Share The Wealth by Chris Gupta
June 14, 2006

Chemical-free Gardening

Further to Pesticide-free Lawn Care here is more from Harry Jongerden, Head Gardener at Hamilton's world-famous Royal Botanical Gardens, that he presented at the An Evening of Wine and Seeds.

Chris Gupta

See also: Grow Your Own Mineralized Organic Super Foods


Harry Jongerden 23/02/06

We're going to talk about growing healthy and beautiful gardens - and you won't need any chemicals!

1) Soil: There's nothing more important to the health of your plants than the soil they grow in. Many houses, especially modern ones, have flower or vegetable beds with their plants growing in the excavated subsoil of the house's basement. After adding a couple of inches of "topsoil" to the surface, people think lovely plants will thrive there.

Get "triple mix" topsoil. Never buy or add regular "topsoil" to your garden. That kind of "topsoil" is shredded clay and you'll be very sorry if ever you pay $10 or more a yard for soil that's impossible to work with. Triple mix topsoil costs twice as much, but it's the only way to go.

Alternatively, add manure or compost to your existing soil. If you aren't making your own compost, buy some compost or manure and dig it into your garden. It's as expensive as triple mix at $25 per cu. yd., but once you've got good garden soil, you can maintain its health with your own composting, or by adding things such as shredded leaves every fall. Healthy soil will produce healthy plants.

2) Watering: Watering correctly is very important to maintaining healthy plants. You really don't have the option of allowing a vegetable garden or ornamental plants to go dormant in drought conditions. There are some plants which survive a lack of watering, but not many of us would be satisfied with the limited plant choices of a drought-tolerant garden. And you can forget about a veggie garden if you don't water!

Plants don't like a shallow watering. Roots are deep so you need to water deeply. For ornamental plants, water every third day, giving them about 1" of water. You can measure that by putting out a pan to catch the water coming out of your sprinkler. When it's got an inch in there, you'll know how long your sprinkler takes to put out 1" of water. For a vegetable garden you'll need to water every other day to keep things like beans constantly on your plate.

Water in the morning if you can. Watering in the heat or bright sun is hard on your plants. Watering late at night creates moist conditions for fungal diseases and slugs. A morning watering gets moisture into the ground and allows the plant's foliage to dry off as the sun hits it. That being said, who's got time to water in the morning? 2nd best would be early evening when the worst of the heat is past and the plants have a chance to dry off before sundown.

Watering artificially, the way we do with our hoses and sprinklers, is a tricky thing. For one thing, tap water's too cold. Too much or too little can lead to fungal diseases, and doing it at the wrong time of day can also be harmful. There's nothing better than a good natural soak.

3) Drainage: We've covered the water above. Now let's talk about the water below. A lot of ornamental plants, especially roses, hate to have their roots sitting in the wetness of poorly-drained soil. They will always be unhealthy. If you dig down a foot or two and water pools in the hole you just dug, you've got problems. Either get going with some gravel and drainage pipe to carry that water away, or plant accordingly. There are a number of ornamental plants or vegetables that can tolerate a heavy, poorly drained site. Just don't try planting roses there.

One other option in a poorly drained location is to plant on raised beds. Build up the soil so that your plants sit higher than the normal surrounding grade. Raised beds have helped many gardeners avoid costly and time-consuming drainage installation.

4) Plant Choice: Get out some helpful books and ask your friends for advice. Choose the right plants for the conditions. Choose plants:

a) according to the amount of sunlight available
b) according to your soil conditions
c) according to your ability to give them enough water or attention
d) according to their hardiness (i.e. cold tolerance, disease resistance, etc.)

There are so many informative books and catalogues to help you make these choices. You can go shopping at the local garden centres and pick out plants because they happen to look good the day you're looking, but research is always worth doing, and fun. Remember, choosing inappropriate plants will eventually give you unhealthy plants unable to thrive. They'll get diseases, bugs will damage them, and you'll be looking for solutions to a problem caused by your poor planning.

At this point we can all hang our heads in shame. Because I suspect there's none of us here, myself included, who haven't put the wrong plant in the wrong place. We've all eyed something we just had to have and then proceeded to slowly kill it by planting it somewhere it didn't belong. We're all a bit foolish for planting our Hybrid Tea roses when we know they're going to attract aphids, get powdery mildew and drop their black spot-infested leaves. So let's look at some ways to clean up these problems and make ourselves feel better about our gardening abilities.


1) Dormant Oil: Dormant oil is an excellent treatment for your woody plants to kill overwintering insects and the spores of fungal diseases. It's called "dormant" oil because you can't ever spray it on a plant with the leaves showing, only on a dormant plant with tight unopened buds. Putting this mineral oil on leaves can damage them severely. So, late March or early April, spray dormant oil on things like roses, fruit trees, or on honeysuckle vines. It really helps keep down powdery mildew, black spot, or in the case of fruit trees, rust.

2) Compost Tea: My other main recommendation for combating fungal diseases is compost tea. This isn't something you spray on your plants when you see the white-grey mildew withering away the leaves. Compost tea is a preventative spray that you apply to any or all of your plants, particularly those plants prone to fungal disease. Start in late May and reapply every two weeks until late August.

What you are doing is applying a supercharged concoction of microbial activity to your plants. It acts as an inoculant against fungal disease. Scientists aren't sure if the microbes attack the fungal spores, or just keep them in check, but the fungal spores don't take over and wipe out your plants the way they do if left unchecked.

I've sprayed with plenty of chemicals to fight powdery mildew, black spot and rust over the years. Even using the whole chemical arsenal doesn't prevent these diseases from beginning and spreading. You'll see some of these diseases on the susceptible plants despite using compost tea but the tea works at least as well as the chemicals at keeping them in check. I would especially use compost tea on roses, honeysuckle vine, phlox paniculata, hollyhocks, monarda and asters.

And what is compost tea? Although it's called "tea", there's no heat applied. It's water that's had a shovelful of well-rotted manure or compost steeped in it at room temperature for a week. (5 parts water to 1 part compost.) Strain out the particles and spray the liquid on your plants. If you're going to faithfully spray every two weeks you need to be brewing up new batches to always have some at hand. But it's really simple.

3) Baking Soda: If you find the notion of Compost Tea icky, a 1% baking soda solution also works well on plants susceptible to fungal diseases. Some people combine it with a little vegetable oil to make it stick to the leaves better. As with Compost Tea, this treatment should begin early in the summer and be repeated every 10-14 days.

4) How To Handle Insects: Easy. Avoid the pesticides such as malathion. These chemicals work well, but you're using a sledgehammer where a fly swatter will do.

Learn to tolerate a few bugs on the plant. It's not so hard after awhile. Our biggest bug problems here are probably aphids and spider mites. Aphids are easy to see and fairly easy to kill. Spider mites are tougher. They hang out on the underside of leaves so when you spray for them you need to get down and spray from below in order to hit them. In both cases, aphids and spider mites, you need to hit the bug, not just the plant leaves and hope the bug moves into it. Direct contact is required.

There are many effective alternatives to chemical pesticides. Diluted garlic or hot pepper juice work very well. There are many other folk remedies out there, including boiled rhubarb leaf water or cabbage water. Have fun and experiment. Lots of different books are filled with recipes and good advice, advice that you'll especially want to use in your vegetable garden. It's hard to understand how people could spray fungicides and insecticides on their food. We have plenty of alternatives. Let's not take the easy way out and compromise our health.


posted by Chris Gupta on Wednesday June 14 2006

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Glad I found your site! Struggling to get to a place where everyone practices those philosophies.

Posted by: Deborah Daniels on June 18, 2006 06:26 PM


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