By Larry Hodgson
I’ve lectured extensively across Canada and the United States over the years and each talk is inevitably followed by a question and answer period. This is an opportunity for the participants to empty their hearts about everything that is going wrong in their garden. Often these are questions about basic horticulture: when to sow a particular plant, to plant it, to prune it, etc. But even more often, I am asked for solutions on how to deal with the enemies of home gardens: insects, mollusks, diseases, mammals, etc.
In general, I play along: I try to come up with a realistic solution to eliminate or reduce the impact of the predator in question. But often I feel a bit guilty. Would I really have put this method into practice at home if I were going through the same situation?
Because, if truth be told, I very rarely apply pest treatments. I tend to let Mother Nature take care of it, especially when it’s a minor issue.
The 15-Pace Rule
When it comes to whether I should react to a pest or disease or not, I have a rule that I like to apply: the 15-pace rule.
I take 15 steps back: if I don’t see the problem at 15 paces, then there is no problem. I can therefore just ignore the situation.
This may sound a bit simplistic, and yet most of the “damage” that gardeners see on plants—holes, lumps, spots, etc.—is minor, doesn’t affect the plant’s health in the long or even medium term and is quickly hidden by the plant. Why react when the plant is going to be fine anyway?
So remember that: the problems you can’t see almost always are ones you can ignore.
For Harder Cases, Apply the 3 Strikes Rule
But I have to admit that some predators are more stubborn, coming back year after year or doing more noticeable damage. Surely they deserve treatment?
Then again, my little laidback gardener brain does some mathematical calculations. If I treat today, will that fix the problem once and for all? If so, yes, I would probably react. But if not, will I have to repeat the treatment over and over again, possibly for years to come?
There it’s no longer the 15-step rule that I apply, but the old baseball rule: “3 strikes and you’re out.”
If, after 3 attempts at eradication, the problem is still there, I consider that it’s not the predator that is at fault, but the plant. A plant that requires so much care doesn’t deserve a place in my gardens: it’s a simple as that. After all, no gardener can grow everything and there is likely a no-nonsense replacement for any plant that really won’t thrive under my conditions. So, I yank it out.
The 3-strikes rule can be very effective! Many years ago, when I got sick of squashing slug after slug on my hostas without actually eliminating the problem, I went out and dug up the offending hostas (note: not all my hostas, because some are never eaten by the slugs) and I tossed them all into the compost bin. Results? Not only did the remaining hostas remain beautiful, but the slugs left my property in droves, for there was no longer anything of great value for the gluttonous little mollusks to eat.
The slug population in my yard remains minimal even today, decades later: it was the hostas that were nourishing them. Without their favorite food to push their population to the maximum, even my vegetables—and some can indeed be slug fodder!—rarely suffer from them at all.
I likewise pulled out all my lilies (Lilium spp.). Not because of slugs, but because of Asiatic lily beetles. Those elongated orange beetles always seemed to find my lilies no matter what treatment I tried. Well, with the lily plants gone, the lily beetles left. I largely replaced my lilies with daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.), with similar-looking blooms, but of no interest to lily beetles. Such a simple solution!
The bottom line is that, when I apply these two rules—the 15-pace rule and the 3-strikes rule—, I work much less in my garden, yet have better results!
Long live laidback gardening!