How to Fight Pests & Diseases without Chemicals

Guess what? Protection starts even before you plant.

In organic gardening, the best defense against pests and diseases is having a great offense, and it all starts with building a good environment from the ground up. That means great soil, strong plants, lots of sun and just the right amount of water, plenty of the right food, and—every now and again—a few simple plant-protection moves.

Here's a great place to start: Healthy, nutrient-rich soil makes for stronger plants that can take a powerful stand against both pests and diseases. Start with well-draining soil rich with organic matter and loads of nutrients for your plants. If you're planting in the ground, blend aged compost-enriched Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics®

 All Purpose In-Ground Soil in with your native soil to provide roots with a truly supportive environment. Container gardens needs a lighter, fluffier soil mix, so fill them with Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics® All Purpose Container Mix—it contains nutrient-rich compost, too.Then, choose vigorous young plants with robust roots from Bonnie Organics®. For extra protection, pick varieties that are disease resistant (the plant tag and product page will tell you). When planting, give plants enough elbow room for good air circulation and make sure your planting spot gets enough light, since damp, dark areas act as welcome mat for gnats, slugs, and fungus. Here are two more smart organic vegetable gardening tips that can help your plants stand tall: Choose plant combos that are good companions and naturally protective neighbors (read our Companion Plants article for more details) and rotate crops—in other words, don't plant the same plant families in the same spots, season after season—to keep pests guessing and lessen the chances that disease will take hold.

Once your organic garden is in the ground, hold off on watering until the top inch of soil is dry—giving too much moisture too often is like sending an engraved invitation out to whatever diseases are lurking in the area—then water thoroughly, aiming at the base of the plant, not the leaves. You'll also want to make sure your plants get all the nutrients they need by feeding them regularly with Miracle-Gro® Performance Organics®

 All Purpose Plant Nutrition. It's water-soluble, so you can fertilize your garden while you water (now that's a handy way to multi-task!), plus it feeds the soil to support the beneficial microbes that help make even more nutrients available to your plants. Just be sure to follow the directions on the label.Another key is to be vigilant. Walk your garden every day and look at each plant. If you see signs of damage or disease, clip off the affected part and put it in the garbage, not the compost, then clean your clippers and hands thoroughly to keep from spreading any disease. Also, since decaying plant matter attracts bacteria and fungi, pick up any fallen branches, leaves, or fruit as soon as you see it.

If you see signs of an unwelcome pest guest, you'll want to take action fast. Are leaves disappearing from your tomato plant? Inspect stems and undersides of leaves nearby for a fat, neon-green hornworm. Grab a pair of gloves and do the "pest plunk-and-dunk," throwing it in a bucket of soapy water. Do you see holes in your cabbage leaves? Look for tiny caterpillars on the undersides of the leaves and consign them to the same wet, soapy fate. Scores of tiny aphids crawling around your squash plants? Hit ‘em with a blast of water from the hose or spray ‘em with insecticidal soap. But remember that not every bug is an enemy. If you see helpful lady bugs, praying mantises, or assassin bugs—or other helpful critters, like lizards, toads, or birds—give them a mental high five and hope they stick around. They are your natural defense against bad bugs, helping you fight pests without chemicals.

If you've had problems with bugs in the past, you may just want to go ahead and cover your plants with row covers. Made of lightweight, breathable fabric, these handy covers let air, water, and light through while keeping insects away from your plant babies. They work well especially well for veggie plants that don't need pollination (leaf or root crops, for instance), but can also be used for fruit-bearing plants as long as you lift them during bloom time.

Follow these tips as you grow your organic vegetable garden (or ornamental garden, for that matter) and you'll be taking a strong position in the battle against pests and diseases. Our guess is, you'll fall in love with the results—naturally!