Five Tips on Gardening With a Living Safety Net

Reader Contribution by David Goodman
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No one lives in a vacuum… and plants don’t either. Even in a total monoculture, you’ll find occasional weeds, plus fungi, bacteria, yeasts and other soil life. Modern factory farming does a good job of killing almost everything but the main crop (which, in the case of genetically modified plants and pesticide-laden produce, may then turn around and kill us) but it’s still not able to make things totally sterile— and that’s the way things are supposed to be. Wild. Abundant. Intermixed. Layered with all the amazing bits and pieces of Creation into a living web of life.

Many people have seen my gardens and said “Whoa, you don’t have any pests, do you?” I hate to disabuse them of that pleasant notion, but I do indeed have pests. I just don’t have nearly as many as a lot of other local gardeners. I have a few explanations for that.

  1. 1. I don’t spray for pests. I don’t use anything, not even garlic, cayenne, diatomaceous earth or other tried-and-true organic methods.  Why? Because I don’t want to discourage helper species like ladybugs, toads, frogs, wasps, lizards, lacewings, predatory beetles, parasitic wasps, snakes and other soldiers fighting on my side. There are times when things hit plague levels – but usually by the time that happens, I’ve harvested what I want and am ready to put in the next set of crops.

    2. I leave lots of weeds around. WEEDS? Sure. I don’t let them starve out my plants or drop their amazing amounts of seeds into my nice beds, but I do let them grow all around the edges of my garden and my yard. There are wild patches everywhere for lots and lots of insects to live. This means that for every pest, there’s most likely a predator. I also get the benefit of seeing lots of butterflies, bees of all types, neat moths, beetles, and other interesting visitors.

    3. I plant lots of things together. Sure, sometimes I put in rows of corn, beans, etc. for convenience; but for a lot of plants, I put a ton of variety into small spaces. One of my beds in spring might have cabbages, peas, tomato seedlings, collards, mustard, beans, basil, tobacco and other disparate species all sharing the same real estate. If you were a sphinx moth, say, and you wanted your little hornworm babies to feast like kings… my beds wouldn’t be the best place. Pests will build up according to the quantity and availability of their favorite foods. If your tomatoes aren’t all next to each other, it’s harder for pests to jump along and eat them one after the other. Many of our garden enemies only eat one thing… or one family. Put a crucifer next to a nightshade next to a legume and they’ll be lost in the woods.

    4. I feed the soil and plants like crazy. Healthy plants don’t seem to attract pests like unhealthy plants. Sometimes they’ll totally outgrow a problem, too. I believe God made “pests” to be little clean-up machines that ensure strong genes are passed on to the next generation. If you’ve got struggling little Brussels sprouts that are low on water and food, they’re more likely to get attacked. Tend them. Feed them.  Water them. Make sure they have good immune systems and they’ll be better equipped to ward off assault.

    5. I let some pests live. Yes – I do blast the aphids off tender growth with the hose now and again, but I often leave them for a while. Many pest species have a shorter and quicker life cycle than many predator species. A case in point: a very friendly USDA inspector visited my house a while back to get me approved for a nursery license. She happened to notice my grapes while she was there and said “Look at this – you need to flip these leaves over. See the aphids?” I had in fact seen the aphids and let them be. I told her as much… then flipped some more leaves over. In about 2’ of vine, I pointed out five ladybugs, two of which were in the act of mating. “Look at these,” I said, “ladybugs everywhere. And these two are making more ladybugs. They’ll catch up to the aphids soon.” She rolled her eyes and laughed, “you organic people …” The really funny thing? I looked for aphids on those grapevines a couple weeks later … and couldn’t find a single one.

Having a lot of life around is a good thing. A healthy garden shouldn’t be a sterile place. It’s a web of life…we’re just there to tend things for a bit as we pass through this sphere on our way to the next. Some plants won’t work well for you. Some years you may lose something you love. However, experimentation has taught me that the “easy” way out — scorched Earth — isn’t usually necessary.

One more thought: my front yard is rapidly becoming a food forest. Not everything there makes food. I’ve got plants that bloom, plants that fix nitrogen, plants that shelter predators, piles of brush for reptiles and amphibians to hide in, plants that provide shade and create microclimates, wood chips and logs for fungi to eat, leaves to cover the ground and feed worms and plenty of stuff that just looks beautiful even if I haven’t discovered its “purpose” yet. This is a far cry from the heavily sprayed peach and pecan orchards and perfect rows of Roundup Ready corn that grow in my neck of the woods. I confess: my fruit sometimes has spots on it and my leaves are occasionally perforated with little bug bites, but they’re fresh, healthy and organic…and they thrive despite being untouched by the wonders of modern science.

Would you rather wipe out the many checks and balances in your garden — or have to do all the spraying, weeding, bug-picking, worrying and squashing all by yourself? I’ll take the latter— and revel in the rich Eden that results.

For survival plant profiles, ideas on growing tons of food, and madcap gardening inspiration, visit David’s daily blog at

Photo by David Goodman

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