Pests are a part of gardening. Period. And although traditional techniques (like the ones recommended by the pest control experts at the University of Illinois Extension Service) revolve around killing these creatures — either chemically or manually — a small but enthusiastic group of food growers is reimagining the ethics of gardening. And including a strict “no-kill” policy.
From bugs to birds to bunny rabbits, you can control almost every animal annoyance without resorting to violent means. But before you even begin to target the critters, there are a few very general rules for keeping your crops protected: 1) growing in raised beds as opposed to the ground, 2) using scattered and diverse planting patterns (no monocultures) and 3) practicing crop rotation each season. These are fundamental to a healthy backyard food or flower ecosystem.
As for the actual pests, aim to reduce them, not to completely wipe them out. You’ve got to be realistic, and work with the natural world, not against it. Focus your energy on making your plants strong. Healthy soil will build hardy plants that can handle a small assault now and them. Try to include plenty of pest-deterrent allies, like marigolds, garlic, basil, coriander, thyme, dahlias, dill, etc. And finally, for those pesky little pests ...
Build barriers for snails and slugs
A fence around a fortress, a moat around a castle and a ring around your tomatoes: Walls work! An easy homemade version is a section of 2-liter soda bottle, 6-10 inches high, encircling each plant at the base. The crawlies can creep up, but they won’t get over.
Another effective and store-bought solution is copper tape (the kind that plumbers use). This is just exactly what it sounds like — strips of copper that are sticky on one side. Snails and slugs won’t cross the copper. I use it to line the ledges of all my raised beds.
Trap and transplant
There are a number of easy ways to ensnare your garden enemies. Try planting a few sacrificial plants in easy-to-access locations (like in the ground beside the raised beds). Brassicas work especially well for drawing bugs away.
Snails and slugs like to hide during the hot day, so give them a place to go like an easy-to-flip piece of stone or a piece of log, for example. I like to use wide wooden planks. All of these make great slug-collectors, so you’ll always know where they’re hiding during the day.
Giving them a treat — like apple cores or melon rinds — is an excellent way to draw them out. The bugs will flock to the fruity bits.
Once you’ve set all these traps, it’s just a matter of checking them. Collect the bad bugs in a bucket while you’re weeding and pruning in your beds. Pull them off the sacrificial plants and out from under your slug collectors and off the flavorful fruits. Then take that bucket and move the whole lot of them — to the front yard, the nearest park or wherever you see fit. I have an overgrown median strip dividing the street in front of my house — I like to walk my bad bugs over there to drop them off.
The big guys (birds and mammals)
Depending on where you live, you may be contending with heftier foes. But that’s fine; you can still fight back. Nets are effective at keeping out all sorts of hungry critters. Scaffolding is easy to build, and netting can be purchased at any garden supply store. Just remember to leave areas that you can reopen, so you can get in there and work (and harvest!)
There are no-kill rodent traps for capturing rats, gophers and groundhogs. Just remember to check them daily, and you’ll have to figure out where you’re going to release them (like the woods or a local park).
Here's an oldie but goodie: Bars of soap will keep the deer away. Try putting a strongly scented bar in an old pair of pantyhose and hanging them near your plants. Deer-deterrent magic!
If neighborhood cats and dogs are your problem, some people have found success at keeping them out of flower beds by sprinkling chopped up grapefruit peels on their flower beds.
And there you have it, a few easy steps and you’ll be able to get your garden certified “cruelty-free.” Got any other ideas? We’d love to hear, so share in the comments!