We live in the desert, and may forget that there are complex mini-ecosystems to be found here. Unseen under rocks and shrubs, there are important living things that come together to support a broader cycle of life.
For UAE gardeners, some of these creatures will be more welcome than others, especially for those who are growing their own vegetables and would prefer not to see the fruits of their labour being munched by bugs and grubs.
So how does the urban gardener keep the pests at bay, without negatively impacting the environment? Chemical pesticides and fertilisers are undoubtedly effective, yet can leave toxic residue in soil and on plants, which will accumulate over time – potentially impacting pets, children and adults, as well as the birds and the bees essential for pollination and plant reproduction. It has been reported that homeowners in the United States use three times more pesticides than farmers, and pet and other wildlife poisonings have been a direct consequence of using the proverbial sledgehammer to crack a nut.
The perennial misuse of chemical pesticides and fertilisers becomes even more significant if planted areas are later turned over for food growth, and trace elements of these chemicals remain in the soil.
Laura Allais-Maré and Rais Reza of Slow Food Dubai advocate a gentler, more complementary approach to dealing with unwelcome and troublesome garden interlopers. They recommend blending generally available items from your kitchen or medicine cabinet to condition and fertilise plants, as well as to repel and discourage pests.
At a recent talk and demonstration entitled Making Your Own Homemade Organic Pest Control, at the Organic Foods & Cafe in Village Mall in Dubai, they shared tried-and-tested recipes and strategies for nurturing plants and crops. All of these aim to discourage garden baddies, while allowing room for the good guys – bees, butterflies and dragon flies, for example – to thrive.
All the “recipes” begin with a plastic water bottle, to which various blends are added to create safe, non-toxic (to humans, animals and birds) plant conditioners and pesticides.
As Allais-Maré notes: “The best defence against pests is a healthy garden. Just as we may become susceptible to all sort of viruses or infections if we are not fed well, so your garden is the same. If you keep your garden strong, feed it well, use compost, etc, the chances of pests or fungi attacking it are brought to a minimum.”
Here are some easy recipes to help you on your way.
Epsom salts mix
Recipe: Add one level teaspoon of Epsom salts and two drops of hydrogen peroxide to 1.5 litres of warmish water. Also add a tip of a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda, plus three drops of pure neem oil.
Generally speaking, UAE soil isn’t mineral rich and its PH value can be low, so Epsom salts (buy them at the pharmacy) are a great conditioner for your plants, because they contain essential magnesium. It’s also a good conditioner if you see leaves going yellow. Add to your watering can and/or garden spray and apply directly to plants and soil. If you’re recycling a sprayer formerly used for household products, be sure to rinse well to avoid cross-contamination. Remember, too, that dusty plants find it hard to breathe, so anything that helps to keep their leaves clean will also promote their well-being.
Neem mix: To create your own neem pesticide (not to be confused with actual neem oil), pick a few leaves and/or small branches from a neem tree (there are plenty in the UAE). If you see the seeds in season, gather these as well, as they are especially effective.
• Place the leaves, small branches and seeds, plus two drops of hydrogen peroxide and warm water, in a large screw-top plastic water bottle.
• Leave the brew to stew for about a month in a sunny spot on your balcony or terrace, then open the cap slowly to allow any accumulated gases to disperse. Strain the mixture.
• Spray your plants with a dilution of one part neem mix to 10 parts water to deter a wide range of pests from your plants. Keep any remaining mixture in the fridge for longevity.
Allais-Maré is a great advocate of neem oil as a natural pesticide, and although she says it can be hard to find pure neem oil in the UAE, a more diluted form, Neem Guard, is readily available. Neem leaves and small branches are a good addition when composting, because they take their properties deep in to the soil when dug in.
Citrus mix: Orange peels (or any other citrus, including lime or lemons), plus mint and approximately two tablespoons of powdered cinnamon spice. This is effective against aphids, mildew, fungus and mealy bugs (citrus peels also deter ants and caterpillars).
Chilli mix (see step-by-step guide): Whole red chillies, plus onions and garlic (preferably not the Chinese supermarket garlic, as this is already highly processed during its growing cycle). This is good against all insects, and chillies also deter seed-eating rodents. Leaf-eating birds don't like chillies either, but further dilute the mixture if spraying on soft-leafed vegetables or salads, such as lettuce. Don't spray directly onto flowers or petals.
Radish mix: Radishes with leaves, plus grated unperfumed soap (such as a cheap Castile soap). This is effective against aphids, spider flies, white flies and soft-bodied insects, as well as cockroaches. It can also protect against plant fungus.
For the three recipes above:
• Roughly chop the ingredients, then add them to a blender and pulse until it has a rough paste consistency.
• Add the mix to a screw-top water bottle, and add warm water. Shake contents to blend well (aim to fill the bottle a third to half full of mixture; the rest should be water).
• For extra piquancy, add a couple of drops of pure neem oil to each of the blends, although this isn’t essential.
• Keep blends in a cool, dark place for a couple of days to allow the material to break down a little. Then strain the mixture and use on plants in the ratio of one part mix to 10 parts water, and spray every three or four days. For additional protection, alternate the different mixes, spraying different ones on different days. Blends are at their most effective if used within a day or two, but will keep for a week or a little longer if stored in the fridge.
• It’s always good practice to water or spray not only the plant but also the surrounding soil, as a lot of bugs, for example leaf miners, lay eggs around the base of plants. Once hatched, they will start eating from there.
• Also remember when spraying to treat both sides of leaves, as species such as white fly will take shelter and breed on the underside of leaves.
• With all the mixes demonstrated, for better results, you should apply more often, rather than using a stronger dosage use smaller doses over a longer time, not vice versa.
Allais-Maré advocates spraying in the evening, after dusk, because the good insects, such as bees, butterflies and dragon flies, don’t move around at night.
“It will give the solution time to dry and do its job, but then not bother the pollinators. Also, it’s a good idea to invest in a pair of rubber gloves to do the mixes, especially for chillies, which can be problematic if they come into direct contact with the eyes.”
Diversity of planting also helps to keep insects at bay. This will mean that they won’t have the opportunity to settle and reproduce in large numbers in a single area where there’s a concentration of their favourite food, and keeping them moving stops them proliferating.
Each of the recipes can be blended to create natural and safe pesticides that attack different types of pest. An important message is that these pesticides aren’t really killers, but rather act as repellents. In other words, you’re aiming to make your undesirable insects wish they were elsewhere rather than zapping them dead. Similarly, companion planting discourages pests from settling near certain crops they might otherwise find attractive.
Would one vat filled with all of all the above blends be even more useful? Allais-Maré, a former chef, explains why this isn’t the case: “These mixtures work with both taste and smell, and the blends are designed to be repellent to specific types of plant pests. If the strong smelling mixtures are put together, then the individual elements get lost in a cocktail. Thus using the mixtures every three or four days, in rotation, will help to stop a cycle of a wide variety of pests, without negatively impacting on either the long-term quality of soil or creating toxicity for humans, pets or birds.”
Organic farmers in the UAE deploy their own versions of these blends, on a larger scale, to work with their crops. The smaller urban or balcony gardener may have only one specific problem they wish to address, so can focus their activity accordingly.
One last tip from Allais-Maré for slugs: “Broken egg shells scattered on the soil around precious plants prevents the slugs from travelling to reach them”.
The presentation at Organic Foods & Cafe was part of a series of practical gardening talks run by Slow Food Dubai. The next event, at Organic Foods & Cafe in The Greens, Dubai, on December 16, from 9am, will feature advice, tips and demonstrations on organic composting techniques. For more information, visit www.slowfooddubai.org.
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