Plants have surprisingly efficient and sophisticated defenses against insect attack, especially when they are kept strong and healthy with sufficient amounts of food, water, and sunlight, and have enough room to grow well. Weak plants, like people, have less resistance than healthy ones and can even attract insects.
Some things we can do to help plants defend against insects are:
—Maintain balanced growth by adding liberal amounts of organic matter onto the soil and feeding annual vegetable crops every 3 or 4 weeks during the growing season with liquid seaweed, dilute fish emulsion or homemade liquid fertilizer (see my recipe below). Additions of compost and mulch every year may be enough for the permanent trees, shrubs and perennial plants.
—Diversify – grow a large variety of plants. We are just learning some of the more useful relationships of various plants and insects. Experiment and be observant of natural balances.
—Never use strong chemicals on your property. They may kill predators and stimulate resistance in pests.
—Encourage predators: Wasps, birds, spiders, dragonflies, frogs and toads, garter snakes, etc. A bird bath or small pond is good for attracting helpful wild critters. A small brush pile can create habitat for many of them.
ABOVE ALL – Recognize that the more loving and harmonious an atmosphere we create in our yards, the less imbalance will occur. Keep in mind that all living organisms have their place (that spider you may be tempted to kill works hard to keep the pest population in your yard and house under control).
REMEMBER – returning your home grounds to a natural, balanced state does not happen overnight. If your property has had strong chemicals used on it regularly, it may take two or more seasons to accomplish, depending on what conditions you are starting with and how quickly you are able to add to the environment those aspects necessary for balance.
Dealing with an Insect Invasion…
Should you be subject to a heavy insect attack of some kind, try not to panic. It happens now and then in the most balanced environments. Insects can eat a lot before they do any real harm. Therefore:
Feed your plants – A compost topdressing and a foliar feed will help a plant’s resistance.
Feed the bugs – If only a small percentage of your crop is affected, leave well enough alone and give predators time to colonize. They may take care of the problem for you.
Focus on the problem – Many larger bugs and caterpillars can be controlled by hand-picking for a few days (if you have chickens they would be delighted to eat your “pickings”!), and the smaller insects can often be discouraged with sprays of water applied every day or so.
“Natural”, Organic, Botanical Insecticides – The problem with even the most “natural” insecticide is that, if it is effective at killing the critters you want to kill (aphids, mites, etc.), it will also kill all insects. These things don’t discriminate. Consider carefully what the overall effects could be before using anything other than a water spray. Substances like BT don’t discriminate between a cabbage worm and a monarch or swallowtail caterpillar.
I understand the challenge in dealing with insect invasions of your favorite food or decorative plants. At the end of summer all the cabbage family plants (kale, broccoli, collards, cabbage) can be devastated by aphids. Try cutting off the effected sections – even cutting the whole top off if necessary (it will usually grow back fairly quickly). If you don’t have chickens to feed them to – bag them up and leave them in the sun for a day or two before composting. And like the first in the list of things to do – Feed the affected plants some good homemade Kickapoo Joy Juice* (see the recipe below), diluted urine or other liquid fertilizer!
Above all, learn to tolerate some insects in your yard. Concentrate on building healthy soil for healthy plants and an environment that invites and encourages all the creatures whose diet consists of insects!
Bats, birds, lizards, frogs, dragonflies, wasps, spiders, beetles, earwigs (yes earwigs – they eat aphids!) and snakes, among others. See a more complete list here.
And understand that sometimes even your well-balanced environment is hit with weather that creates stress in plants no matter what you do for them. Weakened, stressed plants are then good candidates for insect attack. The best thing you can do, besides all of the above, is relax and roll with it… That’s the nature of gardening.
*Kick-a-poo Joy Juice for the Garden:
Using a 5 gal. bucket with a lid, I add of a couple days worth of chicken manure from under the hens roost, several quarts of urine, chopped up comfrey and stinging nettle leaves (if you have no stinging nettle try *other herbs (see below), a tablespoon or so of blackstrap molasses, and perhaps a little liquid from my homemade yogurt. If you have some, a teaspoon or so of mycorrhizae powder is a great addition. I then fill the bucket with water (mine is from a well – rainwater would be good, water with chlorine – not so good), mix well with a long stick and depending of how warm it is it should be ready in a few days. I have also read that you should cover it and NOT stir it. It’s all a really inexact science. You will find LOTS of recipes for different ways to do this online. Choose what suits you best.
I read that picking the growing tops of vigorously growing plants should be done before sunrise to catch the plant in respiration mode – when the plants chemistry is at the optimum, and that they shouldn’t be picked during rain. Wait two days after a rain “and do not rinse collected plant parts, to conserve their surface microbial populations (lactic acid-producing bacteria and yeasts), which will carry out the fermentation process. Low levels of these microbes will result in improper fermentation and/or low yields of plant juice.” I have not tried this myself but it’s always nice to have this sort of information in your tool bag if you need it.
Your brew will get bubbly as it ferments. This can take longer in cool weather – up to a week. In warm weather it might be only 3 or 4 days. When it’s ready I use it up in one day. I add 2 or 3 quarts to a 2 gal. plastic sprinkling “can”, fill it with water and give all my plants an early season, mid-season and late season boost.
In between times I use plain, straight urine mixed with water (about 1-10) every couple weeks on things that are in the midst of producing… tomatoes, beans, broccoli (especially broccoli!), kale, collards – all the greens, etc.
On plants that will be setting flowers and fruit (tomatoes, peppers, etc.) try adding Epsom Salts as well.
*Other herbs can include fresh grass clippings (chemical free), purslane, lambs quarters, and your healthiest, biggest “weeds”.