Tag Archive: organic


New border? February is a good time to cut out new areas ,like this one at Old school Garden, created last year

New border? February is a good time to cut out new areas, like this one at Old School Garden, created in 2012

Winter? What winter? I know that plenty of places have suffered from storms, floods and snow, but in Norfolk, apart from a few windy spells, the last few months have been pretty tame – as last year!  It might not be safe to assume that the worst of the winter is behind us, but Spring is just round the corner so here are my 10 top tips for action in the February garden.

1. Where the wild things are…

It’s the last chance to put up bird nesting boxes this month – tits will soon be looking for a new home. Keep putting bird food out to encourage these ‘gardener’s friends’ into your plot. Click here for bird boxes and feeders to buy.

Bird boxes in all shapes and sizes…

2. Breathe deep…..

To help avoid fungal diseases make sure you let some fresh air into your greenhouse or conservatory on mild days.

3. The green green grass of home….

Look at your lawn and if the weather is dry and frost free look for areas that are a bit soggy or damp – use a border fork to pierce it around every 15cms or so to allow ventilation and improve drainage. If you’ve a moss problem, start using ferrous sulphate to kill it off.

4. Fruit shoots…

If you haven’t already done so plant new bare-root raspberry canes (cut the stems down to about 25cms after planting) and also cut down autumn-fruiting varieties to ground level.

February is a good time to dig over your borders- but maybe not quite as deeply as this...

February is a good time to dig over your borders- but maybe not quite as deeply as this…

5. Get Cultivating…..

Keep digging over beds and borders and incorporate organic matter (compost, manure etc.) as you go to help improve its fertility. Forking over the ground will help to open it up so that air can get in and expose pests for hungry birds.

6. On the border…

The recent storms or cold may have battered your borders, or perhaps you’re thinking of adapting them to wetter weather? Now’s the time to review – do you need to reposition or replace some shrubs to improve the structure of the garden in winter or do some shrubs need to be replaced with more hardy/wet – tolerant varieties? Think about the way your borders look at different times of the year – is there ‘all season’ interest? Maybe you fancy creating a new border? – if so plan and mark the edges with pegs and lines (straight edges) or a trickle of sand/hose pipe for more organic shapes.

Pruning shrubs grown for their winter stem colour such as Dogwoods

Pruning shrubs grown for their winter stem colour such as Dogwoods

7. Cutting crew…

An important month for pruning and tidying:

  • Late summer and autumn flowering clematis should be cut down to about 30cms above a bud.

  • Improve the shape of evergreen shrubs and hedges where necessary

  • (If you haven’t already) cut all shoots coming from the permanent branches of Wisteria to 2-3 buds of the previous season’s growth (encourages the development of more flowering spurs).

  • Deciduous shrubs grown for their coloured leaves or winter stems– prune down to a couple of buds on each stem (or if you want a larger bush leave a few stems a bit longer).

  • Roses– cut out all dead, diseased, dying or crossing stems. Hybrid tea roses should be cut back to about 20cms to an outward facing bud and Floribundas (flowers in clusters) down to 25- 30cms. Shrub roses don’t need much trimming, perhaps remove 1 in 3 older stems at ground level to encourage new growth.

  • Tidy up the leaves of Hellebores which will be/are coming into flower –remove the old leaves (improves the flower display and reduces the chance of disease)

  • If you have Pansies or Primroses keep deadheading the spent flowers.

8. Gimme gimme…

Feed all your pruned plants with a suitable fertiliser and mulch with manure or compost. Remove the top layer of soil in containers and replace with fresh compost containing a slow release fertiliser once the weather is milder. Likewise remove or incorporate any remaining mulch around fruit trees and shrubs and feed them with an organic fertiliser (e.g. fish, blood and bone) around their roots. Then replace with a fresh mulch of organic material to help feed them slowly and keep the weeds down.

repair/install netting around fruit bushes

Repair/install netting around fruit bushes

9. Protect and survive…

Use garden fleece or cloches around some strawberry plants to encourage an early crop. Repair or replace netting over fruit bushes such as blackcurrants and gooseberries to protect them from birds (some of which like to eat fresh fruit buds). Have a look for ‘frost heave’– where cold conditions have pushed the base of a plant above ground- carefully replace the plant and firm around the base. If you have Hostas it might be worth applying a liquid slug killer to them (repeated at 2 fortnightly intervals) to give them a good chance of avoiding damage later.

10. Get growing…

Sowing seeds in trays or modules can really get underway this month

Sowing seeds in trays or modules can really get underway this month

Early vegetable and salad crops can be sown in seed trays or modules and placed in a greenhouse or inside on a windowsill in bright and airy conditions (but not in direct sunshine)- keep turning the trays to ensure even, upright growth and prick the seddlings out once the first true leaves have formed. Broad beans, early carrots and parsnips can be sown outside under cloches.

Old School Gardener

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compost bin‘Of composts shall the Muse descend to sing,

Nor soil her heavenly plumes? The sacred Muse

Nought sordid deems, but what is base; nought fair

Unless true Virtue stamp it with her seal.

Then, planter, wouldst thou double thine estate;

Never, ah never, be asham’d to tread

Thy dung heaps, where the refuse of thy mills,

With all the ashes, all thy coppers yield,

With weeds, mould, dung, and stale, a compost form,

Of force to fertilise the poorest soil.’

James Grainger 1721-66

PicPost: Organic Dreamscape

Old School Gardener

Bob Flowerdew- Compost King

Bob Flowerdew- Compost King

Think of compost as a must have rather than a waste product. This was the key message in organic grower and gardening celebrity, Bob Flowerdew’s talk to Norfolk Master Composters last night.

In a lively session peppered with amusing anecdotes and startling ‘factoids’, Bob enthused the audience with his knowledge of how plants respond to home-made compost and all the other DIY concoctions he uses in his own garden in South Norfolk. Including improving the flavour of home grown food, he said.

He isn’t one for feeding his open ground plants with anything much more than his home made compost, but swears by a combination of ‘teas’ to keep his container grown specimens in top condition – diluted liquid feeds of Comfrey, Borage, Stinging Nettles and compost all feature in a cycle of feeding during the growing season. And he reckons that apart from benefitting the overall strength and productivity of his pot plantings, they help to prevent diseases and pests by coating the leaves.

How compost tea as a plant feed makes a difference - Basil seedlings
How compost tea as a plant feed makes a difference – Basil seedlings

Bob’s basic thesis is that all plants expect compost- left to nature animal droppings and decaying organic material would provide them with all that they need to survive (along with sun, water and CO2 of course). By making our own compost and adding this to the ‘designed’ planting that is a garden, we are mimicking nature. And apart from the nutrients this rich mix can give, it also contains millions of micro organisms that are constantly in search of food and will themselves help to keep bacterial and fungal infections down- naturally.

Lovely stuff- and it makes such a difference to plant strength, health and productivity
Lovely stuff- and it makes such a difference to plant strength, health and productivity

And encouraging wildlife into our gardens not only for the role many can play in removing harmful pests, but in the droppings they leave on the ground (and maybe less usefully, our cars) is also a way of boosting the natural ingredients that plants need to thrive as well as survive. He is also a big fan of snails (but not slugs). Grazing in the main on algae, these critters get an overly negative press, he reckons. Their droppings are another fantastic addition to soils (like worm casts), and maybe we should even ‘farm’ them in a mini ‘Snailcatraz’ just to provide this material!

Bob also estimates that a Blue Tit can deposit 6lbs of droppings in a season- just one of his mind-boggling figures.

Snail Farming?
Snail Farming?

He is a great advocate of putting pretty much anything organic into his own compost heap (which he visits and cossets every day)- old clothing (cotton,wool and other natural fibres only of course), citrus peel (despite recommendations from some authorities to keep this out), wood and even ferrous metals- all will rot down in time he says, and add a wealth of nutrients back to your soil.

His zeal for the home-made stuff is matched by his dislike of pretty much any commercially manufactured composts. Most seed composts are not much good he says and likewise potting composts lack the oomph that can be had from your own material. And some commercial composts that use municipal – processed organic waste should be carefully inspected, he says, as he’s worried about what can get through the filtering processes. He cites an example of a lump of concrete in a bag he’d bought and is worried about small batteries that might leak mercury. Based on trials of his own versus the commercial compost rivals, his own seems to win every time.

I was particularly struck by his tip about how he sows and grows in pots using a layering of his own compost in the bottom 75% of a pot, topping off with a seed compost, in which he sows his seed- the plant, once germinated, is then able to seek out the richer mix of nutrients lower down. Commercial seed composts are generally low in nutrients as if they were richer this might prevent the germination of smaller seeds. Home-made (but sieved) compost can be used to sow and grow the larger, more robust seeds like melons, cucumbers and so on.

Bob is a self-confessed ‘compostaholic’, seeking out anything that can be added to his heap.

Along with human and animal hair and fur- and the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag – he sings the praises of bird feathers as a powerful source of nitrogen and therefore a wonderful activator in a compost heap (along with his own urine of course). And after several experiments he’s found that it’s OK to add bones to the heap as these too will rot down- but only if they’re ‘green’ and not cooked. The latter tend to splinter and will not easily rot down.

He also now looks on weeding as an exercise in gathering compost material – certainly a positive spin to what many see as an onerous task!

Pretty much any food scraps can be added to a compost heap
Pretty much any food scraps can be added to a compost heap

Again, perhaps controversially, he says putting food scraps, including meat and fish, on the heap is OK. These are often advised against because of the risk of attracting rats.

‘It’s likely that there is a rat somewhere within 15 feet of where we are sitting now’

he said last night, indicating that they are already around in the nooks and crannies of buildings as well as in the open. So, we don’t need to attract them , he says, as they are already there! But he does urge putting out poisoned bait alongside compost heaps that contain such material as a precaution.

The meeting also heard from David Hawkyard, County Coordinator of Master Composter, about the continued funding of the Norfolk Master Composter scheme for at least another year and plans to raise its profile to encourage more Norfolk households to compost at home. A wonderful ‘Compost Bin’ Cake – complete with very realistic apple cores and smiling worms – rounded off an enjoyable and thought- provoking evening.

NOTE TO SELF- get out and turn the compost heap!

Norfolk Master Composters won a Green Apple Award
Norfolk Master Composters won a Green Apple Award

Useful links:

Norfolk Master Composter Facebook Page

Garden Organic composting advice

Old School Gardener

bare_root_bundlesAs we roll on towards Christmas, you might be lucky to receive a present of some bare rooted shrubs like George Wellbeloved from the Scottish highlands:

‘I’ve been given a birthday present of some shrubs but the ground is frozen in the garden and I’m not sure what to do with them. Can you advise me?’

A belated Happy Birthday George, what a great idea for a present! Most shrubs and climbers, and especially deciduous ones sent out by mail order, are despatched with bare roots, not in containers. If they dry out they will die, so when they arrive, and there is not soil at all on the roots, stand them in a bucket fo water for a day or two in a cool, frost-free place until the soil is in a fit sate to plant them. Alternatively, store them for longer periods with their roots in damp compost – this can be ‘spent’ (old) rather than new if you have some (from emptying out summer flowering hanging baskets or other containers, for example).

If the plants arrive with some soil, on the roots, probably wrapped in netting, these are best watered carefully with a can fitted with a fine rose and then stored in moist compost. As soon as possible after arrival, dig  a trench in a vacant bed of soil, lay in their roots, and replace the earth. ‘Healed in’ like this the shrubs will stay in good condition for many weeks until the planting site is frost-free, fully prepared and in good condition.

When planting shrubs there are two schools of thought. The traditional method is to mix a good supply of well-rotted manure with loosened soil from the bottom of the planting hole, but if you can’t get hold of this, try using your own compost, or spent growing bags (you might be able to get hold of these from commercial tomato growers). Spent mushroom compost is also a possibility, as it usually contains some manure, but as it also contains chalk it should not be used for lime hating plants. Lastly, you can use shop-bought composts or bulky organic materials, though the latter can be pricey. Add a few handfuls of bone meal to the material you use to encourage root development.

The alternative method is to raise the fertility level of the soil around the planting site so that the plant’s roots are encouraged to spread out and so lead to more vigourous growth as the roots are encouraged to seek out nutrients more than if all the goodness is concentrated in the planting hole. Of course for ‘belt and braces’ job you can do both, or use your judgement about whether and how much  fertility needs to be added to the site of the planting. Increasing fertility in the space surrounding the planting hole may be impractical where there are already plants in this area or where you’re planting into a lawn. Here’s a useful guide to planting bare rooted trees.

You can also consider adding Mycorrhizal fungi in the planting hole. These are now widely available in Garden Centres and online. As the RHS says:

‘Mycorrhizas are beneficial fungi growing in association with plant roots, and exist by taking sugars from plants ‘in exchange’ for moisture and nutrients gathered from the soil by the fungal strands. The mycorrhizas greatly increase the absorptive area of a plant, acting as extensions to the root system.

Phosphorus is often in very short supply in natural soils. When phosphorus is present in insoluble forms it would require a vast root system for a plant to meet its phosphorus requirements unaided. It is therefore thought that mycorrhizas are crucial in gathering this element in uncultivated soils. Phosphorus-rich fertilisers are widely used in cultivated ground and not only reduce the need for this activity but are thought to actually suppress the mycorrhizas. For this reason it is best not to use phosphorous rich fertilisers in conjunction with mycorrhizal fungi.

Neither fungi nor plants could survive in many uncultivated situations without this mutually beneficial arrangement. Mycorrhizas also seem to confer protection against root diseases.’

Root tips showing mycorrhizal fungi (the white coating)
Root tips showing mycorrhizal fungi (the white coating)

Further information:

A Guide to planting bare root trees, shrubs and perennials- Toby Buckland

Mycorrhiza- Wikipedia

Old School Gardener

7 Ways to Save Our Soil

‘It takes as much as 500 years for topsoil to grow by 2cm so we need to grow our soils through innovative management techniques….’

Interesting article focused on agriculture, but with useful ideas for the home grower. By Louise Payton, Policy Officer at the Soil Association.

Old School Gardener

Winter Tares- good at protecting the soil, smothering weeds and maintaining nitrogen in the soil, once dug in. Picture from Garden Organic
Winter Tares- good at protecting the soil, smothering weeds and maintaining nitrogen in the soil, once dug in. Picture from Garden Organic

At one of my recent ‘Grow Your Own’ classes, one of the participants raised an interesting question about Green Manures (GM’s).

He wondered if it was actually worth growing green manures as additional sources of nutrients. He reasoned that as they use up nutrients from the ground there isn’t any real gain in the nutrients avialable to follow on crops. Like me, he had also heard that legumes, (peas and beans) do fix nitrogen from the air and therefore their roots are a source of additional supplies of this if dug into the soil. And he also mentioned that deeper rooting plants like Comfrey tap into nutrients that wouldn’t otherwise be available to plants with shallower roots, so making these available via their leaves once composted, and also from a  ‘tea’ made from these and applied as a liquid feed. So is this all correct?

I decided to contact my colleagues at Garden Organic and ask for their advice on all  this and got a very interesting reply from Francis, their Horticultural Research Manager:

Green manures and nitrogen

Legumes, when the temperature is warm enough and they have the right bacteria, will fix the nitrogen they need from the atmosphere. It is very true, and seldom appreciated, that if a legume crop (eg beans) is harvested then most of this nitrogen is taken away and not left in the soil. However, if the legume is grown as a green manure and dug in whole (usually in an immature state) rather than being harvested then there will certainly be a net benefit; nitrogen fixation (directly or indirectly via animal manures) is the main source of nitrogen for agriculture and horticulture in the absence of artificial fertilisers.

Non leguminous plants can only take up nitrogen from the soil as inorganic ions (ammonium but mainly nitrate). The latter is very soluble in water and so easily washed out by the rain and so lost from the soil, contaminating drinking water and rivers etc. A lot of work was done (some by Garden Organic) to demonstrate that one of the best ways of preventing this was by growing winter green manures such as rye. When this is dug in the nitrogen they have taken up is mineralised to be made use of by following vegetable crops.

Green manures and other nutrients

Other nutrients (especially the metals such as K, Mg etc) are more tightly held on the surface of the soil particles and so are not easily leached so it is true that green manures are less important for keeping them in the soil. However, some do have specific effects (eg buckwheat can help mobilise phosphorus and chicory is deep rooting and so is a source of trace elements from the subsoil that may have been depleted nearer the surface). All green manures will add organic matter to the soil which helps with structure and also stimulates microbial activity, important for general nutrient cycling.”

So, the net result is that there are several good reasons for using GM’s over the winter, including maintaining nitrogen where this would leach away from unprotected soil, weed reduction, protecting soil structure, and the addition of organic matter to help moisture retention and soil structure. However, the legume contribution to soil fertility (assuming you grow these to produce food), is of questionable value if left in the soil and dug in. Better to add animal manure or your own compost to boost nitrogen levels.

Comfrey- reaches the nutrients other plants cannot reach...and you can out them into your soil via a (smelly) tea made from their leaves
Comfrey- reaches the nutrients other plants cannot reach…and you can out them into your soil via a (smelly) tea made from their leaves

Further information:

Garden Organic and Cotswold Seeds have produced a useful advice booklet on soil improvement. It’s available as a pdf to download for free at  ‘Sort out your Soil’

Linked articles:

Green Gold – 7 reasons for using green manures

Green Gold: Where and when to use Green Manures

Green Gold: Making the most of green manures

Green Gold: 12 plants for soil improvement

Old School Gardener

How to make leafmould

Leafmould bin and wheelbarrow

A downloadable factsheet from the good folk at Garden Organic- just click on the link above.

Old School Gardener

Pest or Pal?

Pest or Pal?

This week’s question is on an issue that I’m in two minds about. Lorne Bowles from Teddington asks:

‘On damp days in Autumn (and Spring) my grass becomes covered with earthworm casts. I’d like to get rid of them somehow. What do you recommend?’

There are many species of earth worms but only 3 of them make casts. Worm casts are a sign that you have a fairly active soil with good aeration and humus content. Earth worms are useful for mixing and aerating soil, but those which cast can create a muddy and uneven surface on grass and can also encourage weeds, as their casts make excellent seed beds!

Charles Darwin spent a lifetime studying worms, and estimated that up to 40 tons of worm casts per acre can be added to the soil (representing between 45 and 170 worms per square metre!). These casts are invariably richer, finer and less acidic than the surrounding soil, and contain around 50 per cent more calcium, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and bacteria.

Earthworm activity is encouraged if cuttings are left on the turf. Worms also pull fallen leaves and plant debris into their burrows and, in doing so, they add organic material to the soil, improving its structure as well as its fertility. For borders and beds, if you are short of compost, a mulch of leaves, preferably chopped up, will not only add structure to the soil, but will also dramatically increase the worm population and therefore the health and fertility of your soil. The use of alkaline or organic fertilisers and dressings can also encourage Worms in lawns. Monty Don tells an amusing anecdote about a grass tennis court which demonstrates worms’ love of alkaline soil:

‘A grass tennis court had been laid on acidic soil and marked out with chalk. Over the years, the calcium in the chalk neutralised the acid soil beneath it, making extremely narrow strips that attracted earthworms. Long after the chalk had been washed away, ‘runways’ made by moles attracted by their favourite food – earthworms – followed the line of them, without realising that they were mirroring exactly the original chalk lines of the court!’

This raises the topic of moles in lawns. A real issue for me here at Old School Garden, despite me trying to persuade the ‘little burrowers’ to take themselves next door. If you have moles, as the tennis court story indicates, this is a sure sign that you have worms in your lawn.

worm casts on lawn

Worm casts on a lawn

So what can you do?

Well one approach (but not one I’d recommend myself) is to try to deter the worms from casting using a fungicide. The law does not permit long life residual chemical build up in the soil, so gone are the days when formulations like Chlordane could be used to wipe out the worms (and possibly some gardeners too). However, Carbendazim is a chemical which is primarily used to deal with fungal diseases such as Fusarium but which also appears to interrupt the feeding of worms near the surface, by making the organic matter in which they feed unpalatable. Deeper feeding, non casting worms are apparently unaffected and continue to benefit the soil structure as normal.

Applying the chemical, which has a non hazardous classification, is said to be most beneficial in Spring and Autumn and must be carried out when the soil is already wet as it needs help in dispersing through the soil. However, be aware that whilst Carbendazim is approved for use in the UK and some other countries, some organisations argue that it is a dangerous substance.  Other options exist such as adding sulphur to the lawn, so reducing its alkalinity, and therefore reducing the attractiveness of it to worms. Manufacturer’s of this type of solution claim that this does not harm the worms or the soil.

However, I’d be a little wary of this, and other chemically – based solutions and try a more organic approach.

This does mean, however, that you’ll need to adopt a more relaxed attitude to worm casts (and mole hills, though it pains me to say so…). Worm activity, on the whole, is extremely beneficial to your lawn, so the best way to deal with the casts is to wait for them to dry and then brush them into the surface, spreading evenly with a Besom or similar broom. In doing so, you are adding to your lawn some fine compost and helping to improve its future appearance. There are also a few other things you can try to reduce the problem of casts:

  • Avoid leaving leaves on the lawn surface during the autumn and winter because this warm blanket of organic matter is an ideal ‘restaurant’ for the worms.

  • Do not allow a build up of thatch as again this decaying matter is digested by the worm which leads to casting deposits – so scarify your grass in the autumn and possibly also the spring.

  • Keep the grass at a reasonable height.

  • Avoid unnecessary watering as this attracts more worms. In dry weather the worms will move deeper, and by aerating regularly and ensuring good drainage, you will discourage activity.

If, like me you have a mole problem, I think the only safe, direct (but from experience, not necessarily successful) solution is to trap them, which might involve the services of a mole catcher unless you fancy a go yourself! I’ve found that other ‘solutions’ like noise/ vibration emitting devices seem only to have a temporary effect, if that!

Mole hills on the Old School Garden lawn

Mole hills on the Old School Garden lawn

More generally, lawns are not attacked by pests, though you may at some point see the effects of the ‘Leather Jacket’ (the larva of the Crane Fly or ‘Daddy Long Legs’) and Chafer grub.

These can cause damage to the roots and stems of grass resulting in poor, stunted growth and bare patches. When a pest problem like this is suspected, the turf should be examined thoroughly to find the culprit. Pests are often found first in stressed areas, such as the edges of lawns or in shady or wet areas. They are not usually distributed evenly so it is advisable to look for spots that have discoloured, stunted or distorted turf. Insects tend to proceed outward from a central point; therefore they are generally most active on the outside edge. In both cases a lawn insecticide could be applied to kill the grubs/larvae….

Chafer Grub damage to grass

Chafer Grub damage to grass

However, an alternative, organic solution is to wait for heavy rain (or thoroughly watering any yellow patches in the lawn yourself). Then cover the affected areas with black plastic sacks and leave overnight. The Leather Jackets and grubs will come to the surface and can be collected in the morning and disposed of – or left to natural predators such as spiders and garden birds (especially Starlings). You could also use the biological control Steinernema feltiae, which should be applied while the ground is still moist and warm in late Autumn.

Old School Gardener

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'Friend or foe?'

‘Friend or foe?’

‘Prevention is better than cure’ applies to many situations in  life and controlling the pests and diseases in your garden is one of them.

As part of the ‘Master Composter’ project providing advice to families and groups about using green waste to make compost and enrich their soil, I’ve recently been sent a useful factsheet about organic pest and disease control. And pest control – specifically pigeons and blackbirds – is presently keeping me well exercised in the garden! More positively, I don’t seem to have had much of a problem with either slugs and snails, aphids or caterpillars – so far. A harsh winter and dry spell may be part of the answer. Anyway, I thought I’d share the basics of this factsheet with you (plus a few thoughts of my own).

Here are 7 tips for effective action to prevent your crops and plants being trashed by those not – so – welcome forces of nature!

1. Healthy soil

Too much fertiliser and your plants will be soft and sappy – providing a lovely lunch for pests and encouraging you to spray to deal with them. Not good practice. Better to feed your soil with a ‘wholefood’ diet of garden compost and leaf mould rather than those ‘fast food’ fertilisers designed to feed the plant and not the soil.

2. Resistant plants

Choose varieties of plant that can withstand the attack of pests and disease; e.g. blight resistant potatoes such as ‘Remarka’ and Sarpo’ and root aphid resistant lettuces like ‘Milan’.

Leaf mould - a great way to improve your soil

Leaf mould – a great way to improve your soil

3. Rotate your crops

Focusing on the veggy garden, crop rotation is an essential technique to build soil fertility and controlling the build up of pests and diseases.  Divide your veg into at least four groups (those in the same or similar families and having similar feeding habits) that stay together each year, but move onto another part of the garden  every spring.

4. Barriers and scarers

Keeping pests out of your crops and off your choice plants is probably the most effective way of reducing if not preventing damage. There is a range of different barriers and scarers suited to different types of crop or plant:

  • Fine mesh netting  – works well for carrot root fly and pea moth as well as pretty well most pests that attack cabbages (flea beetles, cabbage white butterfly, leaf weevils, birds and white fly).
  • Other Netting – useful for preventing birds eating/ damaging fruit and vegetables, but remember it should be tightly drawn to the ground to avoid any gaps – my own experience is that pigeons and blackbirds are past masters at finding the smallest of holes and working their way in! Netting can also prevent cabbage white butterflies from laying their eggs on Brassicas, but the gauge of the net needs to be fine enough to stop them. Also, having used hard plastic mesh netting for a while, I’d suggest investing in those made of softer, string -like material (nylon?), as this will drape more easily over crops.
  • Cabbage collars  – a collar of carpet underlay around the neck of  a young cabbage will prevent cabbage root fly from laying its eggs at the base of the cabbage.
  • Bottle cloches – made out of plastic bottles (tops and bottoms cut off) and placed over newly planted vegetables will prevent them being eaten by slugs or anything else that takes a fancy to them.
  • Small gauge chicken wire – always useful, this can be placed over newly sown peas to stop them being eaten by mice while germinating or being scratched up by cats. Wrapped around flowering bulbs, it can prevent them being dug up by squirrels.
  • Bird scarers – a ‘humming line’ (sometimes called buzzwire) criss – crossed over veg and which vibrates in the slightest of breezes will help scare off birds. You can come up with any number of other devices that use the wind to create noises or flashes of light and colour that will put off the birds, but move them around, as birds get used to things being in the same place and will eventually ignore them. I’ve just bought (for the princely sum of £2.50) a colourful windmill that I’ve stuck atop a cane and put over a spot where pigeons come to pinch my raspberries – we’ll see how effective that is! Another method is to tie up old CDs/DVDs to lines between canes to let them flash and move in the breeze. I’ve also seen some pretty realistic models of Owls and other birds of prey and a host of other devices that you can set up to ward off other birds – I’m not sure if they are effective, though.
A beer trap will entice slugs

A beer trap will entice slugs

5. Traps

Beers traps for slugs do work. Codling and Plum moth traps hung from apple trees and other ‘sticky’ traps can also be effective, using  a pheromone stuck to a sticky base which attracts male insects and gets them stuck in the glue. Greasebands painted around the trunks of apple trees in autumn will prevent the wingless female winter moth from climbing up the tree to mate. Sticky glue is also useful for glasshouse staging if you have a problem with ants. Sticky yellow bits of card hung up in greenhouses can help reduce the white fly population.

6. Beneficial bugs

These are your best friends when it comes to controlling pests in your garden. Planting simple annuals among the veg (e.g. Marigolds, Californian poppies), will attract  a wealth of beneficial insects  like ladybirds and hoverflies which will gobble up your aphids. I’ve put some marigolds alongside my tomatoes in the greenhouse for this reason and also planted Nasturtiums which can attract cabbage white butterflies as a diversion away from my Brassicas.You can also plant a few native shrubs and herbaceous perennials (e.g. hazel and hardy geraniums), create a pond, leave a small pile of logs in the corner of the garden or create a ‘bug hotel’  and feed the birds throughout the winter. There are other ‘biological controls’  that you can buy to deal w ith specific problems- little packets of some of the bugs for use in the greenhouse as well as nematodes that can attack some of the more troublesome pests.  Any or all of these will keep enough wildlife in your garden to eat literally thousands of pests and their eggs!

'Bishybarnabee' - or a ladybird- will eat loads of aphids at one sitting

‘Bishybarnabee’ – or a ladybird- will eat loads of aphids at one sitting

7. Keep it clean

Think ‘clean cut’. If you’re removing a dead or diseased branch from a tree (e.g one with coral spot), make sure you cut into healthy wood and always wash your tools in boiling water or wipe them with surgical spirit afterwards. Scrub out pots and give your greenhouse a good scrub every winter to get rid of over wintering pests. Maximise air circulation by correct pruning of plants and leaving  just a little more space between plants will help control fungal diseases, though his needs to be balanced of course against closer planting to keep weeds under control! Controlling powdery mildew in Roses is something that benefits from greater air circulation, for instance. Finally, and most importantly, be vigilant and check your plants regularly so that any pests and diseases don’t get a foothold. For example, start checking the centre of any Gooseberry bushes in April for Sawfly eggs and larvae. Also be wary of accepting gifts of onion and cabbage plants, as they may well carry onion white rot or clubroot respectively!

So, not a spray in sight – rather planning, forethought, observation and simple control measures can help you beat those garden pests and diseases!

Source: Master Composter Manual Factsheet 4, Jojo Norris, Garden Organic 2013

Old School Gardener

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