How to make your garden a chemical-free zone
Gardening without chemicals is a good way to ensure that the food and plants you grow are free of pesticides or chemicals, thriving without the extra expense of dangerous products that are harmful to our wildlife. If you’ve used chemicals in the past, this might sound like an invitation to every pest for miles around to shred your garden ... and that might well happen at first. But, with time and patience, you’ll end up with a rewarding, healthier garden for ditching the chemicals.
Spraying to deal with pests can often kill the predators too, or at least make them want to avoid your garden. When you stop using chemicals, aphids are the first creatures to return as they have a short breeding cycle. Their predators may take longer to come back, but stick with it and know it will be better in the long run!
In the end you’ll wonder why you ever needed chemicals in the first place. We promise!
Our top tip for going chemical free is to ensure your garden has as much variety as possible, so that no one species will be able to gain control. The more complex and varied your garden is, the more resilient it becomes. In the end, you’ll wonder why you ever needed chemicals in the first place. We promise!
Browse the drop-down sections below for suggestions to help you get well on your way to a wildlife-friendly, chemical-free garden.
Encourage natural predators
Attracting wildlife to your garden will bring in lots of natural predators that will help keep pest numbers down. For example, a log pile will attract a variety of invertebrates, drawing in natural predators like birds.
Slugs, a notorious pest of vegetable patches, are a favourite food of hedgehogs. Create a hedgehog-friendly garden with shelter, food and highways to attract these prickly favourites. Slow-worms also love a good slug-feast, so lay down some corrugated metal sheeting to provide a warm refuge for them to move in.
Frogs enjoy hoovering-up aphids, so installing a small pond in your garden may well help you to control these pests, as well as providing a valuable home for amphibians. Another classic predator of aphids is the ladybird. Draw these attractive beetles into your garden by planting nettles. Nettles attract nettle aphids earlier in the year than other aphids, meaning that by the time pest aphids come along, you will have some resident ladybirds to take care of the problem for you!
Try companion planting
Companion planting is all about creating areas of plants that provide benefits to each other. By planting 'companion' plants among other plants it can help them to grow by either attracting beneficial insects, repelling pests, or by acting as a sacrificial plant to lure pests away.
Nettles being used to draw in ladybirds earlier in the season to combat aphids is an example of companion planting. Chives, onions and garlic are widely reported to have a repellent effect on many pests. You may decide to plant some lettuce near the edges of your vegetable patch to keep slugs on the fringes, where you can catch them before they get to the plants you want to harvest! Take a look at our page on companion planting for more ideas.
Use physical barriers
Protecting your plants with horticultural fleece or mesh can prevent a range of pests, from invertebrates to birds, from accessing your plants. A tougher barrier like a cloche (which can be made at home by repurposing a plastic bottle) may be appropriate in some situations, especially for protecting young seedlings in order to give them a head start.
A popular way of repelling slugs is to use crushed eggshells or coffee grounds scattered around plants. In dry conditions, this will irritate the slug, and will naturally degrade into the soil with time. Using salt is not recommended unless you are growing plants that thrive in salty soil! Copper is also said to repel slugs, and gardeners use it in a range of forms, including coins, stripped electrical wire, or copper tape.
Make your own insecticide
People have been using a very simple, natural insecticide for years: soap! It's easy to make, can be applied selectively and is effective. Two examples have been included below, but there are many others that you can try at home:
- Soap spray: Simply mix 1 ½ teaspoons of mild liquid ‘true soap’ (not dish soap or moisturising hand soap – castile soap or similar is recommended) with a litre of water and spray your solution directly onto the areas being affected by pests. You can use tap water, but if you have hard water you may want to filter it first, so that it doesn't leave a residue on the plant when it dries. Because it has to be ingested to be fatal, this insecticide doesn't harm pollinators if it is only sprayed on leaves.
- Neem oil spray: Available in most garden centres, not only is this biodegradable oil effective against a range of insect pests, but it also works as a natural fungicide. Combine 2 teaspoons of neem oil with a teaspoon of mild liquid soap (see above), add to 1 litre of water, shake thoroughly and apply directly.
Sometimes removing pests manually is the best option, particularly for pests like garden slugs. Make sure you know what you're looking for so as not to unwittingly remove animals that may actually be helping! Some of the tried and tested ways of capturing and removing slugs include:
- Baiting: Scatter cabbage leaves to distract slugs from your prized plants. Return to the leaves and remove any slugs that have fallen for the bait from your patch.
- Hunting: Look out for, and collect, slugs on days when it is damp. Take a torch if it's dark, and don't forget to use a container with a sealable lid, so they can't crawl out while you collect them up.
- Trapping: Use a beer traps to catch (and kill) slugs – they seem to find the smell of beer irresistible! Sink some yoghurt pots into the soil, making sure that the lip of the pot is at least 2 cm above the soil, so that you don't catch out helpful creatures that may be wandering around. Fill with beer and clear out any unfortunate visitors each day.
By carefully planning your planting, you can also avoid a lot of damage. For example, by rotating the location of your plants, you may be able to avoid recurring infestations from pests that remain dormant in the soil between seasons. Another key pest-avoiding strategy is to time your planting and harvests to work against pests' timetables. For example, sowing carrots later, or harvesting potatoes earlier, means missing the most active times for some of their most notorious pests.