Light-touch gardening

Farmland covers almost three-quarters of the land surface of Essex, so how farmers manage their land is very important. Private gardens cover a sizeable proportion of the rest and, with today's pressures on our countryside, serve as a vital refuge for wildlife, so how you manage your little bit of land can make a difference as well.

It's important to cut down on chemical sprays, which are as damaging in the garden as in the countryside. Less use of chemicals means more natural food for wildlife, less residues on any food crops you grow, less toxins to be cleaned out of the water supply.

But gardening successfully for wildlife is not just a matter of stopping using chemicals. Just as organic farmers need to change many aspects of how they manage their land, so in a garden you will do best by adopting a combination of measures. Light touch gardening also means choosing the right plants and giving them a good chance; encouraging the natural predators of pest species; adopting new methods of control that do no 'collateral damage'.

Nine golden rules for the light touch gardener

1 Choose plants that look after themselves

Don't create a plant protection problem by trying to grow unsuitable plants. If they are growing in the right conditions most established plants - and especially natives - will shrug off all but the most severe pest attacks.

If you have persistent problems with particular plants, try moving them somewhere else. If you can't find anywhere suitable, give up the unequal struggle and grow something different – they are trying to tell you that they don't belong in your garden at all!

2 Give new plants a fighting chance

Beware sowing or planting seedlings too early, especially on a cold, heavy soil. When plants have to cope with soil or weather that is too cold for them, they struggle to get going and are a sitting target for pests. You can use cloches or fleece to warm the soil first and to protect plants in the critical first week or so. You can also sow indoors in pots or a container and plant out when the seedlings are big enough to survive a few nibbles. Remember to keep back a few spares to replace the plants you do lose – it usually involves no more cost and little extra effort.

3 Prevention is better than cure

Many pests on vegetable crops can be excluded by crop protection nets and fleeces, available from some garden centres. A cheaper alternative: lemonade bottles or yoghurt pots with their bottoms cut off placed over young plants and pushed into the soil.

To protect against cabbage root fly, make collars 15cm or so across and cut them to fit tightly round the stem when planting: these prevent the adult root fly from crawling down into the soil to lay its eggs. Old carpet underlay is ideal.

4 Nip problems in the bud

Get used to looking at your plants closely and often. If you have not done it before, it will open up a new world of tiny creatures engaged in a battle for survival. It will also enable you to detect the most destructive pests in the early stages, when a few quick squeezes between finger and thumb may snuff out the problem. You will also be able to see whether or not nature's own defence troops are getting on top, before you bring in the big guns.

5 Recruit nature's own defenders

Three important helpers in the battle against slugs are hedgehogs, toads and frogs. If you do not yet have a garden pond, try to install one if possible. It does not need to be very big – see guidance on ponds.

Hedgehogs are in decline so they need your help. A little cat food put out on autumn evenings or a large pile of dead sticks and leaves as a snug winter home might persuade them to take up residence.

6 ... and make them feel at home

Many insect predators need somewhere to hide from their enemies during the day, ready to come out to do some good work on the night shift. Give them a few strategically placed piles of stones or logs to hole up under.

You also want your insect friends (see know your friends) to lay their eggs in your garden, so that there are plenty of their young about to get to grips with pests early in the season. Stinging nettles are ideal in this respect because they attract beneficial insects to lay their eggs but the pests they harbour do not pose a threat to other plants. Let a clump grow in an out-of-the-way corner of the garden, and cut them down in June so that the hungry predators move out into the garden.

7 Keep chemical warfare as a last resort

Before reaching for the sprayer, remember that the aim is not to prevent all pest damage but to reduce it to acceptable levels.

Organic sprays break down quickly in the environment and that makes them safer, but the important thing about insecticides is not whether they are organic but how selective they are. Biological controls with no side-effects are widely available for garden use (see pest control). The active agent in Bactospeine, for example, is a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis that attacks caterpillars alone.

8 Recycle, recycle, recycle

A healthy soil means healthy plants that are better able to resist attack by pests or diseases, and the best way to create a healthy soil is to recycle waste organic material, preferably composted.

If you don't have a compost heap nature will still do the recycling for you. Mulch roses and shrubs with grass cuttings or, in dry weather, leave them on the grass and save watering. Rather than barrowing leaves or hedge clippings away, stack them in the shade under shrubs or trees. In winter, dig a trench to bury organic kitchen waste and grow runner beans or courgettes on top the following summer.

9 Stick with it

You may find light-touch gardening difficult or frustrating at first, but don't be put off if you lose the early skirmishes. Your garden may have few natural predators now but, as soon as you stop using chemical weapons, a better balance of predator and prey species starts to develop so that pest damage gradually becomes less and less of a problem.