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Pests and the Organic Gardener

March 10, 2009
by Janette Blackwell
There’s nothing like the glow of deep virtue that comes after the new organic gardener gives up poison sprays. You are increasing the health of your family, producing vegetables with a more delicious flavor, and making the planet a better place.Then your tomatoes wilt, your cucumbers ditto, and large numbers of seeds you plant somehow never come up. For years I planted sunflower seeds, thinking of those golden-bronze-red beauties in August, but they didn’t seem to emerge. I learned that, in fact, they had emerged but were eaten in the night by slugs that seemed to find them more delicious than all other mealtime possibilities.In California the snails ate my baby seedlings; in Virginia it was their relatives the slugs. It was agonizing to wake up in the morning, go out to admire my baby plants – some of which I had nurtured for months in little peat pots – and find that THEY HAD ALL BEEN EATEN IN THE NIGHT. My babies! Gone! Dead!

Well. Mothers will go to great lengths to defend their young. When I gardened in California I had not yet become an organic gardener. I spread poison snail bait – and, guess what? The snails ate the poison bait, THEN they ate all my baby seedlings, THEN they died.

In Virginia the battle became organic. My husband used to say, “There goes the mighty hunter. Got your pith helmet on?” as I headed outside after dark with my flashlight and empty coffee can. I watched as slugs smelled/sensed my baby seedlings from afar and moved with amazing speed toward them. Into the can went the slugs, but I soon realized that I couldn’t spend all night lying in wait. Then I found that slugs love dry cat (or dog) food better than anything else. I set little piles of dry cat food about ten feet from my seedlings – you of course want the slugs heading away from your babies – and went out several times an evening to harvest them. It worked.


If mighty hunterdom doesn’t appeal to you, organic gardening boasts many other healthy, nonpoisonous ways to control diseases and pests. You can try diatomaceous earth, nematodes, vinegar spray, ladybugs, companion planting, and a host of other organic ways to deal with pests and plant diseases. I also found that, while tender seedlings started in pots indoors are especially tempting to slugs, if you harden off the seedlings by leaving the pots out in the spring sun and wind for increasingly long periods, they are less tempting when planted out. Cutting off plant food a couple of weeks before you set plants out, while cutting back a bit on their water, also cuts back on the tempting new growth that slugs and snails can smell from yards away. And, because the plants are bigger and tougher, they are better able to survive what pest attacks do occur.

Fortunately the Internet is a treasure trove of wisdom – and gardening products – to help you grow organically. No matter what you try, you won’t get rid of all the pests, but the struggle will keep your brain sizzling and your imagination glowing. And the rich, dark soil you create organically will make your healthy plants boom along ahead of the pests – once they get past infancy, of course.


Janette Blackwell enjoys helping people find extra-good sites through her TOUR THE SITES newsletter. She’ll also show you the 1000 BEST SITES FOR FAMILIES AND SENIORS, with bargains and freebies, delicious food and humor, free expert help on gardening and much more. Just go to TOURTHESITES.COM.





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