Worried about wildlife but don’t know how to kick the chemical habit? I’ve been finding out about gardening organically.
It’s not so long ago that gardening organically was considered a bit strange. When I first started writing about gardens, I could number those that used no artificial fertilisers or sprays in single figures. Nowadays, I frequently meet gardeners who have decided to grow more naturally, spurred on by reports of the threat to wildlife and concerns about pesticides on food.
And if organic suggests an ugly mix of weed-smothering old carpet, diseased roses and slug-ravished hostas, you need look no further than the Cotswolds’ flagship organic garden, Highgrove (pictured top), to see that organic can still be beautiful.
Yet, if you’re someone who’s used to reaching for the pellets to protect against slugs, or spraying at the first sign of greenfly, ditching the artificial answer can be a big step.
The important thing is not to expect an overnight fix, explains Elaine Shears, chair of the Gloucestershire Organic Gardening Group. It takes time to get the right mix of pests and their predators.
“You need to hang on as it takes a while to get the beneficials in place. Don’t reach for the chemical bottle and eventually you will get a really good balance.”
Elaine, who has been gardening organically for 30 years, describes it as a way of life and believes it’s important to treat the garden as a whole rather than limiting the spray-free zone to the vegetable patch.
“What you do in one part will affect plants in another part.”
Here are her ideas on where to begin.
Start at the bottom
The first step to a good organic garden is feeding the soil rather than the plants. Well-rotted farmyard manure, homemade leaf mould, compost made from garden and kitchen waste will improve the structure and nutrients in the soil.
Green manures – available from seed firms – are also a good way of protecting the soil over winter and adding nutrients, either directly to the border or via the compost heap.
“You can dig them in, cut the tops off and put them in the compost or dig the whole thing up and compost it.”
Elaine also advises rotating crops around the veg plot rather than growing the same type in the same place year after year. This will help stop the build-up of disease and protect the soil’s fertility, as different crops require different things.
Make your own food
When you do need to feed plants, use something made from natural ingredients, such as seaweed or pelleted chicken manure, rather than an artificial fertiliser.
You can also make your own from comfrey or nettles: cover the leaves with water (weighting them down helps keep them wet) and leave to steep outside somewhere sheltered, preferably with a lid on as the mix will smell. Use the liquid diluted roughly 1:10; the darker it is, the more it needs to be diluted.
“I use comfrey liquid on my greenhouse tomatoes and I mulch the outside ones with comfrey leaves,” says Elaine.
Stop the pests
Most gardeners’ biggest enemies are slugs and snails and Elaine suggests a two-pronged offensive: reducing their number and protecting young plants.
Wet weather brings out slugs and snails and is the ideal time to gather them up, while regular checks under plant pots, in greenhouse corners and under leaves will help to keep the numbers down.
Plastic slug collars put around vulnerable plants help to protect them, as do copper bands and Elaine also uses cloches made from old drinks bottles.
“I don’t do a lot of direct sowing and tend to grow things in modules in the greenhouse,” she says. “With direct sowing, if I get a problem, I just have to do it again.”
When it comes to beating cabbage white butterflies, Enviromesh, a fine nylon mesh, is her choice but it must be set above the crop to stop the butterflies laying eggs through it. At the end of the season, Elaine puts it through the washing machine to clean it up ready for the next year.
Make good friends
Bring in wildlife to help you fight off pests by giving them what they need: food, drink and somewhere to shelter.
Water is important not only for birds but for attracting frogs and toads; Elaine has sunk half barrels into the ground as there’s no room for a pond.
Give wildlife somewhere to shelter: plenty of shrubs and trees for birds; a ‘bug hotel’ for things to overwinter in; or simply a more overgrown area.
“Don’t be too tidy,” advises Elaine.
Make sure fences have gaps under them to allow hedgehogs access into your garden and be careful when clearing piles of leaves in late autumn.
Put food out for birds year-round and grow flowers – particularly those with single rather than double blooms – to attract pollinators and things such as hoverflies that will also eat aphids. Mixing flowers with veg not only looks good, it also gets the good bugs where you want them.
Finally, Elaine suggests taking time to make sure you know who’s a friend and who’s a foe; it’s all too easy to squash a ladybird larvae by mistake.
• Gloucestershire Organic Gardening Group meets on the third Tuesday of the month at 7.30pm at St John’s Church Centre in Churchdown, Gloucestershire.
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