How to grow a wildlife- friendly vegetable garden
Pesticides vs natural pest control
One big step towards growing vegetables with wildlife in mind is to stop using chemical pesticides. These upset the natural balance and tend to kill everything off, 'pests' (which are wildlife too!) and their predators alike. Afterwards the pests can recover more quickly without their natural predators to keep their numbers in check. The idea is to be a bit more pest-tolerant, and allow their natural predators to do the work for you. If you have already created a wildlife-friendly garden, you are already ahead of the field in the veg garden. All those creatures you have made a home for in your garden like toads, hedgehogs and birds, are your frontline in pest control.
Given good soil conditions and no water stress, crops will grow strong and healthy and are more resistant to pests and diseases. High nitrogen fertilisers can encourage sappy, leafy growth that’s more vulnerable to attack, so make sure you have a compost heap to provide a plenty of animal-friendly all-purpose soil improver.
In your garden
Try and learn as much as possible about the sort of pests which are attracted to your crops and the natural ways of controlling them. These include physical intervention like picking off slugs and aphids by hand, putting up barriers like crushed eggshells to prevent unwelcome intruders, as well as looking at ways of encouraging natural predators onto your patch.
It’s always good to prepare your soil by adding soil improvers like compost and green manure. Finding out what type of soil you have, for instance its acidity, whether it’s clay or sandy, and how well it holds moisture, provides clues to what is likely to grow best. A plant grown in the wrong conditions will be stressed and more likely to succumb to pests or disease.
The first step is to provide a decent environment for your veg to grow in. Dig plenty of compost or leafmould into your plot and make sure it's well watered.
A barrier of coarse bark or sharp gravel around the veg beds helps deter slugs and snails. If you have raised beds, try running some copper wire around the sides to form a slug- and snail-proof ring.
There isn’t any scientific evidence about why companion planting works, but it is used with some success. The principle is that certain plants either attract insects away from your crops or actually deter them. Marigolds are widely used to counter eel worms and, at very least, brighten up the look of your vegetable patch!
Keep an eye out for caterpillars, aphids, slugs and other veg chompers and hand pick what the birds and hedgehogs don’t get first.
Using horticultural fleece to cover newly planted veg helps prevent pest attack, but while it is a non-toxic means of control, it does exclude the pests which would feed the more welcome visitors to your garden. Compensate by providing plenty of other food opportunities elsewhere in your garden.
The birds that you have tempted into your garden might not differentiate between what’s meant for them and what’s meant for your table. As long as there’s plenty for them to eat, don’t feel mean about protecting your fruit with netting and hanging things that jangle and flash, like tin cans and old CDs to scare them off.
- Carrot flowers, like all umbellifers, are a big hit with many insects, especially aphid-eating hoverflies, so leave a few behind to flower.
- A nearby patch of weeds can be a plus. It is unlikely to harbour the pests which are detrimental to the veg plot, but may well host many of their predators.
- Aromatic herbs are really popular with insects so include things like borage, sage and mint in your veg plot, sunk into the ground in pots, to stop them spreading.