Photo: How to go pesticide free in your garden

A monarch caterpillar safely surveys a pesticide-free butterfly garden from the leaf of a milkweed plant.

Make your garden pesticide free by using natural pest control

Did you know more than 90 per cent of the bugs in a garden are beneficial? And these critters and pesticides do not mix well! You can avoid harming the beneficial birds, bees and butterflies by using natural pest control methods. Natural methods are generally safer and less expensive to use than pesticides. And many municipalities in Canada have by-laws restricting cosmetic use of pesticides.

The information below is adapted from the Toronto Region Conservation Authority's great Maintaining Your Pollinator Garden publication.

What is natural pest control?

Natural pest control encompasses any practice used for controlling weeds, pests and diseases in your garden without using chemical products. Use this section as a troubleshooting guide to deal with problems as they arise in your garden. Key principles of natural pest control include:

• Maintaining healthy soil
• Mulching
• Planting a variety of species (keep in clusters but use 10+ species)
• Avoiding overwatering
• Companion planting (pairing species for natural pest resistance)
• Planting native species
• Avoiding overcrowding in the garden
• Practicing good hygiene with garden tools and equipment

Controlling Weeds

An Ounce of Prevention:
• Mulch, Mulch, Mulch! Mulch not only controls weeds but improves soil quality and moisture and protects plant roots, helping to create a healthy, resilient garden.
• Remove seed sources of undesirable plants. Hand-pull or clip back the seed heads of weed plants before they go to seed. This will slowly remove the seedbed of weeds from the garden, inhibiting weeds from coming back in future years. Make sure not to put any weeds that are about to go to seed in the compost.

A Pound of Cure:
• Hand-pull weeds. Make sure to get weeds from the roots by weeding when the soil is moist and pulling from the base of the plant. A trowel can be used to loosen the soil to remove well-rooted weeds.
• Apply soap or acetic acid based herbicides. Make sure to avoid other plants when using these! These products can be found in hardware stores, renovation centres, and agricultural supply stores.
• Smother the problem. For larger areas of weeds, spread thick, dark plastic (heavy duty plastic bags or landscape fabric) over the ground. This works best if the coverings are put down in the early fall and left until you are ready to plant in spring. Leave for at least two months to kill weeds properly.
• Consider leaving certain 'weeds'. So-called weeds like golden rod, Queen Anne's lace, yarrow and common milkweed are highly beneficial to insects, so unless they are taking over your garden, consider leaving them.

Controlling Insects

To discourage undesirable insects from making themselves at home in your garden you may wish to adopt the following gardening practices:

• Select plants that are hardy in your local area.
• Select disease-resistant varieties of plants.
• Avoid overcrowding plants.
• Include as much variety of plant species as possible. Insect infestations tend to get out of control in monoculture environments.
• Examine plants frequently for early signs of insect and disease damage.

Examine leaves, looking on both the surfaces and the undersides. Often, all that is needed is to remove the effected leaves from a plant or give them a squirt of insecticidal soap. Act promptly to gain control of insect pests.

Use Caution

Organic pest controls must be applied carefully to avoid killing the beneficial insects that you are trying to attract to your garden. Insects are a normal part of any garden and some cosmetic damage to plants can be expected. Remember that you are trying to attract pollinators to your garden! In fact, insect damage may be from desirable pollinator species, like the leaf cutter bee that cuts pieces of leaves to use as 'baby blankets' for their young. However, if insects are becoming a serious problem in your garden
there are several organic methods to prevent further damage.

For more information, check out, Maintaining Your Pollinator Garden

Read more