Tip-toeing through the moral minefield

Life on the allotment with Sheena Grant

IT’S getting to that time of year when the thoughts of many gardeners turn to terrible deeds. Armed with spray guns and watering cans containing deadly concoctions they can be seen stalking their prey in the flower borders, but most often in the vegetable patch.

Yes, I am talking chemical warfare on insect life: anything from slugs and snails to whitefly, greenfly and caterpillars.

And it doesn’t end there. There are also treatments for fungal infections, such as potato blight and tomato blight. In fact, you name it and there’s probably a chemical to zap it.

There are many allotment holders who succumb to the urge to obliterate the enemy with the latest deadly poison; but the soilmate and I are not among them.

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We prefer to spend our summers picking caterpillars off brassicas, putting up with clouds of whitefly and relying on good old crop rotation to try to make sure we stay clear of blight.

We’ve even tried to do a deal with some of the pests. By planting a patch of nasturtiums near the cabbages we’re effectively saying to the butterflies: “Lay your eggs here and the caterpillars will live.”

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So far our attempts at bribery have failed. Those butterflies still can’t resist the cabbages.

But the biggest test of resolve to stick to organic principles is provided by the slugs and snails which will chomp to oblivion almost anything they can get their slimy jaws around.

In the past, I have tried everything to defeat these persistent little blighters, including human hair (collected from one very bemused hairdressers’ salon), crushed eggshells, gravel, and beer.

None of them worked. The slugs merely laughed in the face of such ineffective weaponry.

They were not, however, laughing when the salt cellar came out. Now I know it’s not pleasant but when you’re watching the plants you have raised from seed disappear at an alarming rate down the marauding gullet of a slug you will try anything.

I like to think the salt puts them off, that they sense it and know to stay clear.

The same cannot be said of slug pellets, which I admit to using on one occasion. It was horrible; too horrible to contemplate ever doing again.

The morning aftermath of the pellet-dosing the night before revealed a sight too gruesome to describe and left me so worried about the fate of the local slug-eating bird population that I spent most of the next day removing the dead and dying slugs and cursing my cruelty.

I still don’t like slugs – they’re just too slimy and destructive – but I’ll never use pellets again.

Trying to outwit the pesky insect kingdom (those that aren’t on our side, anyway) may be time-consuming but there’s a lot to be said for knowing that your vegetables haven’t been dosed with anything powerful enough to kill.

Whoever would have thought that being a gardener could be such a moral minefield?

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