Sustainability Book Chat
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All gardens and farms were organic prior to World War II, and gardeners realized centuries ago that healthy soil was the key to healthy plants.
Building healthy soil is exactly where author and gardener Sally Morgan starts her book, The HEALTHY Vegetable Garden: A natural, chemical-free approach to soil, biodiversity and managing pests and diseases.
In today’s interview, we talk about pests, diseases, and natural predators, as well as biocontrols, barriers, lures, traps, and sprays, including one that is totally new to me — milk!
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The Healthy Vegetable Garden – Transcript
Deborah Niemann 0:04
Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever size your living space, you can do more than you think to lead a greener lifestyle. In the “Sustainability Book Chat,” we are talking to authors and experts about all the different ways that achieving sustainability is within your reach.
Deborah Niemann 0:28
Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode. Today we are going to be talking about The Healthy Vegetable Garden, which is the name of a new book by freelance writer Sally Morgan, who is also the editor of the Soil Association’s Organic Farming magazine. Welcome to the show today, Sally!
Sally Morgan 0:48
Well, it’s lovely to be joining you today from the other side of the pond.
Deborah Niemann 0:52
Yes, I’m excited! And, I should say the subtitle of your book, also. The subtitle is A natural, chemical-free approach to soil, biodiversity and managing pests and diseases, which I think does a really good job of explaining what you mean when you named the book The Healthy Vegetable Garden. But just in case anybody’s still not clear, tell us exactly what the title of the book means.
Sally Morgan 1:17
Well, yes, and for me, I started writing a book on controlling pests and diseases organically, and I suddenly realized that it wasn’t just that; it was a far more holistic approach to things. So, the book got much larger. And I started looking at soil health and how everything to do with biodiversity in the garden was so critical. So, the subtitle of the book evolved, because it’s organic. And, I like to explain to people that “organic” is pesticides and chemicals that we don’t use, but it’s more than that. It’s the soil health, which leads to healthy plants, which leads to healthy people; it’s very much the organic mantra of getting that right. And so, that’s where the sort of book is coming from: looking at establishing this lovely healthy ecosystem in your growing space that is going to produce for you lovely, healthy vegetables.
Deborah Niemann 2:11
Okay. And, one of the things I thought was really fun when I was reading the introduction is that you had some quotes there from famous farmers from many years ago, like Thomas Jefferson and Sir Albert Howard. Because a lot of people, I think, have this idea that organic is, like, this new trend or new fad. That, you know, “Oh, it’s not going to last.” And I’m always reminding people that all agriculture was organic prior to World War II. And so, I just love the quotes that you have in there from some of these older farmers, who knew things—like, there’s a really wonderful letter from Thomas Jefferson talking about how they’re going to pile manure in the garden this fall so that they’ll have better crops next year.
Sally Morgan 3:00
Yeah. And, our work at the Soil Association is we’re looking back at some of our pioneers that, you know, 70-80 years ago now. And there’s… You’re quite right. It’s everything pre-war is how we always did things. And some of the stuff that Albert Howard was working on in India were absolutely innovative. He was really ahead of his time. And, when I looked through some of the books that you can read online now, he was an amazing guy using, again, manure, and getting his composting systems going. And the Jefferson quote is in there because, oh, 20 years ago, I was out in Virginia visiting gardens. And I felt it was a very English garden that I was looking at. And we went around Monticello, and we learned about the story there. And I’ve always been impressed with those beautiful vistas from the vegetable gardens there, and everything was looking fabulous. And so, yeah, looking back, organic is a natural way of doing things. And I think currently there’s a little bit of confusion, because people are thinking about regenerative agriculture, which is… I don’t know what it’s like in the States, but over here is the big thing in agroecology, and everybody’s arguing over these terms. But actually, organic tops all of those. Organic has been around all the time. It’s the natural way of doing things, and encompasses regenerative, and it encompasses agroecological ways. So yeah, for me, like you, organic is the way. It’s the only way, really, and as we see the demise of the insects at the moment, and there’s amazing books around telling us about insect life almost plummeting, it’s so important that us as gardeners actually help our insect populations in our own growing spaces.
Deborah Niemann 4:45
One of the things that I think is great about your book is that the first chapter is about building our soil. Which, if somebody is new to the idea of organic agriculture or organic gardening, they’re gonna be like, “What do you mean ‘building our soil’?” Like, “Dirt is dirt. It’s just there. How do you build soil?” So, can you explain that idea?
Sally Morgan 5:06
Yeah, absolutely. And you mentioned the word “dirt.” And I was in an interesting seminar with Elaine Ingham, a soil lady from the States, who basically explained that “soil” was full of life and organic matter and “dirt” was just literally stuff that didn’t have any life, in her mind. And so, yeah, for me, soil is lots of organic matter, because that’s going to take up carbon and help in our climate change battle. And actually, the most important thing to me is the soil life, all those microbes that we can’t see, plus all the worms and the beetles and everything else. So, soil is the key. Get that right, and you’ll have healthy plants. And, one of the other things that I keep on going on about for people who use chemicals is that, if you’re using fertilizer in your garden for a quick return, you’re not benefiting your garden. The fertilizer is what I describe as “fast food,” “ready-made food” for those plants just to grab and grow. And it’s bypassing all the amazing artisan microbes, which are doing all those clever things of converting organic matter to food that plants can use. And as a consequence, you’re going to lose your biodiversity in the soil, and you’ll always need fertilizers, because you haven’t got any microbes left. And it’s the same with glyphosate. You start using that and you kill off… You start using pesticides, and you’re killing your fungi. So yeah, getting a soil health right is the starting point.
Deborah Niemann 6:36
Yeah, I think it’s fascinating how we lose soil; we lose topsoil in the United States. I don’t remember the statistics. But, I know when I first heard that, I thought it meant because we didn’t keep things planted 12 months a year, and the wind was blowing the soil away. But then I had a potted plant, and I noticed that the level of the soil in the potted plant was going down. And then it clicked. Like, it’s not just the wind is blowing dust away because there’s nothing planted there half the year. There’s more to it than that.
Sally Morgan 7:16
Yeah, and I’ve seen those photos, too. I mean, up in east of England, we have an area called Fenland, which has been drained. And there’s some horrifying posts that show you that you’re 30 meters below the level of the ground in the 17th century, which is frightening in its own right. It’s just blowing away. And I’ve seen it physically myself, you know, clouds of soil just disappearing off. But you’re right. My pots are always being topped up, because that organic matter is broken down and it’s being used by the plants. So, it is a continual cycle and recycling process. And as gardeners, I hope that we can latch into that and see that it’s a closed-loop system in our gardens. That we are putting back into the soil what we’re taking out.
Deborah Niemann 8:02
So, you’ve got all this wonderful information in there about building your soil and everything, because of course, healthy plants are better able to resist pests and disease. But even with the best soil, sometimes you might have some problems with pests and disease. And you also talk about natural predators. I know a lot of people, like, their first instinct is just, like, they see a bug, they think, “Let’s kill it.” And another guest that I have interviewed already was saying that, you know, almost all the insects you can see in your garden are not actually pests; they’re beneficial. What are some of the tips that you would have for people who are getting started and having trouble with this concept that most insects are our friends?
Sally Morgan 8:45
Yeah, absolutely. And it’s a natural reaction, isn’t it? You’ve taken so much time to plant all these seedlings and things, and then something comes along and starts nibbling them. I think for me—and particularly when it’s a new garden. Then you haven’t got the balance going, and you haven’t got your predators going. I think the key thing for me is: Don’t panic. And a classic example was me, and I go onto Instagram and Twitter, and everybody’s complaining that the aphids are on their broad beans this spring. We had a very wet, cold spring and then a warm period, and all of a sudden all the black flies went bang, you know? And everybody was panicking, and they’re getting out their sprays, and you sort of think, “No. Just sit back.” So, my first advice is: Watch, look, learn. And for me, I did have black fly on my broad beans this spring, and I waited a week, and they were all gone the week later, because I think some birds have come down and found them. And also, the ladybugs hadn’t got going because the spring was late, and then they came along, and control was gained. So I think, sit back, look, learn. Don’t panic. Don’t pull them up.
Sally Morgan 9:53
I mean, at the moment, another example: Lots of people are growing tomatoes, and it’s that time of year for tomato blight. And everybody’s panicking, because they’ve seen tomato blight on their plants and they’re going to rip them up and remove them to save the rest. And actually, just remove a few leaves, get the plants well-watered, look after them, and they’ll probably recover. So, it’s the panic thing, you know? Relax, enjoy it, and learn a little bit more. And watch.
Deborah Niemann 10:22
Okay, that’s interesting. I live in Illinois, which, we normally have very hot summers. And I never had trouble with tomato blight until one summer, which I originally thought was the most wonderful summer ever, because the temperatures—probably very much like England—they were in the 70s all summer. And, I don’t know how that translates to Celsius for you. But it was super nice; it was not the super-hot summers that we were used to. And then I very quickly learned like, “Oh, this is the perfect condition for blight,” because that is exactly what happened, was all of my tomato plants started having problems with blight.
Sally Morgan 11:03
And blight, it’s a nasty one. It creeps up on you. Over here, the varieties of blight that we suffer from like it warm and wet—perfect conditions. And you’ve just got to be observant, again, and whip out there, take those leaves off as soon as you see them. And also to be quite careful around the plants. I see people wandering around their potato plots, and then they go and have a look at their tomatoes, and they’re probably carrying the spores from one crop to another. So, some of the things I am quite careful with is cleaning my shoes before I go in my greenhouses, so that I don’t carry the spores in with me. But it is again: observant. Be observant, and remove the leaves, and just let the plant get on with it; give them a good feed, and let them recover, hopefully.
Deborah Niemann 11:52
So, you have a whole chapter on boosting defenses, which is really interesting. And you have lots of different things you mention about bio controls, and lures, traps, sprays. Are there any of those that would be good for people to put in place before they see a problem, just to be proactive?
Sally Morgan 12:14
Yes. I suffer a lot from the white butterflies. And I think you do, too, with the cabbage—white butterflies on our brassicas. And every year I get them. There’s loads of them outside at the moment. And so, I do put a mesh over my brassica beds to protect them. We get a cabbage root fly, and again, I will put barriers up beforehand to intercept the problem. And I think, critically, sometimes the most vulnerable stage of a plant’s life is those first stages when its roots are quite small and it hasn’t got much leaf area. And if you can cover them up at that point, and get them quickly through the most vulnerable stage, then they’ve got a chance to come on. So yeah, I think meshes and other barriers are great. You can use traps for moths and things, so you intercept the problem. You could put grease bands on your fruit trees to stop the beasties climbing up the trees and overwintering in your tree. So, there’s lots of easy barrier things you can do. And also, if you’re a novice gardener, I’d get some plants in early—so things which are going to help companion planting. So, I have loads of marigolds in the garden. That’s the French type, the pot marigolds, as well. I’ve lots of nasturtiums growing absolutely everywhere in the hopes that they will attract the pests away from your crops. So lots of plants, lots of flowers, and some covers to give them a little bit of control.
Deborah Niemann 13:47
Okay, yeah. That’s funny, because I used to never think about putting flowers in my vegetable garden. I just kind of felt like, “Okay, this is for the vegetables.” And I realized that, when I did put some flowers in there, that it also really increased the pollinators that I saw. Like, I thought, “Oh, I don’t need this because I have bees.” And I don’t even remember what possessed me to finally start planting some flowers in there, but I was really surprised at how many benefits there were to having flowers in the garden.
Sally Morgan 14:21
Yeah, absolutely. And I think the vegetable beds should be just as colorful as the flower beds in that respect. And I’ve got loads of flowers, and I throw all sorts of things in. And not just so I can cut them for the vase, which is lovely, too. But you’re right. You want the pollinators and the predators to come in, and they’ve got slightly different requirements. When you look at insects, they’ve got slightly different lengths of mouth parts. Some have got longer ones, and they can go into the tubular flowers. Others have got short mouth parts, and they need a more open flower. So, the more diversity you have in flowers, again, the more you’re going to bring the insects in and give you that control. So yeah, the flowers are just as important, but a pack of seeds is brilliant, because that’s all you need, you know? You’re going to get hundreds of nasturtiums out of the pack of seed. And once you’ve got nasturtiums in the garden, you’ve always got them; they’re always going to set seed. And it’s the same with pot marigolds, and I let them go everywhere. It’s a bit orange out there, at the moment. But it’s full of life.
Deborah Niemann 15:19
I bet it’s beautiful! One of the things that surprised me—because I’ve been gardening for, I don’t know, 25-30 years. And I kind of thought I had, like, at least heard it all, at least briefly. But one of the things that surprised me that I had never seen before was the idea of using milk in the garden. That was listed in your chapter of defenses. I mean, milk is so innocent; it’s what you feed babies.
Sally Morgan 15:50
Absolutely, and it’s great for the mildews. So, milk is diluted down—just mix it down with a bit of water—and put it in a spray, hand spray or something. And it’s to do with altering the surface of the leaf so it’s less attractive to your mildew. And you’re just… It’s one of those defenses just to give the plant a chance. I also talk in the book about how important the microbes on the leaf surface are, the phyllosphere; we talk a lot about microbes around the roots, but on the surface of the leaves—in fact, any surface of the plant—you get this amazing mix of microbes and protozoan and all sorts of things. So, you’ve got to be careful when you’re using these sort of mixes. But if you’ve got mildew, and you’ve had problems, particularly on your squash—courgettes and squash—then get the milk spray out early. Once you see the mildew, you’re a bit too late. So, it’s a proactive treatment. Give it a good spray, let it drain right off the leaf. It may not work, but it might give you that, just that edge, that the plant can then withstand the fungal spores. So, it’s a question of putting the plant into the winning side, as it were—a better balance for the plant against the pathogen—and give it a try. It’s not going to cost you anything. And I bet you’ve got some old milk settling in the fridge somewhere that you can put to some good use and just see, and, you know, it just might swing the balance in the favor of the plant.
Deborah Niemann 17:16
Yeah, well, since we have goats here, we usually have plenty of milk. And so it’s definitely something that we can try. And we do have trouble with mildew on our squash plants. We haven’t seen it yet. So, I’m gonna go tell my husband, “Let’s put some milk in a spray bottle with water, and go out there, and give it a spray.”
Sally Morgan 17:38
Yeah. Nothing to lose.
Deborah Niemann 17:40
Right! So, the wonderful thing, towards the end of your book, you’ve got this lovely encyclopedia, this A to Z of pests and diseases, where people can look things up and figure out, like, exactly what kind of problems they have and how to fix them. Which, I think that’s always wonderful for people to have that kind of a resource in a book. What are some of your favorite—or one of your favorite things—to do for plants to help them along?
Sally Morgan 18:11
It’s a tricky one that, because there’s all sorts of nasties out there that I’m trying to control and get balanced. But I think for me, I like trying to keep the biology in place. So, under my covered crops this year, I suffer a lot from red spider mite. And so I’ve been using bio controls, which are nematodes, and I think nematodes are one of my favorite attack mechanisms in the garden. They are naturally in soil, but these particular ones have been chosen because they will target a particular species of pest, and so in my polytunnel—which is a very, you know, artificial environment, like a greenhouse. Very artificial, very hot, humid at this time of year. I do get red spider mites, and I can see them having a go at my squash, my cucumbers, and my aubergines. And so I’ve been using bio controls, which will basically be sprayed onto or tipped onto the leaf, and the little tiny nematodes—or, in the case of the red spider mite, it’s a little parasitic wasp and the like. Those types of things are really useful. So, red spider mite, and slugs and snails for my nematodes as well. Nematodes in the soil will go for slugs and snails, and they enter the slug or the snail’s body, and they release bacteria which kill the slugs. So, using these bio controls, if you choose the right agent. The other one is for whitefly, using encarsia—parasitic wasp.
Sally Morgan 19:41
All of these are very neat, because they don’t interfere with the biology of the area. They’re natural, and going to do their job in a natural way, rather than spraying something which might attack a non-target species. So, I’m really careful about sprays and things, even if they are organic, because you’ve got to be careful that you don’t damage your ladybugs and the larvae at the same time. So, trying to target the species and go for bio controls is one of my favorite—and I like the biology, of course, behind it. It’s very clever.
Deborah Niemann 20:16
Yeah, that’s a great suggestion. And it’s actually not something that I’ve done much with. We definitely do it out in the barn. For 5 or 6 years now, we’ve been getting these little… They’re called “fly predators” or “fly eliminators” or something. And they’re these little teeny parasitic wasps. And whenever I wonder if they’re doing any good, something will happen, and like, somehow, we will miss a shipment. And then I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, that was really helping so much.” Or, someone will visit and say, “Wow, you don’t really have any fly problems.” Because they are—they’re extremely helpful in the barn to just keep the fly population down.
Sally Morgan 20:55
Absolutely. And I think, if you use some of these controls regularly, you get on top of the populations and the slugs and snails—who’ve had a horrific year because of the wet weather. And they’re chewing through things still. And, if you use a nematode at the beginning of the year—and it won’t kill everything. It won’t take out all of your slugs and snails, to the disappointment of the people that use the controls. But they’re keeping the levels down so it’s within manageable levels. And, if you do these things regularly, you’re never going to wipe out all the pests, and you don’t want to wipe them all out. As you said earlier, there’s a role for them all. But, you just want to get control back, and this is a regular top-up. Just gives you a chance to have some control with the problem.
Deborah Niemann 21:39
Are there any common mistakes that you see people making when they’re fairly new to the idea of having an organic garden?
Sally Morgan 21:47
I think it’s the rapidity of the action. That they sort of go in, and they want to pull something out, or they want to use an organic spray, and they’ve read about them that they’re organic. And then, they don’t check the plant to see whether there’s any beneficials around, which is so important, because I’m sure you know that, you know, ladybug larvae are quite unusual organisms. And I think, as a newbie to gardening, you don’t recognize the larvae; you know what the adult looks like, you know what the hoverflies look like, you know what the ladybugs look like, but you don’t know what their larval stages look like. And I think some of the newer gardeners don’t look carefully enough to see whether they’ve got some really useful animals in their garden before they pull up something. And, if you react too quickly, you’re not letting your natural beneficials have a go at controlling it for you. So, it is this sort of, again, don’t panic. Sit back, look very carefully, see what you’ve got in your garden before you take some action, because, you know, it will balance out eventually.
Deborah Niemann 22:52
That is a really great point. I think you’ve provided a lot of really useful information. Where can people find you online if they want to connect with you?
Sally Morgan 23:02
I’ve got a website. So, it’s SallyMorgan.co.uk. And I’m on Instagram as well, like everybody. I’m not under my own name under Instagram; it’s “The,” underscore, “Organic,” underscore, “Plot.” So, @The_Organic_Plot, with gaps between it. So yeah, I’d happily converse with people if they got any problems or they want to dig deeper into some of the issues that I’ve raised today. And the book, of course, is out next month. So that’ll be good, too. But, happy to give advice to people if they want to come find me on social media.
Deborah Niemann 23:36
Yeah, this will be great! And by the time this airs, the book will be out, so people will be able to get it right away. Thank you so much for joining us today!
Sally Morgan 23:45
Oh, thank you very much for inviting me! It’s good fun. So, I look forward to hearing from some of your listeners.
Deborah Niemann 23:52
And that’s it for today’s episode. You can find show notes at ThriftyHomesteader.com/BookChat, as well as a transcript. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. You can also find Thrifty Homesteader on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. See you next week on “Sustainability Book Chat.”