“You get out of the land what you put into it,” were the words of a gardening mentor who hailed the merits of an organic-rich soil.
Not that he was a truly organic gardener. At the first sign of a pest, out came a spray gun loaded with the latest insecticide. It appeared to represent an increasing spiral and an aspect of gardening I never felt comfortable with.
Garden pests were treated with Aldrin, Dieldrin and DDT, each now banned, those under glass with Metasystox, and a raft of others whose smell was enough to make your hair curl.
Smoke bombs for fumigating greenhouses and seeing off whitefly alternated with nicotine shreds piled in mounds then ignited. The route of retreat was rehearsed, and glasshouses locked overnight, but what price health and safety?
I still dip into Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, first published by Penguin in 1962. She drew my attention to the organo-phosphorous chemicals finding their way into food chains. This, and the warning text on labels of pesticide containers, gave food for thought. They’d read: “Do not harvest crop for seven days after spraying.”
Such examples convinced this fellow that there must be another way. You should be able to eat your own fresh vegetables, holed leaves and all, at the drop of a hat.
All who grow edible plants, be it under glass or in the open garden, face a choice when the crop is under attack – reach for a chemical solution or pursue a natural control method.
Stringent tests are applied before any insecticide appears on the market so in theory there seems little need for concern. I’d defend anyone’s right to use them with care, but will stick with the natural approach.
Soil preparation is key to growing vegetables. Healthy plants have better pest and disease resistance. They grow best in soil that has good drainage, yet holds moisture and contains a range of elements. Adding organic material enriches the soil, building up the all-important humus content. This supports beneficial micro-organisms and acts like a sponge, absorbing moisture and releasing it on demand.
Vigorous young plants still attract pests. Being prepared starts with crop rotation. Peas, beans, onions and leeks thrive on land with freshly-applied composted material, farmyard or stable manure, preferably weathered for several months. But carrots, parsnips and beetroot do not grow well in such conditions. Cabbage and other brassicas prefer a modest organic presence.
The answer is a three-year crop rotation system, which also protects against the build-up of a specific pest or disease.