I know, amongst the circle of folks that consider themselves to be environmentally conscious, that the subject of pest control in our gardens can be a very touchy one and I certainly try my best to avoid the use of even natural sprays. However, sometimes there are instances when just good garden hygiene, organic compost and our best intentions don't always work. So, I wanted to show a few of my methods for not only controlling pest but encouraging my garden to flourish naturally. Now, I am by NO means an expert but this is some stuff that has worked for me and I welcome any other suggestions too.
The spray pictured above is one of my last resort tools. It is a certified organic spray made from canola oil and pyrethrins, thus the name Pyola. You mix it with water and spray on your plants. It is very effective against a variety of caterpillars, hornworms, Japanese beetles etc. I apply it late in the day after most of the pollinators have gone to sleep and even many of the plants blossoms have closed, so the bees won't be rubbing against the spray the next day. It does not affect bees and such in the same way as soft bodied insects but you don't want to spray it right on them. I order the stuff from Garden's Alive, an organic gardening company that sells a variety of products that I think are very effective. I buy very little stuff like this but when I do need it I usually go to them. They offer some great discounts on their products for first time buyers too. I also buy their Kelp meal for the garden. Now, like I said, I only use this if I seem to be having an unusual problem with insects, like squash bugs. My chickens won't eat the bugs; I think they must taste really bad because Little Bea grabbed one up one day and immediately spit it out and started wiping her beak on the ground!
The label says it is not effective against fire ants but I beg to differ. You just have to apply it differently. Now, for those of you that don't have fire ants, count your many blessings. They are a hideous curse here and will wreck a garden if left to it. They are one of the most destructive things I have ever seen and incredibly vicious. Alabama has had a significant drop in our quail population over the past couple of decades, due in part, to attacks from fire ants. Quail nest on the ground and fire ants will attack and eat the quail babies. There has also been documented incidences of fire ants attacking and destroying wild honey bee hives. They are not native to this area, or even the US if I remember correctly, so I don't want to hear any shit about my inclination to destroy a fire ant mound. I don't go around looking for them but I will not allow them to reside in my yard or around my animals. It is very difficult to find a natural product that will kill or at least repel fire ants and let me tell you, I have tried most everything; borax, cornmeal, salt, diamatious earth, you name it. This spring they got in my coldframe and were destroying the contents so, on a whim, I put a few drops of Pyola, undiluted, right on top of their mound. By the next day they had moved out. I was elated. I don't think it killed them but if it just repelled them that was enough. I finally found something I could use against them around my food crops!
I am also trying an organic copper spray, like Ron mentioned, on my wilty tomato plants. I gave them some Epsom Salts water, which seemed to help a little but didn't quite do it. Like Ron said, it's very hard to sit and watch your crops, that we depend on so much, die or get eaten right in front of you, without trying something. If people are going to criticize me for trying to salvage my labor and food, well, they can buy my groceries for the next year too.
I do however, try to make the most of natural methods. I haven't had a lot of luck with companion planting but one thing I believe does work is marigolds. I always buy a large flat or two of the stinkingest marigolds I can find to plant throughout my garden, especially around the tomatoes. Not all marigolds stink though, only the true French ones do, so you have to watch what you get. When I deadhead them I take the spent flower and tear it up and throw it over the plants. This helps distribute the smell and lets me get some volunteers! This actually seems to work and it does make some sense because marigolds are one of the plants that they extract pyrethrins from.
Now, these are my best pest control but like I said, they don't always eat everything and after a while they will tear up more than they help. I let them in before the plants start ripening much and before I do any spraying. If the chooks are in there I do not use any sprays, even natural ones. When they are out for the season, due to my tomatoes ripening!, I will then spray if needed. Then, when the season is over and sprayed plants pulled up, they can come back in.
I also plant other flowers throughout my garden, where I have a little room, to encourage birds and any pollinators. I place a couple of shallow dishes with water around the garden also to encourage frogs and I have noticed a big increase in my frog population this year. However, I have to be careful to help keep the frogs out of the chicken run as Henny thinks they are a great treat. She caught one one day and was slinging that poor thing every which way, trying to beat it apart. I ran and grabbed it from her, much to her displeasure, and took it into the garden. I was afraid she had killed it because it was stiff as a board but when I sat it down it relaxed and hopped off under my blueberry bushes.
I also let large patches of wild flowers grow in the yard. This encourages the birds, which in turn, also check out the garden while they are there and also butterflies and bees. Jack couldn't understand at first why I would let those "weeds" grow up in the yard that way. They had not bloomed yet and he couldn't tell what they were. So, the other day I was quick to show him this pair of goldfinches that were enjoying the dried seed heads of this thistle and black-eyed Susans I have growing around. I know this is a crappy photo of only the male but his mate was there too, on another flower.
So, the natural methods take time to work but this year I have seen a marked improvement in beneficial insect/ critter population and health of my garden. I also keep several bird bathes and feeders out. I have noticed that the honey bees enjoy the bird bathes as much or more than the birds. I often see half a dozen or more of them stopping for a cool drink during any part of the day.