How to make your garden a chemical-free zone
Gardening without chemicals is a good way to ensure that the food grown in your garden is free of pesticides or chemicals, and that the plants you grow will thrive without extra expense and danger that chemicals can add. If you’ve used chemicals in the past, this might sound like an invitation to every pest for miles around to shred your garden in days... and that might well happen at first.
Often, spraying to deal with pests can kill the predators too, or at least make them want to avoid your garden. When you stop using chemicals, aphids are the first animal to return as they have a shorter breeding cycle. Their predators may take longer to return, so stick with it and know it will be better in the long run!
In the end you’ll wonder why you ever needed chemicals in the first place. We promise!
Our top tip for going chemical free is to ensure your garden has as much variety as possible to ensure no one species will be able to gain control. The more complex and varied your garden is, the more resilient it becomes. In the end you’ll wonder why you ever needed chemicals in the first place. We promise!
Browse the drop-down sections below for suggestions to help you get well on your way to a wildlife-friendly chemical-free garden:
Encourage natural predators
Attracting wildlife to your garden will bring in lots of natural predators that will help keep pest numbers down. For example, a log pile will attract a variety of insects, and draw in natural insect predators like birds. Slugs, a notorious pest of vegetable patches, are a favourite food of hegdehogs and slow-worms - a hedgehog highway, shelter and some food will do a great job of attracting these prickly favourites, while laying down some corrugated metal sheeting will provide a warm refuge for slow-worms to move in.
Frogs enjoy a good aphid feast, so installing a small pond in your garden may well help you control these pests, as well as providing a valuable home for amphibians. Another classic predator of aphids is the ladybird. Draw these attractive beetles into your garden by planting nettles. Nettles attract nettle aphids earlier in the year than other aphids, meaning that by the time pest aphids come along, you will have some resident ladybirds to take care of the problem for you!
Try companion planting
Companion planting is the practice of planting 'companion' plants among other plants to help them grow by either attracting beneficial insects, repelling pests, or by acting as a sacrificial plant to lure pests away from those you want to protect.
Nettles being used to draw in ladybirds earlier in the season to combat aphids is an example of companion planting. Chives, onions and garlic are widely reported to have a repellent effect on many pests. You may decide to plant some lettuce near the edges of your vegetable patch to keep slugs on the fringes, where you can catch them before they get to the plants you want to harvest! Take a look at our page on companion planting for more ideas.
Use physical barriers
Protecting your plants with horticultural fleece or mesh can prevent a range of pests from accessing your plants - from invertebrates to birds! A tougher barrier like a cloche (which can be made at home by repurposing plastic bottles) may be appropriate in some situations, especially for protecting young seedlings to give them a head start.
A popular way of repelling slugs is by using crushed eggshells or coffee grounds around plants. In dry conditions, this will irritate the slug, and will naturally degrade into the soil with time. Using salt is not recommended unless you are growing plants that thrive in salty soil! Copper is also said to repel slugs, and gardeners use it in a range of forms, including coins, stripped electrical wire, or copper tape.
People have been using a very simple, natural insecticide for years; soap! It's easy to make, apply selectively, and is effective. Two examples have been included below, but there are many others that you can try at home!
Soap spray: Simply mix 1 1/2 teaspoons of mild liquid "true soap" (not dish soap or moisturising hand soap - castile soap or similar is recommended) with a liter of water and apply directly to the areas being affected by pests. You can use tap water, but if you have hard water you may want to filter it first so that it doesn't leave a residue on the plant when it dries. Because it has to be ingested to be fatal, it doesn't harm pollinators if sprayed only on leaves.
Neem oil spray: Available in most garden centres, not only is this biodegradable oil effective against a range of insect pests, but it also works as a natural fungicide. Combine 2 teaspoons of neem oil with a teaspoon of mild liquid soap (soap as above), add to 1 litre of water and shake thoroughly.
Sometimes removing pests manually is the best option, particularly for pests like garden slugs. Make sure you know what you're looking for so as not to unwittingly remove animals that may actually be helping! Some of the tried and tested ways of capturing and removing slugs include:
- Baiting: Some gardeners swear by scattering cabbage leaves to distract slugs on the ground. You can then return to the leaves and look for slugs, removing them from your patch.
- Hunting: Damp conditions bring slugs out of hiding, so it's the perfect time to go on the lookout for them! take a torch if it's dark, and don't forget to use a container with a sealable lid so they can't crawl out while you search!
- Trapping: Beer traps are a popular way of catching (and killing) slugs, who apparently find the smell of beer irresistible! To use this method, sink some yoghurt pots into the soil, making sure that the lip of the pot is at least 2cm above the soil so that you don't catch out helpful creatures that may be wandering around.
If you have a plant with a heavy infestation that may be difficult to treat without it spreading to the rest of your garden, your best option may be to remove it by hand.
By carefully planning your planting, you can also avoid a lot of damage. For example, by rotating the location of your plants, you may be able to avoid recurring infestations from pests that remain dormant in the soil between seasons. Another key pest-avoiding strategy is to time your planting and harvests to work against pests' timetables. For example, sowing carrots later, or harvesting potatoes earlier means missing the most active times for some of their most notorious pests.