Managing a thriving spring garden

Incredible growth is a mixed bag. Sure it's better than something that has staled and is floundering, but it can also present problems that become hard to control.

Our recent run of warm and wet weather has been above average for a typical spring. Someone has turned up the "grow" knob on the control dials and our patches are exploding with foliage. Zucchini plants are popping open like umbrellas, tomatoes are breaking planning permits and climbing to new heights......and the flying pests are reaching uncomfortable levels and jeopardising all this good work.

Crowded gardens don't just look great to us, they also catch the eye of numerous pests, and are an appealing venue to breed. Warm temperatures, moist conditions and stagnant airflow is to a pest what the WACA cricket pitch was to the West Indian fast bowlers in the early 90's. So while our plants are showing so much potential, there is also the potential for it all to come crashing down.

So how to cope?

1. Hygiene: with a blanket of foliage on the surface, there's sure to be some strugglers underneath and these are helping feed the pests. Most tend to snack on dead and/or decaying matter, so get in between the crops and clear the patch of their food. If airflow is lacking underneath your tomato plants, thin out some foliage to create better passage.

2. Culling: brutal, we know, but not every plant will have an opportunity to realise its potential. For the greater good, some culling of plants will be necessary. Let the healthiest or best placed crops remain and then carefully remove any excess. Less is more when it comes to growing food, and one tomato plant that is properly spaced out will always perform better than two that are competing. 

3. Watering: it's hard to control mother nature, but when you're watering make sure to keep away off the foliage and water the root zones instead. 

4. Hand pollinating: it may feel like there's enough insects out there to do the job themselves, but in this unseasonal wild weather, pollination can often be disrupted. So learn about the birds and the bees again, have no reservations, and then do it.

5. Pick your food!: are you waiting for a chef to come and prepare your meals for you? Salads and leafy green don't need to be at full size to be picked. Grabbing leaves from the outer of the plant frees up energy (to then produce more), creates better airflow around the garden and puts food on your table. That's a win-win-win. 

5. Pests....

a. Whitefly and Thrip: holy moly, these guys have exploded lately. We usually only see them for a fleeting moment, never long enough to do any real damage, but the prolonged warm/wet spell is keeping their numbers strong.

They simply love hanging out on the underside of leaves and suck sugary phloem juices all day long. When disturbed they kind of flutter about a bit - performing their impromptu Mexican wave - but soon want to be back in sucking position. Not only do they suck the life out of plants, they are also vectors for viruses which causes plant diseases. 

Naturally, once these guys begin to appear, you will notice ladybird numbers increasing. This is their number one predator, so try to encourage them into your patch. This is why we always promote diversity in the garden, as flowers and herbs typically bring in the good guys. You can also try using pheromone lures, otherwise some kind words of encouragement or a pat on the back normally works.

Both pests are attracted to the colour yellow snot to a toddler’s nose. So hang yellow sticky traps around the concerned plants and they will fly onto them and get stuck. One sucker after another. Regularly clean the affected plants with a soapy spray to clean the leaves of both pests.

This sounds a little crazy, and indeed it will look it, but getting out the Hoover and sucking up as many as you can it a good first move. It’s also part 1 to becoming a veggie patch ninja warrior. Then apply two doses of an organic eco-oil a few days apart, making sure to spray the underside of all leaves. Don’t spray just before rain is predicted, which will wash it off and render it less effective, nor during the peak heat of a sunny day, which may burn the plants. 


b. White Cabbage Moth: and you thought this guy did their best work in the autumn! The moths are back and so are their caterpillars, so time to fortify the patch again. 

The best method is always prevention and if you are lucky enough to not have an infestation, net your garden immediately. Although the moth itself is superficially harmless, it is probably having a wild romp in your veggie patch and laying its eggs with reckless abandon.

If your plants are already showing signs of caterpillar damage - the rapid appearance of holes or loss of entire leaves - a simple method is to hunt and gather the offenders by hand. Check the dense centre of plants and inspect the underside of the leaves. Collect as many as you can and dispose of them in whatever way you deem to be the most humane.

Land cress is a favoured companion plant as it is toxic to caterpillars, but pretty tasty to us and very hardy too. Also try making dummy butterflies to ward off these territorial beasts....ahem, butterflies....ahem moths. 

Dipel is one of the most effective and easily available natural insecticides to treat these guys. The active ingredient of Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki is derived from beneficial bacteria found in soil, on plant surfaces, and also in insects. Dipel is toxic to caterpillars, but completely harmless to humans, birds, and beneficial insects such as ladybugs and bees. 

c. Snails and slugs: former "no.1 formidable foe of the spring garden". While the temperature rise is downgrading their threat, they still do a decent surprise attack when you let your guard down. 

If you haven't already discovered copper tape and snail traps, do so already! Copper tape can help form a protective barrier around your plants - particularly when working in pots or raised garden beds - as it creates a chemical reaction (a pseudo electric shock) when the snails or slugs make contact. Snail traps on the other hand like to lure the mollusc to their ultimate demise. Attracted to the smell of yeasty products like beer and vegemite (as are you, you say), they slime their way towards one final party....and then drown. 

In addition to these methods, a morning hunt and gather reaps solid rewards. Look under the canopy of bushy plants, particularly after a wet night, and it's not unusual to find an academy of snails working out and preparing for their next session. It's then up to you to decide where that will take place. 

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