5 ways to keep your garden thriving, organic and pest-free

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When I moved out of my parent’s house to an apartment in Koreatown last year, I discovered two neglected raised garden beds in the backyard that were filled with scruffy weeds and old yard clippings. I had a burning desire to get this unsightly mess cleaned up and my own garden growing, and it didn’t take long to start sowing seeds.

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First rows of arrugula, spring lettuce mix, and snap peas.

With so little space — each bed was just 4-feet square — I put down seed judiciously. I planted versatile vegetables I could easily prepare in the kitchen: rainbow chard, arugula, sugar peas, dinosaur kale, baby lettuces. To my delight, it only took a few weeks for the seeds to germinate and soon rows of green tender sprouts were poking up from the ground.

Though I was dying to get my greens into the kitchen, I waited patiently for the first leaves of kale to grow large enough to harvest. Woohoo, I thought, contenting myself with the bragging rights I’d earn after serving the kale in my favorite white bean stew. Then, while checking out the garden’s progress from my bedroom window, I noticed something strange and I ran downstairs to investigate. Crouching down beside one of the beds, my heart sank. All that remained of my emerald kale leaves were naked pale green spiky stems.

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Dino kale, rainbow chard, cilantro, and some parsley

Leaving the scene of the crime, I ran upstairs and frantically scoured the internet for an explanation of the evils that had been inflicted on my plans for that hot pot of white bean and kale stew. After exhaustive Googling, I determined the culprit was the cabbage looper. In the larval stage, cabbage loopers are white hairy caterpillars that turn a verdant green while they munch on leaves. It doesn’t take long for larvae to become brown adult owlet moths that lay 500 eggs in just 15 days.

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2 baby loopers eating some holes into my kale!

I darted back down to the garden and had a closer look at the baby worms contentedly eating their breakfast. They seemed to glow greener with each bite, some of them stretching 3 centimeters long.

But here’s the thing about gardens: I learned, as the year went on, that the battle with pests is ongoing and that the cabbage loopers were just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve been fending others off in the garden ever since I sighted the first worm — from cabbage aphids to mealybugs — all while trying to learn how to become a smarter farmer and make meals from my own greens. For those of you are are having similar bouts in your garden, here are some of the tactics I have used to keep the pests at bay. Save a few, all of them are organic.

1. Garden Dust: Garden dust is bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis or simply, Bt) that stops hungry looper worms and other caterpillars from feeding within a few hours of ingestion. Though I saw improvements after the first application, make sure you apply the dust once a week to prevent new worms from hatching.

2. Rubbing alcohol and soap: I diluted a couple dashes of dish soap in 4 cups of water, and added a quarter of a cup of rubbing alcohol to destroy the clusters of mealybugs and cabbage aphids infesting my garden. The chemicals in dish soap — fragrances, power scrubbers, preservatives, artificial color, etc. — and the rubbing alcohol are harsh on your plants and definitely not organic. But they did the trick on pests eating my succulents and you might try it on your houseplants too. To go the completely organic route, try (2.5) mixing mashed cloves of garlic and a tablespoon of vegetable oil with water in a small spray bottle. The strong odor of this tonic should deter squirrels and aphids alike. Read more here.

3. Neem Oil: Another method to try is to soak your soil with neem oil. But fair warning: this is a sticky and smelly method of removing pests. I bought a pre-diluted bottle of it from the garden supply store and wasn’t impressed with the results; plus plants you are eating will soak up that neem oil flavor. A friend swears by using strong solutions of this stuff though, especially on ornamental plants, and I am curious to hear what works with your plants.

Now here’s one good guest I found! Keep them coming.
Now here’s one good guest I found! Keep them coming.

4. Companion planting: It was my roommate’s grandma who first suggested that planting certain crops side by side can help plants thrive because the plants share rather than compete for resources. Companion planting can also attract pollinators and pest predators while starving out weeds. Looking back on the way I planted my garden, I probably had too much dino kale clustered together and that made it easy for the looper moths to take over. Read more about companion planting here.

5. Good ol’ manual murder: The rate at which pests multiply always catches me off-guard. I found clusters of pillowy cabbage aphids on the buds of kale even when I did a thorough pest inspection the day before. Sometimes the simple approach works best: tapping your plants gently with a stick to shake off the bugs and then brushing them off with a gentle stream of water.

Though infestations can be downright frustrating at times, caring, plucking and especially eating fresh vegetables that are grown from seed is extremely rewarding. Do not let freeloaders take advantage of you and the fruits of your labor. Here’s to many more fruitful harvests!

New rotation of summer crops including zucchini, summer squash, and cucumber.
New rotation of summer crops including zucchini, summer squash, and cucumber.

What are your garden pest stories? How have you dealt with them? Share your experiences below.