds so that they keep your aphids in check; and by growing plants like forget-me-nots, sunflowers, fennel and cornflowers that will attract birds, bees and other beneficial insects. And remember: there’s no one way of totally eradicating pests organically – it’s much better to learn to live with them.
Glebe Gardens, Baltimore, Co Cork
Jean Perry runs regular weekend gardening courses. The 2012 schedule is up now at:
My account of a weekend gardening course with Jean:
Gardening at the Glebe
After a very enjoyable trip there last summer, I would highly recommend the café at Glebe Gardens: the freshest produce from the gardens – including plenty of free-range eggs from the on-site hens – thoughtfully cooked and beautifully presented. We called in for coffee one morning and ended up spending most of the day there, taking a stroll around the garden to work up an appetite for lunch, which we ate on the sun-soaked terrace. Open from Easter to September.