How to protect your plants from being eaten

Debi Holland explores some alternative ways to deter garden ‘pests’.

Ladybird on ox-eye daisy

As our garden plants respond to longer, warmer days so does the wildlife. As our seedlings grow it can be immensely frustrating to lose precious crops to garden ‘pests’ but these so-called ‘pests’ are actually an integral part of our garden’s ecosystem. Each creature plays an important role in the food chain and by eradicating one element we can upset the delicate natural balance and take food away from mammals and birds. 

So, what can we do to preserve our gardens and deter mini-beasts from eating our precious plants?

Homemade garlic spray 

Create a non-toxic repellent that will simply discourage unwanted insects, but not harm our pollinators. It is hugely disappointing to discover that slugs and snails have annihilated beautiful new foliage overnight so send hungry insects running and keep plants protected without using harmful chemicals by making your own garlic spray.

Homemade garlic spray is quick, easy and cheap to make. Garlic, Allium sativum, contains sulphur compounds and one of the main active compounds is Allicin. This not only gives garlic its pungent smell, vital in repelling many insects like slugs, snails and aphids, but it also has another defence mechanism, it gives garlic that hot taste when eaten raw.

Making homemade garlic spray to deter pests
Homemade garlic spray is quick and easy to make. Image: Debi Holland

Apply homemade garlic spray every two weeks and reapply after rainfall to help leaves stay hole-free.

  • Peel cloves from a garlic bulb and remove the outer skin.
  • Blend cloves with 235ml of water to make a garlic puree then add an additional 700ml of water.
  • Optional: add 30ml of washing up liquid as an extra deterrent and blend.
  • Let the mixture steep for 24 hours then pour through a sieve and decant into a clean bottle. You are ready to spray! Store excess mixture in the fridge.

Encourage natural predators

Enticing natural predators to your garden will, over time, bring balance and even-out insect populations. Create wildlife habitat to encourage creatures, big and small, to reside.

Pile up logs in a corner where they will not be disturbed; these provide wonderful spaces for spiders, beetles and woodlouse, encouraging beneficial insects.

log and bamboo canes in a pile to encourage wildlife
Image: Debi Holland

Leave part of your lawn unmown. Long grass is a haven for ladybirds, hoverflies, spiders, moths, beetles and butterflies. And don’t be hasty to cut down seed heads.

Make your garden accessible. Introduce wildlife corridors, gaps in fences or plant a native hedge so hedgehogs can move freely from one neighbour’s plot to the next.

Build a pond. However small your space introducing water to your garden will make a tremendous difference; wildlife will be magnetically pulled to your garden. Build it and they will come!

Ladybirds predate on aphids, frogs are fond of slugs and snails, hedgehogs dine on earwigs, fly larvae, and millipedes, and birds keep down populations of slugs, aphids and caterpillars.

Ladybirds eating blackfly
Ladybirds feed on aphids. Image: Debi Holland

Physical barriers 

Stop unwanted visitors getting to your plants by installing physical barriers. It is frustrating to pull up carrots and parsnips only to find they are riddled with bore holes from carrot fly larvae so cover your crops with a fine netting mesh or even recycle a pair of old net curtains. 

The best way to prevent carrot fly is to grow them permanently under horticultural fleece. They also need to be grown in ground where carrots weren’t grown the previous year; if they suffered carrot fly damage, there’s probably loads of pupae in the soil. You can also plant onions or garlic nearby, to protect them; this should help to mask the smell of these delicious root vegetables.

Crops covered with enviro mesh to deter pests
Growing carrots under horticultural fleece like Enviromesh will help to protect them from carrot fly. Image: Debi Holland

Fixing copper tape around pots has longed been famed to discourage slugs and snails from climbing up into containers; this is particularly useful with pots of hostas. Gastropods are also averse to sliding their bodies along sharp edges so sprinkle a layer of eggshells and gravel over the soil surface of pots or around the base of susceptible border plants.

Use a variety of organic methods to put ‘pests’ off and this combined effort should make a difference.

Pots stuffed with straw

Dahlias are often plagued by earwigs who seem to be have an insatiable appetite so entice them away by creating a snug shelter for earwigs to hide.

Terracotta pot on a cane next to dahlias
A small terracotta pot stuffed with newspaper will attract earwigs away from plants like dahlias. Image: Debi Holland

Stuff small terracotta pots with straw or shredded newspaper and hang them on sticks next to the plants you want to save. Once earwigs have settled in you can move the pots away from the main beds to a wilder part of the garden.

Earwigs are beneficial insects in their own right as they love to eat aphids on fruit trees and are a common food source for birds, frogs and spiders so move them away from the cherished plants you want to preserve, but leave them in your garden. 

Companion planting

Some insects are scent-led and so, strong-smelling plants can detract unwanted attention away from treasured foliage. Consider what plants you grow next to each other.

basil growing next to tomato plants
Basil plants growing next to tomatoes. Image: Debi Holland

Plant rows of carrots and parsnips by onions, garlic and leeks; the strong allium scent can confuse carrot fly and leek moth. Sage works well planted next to brassicas; the herbal aroma can deter flea beetle.

Flowers like French marigolds and herbs are great companion plants in a veg patch or greenhouse. Not only do their colourful blooms look attractive but many varieties are strongly scented and put off pests as well as attracting pollinators. Plant French marigolds and basil around tomatoes to confuse white fly.If you do find munched foliage take some comfort that your garden is a thriving haven for wildlife not only for you to enjoy but it is providing essential habitat and food for creatures, large and small, whose lives hang in the balance each day, battling for survival. 

Colourful border of orange flowers - companion planting
French marigolds make excellent companion plants. Their strong scent deters pests and encourages pollinators. Image: Debi Holland
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