Natural/eco solutions for keeping insects and other pests out of your garden and grass
Earth-friendly tips, tricks and concoctions to keep the most common Canadian critters off your yard
Who out there has ever carefully planted a seedling or even a well-established perennial, only to come out a day or so later to discover it's been chewed by a worm or assaulted by a beetle or dug up by a squirrel or pawed by a raccoon or eaten down to nothing by a deer? (Waving my hand!) Whether it's food, flowers or foliage plants, it would be surprising to learn of one gardener who has never encountered a garden pest. Some pests are stealthy, eating away at leaves, undetected, until the damage becomes obvious. Others amble in and cause more immediate destruction. It all depends on where you live. You may experience some or all of these pests, but here are a few eco-friendly ways to deal with them.
After struggling to keep the deer out of her large Halifax-area vegetable garden for a decade, Niki Jabbour, author of The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener and Veggie Garden Remix made the switch from deer fencing (she had also tried smelly soaps, reflecting tape, aluminum pie plates and a motion-sensing sprinkler—all methods used to repel without harming the animal) to an electric deer fence (safe for humans, livestock, pets) about four years ago. "I've never looked back!" she says. "The fence has kept the deer out of the garden about 98 per cent of the time (there were a few times they snuck in) and we get to enjoy our homegrown harvests." Jabbour started with three strands of electric wire around her massive garden that now includes about 20 raised beds, but eventually added a fourth wire about six feet up from the ground. These wires, if touched by a deer, conditions them to avoid coming back.
You can put your own fence together (be sure to do a lot of careful research first since you're working with electrical charges) or call in a professional. Companies, like Deerbusters Canada, sell the materials you need to put a deer-repellent fence together. These types of fences are not meant to harm the deer, but rather keep them from coming back again.
Believe it or not, a great deal of the insects that visit your garden are beneficial. You want to invite pollinators, for example, that will pollinate your fruit and vegetable flowers. Make sure you can identify the caterpillars that will turn into monarch and swallowtail butterflies.
However, bad guys, like cucumber beetles, cabbage worms and Colorado potato beetles, can ruin plants and fruit. A natural way to control these pests is to find out which beneficial insects like to feast on them or their larvae. There are lots of great charts online, as well as books, like Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden by Jessica Walliser, that explain which good bugs you can attract to the garden to take care of the bad guys. You can do this by selecting plants that will attract these beneficial insects. Alyssum, for example, attracts parasitic wasps that will take care of the bad guys, like cabbage worms and tomato fruitworm.
One morning, when I lived in a little bungalow in East York, Toronto, I looked out the window to discover a pile of sod in the middle of my backyard. I soon discovered a skunk or a raccoon had been digging for grubs (these are NOT good guys), systematically turning over the grass as they searched. My solution was to order beneficial nematodes, organisms that feed on soil-dwelling insects, like grubs. Nematodes can be sprayed onto the lawn with a special bottle (called a hose-end sprayer) that attaches to your hose. You can order them from companies like Natural Insect Control. Just be sure to carefully read the package directions so you apply them properly to your lawn.
While mosquitoes aren't going to ruin your plants, they just may ruin your enjoyment of your outdoor space. And in some areas of the country, homeowners need to protect themselves from mosquitoes that may carry the West Nile virus. Stephanie Rose of Garden Therapy recommends taking a few measures to repel mosquitoes, including digging in plants that naturally repel mosquitoes, such as citronella, lavender and basil, removing standing water from your garden, and creating your own natural bug spray and/or citronella candles.
Raccoons, squirrels and other four-legged pests
I'm lumping these two four-legged menaces into the same category. Raccoons and squirrels can wreak havoc in the yards of both urban and country dwellers alike. They'll dig up a raised bed of newly sown seeds, eat freshly planted tulip bulbs and inadvertently mow through tender young seedlings. While you can't necessarily keep them out of your yard entirely, there are ways to protect your edibles. Steven Biggs and his daughter Emma, of The Garage Gardeners podcast, have created their own barriers, from burlap tucked into a pot to keep the squirrels out, to cages they built to protect both plants and eventual fruit from being gobbled up by the raccoons.
If you have a problem with critters, like voles, digging up from underneath your garden, consider attaching hardware cloth (like chicken wire, but with smaller, square holes) to the bottom of a raised bed.
Netting is another option you might want to consider to protect your berries, tomatoes and other yummy edibles from being eaten by any critter or bird who happens upon your precious crops!
Tara Nolan is a freelance writer who covers gardening, décor, travel, and cycling, mountain biking and other outdoor adventures for a variety of publications. She is also one quarter of the popular gardening website Savvy Gardening.