Fionnuala Fallon: The best way to beat weeds and pests in the garden

Hoe your way to happier, faster-growing plants and let nature take care of the slugs

Birds, frogs, hedgehogs, centipedes and beetles are all predators of slugs. Photograph: DK/Getty

Birds, frogs, hedgehogs, centipedes and beetles are all predators of slugs. Photograph: DK/Getty

 

Ah, the Irish weather. From exceptionally late frosts and unusually low temperatures to partial drought followed by torrential rain, it’s been a rough month for the country’s kitchen gardeners. But never fear, there’s still time to ensure that you have a pretty and productive plot this summer.

Make a start by thoroughly weeding any veg and fruit beds, choosing a dry, sunny day and using an oscillating hoe (suppliers include fruithillfarm.com , dunmorecountryschool.com and quickcrop.ie) to quickly slice young weeds away.

In the case of hard-to-reach or well-established perennial weeds, a daisy grubber, Hori Hori knife or both are very useful for winkling out their root systems.

Weeds not only compete with food crops for sunlight, nutrients and water but also host a variety of pests and diseases

Remember that not only do weeds compete with food crops for sunlight, nutrients and water, but they also act as host plants for a variety of pests and diseases and help to create the kinds of conditions (poor air circulation, overly damp soil, leafy cover) that encourage them. So although it’s a tedious chore – or at least I think so – the rewards are many.

Once hoed, any young annual weed seedlings can be left on the ground to rot down. In this way they’ll act like a green manure and help to bolster soil health and fertility.  But make sure to collect and remove any that are beginning to set seed or those with perennial, invasive root systems that might re-establish.

If you’re absolutely confident that your compost heap is a properly hot one – it needs to reach a very toasty 55-63 degrees for 10-15 days to effectively kill weed seeds/stubborn perennial root systems – then you can throw these on the pile. Alternatively, many weeds are a rich organic source of plant nutrients. Simply place them in a bucket of water to rot down and then dilute the resulting liquid (strain it first) to use as a plant feed.

Although weeding can be tedious, the rewards are many. Photograph: Richard Johnston
Although weeding can be tedious, the rewards are many. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Once you’ve dealt with the weeds, it’s important to prevent a fresh crop from germinating. So use a shallow layer of good-quality organic mulch to lightly cover the surface of the soil. Homemade compost, well-rotted horse manure or even lawn clippings are perfect as long (again) as you’re sure they don’t contain lots of weed seeds or stubborn roots.

Alternatively, use one of the commercially-produced Irish organic mulches such as  Gee-Up, Enrich or Envirogrind, all of which will also add generous amounts of plant nutrients.

You can also protect and nourish any bare soil while simultaneously suppressing weeds by sowing a fast-growing green manure. Examples suitable for sowing at this time of year include mustard, phacelia, clover and buckwheat.

There’s still plenty of time to sow lettuce, scallions, turnips, radish, annual spinach, kohlrabi, Florence fennel and Chinese cabbage. Photograph: Richard Johnston
There’s still plenty of time to sow lettuce, scallions, turnips, radish, annual spinach, kohlrabi, Florence fennel and Chinese cabbage. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Weeds aside, it’s really important to protect your crops against common pests. But avoid resorting to environmentally damaging chemical sprays, which inevitably create far more problems than they solve. Instead, given time, ladybirds will naturally control aphid infestations while birds, frogs, hedgehogs, centipedes and beetles are all natural predators of slugs.

In smaller gardens, beer traps also work well against slugs as does hand-collecting them, snipping them in half for birds to eat, or both. Homemade nettle feed (applied as a liquid foliar feed) is another brilliant way to boost vulnerable plants’ immune systems and help them to resist attack.

Cabbage growing in an Irish garden. It needs to be protected from cabbage root fly. Photograph: Richard Johnston
Cabbage growing in an Irish garden. It needs to be protected from cabbage root fly. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Similarly, many crops can be protected against different airborne garden pests (examples include cabbage white butterflies, pigeons and carrot fly, see This Week in the Garden, below) by covering them with physical barriers such as netting or horticultural fleece. Fine-mesh Bionet and horticultural fleece also both serve another hugely useful function in the kitchen garden or allotment, which is to raise the temperature and protect covered crops against harsh winds and hailstones. The result is happier, faster-growing, sweeter-tasting plants.

Nematode control is another organically-acceptable solution to common kitchen garden pests such as carrot fly, slugs, cabbage root fly, cutworm, onion fly, codling moth, gooseberry sawfly, caterpillars and thrips.

Just bear in mind that because these are live products – nematodes are different species of beneficial microscopic worms naturally found in healthy soil- they need to be ordered in advance (see mrmiddleton.com, supernemos.com and nematodesdirect.co.uk).

Freshly picked ruby chard. Photograph: Richard Johnston
Freshly picked ruby chard. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Pest, disease and weed control aside, there’s much that can be sown and/or planted in the kitchen garden or allotment over the coming weeks to give you a wonderful variety of delicious homegrown produce. There’s still time (but hurry) to sow seed of peas, carrots, oriental salads and purple-sprouting broccoli while there’s still plenty of time to sow lettuce, scallions, turnips, radish, annual spinach, kohlrabi, Florence fennel and Chinese cabbage.

You can also buy many of these as young module-raised plants for transplanting into the garden or allotment, along with courgettes, chard, French beans and runner beans.

Recommended suppliers include good Irish garden centres, Paul Schulz’s Natural  Growing Company (see irishspecialistnurseryassociation.com for details) and online suppliers QuickCrop. Last but not least, don’t forget to add plenty of fast-growing edible flowers to bring some extra sparkle to your veg plot this summer as well as to help to attract plenty of beneficial pollinators.

Examples include pot marigolds (calendula), nasturtiums, sunflowers and dahlias, the petals of which look every bit as good in a salad or punch bowl as they do in the garden.

This Week in the Garden

Choose a dry day and use a sharp clean shears to clip box hedging (Buxus) to minimise the risk of common airborne diseases such as box blight infecting the plants. To make it easier to quickly collect and dispose of the clippings, place a couple of old sheets/ towels at the base of the hedge.

To keep your box hedges healthy and happy, spray them regularly (again, choose a dry, mild day to do this) with either liquid seaweed or a product such as TopBuxus Health-Mix, both of which boost the plant’s ability to fight off fungal and bacterial diseases and are readily available to buy in good Irish garden centres.

Both will also help to restore box hedges already infected with box blight. Bear in mind that the damage caused by box blight can easily be confused with the damage caused to soft young growth by unusually late harsh frosts, such as those that occurred in May. 

Choose a dry day and use a sharp clean shears to clip box hedging (Buxus) to minimise the risk of common airborne diseases such as box blight. Photograph: Richard Johnston
Choose a dry day and use a sharp clean shears to clip box hedging (Buxus) to minimise the risk of common airborne diseases such as box blight. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Carrot fly is another common problem at this time of year as the adult fly seeks out suitable host plants on which to lay its eggs and the young larvae feed on the roots of affected plants. Along with carrots, many other members of the Apiaceae family are susceptible including parsley, parsnip, celery, celeriac, dill, the ornamental carrot, orlaya and ammi.

Signs of infection include weak, stunted growth and reddening/discolouration of the leaves. Minimise the risk of damage by only thinning/weeding/hoeing near plants in the cooler hours of the day (the carrot fly is attracted by scent); removing and bagging all thinning immediately; using a physical protective barrier such as Bionet (fruithillfarm.com); or using a nematode control such Nemasys Natural Fruit & Veg Protection (mrmiddleton.com).

Do this On Thursday June 27th (3pm-5pm, doors open at 2pm ) ChapterHouse Theatre Company, the British company specialising in open-air garden theatre, will be performing award-winning writer Laura Turner’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice in the historic gardens of Kilmacurragh, in Co Wicklow (booking essential, see chapterhouse.org). Bring along a picnic and enjoy this Austen classic, then check out Kilmacurragh’s wonderful traditional wild-flower meadows, which are at their flowery peak at this time of year.

Kilmacurragh’s traditional wild-flower meadows are at their peak at this time of year. Photograph: Richard Johnston
Kilmacurragh’s traditional wild-flower meadows are at their peak at this time of year. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Try this If you’re a keen gardener, then a lightweight, breathable, comfortable sunhat is a summer essential. Among the best is Canadian brand Tilley’s stylish range of Airflo hats, which offer sun protection of UPF50+ and come in a range of colours and designs. Widely available to order online (cotswoldoutdoor.ie)

Dates for Your Diary

Saturday, June 29th (from 2pm), Woodville Walled Garden, Kilchreest, Loughrea, Co Galway, Roses, Roses All the Way, a talk by rose expert and breeder David Kenny, followed by a tour of the garden and light refreshments. Admission €12, booking essential, email woodvillegardens@gmail.com or contact Marie at 087-2711970

Saturday, 29th June (at Newlands Home & Garden Centre) & Sunday, June 30th (at Áras Chrónáin), Clondalkin Handcraft & Horticultural Show with many categories of competitive displays, including garden produce and floral, entries accepted 10am-1pm, viewing 2.30-4pm, for details email clondalkinshow@gmail.com or see its Facebook page.

Saturday, July 6th, and Sunday, July 7th (11am-6pm), Claregalway Castle, Claregalway, Co Galway, with guest speakers including garden writer and kitchen garden expert Joy Larkcom, garden writer and flower farmer Fionnuala Fallon, herbal historian Dr Colman O’Clabai and ecologist Dr Cillian Roden, and poet Mary O’Malley, plus plant sales by many of the country’s leading specialist nurseries, live music and artisan food stalls, admission €10 per adult, children free, see galwaygardenfestival.com

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