Lurking on one of my bookshelves are several ‘old’ (i.e. from the late 50s and early 60s) gardening books. They’re a valuable source of knowledge and a fascinating look into how gardening was done not that long ago. But it’s also very interesting – and somewhat scary – to see how they suggest the use insecticides and weedkillers as a matter of course. Every method is accompanied by exhortations to scatter this or that chemical all over the place – and of course, many of those chemicals have since been banned.

It’s also likely that some of the insecticides and weedkillers used today will be banned in the future. Many are not only used in gardens but in agriculture in general, making the gap between modern organic and non-organic farming very wide indeed.

Despite the usual reason given for banning their use, i.e. the possibility of harm to ourselves, there is a wider view which says that using agricultural chemicals is a bad idea because they change ecosystems by creating an imbalance between predator and prey numbers.

While the possibility of current ‘solutions’ being banned would be enough on its own to make me tread the organic path, an added benefit is that I won’t be indiscriminately killing dozens, hundreds, possibly thousands of other things in the process. Completely aside from my personal wish not to kill other living things, it seems at least plausible that there’s a subtle (though unseen by science) connection between my own longevity and my attitudes towards the lives of fellow creatures, however many legs they have. Realistically, how can I expect a long and healthy life if I’m specifically devoting some of my time to shortening the lives of others?

So, nothing in my garden is killed – as far as possible. That’s not an escape clause, by the way: I recognise that it’s futile to expect to garden without killing things. Merely by living we cause harm here and there but, at the same time, we can garden with as much awareness as possible. So I only dig earth with a fork – far more practical in clay soil, anyway – because I’ve cut too many earthworms in two using a spade. There’s no truth, incidentally, in the sad old story that if you cut a worm in half you end up with two worms. Instead, you will probably end up with a dead worm cut in half. One half will certainly die, and the other probably will, too.

Slugs and snails, the bane of gardeners everywhere in the UK, are often where people draw the line between what they’re prepared to save, or not. This is a very imaginary line, usually only put there for our short-term comfort, and there’s absolutely no need to draw it in the first place. If you’re squeamish about picking up slugs, or just dislike the slime factor involved, use gloves. If you do get ‘slimed’, butter, margarine or olive oil gets rid of slime quickly and easily – and it also gets rid of the sticky residue left by labels. If you take a container with you on a garden walk on a spring evening you can collect slugs and snails for relocation rather than death row. Stick a bit of lettuce in with them – or dandelion, if you prefer – and release them down the road somewhere. They’ll be quite happy in the pot for a few days so long as they have enough food to eat, so relocation doesn’t have to be a daily event.

snail pic, image

Snails: they're only there for dinner, just like us!

Aphids are tricky. They’re too small to easily move and they reproduce so fast it’s difficult to keep up. I carefully cut affected foliage – broad beans are a typical location – holding the stem between my fingers as I clip through it. This is because once they realise their foodplant is being disturbed they let go, and drop to the ground. Aphids will be happy on a wide variety of plants so it’s easy enough to find a spot to release them.

Caterpillars aren’t slimy like slugs and are bigger than aphids, so they can be picked up and moved more easily. I keep a ‘sacrificial’ plant or two just for them, but it you can’t afford that they are quite likely to be happy on a variety of other wild plants. Species are ‘plant specific’, but they’re easy to identify. Most of the caterpillars you’ll find in a garden come from the eggs of various white butterfly species. These are usually laid on brassicas – but they also love nasturtiums, so it’s worth planting a few of them. You get to enjoy the flowers, and they get to enjoy the leaves.

Gardening without killing is definitely more difficult, no question. But it’s worth it. There’s no need to use nematodes or bags of ladybird larva because doing so can affect the natural balance of the garden’s ecosystem almost as much as pesticides. Once you start using nematodes, for example, you may find you have to use them again every year, whether you want to or not. If imported ladybird larva have decimated the pest population, other predators already living in the area will go hungry and die, and once gone may be slow to return. Slug pellets kill birds, hedgehogs and, if they get into water, just about everything. Chemicals linger in the earth and may kill far more species, and for longer, than you wanted – aside from possibly adding a low level of chemical residue to your food.

Best of all, taking a ‘no killing’ approach will make you feel better about yourself, your garden, and your food. It becomes part of who you are – and that ‘you’ will be happier than it would be otherwise. Happier, more likely to care about others, less subject to stress, a better member of a family…and so on. And if all that isn’t a likely ingredient for a long and healthy life, I don’t know what is.

Andy says...

Andy says...

As you can see Mark has some really strong views on this subject, and he’s not exaggerating either: we had to stop work for twenty minutes while constructing one of his polytunnels because he thought he’d seen a wasp go into a hole. While I garden organically I’m not nearly so pro-life as Mark. I’ll relocate the occasional snail (without worrying too much about where it lands, so long as it’s more than 10 metres away), but when it comes to mass slug outbreaks, out come the organic slug pellets.

Every veg patch is different, and so is every gardener. (Some are more different than others…) Mark may remove caterpillars from his brassicas with a soft brush, but it’s hard to imagine a market gardener treating a quarter of an acre the same way. So where do you stand? Debate is good! If you’d like to join the argument discussion, click on over to our facebook page and have your say.

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