Hygiene in the garden -is this sensible or attainable

As a child I was already interested in plants and browsed the gardening magazines and papers of the day not understanding the fascination with enormous dahlias and chrysanthemums. I was looking for those curiosities of nature and snippets of science that an inquisitive nature delights in. I remember reading an advert for a 'new wonder product' that combined neat fertiliser with a powerful soil steriliser that would 'rid your garden of all pests and diseases'. And probably everything else for that matter.........

The attitude back then was to kill everything that moved in case it may damage a plant. We now know where that way of thinking led and we try to be greener and more sensitive to the role each creature plays in our garden's ecology. However there are some vestiges of that outmoded view still hanging around and causing trouble. In particular there still remains an over-emphasis on hygiene. The bizarre attitude that a 'neat & clean' garden is either achievable, desirable or attainable in the face of a multitude of facts and logic to the contrary...

Now don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting hygiene is not important, far from it. It's little effort to clean the secateurs with surgical spirit so as not to spread virus diseases. However excessive and inappropriate hygiene I find distressing. There is nothing wrong with prompt action to dispose of infective or infestive agents be they flora or fauna of any kind where they seriously threaten our crops. To nip the problem in the bud makes sense. Removing a cluster of aphids, a mildewed leaf or caterpillars while they are still small stops the problem escalating.

But to warrant such efforts the problem must have a record of serious harm rather than just causing sporadic damage. Further to stop the pest or disease once the damage is seen is too late and before damage is seen it is difficult to hit the target. And wholesale sterilisation, by pesticide or other means should be avoided because of the other harm it may do. Anyway most established plants can endure quite large losses of leaf with little harm as the light now falls more strongly on previously shaded foliage.

Many apparently awful pest attacks really do little damage to the crops - for example; the leaf blistering aphid that attacks redcurrants (and other related species occasionally) causes unbelievably atrocious red and yellow puckering of the leaves. But these leaves still function if in an impaired way. However we come along and summer prune which means removing up to half or more off all the shoots with leaves and all. We do this to let air and light in to ripen this years crop and to check the plant's growth and get more fruit and flower buds instead of growth buds forming. So what harm was the aphid puckering doing? Not a lot as the foliage, aphids and all, is all cut away anyway.

And no matter how clean you get your garden, how quickly you squash the bugs, they will still come on leg and wing to find your plants. When you get raspberry aphis or blackcurrant big bud mite or cabbage white butterflies or potato blight, rust or mildew then so do all around you. You can't avoid these unless you live in a test tube. But then weigh the losses due to all of them together compared to those from one late hard frost, a drought or a stinking wet season and the first problems pale to insignificance.

To get it in proportion; the real major losses of garden crops are not due to pests or pestilence but from bad weather, at the wrong time, bad practice and occasionally bad luck. Only a few new problems with a few crops would probably occur if you effectively gave up paying any regard to hygiene at all -even combining that with some of the dirtiest and worst practices that one could imagine. Most crops are pretty robust and, if growing healthily in the first place, throw off most attacks much as we shrug off pimples and colds, with notable exceptions such as potato blight.

We are told to never compost potato or tomato haulm that has blight on it. Why? So we don't infect next year's crop. We are also told that blight spores die on the soil so we can cut the foliage off and wait a week or two then dig a crop safely. So why should the blight spores survive a year in the compost heap if they die so easily. Blight comes when the weather suits it, on the wind, and not from last years composted haulm! The way to keep blight away is with a plastic tent not hygienicly disposing of the haulm.

And that's the problem with much of the mistaken insistence on hygiene. The pests and their germs are all around. We can clean them out of our pot/greenhouse/ plot for a while but for sure they will soon be back. This is as true for squirrels, moles and foxes as for aphids, weevils and blights. Of course you might just pick all the snails that visit your plants by patrolling every night with a torch, but just when do you think they will stop coming?

Likewise with asparagus and it's beetle, We are told to cut the old haulm to the ground and rake all debris up thus leaving the beetles nowhere to hide. Fine- isn't it better to leave the stumps six inches high, cut these off in mid-winter and burn them thus killing the beetles hiding there rather than driving them off into the hedges by hygienicly tidying the bed. Even so more beetles will appear on the wind.

As for sterilising the greenhouse. Well can you? It is surprising how red spider mites and disease spores survive even the most intense cleaning soon reappearing once the plants are back. Of course the predators never seem to survive quite as well thus the pests boom out of control until new predators are bought, brought or find their way in. Likewise in the garden as a whole. You may neatly dispose of many infective agents then get as many back on the wing but you've also killed the predators and not many of them arrive so the pests multiply and become a problem.

And we carry on tidying and cleaning and destroying the places our little helpers live. We trim the grass and leave none too grow long. Yet every square foot of long grass is said to produce a ground beetle which will happily live on a diet of snail and slug eggs with some cabbage root fly eggs and carrot root fly eggs as side dishes. Long grass is also a good habitat for countless other creatures especially ladybirds and we really should leave more.

We scrape out our ditches leaving nowhere for the frogs and newts to lurk nor do we leave a slimy muddy edge for the marsh flies which also help control slugs and snails. Without a muddy edge the swallows and housemartins can't get the mud to make their nests. And we rake and tidy away the bits of moss and grass all birds need for their nests continually making their job more difficult. Many compulsively tidy up leaves even though they disappear anyway -and some are even so sad as to throw away such a rich source of fertility. To say little of our need to patch and repair every tree till there is no dead wood or holes for the woodpeckers and other birds.

And rotten wood. One alleged expert threw up their hands in horror when I suggested a pile of rotting logs to attract all sorts of life. Death and diseases went the wail. Dead wood would be a source of all sorts of misery with honey fungus as the least alarming. As if there is no dead wood at the base of most hedges or any where in a garden already! What hygienic hell do they inhabit. (I bet their kids suffer all sorts of allergic responses if their home is as sterile as they think their gardens are.)

We diligently get rid of every weed, not bad in itself but then what are the slugs and snails to eat but our crops? By all means hoe all the weeds but leave their corpses to fob off the molluscs. And why do we love bare soil so. At least a crop of weeds is fixing water, sunlight and nutrients. Bare soil is losing value and I find gets harder, drier, dustier and the crops are more prone to pests than when they have a modicum of weeds under them.

Of course the most typical hygienic act there is must be washing the pots! What a pleasant waste of time. Sure there are some nematodes and soil borne diseases that could theoretically become a problem, especially if you grow some highly bred plants under greenhouse conditions. However what is more likely to kill your seedlings and plants in pots is not anything inhabiting the surface of the pot but drought. over-watering, heat stroke, frost, rubbishy compost, and negligence.

And some will wash their hoe and spade between plots so as not to transfer pathogens. Jolly good, but what about the wind blown dust in dry weather to say nothing of the birds, cats and dogs who never wipe their feet between visits on muddy days. And then there are those with a sterile water butt, as if. Mine certainly isn't sterile but I don't much care, the plants seem happy with it. Mind you it does have extra value and flavour as all my butts have goldfish to keep the gnats under control.

To say even less about my recycled beer and cider feed - now that does need hygienic handling.