Nature friendly or ecological gardening means that only natural products are used. These have the advantage that they cause no or minimal damage to nature, and can usually be applied at any time. For example, manure instead of artificial fertilizer do not cause burns, and provide long-term nutrition and also improved the soil life. Similarly, biological pest control methods are not toxic to other life, and do no harm to pets or people, something which is certainly a problem when using chemical pesticides. Natural gardening is mainly preventive rather than reactive. The aim is to increase the resistance of your plants to disease, and that unwanted plants (weeds) can no longer compete with the plants you do want. If there are still problems these can be resolved in a nature-friendly manner.
Why ecological maintenance?
Modern pesticides are partly responsible for the decline in biodiversity. These chemical agents often do not break down in the body of organisms, and thus accumulate inside of them. And not only in plants or animals for which they are intended. The mass death of bees for example has been linked to the use of pesticides that are actually intended for pests, because the plants that are sprayed are also visited by bees for their food. Pesticides intended for aphids for example can also enter other insects, and when these insects are in turn eaten by larger animals the poison is then also consumed. This accumulation of poison is called bioaccumulation. An aphid is eaten by other insects, they are eaten by small birds, and these again by predatory birds. In every link of the food chain animals will die due to the accumulation of poison which originally was meant only for an aphid.
These substances are very harmful to pets and people as well. Many substances used in pesticides can cause cancer for example. Why take the risk when there are environmentally friendly alternatives?
A healthy soil is a soil full of living organisms. These break down biological waste, they make holes in the ground allowing water and air to flow through and plants to grow roots more easily, and they make sure that harmful organisms are low in number. A good way to improve the soil is by adding manure and compost. They add nutrition to the ground, not only for plants but also for the micro-organisms. This makes it better than the artificial fertilizer which only provide nutrition to the plant. manure and compost also break down more slowly, releasing nutrition over time. This provides a benefit to the plant for a much longer time than when you add artificial plant nutrition, which are often washed away by rainwater.
It also helps to put a layer of mulch (compost plant material) on the ground. This organic material provides nutrition, lowers the acidity, slows the growth of weed, protects against dehydration in summer and in winter from frost.
Healthy soil is filled with life. Photo: Dodo-Bird
Weed are really only plants that you do not want in your garden. There is no list of plants which are all weeds. When plants naturally settle in your garden, and you like how they look and want to keep them, then it is not a weed. Even nettles and dandelions therefore do not have to be weeds. But it may be that you'd rather not see a certain plant, because of this it is best to take preventive action. The mistake that many people make is wanting to see bare earth, with some plants they have planted themselves. This bald, nice looking black soil is the perfect place for germinating plants that blow into your garden from nature. There is no competition, and the soil is full of nutrition. It is much wiser to fill your garden with plants that you do want. For example, ground covering plants are very useful. They stay low and cover the bare soil, making sure there is almost no chance of weeds sprouting. They dominate the surface, and thus take all the sunlight and water, causing germinating plants to have little chance. Examples of native Dutch ground covering plants are: Great wood-rush (Luzula sylvatica), Common Polypody (Polypodium vulgare), Creeping-Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), Deadnettles (Lamium), Lesser Celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis), Heather (Calluna vulgaris), Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca), Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum), Ivy (Hedera helix), Bistort (Polygonum bistorta), Spring Cinquefoil (Potentilla neumanniana).
Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) as ground cover. Photo: frank wouters
When weeds do show themselves removing them by hand by far the best. In some places this may be difficult, between tiles or on paths for example. You can then choose to throw boiling water on the weeds, this is often enough. Also vinegar diluted in water (1:10) can be poured on the plants during dry weather. A little salt can also be brushed into the cracks. Salt and vinegar are harmful to your plants though if it gets into your borders, so be careful. It is still better than poison however, because they break down in nature and so do not burden the environment too much. When your path is free of weeds you can sweep sand into the seams. This ensures plants have greater difficulty in growing back.
Chemical pest control methods are very harmful for both the environment and for people. But there are nature friendly alternatives. There are plants that repel pests, or which attract predators. Some examples are sage, chervil and all related species, dill, fennel, garlic and onion. These have strong smells which make it difficult for pests to find the plants they do like, or that repel the pests. Planting onion next to carrots is an old example that is commonly used. Garlic and Chives under roses repel aphids and Indian cress repels Mealybug. You can also use strong smelling plants to infuse them with water. Put some cut onions in water for a day, and then spray the infused water over the plants. The smell will keep pests away.
Aphids can be removed by spraying ice cold water over them. This will work even better if you also add a biological detergent. Aphids hate the cold and will fall off the plant when sprayed. The detergent will ensure that the aphids can’t attach to the plant for several days. You can also use biological pest controls. Ladybirds and their larva can be bought and placed in your garden. These eat large amounts of aphids every day. Parasitic wasps can also be bought which kill aphids by laying its eggs inside the aphid. These animals can stay in your garden for years, ready to kill aphids again and multiply if they show up again. This makes this method not only reactive but also preventive. For this reason this method is commonly used in plantations.
Ladybird larva eating an aphid. Photo: Gilles San Martin
Weevils eat holes in leaves during the night, and hide during the day. Their larva eat the roots of plants. They like plants with tough leaves like Ivy or Rhododendron. Nematodes can be bought that kill the larva of these beetles. These are also available in traps, small planks filled with these nematodes which you can place on the ground. The beetle larva like to hide here during the day, allowing the nematodes to easily infect them. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum), Garlic (Allium sativum) and tomato plants (Lycopersicon esculentum) are not loved by Weevils. Planting these in the problem area can help reducing their numbers. If possible chickens can also be used, these love to eat the adult beetles and larva.
Black vine weevil. Photo: AJ Cann
Snails can do a lot of damage to plants like Hosta, fruits and Lupin. There are several methods that might help against snails, and it is best to use a combination of several of these. Sprinkling broken seashells or sharp sand will hurt the soft bodies of the snails. They are not likely to try and cross it. If they do, it will slow them down making them easy targets for predators. Coffee grounds mixed with water can also be used. Luring the natural enemies of snails is also effective. Provide nesting sites and hiding spots to birds, hedgehogs and toads will allow them to move into your garden and eat the problem for you. Whatever you do, do not use slug pellets! These are poisonous to birds, hedgehogs, toads and more and in this way do a lot of harm to the environment.
Common garden snail. Photo: Mark Bloemberg
Caterpillars can be a problem in large numbers. Luckily they are often easily spotted, and can simply be picked up and moved out of the garden. They also hate the smelly plants mentioned above. If needed there are also parasitic wasps that can be used to control them. Birds commonly also love to eat them, luring birds into your garden will likely help.
It is best to use plants native to your local area, ensuring they are capable of living with the amount of water that is available. It can be the case however that you might need to provide more water to a certain area. A large pot for example, or a herb garden. There are some simple methods that can be used to provide this water if needed.
You can increase the humidity of the soil by taking the bottom half of a plastic bottle, and burying it in the ground. Then fill it with water, and place the top of a larger plastic bottle over it. The water will evaporate and condensate down to top bottle. This will ensure there is a small amount of water dripping into the soil during any warm day. You can also take a plastic bottle and put holes in the sides. Then burry it up to the neck. Then fill it with water, allowing the water to go straight into the soil instead of evaporating in the soil or causing burning damage on leaves.
Keep the soil hydrated by placing a water filled bottle with the top cut off in the ground, and place the top of a bigger bottle over it. Photo: Buncee.com
Hydrate the soil by burrying a bottle with holes in it and pouring water in it.