Whole Life Times
Homesteading in the City
By Christopher and Dolores Nyerges
Raised in LA, Christopher and Delores Nyerges were technically city slickers. But unlike Billy Crystal’s character in the film by that name, when the desire to “escape” hit their hearts, they didn’t sign up for a cattle-driving vacation. Instead they brought nature to their urban home by creating a living oasis in their backyard. Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City, is the story of their quest to “live lightly,” as well as a practical guide of essential skills, tips and tidbits of wisdom they’ve collected along the journey. In it, the Nyerges’, founders of the School of Self-Reliance (offering wild food outings and survival skill intensives to curious Angelenos), demystify everything from how to pickle your own wild capers to how to turn whatever corner of earth you call home into your own personal Eden—even if you’re a renter. In this excerpt, they address natural pest control and the importance of maintaining soil quality.
Part of the universe’s plan is that bugs eat not just any plants, but weak plants. You may or may not be able to tell by looking whether or not a plant is weak—lacking something it needs in the soil or in its environment, or maybe having too much of something. When you are overly concerned about bugs and merely attack them, you are making the same mistake as someone who gets sick and runs to the doctor, crying “Doctor, please cure me!”—then takes a load of pills, perhaps ameliorating the symptoms, but in no fundamental way altering the conditions that led to sickness.
Bugs on your plants are nothing but a symptom. An insect infestation is a plant’s way of attempting to communicate its needs. That said, we acknowledge that it may take several years to build up your soil to the point where the plants it produces are naturally insect-resistant. In the meantime, you may wish to eat. Here are some safe techniques for combating insect problems. For many years we have grown certain herbs (like mints, oregano and arugula) and members of the onion family (including garlic) all over the yard. Herbs and plants such as onion and garlic are insect-resistant and allegedly insect-repellent. While there are certainly insects in our gardens, they are never a serious problem. We have found growing a variety of plants—not in rows but in patches—deters major infestations of insects that may typically occur in monoculture farming. Diversity (interplanting of different species) discourages excessive concentrations of insects in any one area.
We have experimented with natural insecticide sprays. Solutions of ground garlic or onions blended with water in an electric blender (sift the solids, and spray the mixture on besieged plants) have proven effective on most plants. We have also made our own insecticide by cooking wild tobacco leaves in a pot of water (about three cups of leaves to about two gallons of water). Once the water turned dark, we strain out the leaves, add about a teaspoon of liquid dishwashing detergent and use this as a direct spray for insects. This is one of the reasons that we allow a huge tree tobacco plant ( Nicotiana glauca ) to grow in our backyard. (The other reason is that it attracts hummingbirds nearly all year.)
But we haven’t used sprays for years, simply because we’ve felt we didn’t need them. We certainly do not advocate the use of a “universal” insecticide, meaning some substance designed to kill any and all insects. While unfortunately all too common, this approach demonstrates ignorance and insensitivity. Instead, to really address the causes of a problem, you need to observe the specific characteristics of an insect infestation occurring in your yard and then take steps to deal with that specific phenomenon. There are very comprehensive books that assist the home gardener in identifying and ameliorating specific garden insect issues. Sometimes the best response is very simple, costs nothing and directly modifies the pests’ behavior. Picking bugs off plants and crushing them is an example. On warm days, when we have observed aphids on our roses or large amounts of scale on our grapefruit, we’ve simply sprayed off the bugs with a direct shot from the garden hose. We’ve also had success using diatomaceous earth to control chinch bugs in lawn areas and snails and slugs around sensitive plants. This powdery white substance works by drying out the snails, slugs or other insects—its tiny, jagged mineral particles puncture the insects’ bodies. (By the way, we have also used diatomaceous earth directly on our dogs. We rub the powder into their coats, which dries out the fleas and gives the dogs a period of relief). This substance is mined; it’s not biodegradable, because it has already decomposed as far as it can. We sprinkle the diatomaceous earth around the plants we wish to protect and are careful not to raise it as dust, as it can be very irritating to breathe. It’s very effective for short periods of time (but generally no more than a month, or even less during very wet weather).
We have also used crushed eggshells as diatomaceous earth for slug and snail control. If you eat eggs and have only a small garden, this would be an ideal use for the shells. When mixed in with the rest of the compost, they take a long time to break down unless you crush and grind them first.
In recent years, many gardeners and farmers have also experimented with using “biological controls”—introducing or enticing a predator to aid in the battle against pests. These helpers are a more subtle and perhaps gradual response to an infestation than the drastic reaction of chemical pesticides. We have released ladybugs in our yard and back area. Other insects that are worth releasing in your yard for eating the “bad insects” include the praying mantis and the lacewing fly, both of which are now commonly available at garden supply stores and in catalogs, complete with user instructions.
But just releasing insects on a one-time basis is not the best solution to the problem of poor plants resulting from poor soil. Insects come and go; once the pest problem is under control, the predator insects will move on, seeking food.
We keep emphasizing this point: the solution to all your garden problems is to enrich the soil constantly. Fertilizers for the soil are akin to education for the mind. Just as we wouldn’t be content to “go to school” for a few years and then forget about further education for the rest of our lives, so too does soil need constant nourishment throughout its lifecycle.
Excerpted from Extreme Simplicity, Homesteading in the City, by Christopher and Dolores Nyerges, Chelsea Green Publishing Company.