With organic gardening, especially at the outset, comes a few new challenges for transitioning growers. Pesticides and other chemicals have, for several decades, become the go-to solution for all things in the garden, and now that many of us are clearing our heads from that fog, we are left to rediscover methods for dealing with everyday garden problems.
When herbicides have been the trick for combating weeds, how do we do it without the chemicals? Where aphids once elicited a poison spray (on our food no less), how do we now stop them from eating our crops? When voles are feasting, how do we protect our food without resorting to awful compound killers? This is our food after all, so we have cause to protect it! If we have to do so without chemicals (which seems a form of protection in its own right), what are we to do?
The permaculture way is to find somewhat natural solutions (we kind of stage them) to such problems. Bill Mollison is famously quoted as claiming there isn’t slug problem but rather a duck shortage. In other words, we can control slugs with ducks and get more production from the system on the whole. With permaculture techniques, solutions to problems have multiple functions in the garden. Not only will pest insects be thwarted, but pollinators will be invited. Not only will weeds be suppressed, but the soil life will be enlivened. Stacking solutions is how permaculture gardens, much more organically than typical organic gardens, handle weeds and pests, as well as fertility, soil structuring, and so on.
This is a different way of looking at gardening, learning to recognize systemic function rather than always turning to quick-fix products and short-term solutions. Though the permaculture solution may not always immediately present itself or give us the exact results we originally were after, there is a productive route out of old problems and into new solutions. Solving these challenges can be both rewarding and surprising, often providing innovative avenues into more production.
It’s important to understand that the term “weed” is applied to any plant that isn’t wanted in a particular area. While we now call dandelions weeds, they once were sought-after greens. Banana trees are so prone to take root in the tropics that someone might consider them a weed, removing them from the yard, though they are the best-selling fruit in the world. The point is that just because we call a plant a weed doesn’t mean it lacks value. “Weeds” can be useful, or they can be prevented. Often, it’s us, as cultivators, who make and foster these choices or pick our small battles.
Mulch – The best way to have a weed-free garden is to prevent them in the first place, and organic mulch is probably the best way to go about that. Thickly (about 5-10 cm) mulch gardens with straw or leaves to effectively suppress weeds, and those weeds that do make it through are much more easily pulled. Not only will mulching help with weeds, but it’ll reduce the need to water, support soil life, and prevent erosion. Ultimately, the mulch will break down and continually replenish and improve the soil.
Lunch – Some weeds occur in such abundance that they seem unstoppably present, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a horrible thing. Many weeds are edible and quite nutritious. If we can change our mindset and use them as food, not only will we be pleased with the bonus harvest, but we’ll also be controlling the weeds each time we harvest them. That’s food with no effort, time, or money spent on cultivation.
Fill Niches – When weeds do occur, it’s a reaction to the situation in the garden. Compacted soil breeds taproots, eroding soil hairnet roots. It could be a missing mineral, an overabundance of moisture, or various other things. We can use the weeds that grow to assess what the situation is. Then, we can replace those weeds with desirable plants that thrive in the same conditions. In this case, we are filling the niche with what we want rather than leaving it to chance. Moreover, if we fill the garden with plants, leaving no room for weeds, then weeds won’t be such an issue.
Don’t Till – Conventionally, modern-day farmers till the soil. They do this to loosen it up after having spent last season compacting it with machinery and footsteps. They do it to kill the weeds. The problem is that turning the soil also exposes new seeds and makes them ripe for growth. Disturbed soil encourages weed growth because nature is trying to reestablish itself. Instead, we should avoid stepping in our beds, mulch them, and stop tilling. Then, those weed seeds will never see the light of day!
While insects are not the only pests in the garden, they probably get the most negative press and inspire disturbing amount of poisons to be foisted upon our plants, our food. Equally as disturbing is that, the more chemicals folks throw at them, the more resistant they become, creating “super” pests. All the while, many pesticides, aside from poisoning the pests, are poisoning the beneficial animals that feed on them or pollinate the plants, as well as the humans that feed on the crops themselves. Since none of that seems like a good idea, we obviously have to approach six-legged garden pests a little differently.
Habitats for Beneficial Animals – Rather than spending so much time and money trying to eradicate bugs, we should put some of that towards inviting other animals to stay. Ponds can attract frogs and toads. Rockeries house snakes and lizards. Bird perches are great for pest-controlling friends, and bat houses shelter the nightshift. A vibrant ecosystem will regulate pests such that, while some crops may be lost, infestations of entire crops is much less likely. Plus, all of these animals excrete valuable nutrients atop the soil!
Companion Planting/Biodiversity – By now, monocultures have gotten such a bad rap that there is no need to continually beat up on them (We got the point! Hopefully.); however, that doesn’t mean we can’t heap some praise on biodiversity. Mixing up plants helps control insect pests because the assembly of scents and colors confuses them. Furthermore, companion planting can work for repelling certain troublesome insects. Aromatic culinary herbs are particular good for working double-time in the garden, providing both flavorsome food and natural pest repellents.
Good Soil, Healthy Plants – If we think of crop pests as predatory creatures, we realize that they are most likely to go after the weakest members of the garden. Pests like plants that are weak, malnourished, and easily overpowered because the healthy plants have defenses that make eating them more difficult. Unfortunately, we too often take a reactionary stance on insects as opposed to preventative. Rather than bug sprays (even organic ones), working to continually improve the soil will make for healthier plants, and healthier plants won’t need as much help protecting themselves.
Distraction Gardens – With the idea of what pests like to eat, it’s not a horrible thought to grow a distraction garden. Rather than spending our time battling with the pests, why not cultivate something for them to enjoy? We can choose plants that bothersome bugs love and grow them away from the vegetable patch. This will distract them long enough for us to cultivate something to eat, and it will keep the biodiversity—plant and animal—intact for a healthy ecosystem. Sunflowers, nasturtiums, and pansies are a great start.
While insects can do considerable damage in the garden, some wildlife can flatten a young bed overnight. As beautiful and graceful as they may be, deer are not something we want to spot in the garden. Cuddly, cute bunnies will take down the lettuce patch faster than a hungry vegan. Burrowers come from nowhere and leave little more than curious mounds to know they were there. It’s a painful moment to go outside and discover all the squash plants have been cut down before their prime or all the berries have been plucked instead of ripened.
Fencing – Fencing can come in many forms. It can be wire, chain-link, or wooden. It can also be a living fence made with espalier trees or thorny shrubs or dense hedges. Whatever feels right, a fence is very useful in keeping wildlife off the garden in the most basic of ways. It even helps to put in an underground mesh barrier around beds that might fall to burrowers. Even in terms of pets, it’s better to fence the gardens rather than the animals! Plus, fencing can function as something for vines to climb or be productive plants in and of themselves.
Pets – Speaking of pets, a dog is one of the best wildlife deterrents around. The deer don’t like them, nor do skunks, armadillos, or gophers. Dogs will chase birds, squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits. They’ll even bark down bears looking to raid a berry patch. Cats, too, can play a role as voles and other rodents will avoid them. Dog and cat droppings can even be sprinkled around to warn wild animals to stay away. Of course, pets also make great friends and help to keep the house pest-free as well.
The Radio – Having noise around keeps many animals shy. They hear talking or music and assume humans are milling about, and by and large, we aren’t popular with most wildlife. It’s probably something to do with hunting and habitat destruction. Anyway, in terms of the garden, the radio will often give animals pause, and they might just choose to wander off somewhere else rather than risking an encounter with a human.
Scents – Lots of scents can help with different animals, but it seems that garlic and spicy peppers—a favorite flavor combo of this gardener—are nearly ubiquitously disliked in the animal kingdom, and the taste will also deter any that brave the smell. Other scents, such as human urine or aromatic herbs, are also known to offend dear and other sensitive sniffers. Citrus, cloves, and cinnamon often make the lists as well. Many of these smells work double time with insects, and human urine is both safe to use in the garden and an amazing source of nitrogen.
In all of these cases, a willingness to sacrifice some of what is planted probably helps the most. It’s best to grow more than we need or want, factoring in that loses will occur. Everybody gets to eat this way. There is even some cause for allowing weeds to go as wild as they like in some spaces, ultimately chopping them down to use in the compost bin or as mulch. Learning to work with nature rather than battle it makes for a much happier garden and gardener.