Nature has all you need to be able to provide your plants with the required nutrients and to protect them from weeds and pests. Through designing pro-actively and trying to fit in as much biological variety as possible in your system you prevent many pests from establishing themselves. In this article I’ll talk about different natural fertilizers, weed and pest control. These are vast themes which could easily fill up a book or two, so just see this as a brief introduction. More resources can be found online or go check your local library. Most books on organic gardening contain useful sections on this.
Before we get started, I’d like to invite you to have a look at the site of Andrea, a girl I’ve come to know via the Seanwes community. She has a compact garden – or ghetto garden as she calls it – in Santa Cruz, California. This is quite a different climate from mine here in the black forest in south Germany, so I find it interesting to follow what she’s doing and what’s different over there. Check it out!
Mulching serves many different purposes. Not only can it prevent weeds from taking root around your plants. It also helps maintaining moisture in the soil, and depending on the type you choose it may also provide new nutrients to the soil. It may also be used to improve the look of your garden and protect walking paths from becoming muddy.
So what is mulch really? Actually, it’s a collective term used to signify materials that you use to cover soil with. It can be anything from wood chips to plastic sheets, but personally I prefer and promote the natural alternatives. Using leftovers from your garden maintenance, for instance grass clippings from mowing a lawn or shredding branches when trimming hedges or trees are perfect and make sure you keep your materials within the local ecosystem of your own property. Since many of you probably only have a balcony or terrace there might not be enough. Ask people in your community if they have something left over that you can use.
Here is a short list with a few materials that can be useful as mulch in your garden and some short information on their characteristics:
Grass clippings: Great for covering the ground around delicate plants. Provides a lot of nutrition to the soil but is very rich in nitrogen so it might need to be combined with other forms of more carbon rich fertilization or soil treatment to maintain the balance.
Paper: Shredded office paper or newspaper sheets are great for maintaining moisture. It is not very rich in nutrients. Watch out so it doesn’t contain too high amounts of printing ink since it may contain heavy metals. Shredded paper may blow away easily on a windy plot so only use it in wind protected areas of your garden. Full paper sheets or cardboard can be used to cover the bottom when establishing new raised beds or walking paths. It helps suppressing weeds.
Straw: Great for maintaining moisture, in thick layers it protects well against weeds. Breaks down a bit slower than grass clippings and provides more balanced nutrients. You can actually establish raised beds directly in straw bales.
Leaves: Leaves falling down from bushes and tress is nature’s own way of mulching. Bring in some from the forest. You may need to chop it up in smaller pieces to work in your pots or garden beds. This also makes it break down a bit faster. Watch out so that you don’t “import” snails when doing this.
Tree bark and shredded branches: Fantastic for creating walking paths or to protect bushes and trees from drying out. Breaks down slowly and provides nutrients over a longer period of time. Watch out with using too much acidic wood types, such as pine, since they may change the pH level of the soil.
If you have access to cut down branches from fruit trees, hedges and similar, buying or renting a shredder is a fantastic investment. With that you will be able to produce high quality mulch using materials that you would probably have to burn or take to a garbage dump else.
Compost, compost, compost!
One of the absolute best ways to provide nutrients is compost. Compost is the leftovers you get after organic matter breaks down. Some do it on an open compost heap, others in closed vessels and some add extra worms to get the process going faster. I could probably write a whole book about compost too, but for now I’ll just say that you should definitely try to implement some form of compost system in your garden. Even if you have a small balcony there are compact compost bins that take up no more space than a 10 liter bucket and they don’t smell. With some of them you can produce “compost tea” which is a liquid residue that you can mix out with water and use as a liquid fertilizer.
Make sure that you follow your local regulations when composting since there often are guidelines for what you are allowed to do in specific spaces. The rules are there to prevent rats and other pests from coming into your garden or house.
Compost can also be used as mulch to protect the soil and provide new nutrients from the top. Once the composting process is done you’ll have rich, black organic matter which gives your soil both nutrients and a better structure.
Poo on your plants? Well, yeah, but in a bit more controlled manner of course. Humanure (human excrements) isn’t the first choice for most people, unless it has already turned into compost soil of course. Plants grow like crazy nearby old outhouses! More common is using horse, chicken, cow, sheep or goat manure. Most of these are possible to buy in garden centers, or you can go to your local farmer or stable to ask if you can buy some. Sometimes you even get it for free. Make sure to let it rest for a couple of months before you use it. Applied fresh to your garden beds it may damage your plants since it’s too concentrated. Many types you can also buy dried as granulate, which can be more practical for a smaller garden. They all have a bit different characteristics so check what would suit your plants the best.
Nettle juice – the easy homemade fertilizer
Nettles are easy to come by and most of the time they’re seen as a weed. They are far more than that. They are extremely useful plants which you can eat, use as fertilizer, use for cosmetic purposes and the fibers can actually be turned into textiles that resemble linen. You will need a pair of good garden gloves when picking them, but besides that the process of making a liquid fertilizer from them is very simple. Take some nettles, soak them in water in a bucket, cover it with a lid with a few holes (don’t seal it shut or you may have a stinky explosion on your hands when it starts to ferment!) and leave it for some days. After that, drain the liquid off and put into bottles. The solution is a fantastic liquid fertilizer! You mix in a small amount in your watering pot and water your plants with it a few times during your gardening season, but not too often since it’s very high in nitrogen. The process of making it may be a bit smelly, so keep it separate from where you usually sit in your garden. Besides that, it’s free to make and very useful.
Other organic fertilizers
You can make juices of other organic plants in the same way as the nettle juice. Other sources of useful nutrients for your garden include bone meal, blood meal, stone minerals, dried egg shells, seashells, dried seaweed and even hair. Those big chunks of hair left over when brushing your dog – dig them down in your pots! Leftovers from eating eggs? Crush the shells and apply to the soil. It provides a good source of calcium. The Wikipedia article on Organic fertilizers has more suggestions and you can find a bunch of further resources online if you’re interested.
Natural weed control
We already talked about mulch being a very useful way of controlling weeds. But what more can you do? The main tip from my side would be good design. Work with plants supporting each other and make sure the soil is covered with plants that you actually want to use. Leaving the soil open is, as Isaid in the last article, like an open wound and nature will try to cover it with some form of green cover. If you do have an invasion of weeds, one of the best methods to get rid of them is still hand weeding. It shouldn’t take too long in a small garden, but hopefully you will not have to do this if making sure you plan according to the stacking principle and mulch properly.
Burning isn’t very suitable for such small gardens as we talk about here unless you want to remove a few plants along a path. You can use a gas torch for this. Same thing with boiling water. It can be poured on the plants you wish to remove, but this only works when you don’t risk burning other plants nearby with the hot water.
Acids such as vinegar or using salt may be very effective for weed control, but to be honest, I’m not a big fan of this. You are disturbing the pH balance of the soil and with salt you are destroying the saline balance. You may end up with bigger problems than you had before, meaning nothing will grow at all. You also disturb the microorganisms and small animals living in the soil. One of the main reasons for areas becoming deserted is that the salt level becomes too high so that plants won’t grow there anymore.
Pest control without unnecessary damage
Good design using companion planting is the absolute best ways of preventing pests. Mix in herbs with strong smells in your garden and many pests will stay away. This list of repelling plants is a great start.
You can also make tinctures of some of them to spray on plants if you happen to have a pest invasion. Two classics are garlic and chili. On the other hand, don’t use these on your lettuce leaves or you may have an unpleasant taste surprise. Aphids can often be deterred with the help of spraying soap water on the affected plants.
Biological pest control using the help of other species is another effective method. Most pests have predators that would be more than happy to take care of them for you. Ladybugs eat aphids, frogs and toads love insects, ducks eat snails. Not all of these are practical on a balcony or terrace of course, but there are also alternatives where you can buy bacteria and other microorganisms, predator insects, parasites etc to take care of your problem. Ask at your garden center or look for suppliers online. They should be able to answer you on preferable methods and make sure that you get a solution that doesn’t affect other beneficial organisms in your garden.
Pests in your garden usually mean that there is some form of imbalance. Try to analyze what may have caused it. Sometimes it’s imbalances in the soil making plants weak, other times it’s not having enough variety. What we call pests are also part of our ecosystem and have other purposes, even if they are not useful to us. If you give them enough room for their habitat, they probably will not invade the rest of your garden. Eco-diversity is the best protection you can have!
Also, don’t freak out just because a leaf or two has been chewed on. You’ll probably have more than enough healthy plants left in your garden anyway. Only take action when you see that a problem is getting out of control.
Question: Have you been able to find further tips on weed and pest control online or in books? Share your answers using #mycompactgarden.
Activity: Make your own nettle juice according to the instructions above. Try it out and see the difference in growth. Water one pot with it and leave the other one alone to see the difference it makes.
Next week’s theme is alternative gardening methods such as aquaponics and window gardens. Great for those of you who have very limited space and/or live in climates where it is impossible to cultivate plants outdoors all year round.