How to "Go Organic" in your garden

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How to "Go Organic" in your garden

      With pesticides and genetic modification invading our supermarkets virtually unchecked,  we are concerned about the plants and animals whose habitats are affected, and for the health and safety of our families. While you may not have the time and resources to fight for the regulation of GM foods, you can limit the amount of genetically modified foods that you consume by growing and eating organic produce. Grown without chemical  inputs, organic foods are the safest choice for you and for the environment. But organic vegetables can also be  expensive—unless you grow them yourself! Going organic in your garden is easier than you might expect, and the impressive yields you can obtain wit natural methods may surprise you.

So…what exactly does it mean to grow organically?

      To be truly organic, no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides can be used, so the key to organics is learning about the tools that nature has to offer.  But organic gardening means more than that. For true devotees, organic gardening is all about stewardship. It’s managing your garden for long term yields, not just making the neighbors jealous this year. This means having a give and take relationship with your soil. You give the soil rich organic nutrients, and the soil gives you the freshest fruits and vegetables possible.  You also need to learn your soil’s strengths and weaknesses. Climate and soil type help to dictate what and when you plant. If you grow plants that don’t fit your climate and soil conditions, you may have to add too much to the soil to get a reasonable harvest. In general, think about the natural relationships that exist in your surroundings and strive for a balance

Why grow organically?

     Growing your own food ensures that the food you’re eating is truly fresh. Tomatoes in the supermarket may have traveled hundreds or thousands of miles and may have been handled many times. The tomato in your garden can be picked when it is the perfect ripeness and go directly to your dining room table. A storebought tomato was likely picked green and grown from hybrid varieties that have an extra long shelf life.

When growing organically, you know that chemicals and pesticides will not make their way into your body through produce. You’ll also know that you are part of the solution to environmental degradation. Gardening is a wonderful outside activity that the whole family can participate in. If you plan and take care of your garden, you'll save money, enjoy a beautiful hobby, and help take good care of your health.

Here's what you can do to go organic:

  • Use environmentally friendly materials in your garden.  Try to reuse and recycle as much as possible.

  • Buy organically grown seeds, and learn how to save and use your own seeds the next season. A great source for organically grown seeds is High Mowing Seeds , a Vermont company which offers high quality vegetable, herb, and flower seeds for home gardeners and commercial growers. 

  • Instead of constantly watering, improve the quality of your soil and add mulch.  This will help the soil hold onto water better.

  • Compost!  Compost-fed crops are healthier and will give greater yields in the long run. 

  • Use the right mulch for your plants.  Leaves, bark mulch, and bark chips work well around perennials and landscape plants that don’t need to be “fed”. Cocoa shells, compost, hay, and straw/manure mulches are better for plants that do need food.  Avoid using bark and woodchips in a vegetable garden. The mulch that’s right for your spot will stop weed growth and help keep the soil moist.  Apply the mulch in early summer when the soil is moist -- be sure to cultivate and remove any weeds first.

  • Feed your garden only as much as it needs.  For a ten square meter area, 1 wheelbarrow full of manure or 2 wheelbarrows of compost will do just fine. 

  • Practice organic pest control.

Topics include:




& traps


local pests


     There are many ways to control garden pests naturally, without using synthetic chemicals.  From where and what you plant, to homemade sprays and beer traps, organic pest control is easy and practical.  Not only will you save money on expensive pesticides, but you can eat your produce in confidence, knowing that it is free of potentially harmful chemicals.  Keep in mind, though, that many of these solutions are not completely species specific, and if overused you may end up killing beneficial bugs as well.

Homemade Remedies

     These solutions can be made up in your kitchen out of inexpensive everyday supplies.  Try a few versions and see what you like best!  Solutions containing the following plants are popular: members of the allium family (onion, garlic, chives), hot peppers (jalapeno, cayenne), and herbs (basil, coriander, wormwood, peppermint). These sprays can successfully repel a wide range of insects.
     Soapy water sprays can be quite effective against aphids and spider mites. When using any of these sprays, wet both sides of the leaves and repeat after a rain or as often as necessary. 
     Flour and salt can also be used to repel pests. Use them as a dust to suffocate or dehydrate many kinds of caterpillars. Wood ashes sprinkled around the base of plants also discourages cutworm attack. 

Homemade Soap Sprays . Soap has been used for centuries as a pesticide against soft-bodied insects such as aphids. It disrupts insects’ cell membranes, and kills pests by dehydration. The key is not to use too much soap, or you will also kill the vegetation near the pests. Dissolve 3 tablespoons of soap flakes or liquid soap (not detergent) in a gallon of water and spray on plants. 

Herbal Insect Repellent . Gather leaves from tansy, lavender, and sage, which have strong insect repelling qualities. You'll need an ounce of leaves from each plant. Place the herbs in a 1-quart jar and fill it with boiling water. Let it set until it cools. Or make an infusion by steeping the herbs in a jar of water placed in a sunny outdoor spot. Drain off the liquid and set this solution aside. Dissolve 1 teaspoon of soap flakes in 2 cups of water. Add 1/8 cup of the herb solution and mix well. Use a sprayer to coat all plant parts with the bug repellent. 

Hot and Spicy Spray . Some gardeners combine hot peppers and garlic in a soapy solution. Puree two hot peppers and two cloves of garlic in a blender. Add 3 cups of water and 2 tablespoons of biodegradable liquid soap. Strain and fill a spray bottle with the solution. 

Bug Juice . Although it seems a bit macabre, consider using bug juice to fight pests. Collect at least 1/2 cup of pesky insects and place them in an old blender with enough water to make a thick solution. Blend on high and strain out the pulp using cheesecloth or a fine sieve. Dilute at a rate of 1/4 cup bug juice to 1 cup of water, pour into a spray bottle, and apply to plants. (Some scientists believe that pheromones from the blended insects send a warning to their living relatives!)

Beneficial Insects

     Beneficial insects feed on the insect pests in your garden. Beneficial insects will frequent your garden if you plant natives and other desirable plants in the garden and around the periphery.

     When the following plants are allowed to bloom, they attract beneficial insects with their nectar and pollen: 

  • Parsley family (parsley, fennel, coriander, dill and chervil) 

  • Sunflower family (sunflowers, daisies, asters and cosmos) 

  • Sweet allysum 

  • Native buckwheat 

  • Baby blue eyes 

  • Tidy tips 

You can also buy beneficial insects and add them to your garden: 

  • Beneficial Nematodes for cutworms, weevils, grubs and fungus gnat larvae 

  • Green Lacewings for aphids, mealybugs, scale, mite and thrips 

  • Thrichogramma for moths and caterpillars 

  • Ladybugs for aphids, mealybugs, scale and leaf hoppers 

Companion Planting

     Many plants have natural defenses that make pests want to keep their distance.  Plan your garden layout so that plants with pest-repellant qualities are next to more susceptible plants.  Use this chart as a guide:




Mint, tansy, pennyroyal


Mint, garlic, chives, coriander, anise

Bean Leaf Beetle

Potato, onion, turnip

Codling Moth

Common oleander

Colorado Potato Bug

Green beans, coriander, nasturtium

Cucumber Beetle

Radish, tansy

Flea Beetle

Garlic, onion, mint

Imported Cabbage Worm

Mint, sage, rosemary, hyssop

Japanese Beetle

Garlic, larkspur, tansy, rue, geranium

Leaf Hopper

Geranium, petunia

Mexican Bean Beetle

Potato, onion, garlic, radish, petunia, marigolds



Root Knot Nematodes

French marigolds


Prostrate rosemary, wormwood

Spider Mites

Onion, garlic, cloves, chives

Squash Bug

Radish, marigolds, tansy, nasturtium

Stink Bug




Tomato Hornworm

Marigolds, sage, borage


Marigolds, nasturtium

Barriers and Traps

     Barriers are simple to use, and many are easy to make yourself. Cutworm collars are an effective physical barrier to prevent cutworm damage to tomatoes, broccoli, cucumbers, etc. Simply cut out a strip of newspaper or cardboard and place it completely around the stem, shoving it in an inch or two into the soil around seedlings.

     Row covers can hinder flying insects (such as cabbage moths and leaf miners) that would like to lay their eggs on your plants. Cover your seedlings before the insects emerge and fasten the sides securely. Check under the covers periodically for sneaky insects that might have gotten in.  Remove the covers, if necessary, for pollination and then replace them again. In very warm climates, you may need to remove the covers if the temperature underneath gets too warm for your plants.  When using row covers, it helps to know a bit about the life cycle of the pest you're trying to control. If that insect over winters in the soil, you may actually be trapping the emerging larvae underneath the covers. In this case, cultivate the soil before you plant to expose the insects to birds and other predators. 

     Traps can attract insects by using color, taste, and sex hormones. For example, yellow sticky traps will lure aphids, Whitefly, thrips, and leaf miners. Slugs have a particular liking for stale beer and will drown in a shallow saucer of it placed in the garden. Japanese beetle traps commonly use sex hormones and floral lures to attract the adult insects to them.

Bacillus Thuringiensis

     Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a naturally occurring, soil borne organism that has gained recent popularity for its ability to control certain insect pests in a natural, environmentally friendly manner. 

     Bacterial agents, like Bt, are effective in controlling insects in the larva stage only. The larva stage in an insect's life cycle is the stage during which most of the feeding occurs. Since, Bt must be ingested to work, the insect must be controlled during the larval stage (in which the insect appears worm or caterpillar-like). 
     The Bt is applied to the foliage of plants infested with a leaf or needle eating larva. If possible, apply the Bt to the underside of the leaf surface, as most larva feed from the underside of leaves and Bt is broken down quickly in sunlight. 
     There are different strains or varieties of Bt available that have been selected for the control of specific insects. Bt variety kurstaki (BTK) controls the European corn borer, tomato hornworms, fruitworms, cabbageworm, cabbage looper, spring and fall cankerworm, spruce budworm, and other caterpillar-like larvae. Bt variety san diego (BTSD) controls early larvae of the Colorado potato beetle. Bt variety israelensis (BTI) controls mosquitoes, black flies and fungus gnats. 

Common Burlington Gardens Pests

     Flea Beetles, Cabbage Butterflies, Colorado Potato Beetles, Striped Cucumber Beetles, Squash Beetle, Mexican Bean Beetles, European Beetles, and Leaf Miners have been known to frequent the Burlington Area Community Gardens. Rotenone and Pyrethrium (available as a concentrate or dust) are botanical insecticides that are effective against adult beetles and leaf miners. Pyola (which is pyrethrium dissolved in canola oil) is an effective ovicide for the eggs of beetles and the very young larvae. BT (Bacillus thurigensis) is a bacteria that is effective against the larvae of cabbage butterflies.
      There is another form of BT that is effective against the larvae of potato beetles.  The key is early treatment with any pests, so apply rotenone pyrethrium at the first sign of adult beetles, and until the plants are well along in their growth. Then watch for eggs on the undersides of leaves, and apply pyola to kill eggs and larvae. The appropriate form of Bt can be applied at the first sign of cabbage butterflies, and at the first sign of eggs on potato plants. 

More Information
Here are some other helpful web sites:
Gives a great list of garden pests (along with an identification key) and beneficial insect and organic solutions to keep them out of your garden. 
Includes a chart of pests and natural pesticides with will work on them.
 “How to tell the good bugs from the bad” – a good identification guide. 
 Provides a few more homemade solutions and spray recipes.
A complete source for natural garden pest control, including: prevention, beneficial insects, homemade remedies, insecticides, traps, and deer control

  • To deter cucumber beetles, try planting a few radish seeds in each hill of cukes. Let it grow alongside the cucumbers all season. The strong smell or taste of the radish seems to keep the beetles away.

  • Homemade garlic or hot pepper sprays can protect your young seedlings from flea beetles and aphids. To prepare, combine finely chopped garlic and onions (or hot peppers) with water, let it steep for a while, then strain out particles. Spray vulnerable plants often, especially after rainfall. You can also sprinkle ground cayenne or other hot ground pepper directly onto leaves to deter chewing pests. This is most effective in the morning when leaves are moist with dew.

  • Control powdery mildew and fungi on garden crops by combining one cup of milk with nine cups of water and spray onto affected plants twice a week. Researchers believe the milk has a direct germicidal effect as well as indirectly stimulating the plants to become more resistant. Let us know how it works if you try it.

Garlic & Pepper Spray

Protect your garden plants from cabbageworms, caterpillars, hornworms, aphids, flea beetles and other chewing/sucking insects by routinely using a natural spray that you can make at home. The spray must be applied regularly, especially after a rainfall. Brew up a batch as follows:

6 cloves of garlic
1 Tbsp dried hot pepper
1 minced onion
tsp pure soap (not detergent)
1 gallon hot water

Blend & let sit for 1 - 2 days. Strain & use as spray. Ground cayenne or red hot pepper can also be sprinkled on the leaves of plants (apply when leaves are slightly damp) to repel chewing insects or added to the planting hole with bone meal or fertilizer to keep squirrels, chipmunks, dogs and other mammals away from your gardens. Be sure to reapply after rain


The easiest way to prevent insect damage in your garden is to discourage them from coming in the first place. A healthy garden is the best defence.


Pull out any weak plants. They may already be infected. If not, they will attract predators. Pull the plant and dispose of it away from the garden area.
• Build healthy, organic soil. Natural composting methods, mulching and top-dressing your soil with compost or natural fertilizer is the best way to develop strong, vigorous plants.
• Seaweed mulch or spray. Seaweed contains trace elements such as iron, zinc, barium, calcium, sulfur and magnesium, which promote healthy development in plants. Seaweed fertilizer in mulch or spray form will enhance growth and give plants the strength to withstand disease. Seaweed mulch also repels slugs.
• Minimize insect habitat.
Clear garden area of debris and weeds which are breeding places for insects.
• Keep foliage dry. Water early so foliage will be dry for most of the day. Wet foliage encourages insect and fungal damage to your plants. See our page on drip-irrigation for methods of delivering water to the root systems without wetting the foliage.
• Disinfect. If you've been working with infested plants, clean your tools before moving on to other garden areas. This will reduce the speed of invading insects.


Garden 'Mini' Insectary




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A garden 'mini' insectary is a small garden plot of flowering plants designed to attract and harbor beneficial insects.

These 'good' insects prey on many common garden insect pests, and offer the gardener a safer, natural alternative to pesticides.


A garden insectary is a form of "companion planting", based on the positive effects plants can share as a method of deterring pests, acquiring nutrients or attracting natural predators. By becoming more diverse with your plantings, you are providing habitat, shelter and alternative food source, such as pollen and nectar, something many predators need as part of their diet.

Aphid predators such as aphidius, need the pests to be present in order to reproduce. The idea of inviting the pests in may seem alarming, until you understand that you can encourage host specific pests. These pests will remain on the desired plant in your mini insectary yet provide an ideal breeding ground for the associated predators and parasites.

The plot does not have to be large, just big enough to hold 6-7 varieties of plants which attract insects. Once the garden has matured you can watch your personal insect security force do the work for you.

pictured below, left to right: Statice, Lupin, Tansy, Queen Anne's Lace, Sunflower


Mini Insectary” Plants

Achillea filipendulina
Anethum graveolens (Dill)
Angelica gigas
Convolvulus minor
Cosmos bipinnatus
Daucus Carota (Queen Anne's lace)
Foeniculum vulgare (Fennel)
Helianthus annulus
Iberis umbellata
Limonium latifolium (Statice)
Melissa officinalis (Lemon balm)
Petroselinum crispum (Parsley)
Shasta Daisy
Tanacetum vulgare (Tansy)
Verbascum thaspus

Beneficial Predators Attracted

Lacewings, Aphidius, Ladybugs

Ground beetles
Ichneumon wasp, Ladybugs, Lacewings
Ladybugs, Hoverflies
Hoverflies, Parasitic wasps, Lacewings
Lacewings, Ladybugs, Hoverflies
Damsel bugs, Ladybugs, Lacewings
Pirate bugs, Beneficial mites
Hoverflies, Parasitic wasps
Aphidius, Aphidoletes, Hoverflies
Parasitic wasps, tachinid flies
Parasitic wasps, hoverflies, tachinid flies
Pirate bugs, Beneficial mites
Pirate bugs, Aphidius
Ladybugs, Lacewings



Beneficial Predators

Beneficial mites
Damsel Bugs (Nabidae)
Ground Beetles
Pirate Bugs
Tachinid flies
Wasps (parasitic)


Thrips, spidermite, fungus gnats
Eggs of many pest insects
Whiteflies, aphids, thrips, spider mites
Slugs, small caterpillars and grubs
Aphids, mealybugs and others
Scale, aphids, mites, softbodied insects
Aphids, mites
Thrips, aphids, mites, scales, whiteflies
Caterpillars, beetle and fly larvae
Whiteflies, moth, beetle and fly larvae

pictured above, left to right: ichneumon wasp, lacewing, pirate bug, hoverfly, damsel bug

Tips and suggestions:

~ Intersperse vegetable beds with rows or islands of insectary annuals. This will add decorative elements to your vegetable beds while luring beneficials toward prey.
~ Allow some of your salad and cabbage crops to bloom. Brassica flowers (cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, bok choy) are also appreciated.
~ Include plants of different heights in your insectary. Ground beetles require the cover provided by low-growing plants such as thyme, rosemary, or mint. Lacewings lay their eggs in shady, protected areas, so providing such places near crop plants is a good idea.
~ Tiny flowers produced in large quantity are much more valuable than a single, large bloom. Large, nectar-filled blooms actually can drown tiny parasitoid wasps.
~ Members of the Umbelliferae family are excellent insectary plants. Fennel, angelica, coriander, dill, and wild carrot all produce the tiny flowers required by parasitoid wasps.
~ Composite flowers (daisy and chamomile) and mints (spearmint, peppermint, or catnip) will attract predatory wasps, hover flies, and robber flies.

A garden insectary should be thought of as a long-term permanent component of your garden. Results are not instant and conclusive; rather, the benefits to your garden are cumulative. As your plantings mature and resident populations of beneficial insects are established, the need for chemical pesticides and other agressive insect control techniques will diminish. Your garden will become a more natural and balanced environment for the healthy production of vegetables and flowers.

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