Growing in harmony with nature

This is a transcript of the talk that Phil presented at the Upton Cheyney Chilli Festival on the 7th September and at Plympton Gardening Club. 
We give talks for free to gardening groups. 

Growing chillies in harmony with nature 


My name is Phil Palmer and together with my wife Kay, we own and run the Dartmoor Chilli Farm.

We are based in Ashburton, a small town within the confines of the Dartmoor National Park. We have an 8 acre smallholding and have been growing chillies commercially since 2007. Before switching almost exclusively to chilles, we specialised for some years in medicinal herbs.

We are effectively “off the grid”. Our nursery runs almost exclusively on solar power. We also have a small wind turbine, a borehole for our drinking water and we collect rainwater for our plants.

Our ethos is growing chillies “Naturally”. This is largely the way your grandparents may have grown their vegetables 50 years ago before terms such as "organic" were invented. It also means we do not use any artificial pesticides, herbicides or fungicides.

We grow our chillies with the help of nature. Some of the methods we use, can easily be used by other growers – whether it be commercially or just a hobby grower with a few plants in their greenhouse.

Ladybirds  - one of the best pest controllers in the garden!
Believe it or not, we are all wildlife gardeners. We all share our gardens with hundreds, if not thousands or different beetles, spiders, wasps, beetles and numerous mice, shrews and birds. You can either assume all these creatures are out to eat your crops OR you can embrace the fact that these creatures share your garden. In doing so, you are helping to conserve britains native species and you learn to appreciate the living, breathing eco system outside of your back door!

Try to think of your garden as a pyramid with a few species at the top and many more as you get to the bottom. Insects are not at the bottom. Below these are creatures such as nematodes and bacteria.
Garden wildlife is mostly about creepy crawlies which outnumber the most obvious things in your garden by about a million to one.

In 2003, the RHS commissioned a poll to explore gardeners attitudes to wildlife. The results showed a massive interest in wildlife gardening. 70% said they tried to consider wildlife when maintaining their gardens and a third actually spent time in their gardens watching wildlife.
Nearly half provided food, nest boxes, birdfeeders and water but only 16% deliberately used plants to attract wildlife.

Most programmes on garden wildlife tend to concentrate on the three b's. Bird, butterflies and bees and the recommendations tend to be pretty obvious – ie digs a pond, put up a birdfeeder and grow nectar rich flowers. However most advice aims at the very tip of a very large iceberg. The real state of the wildlife in your garden depends on creatures further down the food table such as spiders, wasps, bettles and bugs.

Bees are the one of the best pollinators
Bees are wonderful pollinators

Bees are in decline mostly to the use of pesticides. We try to encourage bumblebees to nest by using upturned terrocotta pots. However so far we haven't had much luck – although hibernating newts and spiders tend to appreciate them. The most likely nesting spots for bumblebees are hedge bases, holes in walls or even patches of long dry brittle grass. Dried decaying wood makes a great attraction for solitary nesting bees.

Alternatively you can make your own nesting sites by with an old tin can, painted green and filled with paper straws or drilling holes into a wooden block and positioning in a sunny, dry place.

These will also encourage solitary bees and wasps. These are much smaller than their social cousins and are quite harmless to humans. However they are not harmless at all to a wide variety of garden pests which they catch and paralyse for the next generation of wasp. They are one of the best pest controllers in the garden and therefore should be encouraged!

A garden good for wildlife will incorporate many different plants and vegetation such as lawn, flower beds, vegetables, shrubs and trees . Other important wildlife attractors are pods, compost heaps, hedges and walls. 
Gardens bad for wildlife are those which include large areas of paving, decking, extreme tidyness and liberal use of slug pellets! Spraying chemicals to kill aphids and caterpillars will also kill many innocent bystanders of the insect world or encourage those which eat them to forage somewhere else.

Visitors to the nursery are often surprised that is is not like a regular garden centre with bedding plants and nicely mown areas around the tunnels. Long grass is great for wildlife as are patches of stinging nettles.

Our chilli farm
Our nursery

Whilst traditional bedding plants are pretty they are usually annuals and therefore have to be replaced every year.
Instead we try and create wildlife corridors for pollinating insects by planting lots of native wildflowers. Not only is this more sustainable (as most wild flowers are perennials) but also is a great way of attracting bees, hoverflies and a whole host of other good predators into the nursery.

We also various small ponds at the nursery which can easily be dug into the ground or raised by building dry stone walls. In the ponds we try to encourage newts and frogs. Newts largely because they are rare and a protected species and frogs because they are a good slug eater in the tunnels. Ponds also attract dragonflies and adult hoverflies . The latter is one of the most important creatures beneficial to chilli growers! Hoverfly larvae can be aquatic so a pond or even a large pot of water can help. Distinguishing hoverflies from wasps is pretty easy as hoverflies genuinely hover whereas wasps tend to lurch from area to area like our son coming back from the pub. Hoverflies also have short antennae. Wasps have long antennae.

Pond size isn't very important but the ideal wildlife pond should ideally be in an open sunny spot and contain plenty of plants but no fish.
Fish may be very nice to look at but they will have a devastating impact on the number of larvae. Ponds with fish tend to have a less diverse range of creatures whereas ponds without fish will have a larger, more varied eco system.

A wildlife pond
Wildlife pond

We also plant trees.. We have planted 80 apple trees so far and about 200 ash saplings. In time these will be an important draw for wildlife to the nursery. For example bark – which is an insect habitat in its own right, also provides space for lichens and moss and thus for the animals that eat or live in them.
Dead or decaying trees prove food and homes for a huge number of creatures. A hole in an old tree may attract hole nesting birds such as tits or rarities such as bats.  

Trees also have an indirect role in a garden. Gardens without them tend to be dry and sunny. However some creatures appreciate a damp, shady environment provided by trees and large bushes. If you only do one thing, plant a tree sapling. You will in turn be giving life to millions of creatures.

We also have areas around the nursery with low growing denses shrubs in the hope of attracting hedgehogs. We have numerous birdfeeders and boxes and woodpiles for attracting beetles. All of these are good predators which I will come onto in a little while.

Hedgehogs are great "if you can attract them"

At the start of the season, we prepare our polytunnels by hand. It would be nice to have a rotovator but budgets are pretty tight. We remove any old pots and trays. Anything in fact that can be used for pests to hibernate in!
We remove the previous seasons plants (except those we are overwintering) and compost the stems and any remaining pods. We then pull back the mipex (a waterproof breathable membrane which we use in the tunnels for weed control). Wedig over the tunnels and make trenches which we fill with horse manure and chicken pellets. We then add compost from our compost bins and then cover the lot with the mipex. By the time our chillies are ready to go into the ground, we have a great medium which gives them an immediate boost!

Composting is easy to do and we really encourage it. You can easily make composting areas using old pallets or a stack of old tyres.
We have an article on the website about making compost so I wont go into this here but adding compost to clay soils makes them easier to work and plant. In sandy soils, the addition of compost improves the water holding capacity of the soil. By adding organic matter to the soil, compost can help improve plant growth and health.
Providing composting areas is the easiest form of recycling you can do. If more people did it then a lot less waste would be heading to landfill. The estimate from a survey in Sheffield shows 5300 tonnes of food and garden waste went directly to landfill.
By having a compost heap, not only to you get to reap the rewards with a fantastic soil improver“or black oil” as it is known by gardeners but also you will have your own little eco system with vast numbers of creatures living their entire lives inside the heap. Such creatures may include snails, insects and beetles but also slow worms and grass snakes.

We also have a wormery which is a great way of creating a natural liquid feed from kitchen scraps and waste material with the help of our wiggly friends.

At the nursery we use natural feeds on our chilli plants. We use a mixture of seaweed feed and natural home made feeds which we make using comfrey and stinging nettles.

It is easy to make your own stinging nettle feed.

Stinging Nettles  (Urtica dioica)
Stinging nettles

Firstly find a healthy patch of stinging nettles and wearing gloves, cut the first 12 inches of the plant. Fill an onion bag and then place this bag into a dustbin or closed container of water. Weigh down with a large stone and cover. Give everything a good stir every few days using a large stick.
In approximately 2 weeks, you will have a great natural feed which you can use on your chilli plants, tomatoes and sweet peppers. In fact, we use it on all our vegetable plants we have in the tunnels.
You know when it is ready by removing the lid. It absolutely honks! Drain off the liquid and funnel into any old water bottles. Dilute it to about 1 part feed and 10 parts water before using. You can use any remaining leaves/stems either as a mulch or put them on your compost heap.
One added bonus of using a nettle feed on your plants is that nettles by their very nature seem to attract ladybirds – one of the best predators in your polytunnels!
Comfrey feed is made in the same way. We just tend to have a lot more nettles!

For other feeds we also use wood ash and a liquid seaweed. Both a source of potassium (for encouraging flowers and fruit) . Seaweed also contains phospate (for root development) and nitrogen (for encouraging strong healthy foliage)

In seven years of growing chillies, touch wood, we haven't yet had a problem with aphids. The main reason for this is our use of companion planting.

Pyrethrum flowers
Pyrethrum flowers

Between our chilli plants we grow Pyrethrum (py-ree-thrum) which is a type of Chrysanthemum. The dried heads of which are used to create a range of organic pesticides. Organic flea spray for cats and dogs is also make using these flowers – so if you are under aphid attack, we have heard stories of people who have successfully used this method! Pyrethrum spray is harmless to mammals.

If you are growing singular plants on a windowsill and are suffering from aphid attack, trying growing garlic alongside your chillies to deter aphids. Alternatively boil up some garlic in some water and then use this water (when cold) on your plants. Use the garlic for any resident vampires.

Between our chilli plants we also grow dill, tansy, chives, mint, coriander – all of which are great for detering aphids and bugs.

We grow colourful native varieties in the tunnels such as Cornflower, Pot Marigold, Campanula and Yarrow which attract the good predators – in particular hoverflies. These little critters, along with ladybirds are fantastic for pest control. They also are great alongside bees for pollination.
Chillies as you probably know are self pollinating. However when the male and female parts of the flower fail to touch, this is when you get flower drop and you realise the plants haven't pollinated. By having lots of natural pollinators in the tunnels, this is not a problem we have encountered.

Adult Hoverfly

A hover fly can lay several hundreds of eggs on a plant and each larvae will eat up to 400 greenfly during its life time. The larvae is easy to mistake with something else. Larvae are flattened, legless and maggot like. Not particularly lovely to look at but they look far worse to aphids

Ants are a good sign of aphid infestation as they can feed on honeydew which is secreted by greenfly. If you have lots of ants, check your leaves and plant stems for signs of infestation. Pick off pests or diseased leaves regularly to prevent problems spreading to other plants. Dispose of pests well away from your growing environment. Burn diseased leaves and perhaps a bird table for any captured aphids.
Wood ants however are actually good for trees by recycling garden waste. They are also predators for a vast number of plant eating bugs and caterpillars.

Problems you may encounter are greenfly, whitefly, earwigs, vine weevil, red spider mite and plant diseases such as leaf spot, rust or viruses.

The most common pest that we encounter are slugs and snails. This year with the hot summer we haven't seen many but last year, we collected thousands.
We use frogs (from our ponds), toads, birds and the odd hedgehog to help us with the slug and snail problem. We also manually collect slugs and snails using a bucket and a headtorch, last thing at night on spring and summer evenings and depending on the weather, first thing in the mornings.

Copper tape which is laid on the ground and around the top of plant pots do deter some smaller slugs and snails but not the huge ones. They just tend to ignore the tape!
You can use slice potatoes or lemons to attract passing slugs and snails so they eat these instead of your chilli plants.

We do not kill slugs or snails. We have heard about the stomp method but our ethos is that everything has a place in the food chain. Instead we give them a one way, all expenses paid trip to the bottom corner of our lower field.

One note about slug pellets. We do not use or recommend them. Even organic pellets which just target slugs tend to affect creatures higher up the food chain such as small birds, frogs and toads.

The only natural predator we do not actively encourage are wasps. However wasps and hornets are both welcome at the nursery. They may be a pain at a chilli show or at a bbq, flying around your stall and annoying the customers but wasps are known as “the guardians of the garden” and great for gardeners and growers.

Why do I say this? Wasps and hornets pack a sting but without them, there would be a lot more flies.

When a wasp is feeding on our blackcurrant chilli sauce, it is only feeding and can be deterred by burning incense sticks or essential oils such as Tea tree or mint. Wasp traps are pretty ineffective. Wasps are aggressive and the pheromones of their dying wasp friends drowning in sugar tend to only annoy them further.

Guardians of the garden - the wasp!
The dreaded wasp!

A fly is far worse and feeds by dissolving the food into a liquid using its saliva which it then sucks back through its mouth which a type of funnel. Flies have padded feet, a body covered with sticky hairs and a tongue covered with a sticky glue. They will look for their food everywhere including rubbish bins and sewage, so not particularly great when they land on your cupcakes!

Wasps are pest controllers and we often see them around the chilli plants.
So remember before you swat , they do have lots of benefits!

Another benefit insect to attract to your greenhouse are lacewings. Both the adults are larvae will consume many times its own body weight in greenfly each day so a good friend in the garden. However, the larvae can actually look a little bit like an 'enemy', so make sure you identify exactly your pest problem before you act.
We try and make lacewing, hoverfly and ladybird friendly boxes so they can hibernate over the winter. These are easily made by bundling together 20cm pieces of bamboo cane and then jamming them into a large plant pot.

While some gardeners use sticky traps to catch pests, we would not recommend using them as they will also catch the good predators such as ladybirds and hoverflies.

Another beneficial insect, frequently trodden on is the ground beetle. Nearly all are predators and feed on a number of pests especially slugs, snails and caterpillars. Beetles feed mainly at night but during the day appreciate cover of logs, stones and dense vegetation.

Birds can cause mixed emotions. Most are predators. Robins, thrushes and bluetits will take fruit but mostly feed on invertabrates. Wrens, dunnocks and blackcaps feed on little else than insects.
Bluetits can eat a large number of overwintering aphids and moth larvae. It is estimated than a pair of blue tits needs 10000 insects to raise a brood of young.

Blue tit
Blue tits
We encourage birds with roosting boxes and feeders. We have lots of climbing plants which encourage birds to build nests and give them the material to easily do so. However we also cover vulnerable crops which they also have a liking for! Using a small bit of hose in your seedlings can resemble a snake and can act as a bird deterrent. We tend to use large plastic cloches to cover seedlings which keeps them save from birds and slugs. You can also cover individual plants by cutting a water bottle in half and placing over the growing plant.

Bats if you have them in residence will feed on aphids, craneflies and moths. You can encourage bats with bat boxes and we occasionally see them swooping around on summer evenings.

Other beneficial creatures include spiders which feed on various insects, as do centipedes. Do not confuse with centipedes with millipedes which are a pest and will munch on your plants!

Think of your garden as a nature reserve on your doorstep. Wander about an appreciate it. You'll the the obvious creature such as birds and butterflies but closer inspection will reveal the less obvious animals such as hoverflies, solitary wasps or ladybird larvae munching on some aphids. You might see animals eating your plants but you can learn to understand or tolerate them. For example slugs are a real problem, so try to grow plants which deter them such as garlic, chervil or wormwood.

We encourage people to create their own native wildlife habitats but do not despair if you cannot manage everything I have covered. If you haven't got a pond, then chances are there is one next door. If you havent room for a wildlife meadow, it doesn't matter. Try and provide something your neighbours dont even if it is just a patch of long grass or some stinging nettles! The only golden rule is not to use pesticides. Beyond that, it is up to you. All gardens are wildlife gardens, you simply might not be aware of it!

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