Here's how to give your garden a homegrown organic treatment

Fiann Ó Nualláin uses common plants against common pests.

Step away from commerical chemicals and make a home grown insecticide that’s so effictive, it’s best used on your ornamental plants.

It’s that time of year when all the gardening ads — across all the media from print to tv and radio and even viral spam — feature hanging baskets, patio chairs and gallons of garden chemicals. 

Chemicals for a green lawn, chemicals for a clean patio, chemicals to make the flowers grow, chemicals to stop the weeds growing and see off the greenfly. The nation’s gardens are drowning in it all.

We can’t shy away from it, or claim that it’s only once a year and that we do not use it all the time. If you use it you are complicit. If there is a demand — no matter how small then there is an industry of supply.

We all know the damage that these products can do — especially the synthetic herbicides and insecticides via accumulation in the environment and in the food chain and through their insufficient selectivity on species and rapidly-growing target resistance issues.

It is an ecological issue; it perhaps is also a moral issue.

We are told that chemicals are efficient — but under what criteria? It’s not just the planet/ecosystem that suffers; it’s also its inhabitants — including us (the humans, with contraction of several health-related issues).

Somehow after World War Two we slowly but certainly moved from a new modern practice and the targeted use of chemical advances in conjunction with best practice and traditional skills, into a lazy and reckless, chemical dependency.

Unless you have some alien encounter biohazard suit and you adamantly don’t eat, touch or inhale the plants you spray, then you’re absorbing minute particles of whatever you are spraying. 

Tell me that’s doing you good? Tell me how long you have been spraying and then tell me if you will be spraying next year? I am not trying to cripple any industry –I am just personally opting out.

I have in fact long since opted out. I just leave it on the shelf and I make my own — or I hoe, pinch out, plant companion plants or otherwise generally get out and do some manual means of gardening. 

You know the sort of stuff — tasks that naturally makes things grow, suppresses weeds and removes pest populations.

It’s not money that’s the root of all evil — its laziness and indifference. Since when has everything to be easy and without effort? 

A garden is to garden in. This instant nonsense is low participation — its decoration not gardening. Which, let’s be honest is just vanity thinly-veiled.

As a real gardener, I like my earthworms burrowing and alive not paralyzed and poisoned by copper residue, I like my birds chirping not choking on a poisoned slug. I like my lungs, eyes and skin healthy and my blood all good, thanks.

I can cope with a lawn that is not perfect enough to mask my insecurities or rub the neighbour’s noses in it to compensate for my personal inadequacies in other areas of life. 

Too harsh? Well, they are killing my planet and their drift is contaminating whatever passes by. Resist the products and spend some time in nature. Work the land — it does wonders to strengthen your backbone.

Sure many gardeners have been talking about an urgent need to make a change for at least the last 50 years. Organic gardening and permaculture movements in the seventies and eighties through to ecological consumer awareness in the nineties and noughties. 

And where are we at? Well if you watch RTE’s Super Garden for the family backstory, and not the design tricks, or regularly switch over to BBCs Gardener’s World for the bloke in braces and his dog, and not for the growing advice, then you are probably going to fall for the ads and chemicals. 

Bomb the hell out of your garden like a Pavlovian mad dog. But if you desire to be a real gardener, then there is hope.

More and more, people are making the step away from chemicals in their life in general, but in the garden in particular, with a huge interest in natural means of pest and weed control, the industry will take note — is taking note.

GIY clubs and allotment groups are very supportive in teaching and sharing good gardening skills as well as many recipes for comfrey fertilizer, or garlic blight spray. And even the big chains are now starting to stock more organic products to tackle the gardener’s enemies.

I’m often on the road and I do talk a lot on this subject — my books thus far, and many of my articles here are about being one chemical less and how to use the garden for its phytochemicals. 

How to harvest beauty products, medicine and especially garden treatments to effectively hit those pests, diseases and garden troubles without recourse to seriously strong synthetics. I am often asked if my alternatives are any good? Better than good is my answer.

The fear or perception is that the chemical will be instant in effect and no fuss — while the homemade solution is fiddly or weaker and so more time-consuming. 

Sure if you make it then that’s extra time — but extra time invested is always a deeper participation with the subject.

They are so worth the time — from the five minutes to make to cup of chamomile tea to use as a mildew treatment, to the six months on home compost to boost plant health. 

If you have ever used comfrey or garlic in the garden — you will sing its praises all day, and nowhere in the chorus is the time it took.

In nature, plants use their secondary plant metabolites- natural plant chemistry — such as alkaloids, terpenoids, organic acids and even alcohols to protect themselves from pest, diseases and complications. 

So when we cut a leaf or root to make a home solution, we are simply using that natural chemical arsenal too and with the same effect. We are piggybacking on millions of years of evolution — not falling for the latest ‘innovation’.

I’m all for innovation — but true innovation is working with plants to cure other plants, working with plants to feed ourselves and sustain the planet — sign me up all day for that. 

At this time of year I am often tidying up rows of tomatoes in the polytunnel and rows of potatoes outside. I don’t compost any removed foliage. Instead, I avail of the waste for the bioinsecticidal activity of the Solanaceae alkaloids — and I make my own insecticide.

I am still a massive fan of garlic for this purpose, but waste not, want not. The end result of your potato leaf or tomato leaf solution is also extremely potent and shifts those stronger or longer established insect infestations. 

Strong enough that you will need to glove up in making and applying. Not every natural chemical is safe to bathe in.

All plants from the Solanaceae family have these alkaloids, some in more dangerous portions, or in conjunction with more dangerous accompaniments (thinking deadly nightshade and tobacco here), and because this is in my food chain I use the one I grow and the one with a shorter half-life in the environment — potato and tomato.

The Solanaceae group are classified as acaricides, insecticides, molluscides, nematocides and also as fungicides and bactericides — and this solution has application in all those areas, but I find it best in dealing with aphids and the other sapsuckers that pester the patch this month.

Tomato’s cousin, tobacco was once the greenhouse fumigant of choice back in the 1800s and 1900s until you couldn’t find a head gardener without a debilitating cough. 

Interestingly, urban hedgehogs will chew discarded cigarette butts, then moments later begin to froth at the mouth and start self-anointing (licking spittle all over themselves).

On first glance, it looks like an accidental drug-induced manifestation, but in fact they are using the tobacco alkaloids to disinfest themselves of insects. The frothy spittle is laced with the chewed tobacco and its insecticidal properties.

How to make tomato or potato foliage into a natural insecticide.

Take care when preparing and handling. Do not use on any food bearing plants that you intend to consume within one month of spraying. Good to go on all ornamental plants.

Simply tear or roughly chop up 200g leaves into a vessel then add 1 pint boiling water and let steep overnight to three days (longer is stronger).

Then, strain out the plant material, dilute the remaining liquid with ½ pint water (a drop of washing up liquid is optional) and spray the onto infected plants.


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