Most organic gardening concerns itself with nontoxic (to humans and pets, at least) ways to rid bugs, diseases and other threats. But it's possible to garden in a manner that goes beyond organic — to keep the garden pest-lite, vital and vibrant. It's called deterrent gardening. True, mercenaries such as ladybugs and lizards will still take up residence in your plots, but you can forgo using soaps and botanical insecticides. Use pennies and disco balls instead. Who knows, maybe you'll even rent a duck.
It's logical, really. If you were merely hungry, would you eat fetid, filmy lunchmeat? (I hope you're answering no.) That's how the creatures in the garden think. They think with their noses and their bellies. Being aware that basic hunger and the drive for self-preservation influence wildlife's behavior gives the gardener a marked advantage and, crucially, an ability to respond in a nonlethal manner.
Andy Lopez, the mad, magical self-described Invisible Gardener of Southern California and author of "Natural Pest Control, Alternatives to Chemicals for the Home and Garden," embodies the deterrent-gardening philosophy. His remedies for discouraging garden pests include herbs, spices, soaps and oils, and his ideas are particularly valuable because he has been practicing his preaching since the 6th grade.
Lopez is a big fan of hot pepper oil, sprayed on everything. He recommends a drop or two of Mongolian fire oil, a Korean stir-fry product, mixed with a gallon of water to deter just about every living creature known to man.
"I spray it on my vegetables too, and I don't wash it off," he says. "Gives me spicy food, you know?"
He employs cinnamon oil to fend off mosquitoes and, curiously, cats as well. He waters his lawn with diluted castor oil to keep moles away. His potpourri of deterrent smells are designed to confuse opponents. They are strange and noxious fragrances that encourage creatures to forage elsewhere.
Jimmy Williams of Hayground Organic Gardening in Los Angeles rids plants of aphids and white flies by spraying compost tea, a concoction of equal parts compost and water, brewed in the sun, strained with cheesecloth, then diluted with water again. Bugs stay away, Williams says, and plants take in nutrients through their leaves.
Whereas strong aromas only will repel, a little old-fashioned pain truly instructs. Copper has been used as an effective snail and slug barrier for years because the metal reacts with the mollusks' secretions, causing a flow of electricity. Even thin strips of copper will conduct enough electricity to "bite" a snail or slug. Copper tape can be found at nurseries, but a handful of pennies will work too. Just make sure the coins are touching, creating a little Wall of Lincoln surrounding your seedlings.
Cayenne pepper or used coffee grounds also will stop creepy crawlies in their tracks. Starbucks stores give away their spent grounds so, if you're not a coffee drinker, you can still fortify your arsenal. (There might even be free pennies at the counter too.) The grounds also are a good way to fertilize, as the beans contain nitrogen.
A dog can dampen a deer's appetite, but sometimes a bag of dog hair is all you need. Scott and Becky Foster live in the hills of La Crescenta, where gangs of deer stalk their neighborhood. Of course, most gardeners know that the best solution to a deer problem is to call a Realtor. But Scott tried a different tactic: scattering his dog's hair around his roses to make the animals wary, even fearful.
"I even do that with my own hair," he says with a laugh, "because I just shaved my head and I put it out there. That really helps with the deer."
Finishing nails, harvested from that mayonnaise jar in the garage and pressed into the soil just a breath away from the stem of a new baby bean, will fend off cutworms. With a nail in place, the cutworm can't wrap itself around the stem, making feeding impossible.
The spiky seed pods from liquidambar trees also can be used for barriers. They will agitate snails, slugs and other crawlers enough to guarantee years on a therapist's couch.
Visual deterrents are often necessary as well. A few rubber snakes sunning in the garden may give rabbits and squirrels plenty to worry about. Just tell Grandma about the fake rattlers before sending her out to snip basil for the pesto. Rubber snakes can be found at toy stores, but excellent replicas are abundant at the Los Angeles Zoo gift shops.
In some instances, you may want to attract bug-eating birds. In other parts of your garden, however, you need to fend off their invasions. Flickering sunlight will do the trick. Hang a tiny, mirrored ornament in fig trees, for example, as an effective irritant to birds. It's quite festive too. If you're feeling extra Bee Geeish, get a big mirrored ball and hang it in the tree along with all those reissued disco CDs you shouldn't be listening to. The bouncing light makes birds and other small animals skittish. Next time they get a hankering for peaches, they will skip your freaky light show and go next door to the quiet ambience of your neighbor's yard.
There are plants that deter too. Daffodil bulbs are toxic to gophers and moles. Euphorbia also will deter diggers. Artemisia, tansy, rosemary and mint are good borders. Garlic, leek, onion and shallot, allowed to establish themselves as perennials, also work well.
There are dozens of deterrents you can buy at nurseries or through catalogs. Coyote and bobcat urine are particularly odd. The efficacy of predator urine isn't in doubt. No, the question that begs to be asked is, "How do they get a bobcat to go in that tiny bottle?" You may find yourself trying wacky products. It's all a part of deterrent gardening.