Tips for gardening organically

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.

gardening organically
Highgrove proves organic can be beautiful

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.

gardening organically
Starting veg plants in modules is one way to combat pests

“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.

gardening organically
Nettles can be used to make plant food

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.

gardening organically
Snails hide in all sorts of places

“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.

gardening organically
A bug hotel is easily made

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.

gardening organically
Growing organically beautifully, Hookshouse Pottery in Gloucestershire

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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Put the buzz in your garden

Gardeners are being asked to think of the bees when planning their borders.

Loss of habitat, climate change and disease, most notably the Varroa mite, mean the country’s bee population is under threat putting both commercial crops and ornamental gardens at risk as pollination levels drop.

“Habitat changes have had the most significant impact on pollinator numbers,” says bee expert Keren Green. “All pollinators, including bees, need food and a home.”

Keren is a commercial bee farmer and keeps around 50 honeybee hives around the Three Counties, as well as working as a Seasonal bee inspector.

Bees can visit up to 1,000 flowers a day
Bees can visit up to 1,000 flowers a day

She explains that bees are divided into different groups: honeybees that live in colonies of between 50 and 60,000 and overwinter, feeding off food stores; bumblebees that have smaller nests of around 150, which die off in the autumn; solitary bees, which include leafcutter, mining and mason bees.

Worldwide there are more than 25,000 species of bees with around 270 in the British Isles, made up of one species of honeybee, 26 bumblebees, including short and long tongued, and the rest solitary bees.

Each transfers pollen between plants while collecting nectar, enabling the setting of fruit and seeds; bees can travel in a three-mile radius to forage and can visit up to 1,000 flowers a day.

And it’s making sure that gardens have a wide range of plants, with different flower shapes, particularly single or bell-shaped blooms, that will be the key to maintaining a healthy bee population.

“Make sure when you’re planting for these insects that you have plants that accommodate both short and long-tongued bees,” advises Keren.

bees
Lavender is a good source of nectar

It is also important to provide forage and habitat all year, not just the summer months when flowering plants are more abundant, and Keren suggests flowering shrubs and trees as a way of extending the nectar season.

Among the suggested plants for early in the year are crocus, ivy, pussy willow, snowdrops and mahonia. Spring and early summer see aquilegia, wisteria, wallflowers and fruit trees, while summer has a vast range of suitable plants, such as hollyhocks, sunflowers, lavender, campanula and delphiniums. Meanwhile, suggestions for autumn, which is important to build up hives before winter, include asters, Japanese anemones and dahlias.

“Even if you’ve got a small garden you can make it attractive with plants that are good for pollination.”

Even so, one of Keren’s top suggestions is unlikely to find favour with many gardeners: the dandelion.

“It is high in nectar, easy to grow and requires little or no attention,” she says. “For years I had been pulling them up and then I took up bee-keeping. Now our lawn is peppered with dandelions.”

Other wild flowers may be more appealing and the fashion for wild flower meadow planting is benefitting our native pollinators.

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Patches of wild flowers are good for pollinators

“It’s very important. Bringing native plants in gives the right type of flowers. Just leave a corner to have some dandelions,” adds Keren, with a smile.

National Honey Week is led by the British Beekeepers Association. More details are available from http://www.bbka.org.uk/

The RHS Perfect for Pollinators list is available at www.rhs.org.uk Look out for the pollinators symbol on plant labels. More information is also available from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust at http://bumblebeeconservation.org/

Gardeners are being asked to report any sightings of the Asian Hornet, an invasive species that is a honey bee predator and has recently been found in France. Smaller than the European hornet, it has an entirely dark brown or black body with a yellow fourth segment on its abdomen. Details on http://www.bbka.org.uk/

Details of Government policy on pollinators is available on http://www.gov.uk