Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of gardening is when critters eat, trample or uproot overnight a lush and leafy crop just ready for picking. The garden raiders may be deer, rabbits, squirrels, turtles, birds, armadillos, raccoon, mice or even neighboring cattle, just to name a few of the usual culprits.
Author and public speaker Rick Austin, the Survivalist Gardener, has learned a few tricks to combat these garden pests once and for all. Not only has Rick sown a perennial garden —the kind you plant once and harvest for a lifetime— but he’s also incorporated a perpetual, organic infrastructure of pest control.
“There are no artificial pesticides in nature,” Rick told me when I called his Appalachian home recently to chat about gardening.
Rick shared some of his tips with me from his book, Secret Garden of Survival: How to Grow a Camouflaged Food Forest. Also see Part 1 of my Mother Earth News interview with Rick Austin here or on our website blog.
Now in its fourth season hidden in the mountains of western North Carolina, the Austins’ garden produces more fruit and vegetables than they can eat— a colossal feat when considering the Austins grow nearly all their own food. Less than five years ago, the half-acre garden site was a mature oak forest cleared to clay and rock. Now, dozens of fruit-bearing trees cover the hillside. Planted in terraces, the trees are the center of concentric circles, or guilds, surrounded by a menagerie of edible perennials.
Without manmade materials, Rick has permanently fenced out most intruders with a thick mass of blackberries around the perimeter. Few would-be marauders dare to cross it. Those that might consider the Austins’ pears, tomatoes and grapes just too tempting to pass up, are stopped by an aroma that Rick calls his “liquid fence.”
Rick mixes up a pungent potion of rotten eggs and other undesirables that he pours outside the garden area. For deer, he plants rosemary, one of the loveliest of all culinary herbs. The deer don’t think so.
“Deer will literally go around it,” Rick said, relating how deer have worn a path around one garden, but do not enter because of the fragrant herb. Certain plants, such as mustard (a trap plant), also pull double duty by enticing bad bugs to eat them instead of the prize potatoes.
Also, garlic, onions and chives repel rodents and, if planted around your trees, the rodents won’t go near them in the wintertime and gird the tree trunks.
Among other natural and safe pest control tricks, Rick explained how fire ants can be killed by sprinkling a little cornmeal on their mound.
“The ants will bring it down into the colony and will gorge on it,” Rick said. “The ants can’t digest the cornmeal so, when the ants eat it, they basically get a bad case of constipation and die.”
For the squirrels, Rick uses a last-resort sprinkling of pepper flakes to chase off those cute, destructive varmints. Rick avoids using such remedies whenever possible, however, because such methods, although entirely natural, are not selective and can kill or keep away beneficial creatures.
After growing up in New Hampshire, Rick lived in a variety of climates from New York and southern California to Florida. Wherever he went, he experimented, learned and took extensive notes and photos as he incorporated the landscape into his home.
“I’ve learned how to do this in a lot of different environments,” Rick said, explaining that people eventually began asking him to write a permaculture book when he spoke about his experiences.
The result is a colorful manual that has been called a cookbook of gardening skills with hundreds of photos, making it easier for readers to visualize Rick’s primitive harvesting techniques. Rick’s mentors were not modern-day agriculturalists, but ancient people who did not plant, irrigate, tend or harvest crops. They simply gathered what nature provided.
The livestock on the Austins’ off-grid solar homestead also are integral to the garden’s success. Besides providing fertilizer, the Nigerian Dwarf goats and ducks play other roles. Unlike chickens, the ducks do not scratch up the garden plants’ roots when searching for bugs, a huge part of their diet.
Rick also offered winter greenhouse advice:
“Since there are no natural predators flying about in the wintertime,” Rick said, “you can get an infestation of aphids on your greenhouse plants, with nothing to keep them in check.”
For this problem, use dried tomato leaves (saved from the previous growing season) steeped in hot water to make a “tea” to spray from a handheld squirt bottle onto sensitive plants that have aphids. The alkaloids in the tomato leaves will kill the soft-bodied aphids but will not harm plants or soil.
Since Rick had goats waiting to be milked and it was still daylight here, I hung up the phone and headed out to check on my garden. I was not too happy when I discovered caterpillars demolishing a giant mustard plant. But, as Rick foretold, the worms did not migrate to the nearby potato, lettuce, spinach or squash plants. How about that?
Photos by Rick Austin. Top right: Austin's wilderness garden path. Bottom left: Pears in Austin's hidden garden.
Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.