Jill Severn’s Gardening Column

Old-time home remedies


While noodling around on Google, I came across a novel way to prevent cabbage moths from eating the leaves of all the brassicas – that is, vegetables including broccoli, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, and cabbages. The prescription was to build a hoop structure and cover it with a pervious cloth, tucked into the soil so moths and flies couldn’t sneak under it.

Fie on that. I’m sticking with the advice of my salty old garden mentor, may he rest in peace:

There are actually three critters that brassicas need protection from: flea beetles and cabbage moths, which damage leaves, and a fly that lays eggs at the base of the plant. (Oh, and slugs, of course, but we’ll get to that later.)

The fly lays eggs right at the soil line next to the plant’s stem. When the eggs hatch,  they burrow into the root of the plant and eat it. I learned about this when several cabbage plants suddenly wilted and croaked. My mentor looked at them, and without even pulling them up to see the root damage, knew instantly what was wrong and what to do about it. “Put a collar of wood ashes around the base of the plant, and snuggle it up around the stem. The fly won’t lay eggs in ashes.”  But of course this only works as prevention; once the damage is done, it’s irreparable. This pest is active in the spring, and disappears by mid-summer, so if the ash collar deteriorates by then, it doesn’t need to be replenished.

You may wonder why I have such loyalty to this old-time remedy rather than the fabric cover. It’s because it’s less work, less expense, and doesn’t obstruct sunlight. And exuberant big brassicas would require very large hoop structures, hiding my lovely plants from view.

As to cabbage moths and flea beetles, my mentor’s remedy was a light dusting of diatomaceous earth – now commonly available, and easy to decant in a big, labeled salt shaker. It is an organic substance, described by our friends at Wikipedia as “a naturally occurring, soft, siliceous sedimentary rock that can be crumbled into a fine white to off-white powder.” Through the magic of chemistry, it causes insects to die of dehydration.

In my garden experience, flea beetles, which are common, are more likely to be a problem on potato and tomato plants than on brassicas. You will know you have flea beetles when you see tiny round holes in the leaves of your plants; you’ll likely see the holes before you see these tiny beetles.

Here’s another old-time remedy that is worth its weight in gold: Boil some onions and/or garlic, cool and strain the water, and decant it in a spray bottle. Use this spray to hide carrots from carrot rust flies, which find their victims by smell. Carrot rust flies’ larvae also burrow into the soil and eat roots. And if you don’t like the smell of garlic or onions, I expect mint, rosemary, or any other more socially acceptable fragrance would work just as well.

Speaking of spray bottles, one filled with half vinegar and half water makes a good weed killer – not one to use in the vegetable garden or lawn, but great for weeds that come up in a gravel path or between cracks in a sidewalk. My friend Irma uses a combination of vinegar and salt; she’s really determined to kill those weeds double dead.

These remedies and preventive measures date from a time before anyone talked about “organic” gardening because that was the only kind of gardening there was. Before DDT, before the bee-killing neonicotinoids and the host of other modern pesticides, people like my old mentor made do with what they had:  a millennium-old tradition of inventive, homespun solutions to garden problems.

This is not to say that anyone needs to make a religion of organic, old-fashioned purity. There are benign and useful modern products on the market, like Sluggo, a popular but slightly expensive way to control slugs.

Still, sometimes it’s nostalgia, sometimes it’s thrift, and sometimes it’s just more self-reliant to use what’s at hand – like a saucer of stale beer, in which you might think slugs die happy.

And sometimes the Olde Ways are just more satisfying. One friend fondly recalls walking around his garden at dusk, when slugs come out for dinner, and dropping them one by one into a bag with salt in it. His only concession to modernity was that he used a plastic bag rather than a paper one.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  jill@theJOLTnews.com


5 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • MartyKenney

    Thanks Jill, I really learned something here, and enjoyed your writing.

    Saturday, April 9 Report this

  • WayTooOld

    Why waste good slugs in a bag of salt? This is probably also a more humane way for them to die than melting. I used to collect my slugs and trade them to my neighbor for duck eggs. “The ladies“ really enjoyed them, and watching them excitedly go after the slugs was quite entertaining.

    It’s really a shame that a couple years ago, the neighbor found a better place for him and his flock … and they all flew the coop.

    Saturday, April 9 Report this

  • sunshine39

    When I lived on

    Tatoosh Island as a child, we had such large slugs (3-4") that the ducks could not ingest them.

    It was so rocky that no one had a garden.

    Saturday, April 9 Report this

  • RuthApter

    The homemade weed killing spray uses Epsom salt and not regular salt. You don't want to add salt anywhere on your property to the soil.

    Saturday, April 9 Report this

  • Annierae

    Great tips that I've never before heard. I have DE for scaly mites on chickens. It makes perfect sense it would work in the garden too. Can't wait to try these out.

    Wednesday, April 13 Report this