Whether you are gardening for your table or aesthetics, tilling the soil and enjoying the results of seeds you've planted can be very relaxing -- until you find that your plants are under siege from a variety of damaging creatures. Typical garden pests can be forms of plant mold and disease, bugs and insects, little furry animals, neighborhood dogs, deer or even innocuous-looking weeds.
With all that we know and don't know about the effects of toxic chemicals, the tendency is to fight these garden scourges naturally and without the use of potentially harmful chemicals or dangerous and inhumane traps. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation offers several safer alternatives on its Web site, at http://www.dec.ny.gov/public/43593.html.
"Nontoxic pest control is not the same as organic gardening," says Jill Westfall, co-author of "Green Matters for Everyday Living: Better Ways to Build, Buy, Travel & Save." "Organic gardening has to do with the purity of the soil and not using chemical fertilizers or bug sprays on the plants -- or in the soil. Organic methods are definitely as effective as using chemicals; it's just a different and longer-term approach. Expert gardeners tell me time and again that it's actually better soil that makes for healthier plants -- and fewer bugs and diseases -- just like a healthy body has a healthy immune system and fewer illnesses."
Westfall explains that one philosophy of pest control is to allow nature to weed out the weak. "The very best nontoxic and organic way to control all sorts of pests in the garden is to plant a little extra. It's what all seasoned gardeners end up talking about and doing. Kind of like the IRS, nature always ends up taking its share of the bounty. That said, there are definitely things a gardener can do to optimize returns."
Visit your local garden center for a supply of pest control sprays and other lawn maintenance products that are made from botanicals instead of from artificial chemicals. Insecticidal soap is sodium or potassium salts combined with fatty acids; this leaves no residue and is nontoxic to pets. Bacillus thuringiensis, which is a naturally occurring soil bacterium, will not harm people or pets, but it will destroy insects that munch on your plants.
Organic gardening allows for natural repellents, such as having a duck in your garden to eliminate snails. You also can use a spray bottle filled with strong caffeinated coffee (1 part coffee to 10 parts hot water, allow to cool). Spray your plants with the coffee mix. Insects cannot ingest the caffeine, and it will kill them off.
You also can use a homemade oil spray for small sucking insects. Combine 2 parts vegetable oil to 1 part pure liquid soap. (Make sure it's soap, not detergent.) Mix well and store in a glass jar. Use one tablespoon in a liter of water in a spray bottle. Spray the undersides of the leaves, as well as the tops. Do not eat the vegetables for two weeks after spraying, and rinse thoroughly after picking.
Not all pests are of the bug and insect type. Fences may help keep out rabbits, cats, dogs and deer. The smell of natural predators, such as commercially prepared coyote urine, will form an invisible barrier that many small animals will not cross; however, these scented products need to be replaced after a rain. Scarecrows and heavy wind chimes may prove to be effective deterrents, at least until the animals get used to the noise. Sprays made from diluted red pepper also will deter animals from helping themselves to your vegetation, as will a liberal sprinkling of ground black pepper.
Get control of your weeds, but first accept the fact that you probably never will have a totally weed-free garden. But that's OK because many weeds are actually quite attractive when allowed to flower. The best method of controlling weeds is hand pulling because you know that you have pulled the weed out, including the roots. An added benefit to hand pulling is that you become completely familiar with the plants in your garden and can pick out problems sooner rather than later. You also can kill off weed roots by pouring boiling water directly on them, but be careful not to splash your "good flowers."