Weeds and Deer and Bugs, Oh My! How to keep nature from eating your vegetable garden without using chemicals

Three days of rain followed by two days of warm sun is perfect weather for growing vegetables – and weeds. I spent a good part of yesterday over at the community garden explaining to the weeds that, while I’m happy if they want to take over my yard, I’d prefer it if they could stay out of my pumpkin patch. My husband has been trying to convince a lovely and voracious doe that our apple tree was not planted for her benefit. It’s half past time for the squash bugs, potato beetles, and vine borers to be hatching. And a family of voles ate half my bean plants.

So, how do we make sure we get a harvest without harming our friendly – if uninvited – neighbors? I’m not going to claim to be an expert on this subject, but I’d like to share how we deal with the most common issues in a vegetable garden – weeds, animals, and bugs.

WEEDS

The easiest way to avoid weeds is to plant in pots or a raised bed. Use new soil or well-aged compost in a raised bed and you will only get the occasional weed. But if you, like me, want to grow a lot of vegetables, raised beds aren’t an easy answer. At the community garden, our beds, which were dug right into the ground, are under constant attack from mugwort, grass, weeds, and, strangely, tomatoes and other volunteer plants.

In order to keep weeds from the aisles, we use cardboard we collect from neighbors and friends, to smother weeds. If the weeds are high, we will use a scythe to cut the weeds down to a manageable height and then lay down the cardboard. We weigh down the cardboard with rocks or logs and spray it with water so it won’t blow away. Then we cover it with mulch or wood chips. This needs to be repeated at least once a year, but sometimes more than once, but it’s better than putting plastic or chemicals into your garden.

In the garden beds, I use two weeding methods. If there is space between the plants, I use a hoe to scrap weeds. And if there isn’t enough space, I hand weed. This is easiest if it has rained recently because the weeds pull out easily. It’s also easier if you catch the weeds small because they won’t disturb the roots of your plants when you pull them. If they’ve grown big near a plant, you can always use scissors to snip them at the soil line.

Our new deer deterrent system. That and we let the dogs bark on the screen porch when she comes near the tree. I know, pretty hardcore.

ANIMALS

We have really enjoyed watching the deer amble around our new yard, but not when they go for our new apple trees. In order to dissuade them, my husband put some leftover chicken wire in a circle around the saplings and tacked them down with ground staples. I also planted some clover in another section of the yard, which I hoped would be tastier than apple leaves.

At the community garden, my husband and a friend put up a deer fence, but that hasn’t prevented voles, woodchucks, and other smaller creatures from burrowing in. We use rocks to fill in their holes and invite our dogs to pee around the garden to scare away animals. Unfortunately this did not prevent them from eating a good portion of my beans when they were sprouting, but luckily I planted a lot. This is one philosophy to keep creatures from ruining your harvest – plant extra!

Our friendly neighborhood voles get a ride in this every now and again.

Honestly, the voles at our house have been the toughest because I only have small gardens here. They ate a good amount of my winter kale last year. We caught several of them using a Havahart live animal trap in the winter (we released them in a field that is literally over the river and through the woods from our house), but I’m pretty sure there is at least one still hanging around.

BUGS

Squash bugs and cucumber beetles and potato beetles and vine borers and Mexican bean beetles …. when I first started vegetable gardening, each of these common pests surprised me. Now I’m pretty used to them and know the signs and it’s just a matter of catching them early and often.

The best strategy is to know what their eggs look like and to scrap off the eggs before they hatch (you can learn this from the links above). It’s also helpful to know what kind of damage they do to plants, so you can recognize when they show up. Once I have adults, I use a highly sophisticated machine known as my eight-year-old son. He is great at picking bugs off the plants and depositing them into an old jar full of soapy water. I might also try the chickens in the garden this year, but I’m nervous they’ll eat the plants too.

Our chicken tractor, built by my husband with scrap lumbar and scrap metal, is on wheels, so technically we could put it over a garden bed and let the chickens eat our garden pests…

Next year I intend to use companion planting – planting strong-smelling flowers and herbs near vulnerable vegetables, for example – and trap plants – planting a few really yummy plants nearby to keep the bugs out of my own garden – to keep fighting the bugs.

Do these methods work perfectly? Not at all. But I still have more than enough vegetables to eat fresh, cook with, freeze, and can (once I learn how to can). In fact, if anyone wants any lettuce or kale, let me know!

– Hannah

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