I was out with friends a few nights ago, and talk turned to spring, and gardens. Personally, I despise gardening. I’m crazy about the results, but the work is just…well, too much work. The best I’ve ever been able to accomplish is shoving some impatiens into the ground. Impatiens are great because they’re colorful, easy to plant, and bloom all summer.
This year, however, I’ve decided to take a crack at gardening. So I listened carefully to my friends’ conversation, and was delighted at the non-toxic talk. Paul and Rose were discussing how to get rid of garden pests “the old fashioned way.”
Before I tell you what they said, let me tell you about lawns downstate. They’re perfect. Utterly, perfectly perfect. Not a weed dares rear its ugly head. Sprinklers are going continuously. Yards are green and weedless and full of blooming flowers, edges are edged, bushes are trim and tidy. My lawn down there, in comparison, was a disaster. The first year I had a lawn, every bit of it was burned to a crisp by July 1st. Why? Because in upstate New York, nature waters the lawn. Unknown to me at the time, nature is not so accommodating on Long Island. Good for golf, bad for grass.
Okay okay, so I got a sprinkler and put it on a timer. Still, the yard was a nightmare. While the grass (and weeds) were green, the overall picture was a mess. I had a wisteria that looked like the star in Little Shop of Horrors. Squirrels were eating what few tulip bulbs I had planted, slugs were lurking around the patio, dandelions were popping up in the sidewalk joints, and once I even saw a deer nibbling on my back yard foliage. But for a few impatiens fluttering around by the doorstep, my yard gave the impression that the house had been abandoned.
Why, I finally whined to a knowledgeable acquaintance, is my yard full of weeds and creatures?
“Do you use insecticide? Weed killer?”
“Well there you are! You have to kill all that stuff!”
“You’re telling me,” I said to him, hands on hips, “that all the lawns around here are perfect because people are dumping poison into the water table??”
He nodded proudly.
“I see. So I guess the answer to the deer, squirrels, and slugs is a nuclear weapon.”
The nodding stopped. He was not amused.
With Paul and Rose, there was no mention of toxic sprays, and there was certainly no mention of poisons drizzling through the grass, the soil, and into the water table below and one day not so far off ending up in the coffee pot and bath tub. Instead, here was their fine advice:
“Sprinkle hot sauce around the vegetable garden, it’ll keep the deer out.”
“Place mint around, it’ll keep out the mice.”
“Plant marigolds…woodchucks hate marigolds.”
We didn’t talk about weeds in particular, but another friend once told me about pouring boiling water on those dandelions that are peeping up through sidewalk cracks. Just be careful not to pour the water on your unsuspecting feet (as he did), or you’ll pay a price with blisters.
I was elated at these simple (and safe) remedies, and so did a little Internet research. Here are some of the gardening tips I found:
To keep out grazing animals: In a 1-liter spray bottle, mix a tablespoon of liquid dish soap and 1 ounce of hot sauce then add water and shake well. Or, mix ¼ cup of water with a whole beaten egg. Spray either solution directly on the plants.
Mice, rats, rabbits: When you notice a trace of rodent activity in your area, look for their possible routes. On these routes place some rags or cotton balls that are soaked with peppermint.
Ants: Vinegar, diluted or used full strength, can be used to destroy ant trails. Without clear trails, the ants will get confused. Dust outdoor nests with cinnamon and black pepper. Adding borax to sugar also works. Since the goal is to have the ants bring borax back to their nests, start with a 5% or 10% borax to sugar ratio and gradually increase it to 40%-50%. The mixture should be placed where you see the ants or on the ant trails. Try putting bay leaves, cloves, and cayenne pepper at the ants’ entry point, and in drawers, shelves, etc. Finally, talcum powder is not appreciated by these bugs. The theory is if you dust the ants and the trail, they’ll stop coming around. Note: regarding peonies, the Heartland Peony Society recommends that you don’t try to get rid of ants on your peonies. They may or may not help with blooming, but in either case should be gone by the time the peony is in full bloom. If they’re not, soak the peony blooms in water before bringing them into the house, or simply shake the ants off.
Slugs: Fill small bowls with stale beer and place the bowls strategically in areas of the garden where the slugs are most active. Slugs apparently like stale beer, will climb in and drown in the liquid. Other liquids that work are grape juice or a tea made with yeast, honey, and water. Salt also works, poured directly onto the slug, but beware, it’s a mess.
There are lots of other eco-tips out there, depending on your needs. With the ever-increasing interest in healthier living and with organic food on the rise (translation: the food my dad grew in his big garden out back), I plan to use all of the above and more when I tackle my gardening project this year. My gardens might not be perfect, but at least I won't be poisoning myself, my neighbors, and other passing organisms in the name of pretty grass and flowers. Long Islanders, on the other hand, will have ideal yards, which I guess they can stay busy taking care of with one blind eye and a newly-sprouted third arm. I'll just use the two of each I now have, grow some roses and organic tomatoes, and reach for the spice cabinet and that leftover Bud when the upstate creatures come around.