SEASONAL GROWING TIPS – SPRING 2017

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SEASONAL GROWING TIPS – SPRING 2017
19th September, 2017

One of the frequently asked questions I get is “How do you control pests and diseases?” Which, when you think about it, is a pretty important question. Because the last thing you want after all the effort you put into growing food is to watch it get eaten by something other than you or your family and friends!

The answer is a little complex, with lots of side alleys and some interesting biology.

Organic Pest and Disease Controls

Feed the soil
To begin with, organic growing is about feeding the soil rather than the plant. The theory being that healthy soils grow healthy plants. The key words here are biodiversity and resilience. Resilient plants in a biodiverse environment are better able to fight off pests and diseases in a manner not dissimilar to humans – if we eat poorly and don’t exercise, we are statistically more prone to a whole host of preventable health issues.

Sorry to get all technical and nerdy, but I really should define both resilience and biodiversity, as they are kind of important.

Resilience: Resilience is an organism’s or a bioregion’s ability to recover from some type of disturbance – in a native landscape that could be a bushfire or landslip; in a plant it could be from some type of pest or disease attack.

Biodiversity: Biodiversity is the variety across all living species (e.g., the diversity of tomatoes, cabbages, beans, all the different types of flies and worms and lady beetles) and within a species (e.g., all the varieties of tomatoes – the black ones, the yellow ones, the stripy ones, the big fat juicy ones and the egg-shaped ones).

These are deceptively simple ideas that force us to think about stuff we can’t see or easily observe.

Critically, the plants we grow for food rely upon relationships within and outside the soils they grow in. This includes: bacteria helping to make nutrients available; insects and birds assisting with pollination and predation; worms, insects, lizards and a host of other associations. In other words, plants coexist with, and rely upon, micro and macro flora and fauna; some of which is out to eat them, some to use them as habitat, and some as hunting grounds.

It is better to prevent a pest or disease before you have to control it. We can do this below ground through the use of lots of well-made compost, mulches, worm wee, liquid fertilisers and sensible irrigation. Mulches are an important step, not just for their water-saving ability, but to provide a cool environment for a whole host of critters – many of which are decomposers whose by-products provide nutrients for plants; while others are predators, hunting the leaf eaters, borers and sap-suckers that decimate your lovingly cared for broccoli or cabbages.

Making our gardens more biodiverse above the soil is the stuff gardeners live for – plant more! The greater the diversity above the ground, the greater the chance you have of harvesting something in the state that you want it…

A good example is potatoes. Cultivate at least three varieties, because if a pest or disease attacks one you will still have two other varieties to pick from. A few years ago I grew several varieties of potatoes : Dutch Creams, Kipflers and Desirees. The Kipflers were hit hard with potato scab and I only had a very small harvest, whereas the Dutch Creams and Desirees were fine, and I harvested several kilos of each. All the edibles have a large number of varieties. The American Seed Savers Exchange has over 2000 varieties of beans alone and the number of tomatoes is equally staggering.

Additionally, a diversity of flower types and colours will attract more predatory insects to the garden. Wonderful insects like lacewings, lady beetles, wasps and some of the native bees (link to native bee story) – all of which also assist with pollination. Many seed companies sell beneficial insect flower packages. It helps to have a section of the garden devoted to them – garden edges and borders, “down the back” sections, dedicated flower gardens or flowers mixed within the productive garden itself. I often border my productive garden with marigolds and my herb garden has a mixture of perennial and self-seeding annuals in it – poppies, bergamot, calendula, lupins, bulbs, a variety of echinaceas, borage and even dahlias (because I love them!).

Once we notice there is a problem – skeletonised leaves, leaf discolouration, poor growth, holes in stems, cocoons – while not too late, it does mean we are starting the race with a handicap because the damage has been done and an infestation is hiding somewhere close by.

This is where we need to introduce the idea of a hierarchy of controls. This is a set of management strategies we can integrate into the above approach of soil improvement and species selection. Work through the list below to find the most appropriate strategy for your situation. However, these strategies should not be followed in a linear manner, several of them should form a part of your regular garden maintenance:

  • Acceptable levels of damage or of a pest (i.e. some leaves have a couple of holes in them but have not been completely decimated).
  • Preventative cultural practices (i.e. removing diseased leaves, cleaning secateurs between pruning cuts).
  • Monitoring – regular observation and identification is essential for timely responses.
  • Mechanical (i.e. hand-picking bugs such as snails or White Cabbage Moth caterpillars off leaves, bug barriers, traps and tillage to break pest life cycles).
  • Biological controls – using natural processes to keep pests and diseases at an acceptable level (i.e. encouraging beneficial insects through having dedicated flowering areas, or introducing predatory insects into an area).
  • Responsible use of either naturally occurring or synthetic pesticides such as pyrethrum, garlic, chilli or nicotine. Bear in mind that even “natural” pest sprays can be highly toxic and affect both humans and beneficial insects, so if you are going to spray, be very careful – the last thing you want to do is have chilli spray blow back into your eyes!

For further reading, check out the following websites, which have some useful resources for controlling pests and diseases: Green HarvestDiggers ClubEden Seeds

If you’re interested in saving and swapping seeds, get involved with the Mid-Mountains Seed Savers – a group dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom and open-pollinated seeds.

And if you’re interested in contributing to maintaining the diversity of our seed pool, you can contribute to the Blackheath Community Farm’s heritage seed library.

Steve Fleischmann – Food grower, educator and Co-op member

Steve Fleischmann shares his knowledge of food growing in practical hands-on Grow Your Own workshops on the first Friday of the month at the Katoomba Organic Community Gardens. For more info see our Facebook events page.

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