By Alysha Punnett, Site Manager & Community Education Coordinator, Compost Education Centre
I talk a lot about prevention in the workshops here at the Compost Education Centre (CEC). An organic gardener’s best line of defence for fighting pests and disease in the garden are techniques that contribute to preventing them in the first place. Below is a list of my favourite prevention picks.
If you know the life cycles of common pests in your garden, you will be better equipped to knock them out or protect your plants at key points in the pests’ life cycles (for example, spreading remay on newly seeded areas so adult butterflies can’t lay eggs on your cabbages).
Buy seeds from organic, local seed producers
They are adapted to our climate, open pollinated, and many are resistant to common ailments like blight, mildew, and wilt. Attend your local Seedy Saturday event, c’mon in to the CEC office to purchase, or check out the BC Eco-Seed Coop! For more on why climate-adapted seeds are better, watch this quick video.
Prep your garden soil a couple weeks before planting anything in the spring. This means removing your protective winter mulch layer, lightly turning the soil, and removing any winter or early spring weeds.
Toss a bit of compost in all your planting holes and rows to give your new veggies a good start in life. Make your own compost tea and apply it to your garden every two weeks throughout the growing season.
Top dress your plants with compost at midsummer. This gives your plants a nutrient boost half way through the growing season when they are getting a bit tired and may be feeling stressed from hotter weather. Worm castings make great top dressing, but regular ol’ compost is great too.
Water deeply and not as often
Most veggies, once established, like to dry out in between waterings, so make sure you’re letting the soil dry out a bit. On the other hand, you obviously don’t want to drought stress your plants. We’re shooting for a Goldilocks scenario, here, which means you need to go out and monitor your soil moisture throughout the season. In other words, don’t just set your irrigation timer and walk away until October.
Walk through your garden often
When you’re in your garden often, it’s easier to spot plants that are stressed by lack of water or pest infestation before they get to the point of no return.
Rotate your crops
Bugs are smart, but they aren’t thaaaat smart. Moving their food sources around is surprisingly effective at confusing them so they can’t find your lettuce to feed on season after season. This is also a key tactic against white rot and club root popping up in your alliums and brassicas. These soil-born fungal diseases live on the roots of their host plants and if you grow those plants in the same soil year after year, you increase your chances of attracting them to your garden. Check out our Grow Your Own Food 101 workshop to learn more!
Mulch is a wonderful tool to manage the temperature and moisture content of your soil. A 2-4 inch layer of dried leaves or straw keeps your soil cool and moist in the summer by preventing evaporation of your irrigation water. This will give you a bit of a grace period if something should cause you to miss a watering.
In the winter, throw another couple inches on there and you’ve got yourself an insulating blanket that will keep the roots of your winter garden from freezing and prevent run off of valuable nutrients during our heavy winter rains. If you’re keen on winter gardening, our Planning Your Year Round Veggie Garden workshop has lots more info that will be of interest!
Companion Plant! Learn what plants bring predatory pollinators into your garden to feed on pests—nasturtiums and phacelia are excellent in this role. Other companion planting tactics include pairing plants that repel certain insects, like planting borage near strawberries to ward off things like hornworms.
The end goal with following the suggestions laid out above is to prepare your garden to fend of pests and disease on its own. Contrary to popular belief, nature does a wonderful job of looking after itself without constant input from the human hand. Be there to help your garden if outbreaks should occur, but our roles as gardeners are really to support the incredible strategies for health that naturally occur among soil, plants, and bugs!