Organic Gardening

Here is a before-and-after comparison of our small rural block of land in northern New South Wales, on the subtropical east coast of Australia.

The two photos were taken approximately 6 years apart, in 2001 (top) and then in 2007 (bottom). In these few short years we managed to convert a 1-acre section of horse paddock into a vigorous, productive and fully-certified organic market garden. We had no experience at all when we started, but quickly learned that starting with good-quality soil and healthy plants made our lives a lot easier.

The collection of photos contained in this website were taken over the twelve years we were farming. I think I have probably come across a lot of the major pests and beneficial bugs that are likely to appear in the average vegetable garden.
I have continued to take photos of virtually any insect I find and will add them as I go, relating them back to how they interact in the garden.
Although the photos and information were collected in subtropical Australia, many of the species we have dealt with have close relatives throughout the world and much of the information can be applied to other regions.

During these twelve years I noticed that it gradually became more and more difficult to find these bugs. Most of my pictures were taken in the first four years when they were far more prolific, and we were still creating our own unique ecosystem. As the soil health improved so too did the quality of our produce. With the improvement in the health of our plants the bugs were not attracted to them and only when the plants became stressed (often due to adverse climatic conditions) did the pests return. 

This application does not purport to be an academic work. The information contained herein was developed from experiences working in an organic market garden. It should be read as such.

What brings pests into the garden

All insects and other invertebrates have a purpose in the cycle of life. The role of those we see as pests is to get rid of unhealthy and diseased plants.
One theory as to how this is achieved is as plant tissue breaks down, in the case of sick or diseased plants, it gives off more ammonia and ethanol than a healthy plant. As well as giving off these gases, weak plants contain nutrient and sugar levels at the perfect range for insects to digest. Healthy plants contain a higher concentration of sugars (measured by its brix level. Sucking pests are unable to digest high levels of sugars  and some say that insects won't even recognise a plant as food if these levels are high. Therefore, if this is the case, sick and stressed plants actually attract pests whereas healthy plants will not. It is certainly the case that healthy plants are not as affected by pests and we found that when we measured the brix levels in our own plants the levels were high. 

So, logically, if we only have healthy plants, we won’t see many pests. Unfortunately this is much easier said than done. To strive to this end is the mission of the organic grower. We believe in starting with the basics; by creating healthy soil we will create healthy plants, which in turn creates healthy food and ultimately healthy people. (us)

How to get the balance right

Soil and plant health are the most important things to concentrate on when growing food.

Plant health
To keep the pests to a minimum it is important to only plant healthy seedlings. A sick seedling will always be a sick plant if it doesn’t die first. Pull out plants that are diseased or dying as these will attract pests. Try not to have weeds around the garden. Many pests use weeds as host plants (aphids love to breed up on thistles) and then hop over to your veggies.

Improving the soil
Working on the soil with good compost, organic fertilizers and sprays such as compost teas, seaweed products and other additives which are designed to improve the health of either the soil or the plants will help to minimize if not eliminate the use of insecticides and repellents. It is even possible to add good micro-organisms to the soil.

For the serious grower it is not a bad idea to get the soil tested initially. It is possible to have tests done for nutrient levels and also for micro-organism activity in the soil.
I have included some information on the basic components of soil nutrients so that it may be easier to understand why these are added and how they help the plants to grow.

Healthy seedlings
Most soils will need a little improvement

Controlling pests

If you only have a small plot it may be possible to remove pests by hand and home-made sprays such as garlic and chilli may help. The down side with many organic-based sprays is that they can wash off as soon as it rains or they lose their potency and break down quickly which means they are not effective for very long and must therefore be applied more often.

Part of dealing with pests is knowing what products to use which are not detrimental to the beneficial insects, to the environment and, not least of all, to us.

Plants can also help either as attractants for beneficial insects or as repellents for pest insects. Plants also have properties which can benefit each other and even improve the soil.

When using plants to help repel pests it is possible to strew leaves and branches around the ground as growing these within the vegetable patch is not always practical. Pots of these can be placed around the perimeter of the garden.

Beneficial hover flies are attracted to alyssum plants

The reward for effort

In spite of all this, there is nothing as satisfying and tasty as growing your own food naturally and without chemicals. It is definitely worth every bit of effort put into it.
A giant, shiny eggplant
A single head of lettuce