DIY neem spray

20130316-133232.jpgHere is our super easy and super-effective homemade insecticide recipe!

Gather your materials

Bucket Neem seeds Pepper Chili powder Garlic Cinnamon

Blend with a splash of water. Pour into your bucket and add water.

Ferment for a day or so.

Strain and spray on pest-sensitive crops. No need to spray willy-nilly. Just use it where it's really needed, or you risk killing beneficials.

It's best to spray in the morning or evening because the hot sun will break down the molecules, decreasing its efficacy.

We spray this often, like every day or so and have seen a huge improvement! Read our post on using grow cloth and soap sprays for more on our pest battles!

Organic pesticides

Whiteflies are attacking our green beans and tomatoes and squash. In a perfect gardening world, our soil would be so rich that the plants would be so healthy that the whiteflies wouldn't be interested. Just like lions attack the weak and the young buffaloes, pests attack weak plants. We would also have a thriving perennial flower garden around and amongst our vegetable crops which would provide habitat, shelter, and nectar for beneficial predators like wasps and ladybugs. Alas, our garden is a work in progress and outside inputs are necessary. Spraying insecticides, even organic ones, can be counterproductive. Think about the ratio between predators and prey. Usually one habitat supports many prey animals for just a few predators. The rate of reproduction is also much faster among the prey animals. So you spray and knock out half of the pests and also half of the predators. The problem is that the pests will now reproduce faster than the predators. In a week, your garden may now have the same amount of pests as before with only half of the beneficial predators.

Just because something is natural or organic doesn't mean you can use it indiscriminately. There are always unwanted side effects! Neem oil is much-touted but is definitely my least favorite. It stays in the body of the pest and if a predator eats the pest it will kill the predator as well! Yikes!

Insecticidal soap is a popular method for dealing with whiteflys and aphids. It has to come into contact with the insect in the moment and works by dissolving the insect's exoskeleton. We use soap everyday without thinking, but it turns out it is very dangerous for insects. You can use any real soap, not detergent, but most experts recommend using Safer's Insecticidal soap, or some other commercial brand, because it is specially formulated at the right concentration to not burn or damage your plants. Many home gardeners recommend using Dr. Bronner's Peppermint soap, diluted at 1 tsp to a liter. The peppermint oil will also act as a repellent when you're done spraying, whereas most soap is only effective in the moment! A soap spray that drys on the leaf and is eaten by an insect later is no longer effective; it has to be sprayed on the insect's body.

So, with a heavy heart I sprayed my beans and my tomatoes and my squash with Dr. Bronner's lavender soap (because that's what I happen to have). A moment too late I saw a ladybug; she will certainly not make it. I checked under the leaves, hoping to spray the eggs, and saw a spider. My good hard-working friend! I left her unsprayed. I also found many aphid lions which, you guessed it, eat aphids, and managed to shoo them away before spraying my death ray.

We will see how the struggle plays out in the days to come!

Brewing compost tea

I have a goal to move towards a more sustainable, permaculture-oriented style of agriculture. This involves using cover crops to add habitat for beneficial insects and to take up space that would otherwise be taken by invasive weeds. Cutting cover crops and laying them in place also adds mulch to the earth which is then broken down slowly and made available to your plants in a year or so. This is how compost is made in the wild. Next time you're under a tree whose dead leaves haven't been raked away, brush the leaves away and scratch in the dirt. You'll notice about a centimeter-thick layer of compost. Underneath that the dirt is hard and probably too hard to scratch with your finger. That's an easy way to identify where the compost ends and the dirt begins. I have yet to actually begin experimenting with cover crops. We apply compost to build nutrients in the soil, but watering or spraying with compost tea is an even faster way to get nutrients to your plants. It's also a way to inoculate your soil with the good microbes that live in the compost.

You can buy a fancy compost tea brewer; you can make one with an aquarium pump; or you can do it with a bucket and a stick. Here are instructions for the hillbilly method:

1. Gather your materials Bucket Finished compost (it's important you use the best compost you can so that it's full of good microbes). Fabric for straining paint Stick for stirring

2. Fill the bucket about a fifth with compost and add water. Leave room at the top so it doesn't spill when you stir.

3. Stir often! Keep the bucket in a place you'll walk by often to encourage you to stir it more often. We want to encourage the aerobic microbes to live, which means they need oxygen.

4. After 24 hours your tea is ready to use. Strain it and dilute it 10 to 1.

You'll want to apply it to your plants right away! Water at the roots while the soil is wet. Alternatively, spray it onto the leaves, getting under the leaves as well. Plants absorb a lot of nutrients through the leaves so this a great way to give them a quick feed.