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Pick your poison for preventing pests

Carol Sobczak painted a pretty picture during a recent public talk about sustainable, organic farming.

“Gardens are beautiful,” she said. “They attract us creatively. They have critters that we enjoy. We grow things that we eat, that we pass along to other people.”

The pitch works to perfection during most such gatherings – until the talk turns to bugs, bunnies and, especially, deer.

If Sobczak was a swearing person – and the president of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County’s Master Gardener Program most certainly is not – she’d use four-letter words unprintable in this publication to describe d-e-e-r. Instead, she uses the word “hate.”

There are four methods to address garden pests, some more effective than others, Sobczak and other gardening experts said.

BIOLOGICAL

“That’s Mother Nature pretty much taking care of it on her own,” Sobczak said. “Everything is predator or prey in the natural world. My yard is pretty natural. I have a lot of toads, birds, chipmunks. They pretty much take care of the problem ...

“What’s needed is biodiversity, a variety of plants and animals to live off the land. We need bees, butterflies, insects of some kind, to pollinate the plants, sustain them, make them grow.”

The healthier the garden – and more equipped the gardener – the better chance it will withstand pests, she said.

“A weak plant will attract pests,” she said.

Predators also like what smells and tastes good. Crushed garlic, marigolds, rotten eggs, shavings of Irish Spring soap and animal urine are very low on the list, Sobczak and fellow master gardener Sandra Warner said.

Sobczak blends Tabasco sauce with an egg and water to spray on plants, which don’t mind the mix. Bugs and critters often do.

Warner tends to plant tomatoes and other vegetable plants in the center of her raised garden beds, and onion, garlic and other pungent plants along the fringes, hoping to dissuade some of the critters that have been known to hop and amble onto her property.

CULTURAL METHODS

The safest weed-killer is you – “and a little bit of elbow grease,” said Ed M. Spoth, co-owner with his cousin Kevin of Spoth’s Farm Market in Clarence. You can pull weeds, prune dead branches or leaves, and remove diseased plants, putting them in the garbage, Sobczak said, never in a compost pile. Keep your tools clean by spraying them after every use with a solution that’s one part bleach or disinfectant to 10 parts water. And keep your garden well watered, focusing more on the roots than the leaves. It’s best to water plants in the morning, Sobczak said. “Like babies, you don’t want to put them to bed wet.”

MECHANICAL MEANS

Sobczak, Warner and Spoth said high fences or garden netting are the best means to repel deer, though other means – think the unpleasant scents – have some effectiveness. Sobczak also has come up with a “bag of tricks” to rid her garden of smaller critters and many insects.

Sobczak’s home methods include:

• Stuffing a piece of cotton doused with hot pepper, rotten egg and coyote urine into an empty prescription bottle, fastening it to a thin spike and putting it next to her plants to ward off would-be invaders.

• Cutting an empty plastic soda bottle about 60 percent from the bottom, turning the top around and slipping the pouring end into the back of the bottle, then dropping some snail bait inside to lure, disorient and trap bugs.

• Partially filling an empty plastic coffee can with soapy water to attract and immobilize Japanese beetles.

See more of her inexpensive homemade pest control contraptions at galleries.buffalonews.com.

CHEMICAL

“You can use toxic or nontoxic,” Sobczak said. “The word ‘cide’ – herbicide, pesticide – means ‘to kill.’ It can damage small things as well as big things, and there’s sometimes human risks when you use those. It’s very important to read the label and follow directions.” She has used pesticides on rare occasions for ant infestations in the spring, but generally not.

Spoth said garden shops like his offer a variety of pesticides, from all-natural organic varieties to chemicals.

“It’s up to the individual, what they’re comfortable with,” he said. “At times, not using a product can be a detriment.”

Liquid Fence, which costs about $10 to $15 in liquid and granular form, will repel deer and smaller critters – to some degree – if used on a schedule, Spoth said. It’s made from egg, garlic and animal urine. “It’s all natural,” he said.

Safir garden – used to stop powdery mildew that most often targets attack cucumbers, zucchini and pumpkins – is an organic fungicide. Sulphur is the active ingredient, Spoth said.

Fertilizers are not considered organic, he said, though one, Organic Garden Tone, has much lower levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium – 3-4-4 compared to a more common mix of say, 20-20-20. Nitrogen boosts greens; phosphorus, fruit; and potassium, root development, he said.

As you tend your garden this summer, Sobczak asked that you consider this healthy perspective, borrowed from E.B. White, author of “Charlotte’s Web”:

“We get more out of our gardens if we use them appreciatively, instead of skeptically and dictatorially.”

On the Web: See photos of master gardener Carol Sobczak’s inexpensive homemade pest control contraptions at galleries.buffalonews.com