Don’t wage chemical warfare on those pesky bugs in your garden. Not only are pesticides a health hazard, they may not even work. According to David Pimentel, entomologist at Cornell University, over the past 50 years pesticide use has increased 30 times (and toxicity of pesticides more than a hundredfold), yet twice as much of the harvest is lost to insects today. A better way:
COMPOST: Healthy soil helps minimize pests. Build yours up with compost to add nutrients, promote microbial activity, and attract earthworms. Use clover as undersowing: it curtails weeds and actually helps certain plants, such as corn, cabbage, and cauliflower, flourish; plus, after harvest, you have a ready-made cover crop that can be used as mulch.
ROTATE: Bugs are like the American electorate: confuse them and they’ll do whatever you want. “You don’t want bugs saying to each other, ‘Hey, look, the carrots are in the same place they were last year,'” says organic farmer Scott Chaskey of Quail Hill Community Farm in New York. “Certain pests like certain conditions; if you’re creating the same conditions year after year you’re also going to have the same pest problems.”
DISGUISE: Bugs use sophisticated cues to find the plants they want, so keep ’em off guard by surrounding your veggies with flowers. In particular, marigolds and calendula mask the odor of food crops and attract beneficial insects. Or protect by planting in combinations: Plant dill and chamomile around cabbage, leeks or onions with carrots, lettuce with strawberries or radishes, tomatoes with basil or parsley. “Plants that taste good together often grow well together,” says Chaskey.
ATTRACT: After harvest, plant buckwheat; its white flowers attract “good” bugs like ladybugs, butterflies, bees, and wasps, which devour aphids and other pests. Raspberry bushes host the cocoon of the praying mantis, an all-purpose pest fighter.
GET HAIRY: When growing season is over, build up soil by layering a cover crop like oats or rye to add organic matter and prevent erosion. (Oats may die during winter; you must cut and till the rye.) Add “hairy vetch,” a legume that twines up the rye, flowers, pulls nitrogen out of the air, and replaces organic matter. Put in a little nitrogen fixation bacteria to let “hairy” ensure that the nitro stays in (plants love nitrogen; it gives them their green color).