Using organic garden techniques like companion planting and organic pest control, the author has successfully grown flowers, herbs, and vegetables for over thirty years, in three countries and many climates.
By Liz Hancock
Raising a garden means different things to different folks. There are those who like to buy every new product on the market and have the most gleaming weed-proof flower beds; there are also those who feel that fighting their way through tall stands of grass to reach the potatoes is the way to go. Then there are those of us who like balance, and who use techniques such as companion planting and organic pest control to create a productive organic garden.
I learned my gardening from my mother, who in turn was taught by her father when the word organic was unheard of and pesticides were yet to come. My grandpa kept a wonderful garden, with rich dark soil composted from the bedding from his chicken house. He would lay newspaper in the trenches when planting his potatoes, to help keep the moisture in. And he would chat up his carrots and beans during his evening walkabout when he went out to smoke his pipe and enjoy the end of a summer’s day.
When I was courting my husband in the late 1960s, it was not until our seventh date that I discovered he was a closet gardener after he had asked me to come and inspect his table dainties, a small but delicious green marrow. How could I refuse to marry him after such an introduction?
Plants that Benefit Each Other
Companion planting in your organic garden is the art of growing like plants together so they can benefit from each other nutritionally and keep pests away.
This form of gardening is not new. Ever since humans have put seeds into the soil, companion planting has been around. Medieval gardens of old Europe and Britain are a prime example and the delightful display of mixed vegetables and flowers in a French Jardin is testament to old knowledge passed down through generations.
Much of the art of companion growing was learned by trial and error. During the 17th Century, gardening became a passion for the wealthy, who did little of the work themselves but employed an army of gardeners to work for them. There was usually an apprentice or gardener’s boy, who would fetch and carry for the Head Gardener, and slowly, over time, the secrets of what plants to grow with what and at what time and in what place would be passed on. Written notes were jealously guarded and the tricks of the trade were never whispered in the spider web infested corners of the greenhouse.
Over my years of gardening, I have learned that cabbage and Swiss chard grow well together, but cabbage hates tomatoes. Grow carrots alongside of onions or leeks and you will keep the carrot fly away. Tomatoes and basil flourish beside each other, the basil supplying nitrogen to the soil; tomatoes also like borage, which attracts bees and scares off the tomato worm. Planting the humble marigold and nasturtium draws the black fly from pole and snap beans. It also deters the deer who dislike their smell.
Comfrey, an old medicinal plant used to stem bleeding and drunk as a tea to calm the nerves, helps its neighbors when planted in the garden, but it tends to spread if unchecked. Not to be left out, the popular garlic will help keep away all kinds of pests when planted throughout the vegetable garden.
Another good companion plant for your organic garden is the herb dill. Grow this with cabbages and it will improve the growth and health of that plant. Sunflowers emit chemicals that discourage weeds and look lovely around the veggies. And there is the old favorite “The Three Sisters” – corn, beans, and squash. The corn supports the bean vines, the beans put nitrogen into the soil, and the squash keep off the weeds with their close covering leaves, which also retain the moisture in the soil.
When planting tomatoes, there are two methods I’ve found successful. You can place the tomato plant in a large pot, then plant the basil beside the tomato. Or if you want them in the garden itself, put the tomatoes in rows with the basil between each plant. Feed all plants with organic food, such as a tea made from comfrey or seaweed and remember to grow tomatoes in a sunny spot in the garden or on the deck.
Karen York’s book The Holistic Gardener has a chapter on Allelopathy, which she describes as “where plants as well as microorganisms produce substances to gain advantage in the battle to survive.” She adds, “These Allelochemicals are part of the construction that both feed and destroy the millions of microorganisms that reside in the soil.” This basically means that some plants dislike each other and others help a friend. As an example, you will never get anything to grow near a sumac tree or a black walnut, because of the poisons released into the soil by the trees to safeguard their territory – two examples of plant defense mechanisms.
Keeping the Pests in Check
These days, there is more and more interest in organic pest control, be it small critters or large. Big business is getting into the act, but there are cheap and cheerful ways to free the garden of leaf eaters and fruit stealers in your organic garden.
Most natural gardeners have their favorite way of getting rid of pests. I have found that soapy water laced with garlic and bicarbonate of soda keeps the greenfly off my roses. But the most useful way of dealing with the critters is hand picking. This method, I hasten to add, really only works if you have a small to medium size garden. If you are working with several acres, other ways have to be employed.
Not all insects are considered pests. Lacewings love aphids, mealy bugs, and other things. Ladybugs also enjoy a good meal of aphids. Both can be bought at garden shops and introduced into your garden. The black, shiny ground beetle attacks slugs and the hover fly goes for the sawfly larvae.
I have a friend who is an old hand at smallholding. She happily picks the slugs and snails from her plants, tosses them into an old blender and presses the button. She then scatters the remains around her plants. My stomach is not that strong so I gather the marauders up and toss them into the small woods behind our land. At one time, I would yell, “Now see how long it takes you to get back!” But after researching for another article on snails I have discovered they are deaf – Who knew!
There is also the copper band around the plants method [copper creates a barrier by giving the slugs and snails a slight electrical shock on contact], but this can get expensive. The best solution I have come up with is crushed egg shells mixed with coffee grounds. This sticks to the snails’ and slugs’ undersides and they don’t like the feel of it. If you have the space, ducks are a great deterrent. They love to peck about when spring digging is in process and will snap up any unsuspecting slug or snail that happens to be passing. We kept the Muscovy breed when we lived in England and they were wonderful at keeping the organic garden free of the little pests.
Although it’s not specific to gardening, a few years ago, an old gentleman who lived next door to us gave me this hint. For many of us who live in rural areas, ants of various kinds are a problem. So he suggested mixing Borax with cayenne pepper and sprinkling it about the corners of my front and back doors and along the back wall of the cupboard under the sink, which are, in my house, usual entry points for the critters. I have since had very little trouble during ant season. Of course you have to remember to re-do the mixture regularly, but it was a small price to pay to keep the ants out.
For the organic garden, some much bigger critters can be problematic. The deer population is quite high here in our corner of British Columbia. Although classed as urban, we are balanced on the cusp of the rural belt and there is an old path running through the woods behind us that is used by all the animals in the area, ranging from the small bobcat to the black bear. When we first moved out here to the west coast of Canada, we spent much time trying to identify the various footprints marching through our flower beds and were quite traumatized by our first sighting of a black bear mooching through our property, snuffing around the hedges to see what he could find.
For many years we kept an “attack cat.” Tiggy would sit at the window and growl loudly at the deer as they wandered across the front lawn. Once when the cat was in the garden a deer chanced his hoof and came onto our property. Tiggy looked him up and down, stalked over with her tail in the air, and leapt with all four feet clinging to the animal’s side. The deer was not amused and left for pastures green, leaving her Ladyship standing on the property line glaring. With a swish of her tail, she returned to the kitchen and her usual perch by the window.
We also put human hair into old pop socks [transparent ankle hosiery] along with carbolic soap and hang it across the deer trail and around the garden. Another deterrent is to lay down small-holed wire netting across the entrance of the trail from the woods; the deer do not like stepping on it. Another way to protect your organic garden from deer is to plant rosemary and lavender along the edge of the vegetable beds because deer don’t like the smell of pungent herbs. Apart from being useful and pretty, the herbs attract bees and butterflies, which in turn pollinate the plants.
Finally, we tossed the cat’s organic litter around the perimeter of the garden and this seemed to work well. A word here: We made sure we did not dig the cat litter into the vegetable garden, as sometimes a cat can pass on diseases. Also, pregnant women should never handle any kind of soiled cat litter due to a virus in cat feces called Toxoplasmosis. We scattered the litter around the boundaries of our land, mainly between the forest and us. (You could also use human urine too; again, make sure it is deposited away from edible plants, especially if there is medication in the liquid. This will also help to deter bears.)
Sadly, the defender of our garden has gone where all good cats go and we have to rely on other methods to keep the deer out of our garden.
There are several things to help keep bears off your property. Making sure all garbage is locked up securely and fallen fruit is picked up is the first step. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work, as we found to our horror one dark night. Awakened by a huge crash, I pulled back the drapes to see our local Bruin ripping the door off the metal shed and bending it in half to get at the two garbage bags hidden inside. But we’ve fixed that. I now tie moth balls to the garbage bags and across the lid of our supposedly bear-proof compost container and we have not seen him since.
Although we love to see the birds in our garden, they can also be a problem, pecking holes in the plant leaves and stealing the seeds. I’ve discovered three things that help keep them off. If you lay black and yellow plastic tape down along the rows of plants, the birds will stay away because they mistake it for snakes. Another trick is to tie open plastic grocery bags to sticks and let the wind fill them. You can also re-use old CDs and DVDs. Just tie them to a tall stake with string and the twisting and flashing of the silver discs seems to work wonders.
Sometimes the least expensive solutions are the best ones! There is no need to spend vast sums of money on your garden. To start with, you need balanced Ph in the soil. So lime it in the spring and put lots of compost and leaves into the ground. Some people in some locations grow a winter crop of clover or rye grass, which they dig in at the beginning of the season. Rotate crops each year to help prevent disease. And, of course, companion plant and use natural pest control methods.
If you are a first time gardener, give it a try, even if you only have a balcony to grow on! We have gardened naturally for thirty years in three countries, under many climates, and in vastly differing soils. We have found success by trial and error each time.
Information can easily be found on all aspects of natural gardening by looking up websites on the Internet, and hunting out books from the library and secondhand book shops. There is always a local gardener happy to share his or her secrets for a better crop of whatever you’re growing. It is a wonderful feeling to know you are gardening in partnership with the humans, animals, and insects around you. Have fun with companion growing in your natural, organic garden!
The Holistic Gardener: Creating Spaces for Health and Healing by Karen York (Prentice Hall, 2001)
Great Garden Companions: A Companion-Planting System for a Beautiful, Chemical-Free Vegetable Garden by Sally Jean Cunningham (Rodale Books, 2000)
Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening by Louise Riotte (Storey Publishing, 1998)
The A – Z of Companion Planting by Jayne Neville (Good Life Press, 2011)
Good Bug Bad Bug: Who’s Who, What They Do, and How to Manage Them Organically by Jessica Walliser (St. Lynn’s Press, 2008)
Insects and Gardens: In Pursuit of a Garden Ecology by Eric Grissell (Timber Press, 2006)
Liz and her husband Geoff have lived, worked and gardened in the UK, USA, and eastern and western Canada. They are “old Greenies” who have lived recycling, reusing, and natural gardening since the 1960s. They live on the edge of a small town called Maple Ridge in British Columbia where Liz works with the Alouette River Management Society. She is also a painter and a retired aromatherapist. In 2008, theirs was chosen as the Greenest Household in BC’s Lower Mainland by a Vancouver newspaper. In addition to this article for Natural Life Magazine, she has written for Back Home Magazine, The Vancouver Museum, and other publications.