The wisdom to use trap crops in your garden is free for the taking. Only you have to be introduced to the concept first, to understand why it’s so important.
Let’s say that becoming an organic gardener is your ultimate goal.
There are several ways to get there and none of them are going to be easy. That’s the honest truth. In any given season there may be bugs or bad weather that gives you a less than ideal harvest, but it doesn’t mean you need to resort to chemicals to “fix” nature.
There’s More Than One Way to Garden Organically
You can plant with the cycles of the moon, go the route of a permaculture garden or mix in some aspects of companion planting.
Then you can add in a pinch of crop rotation, toss in a raft of ducks for organic pest control or attract hoverflies and beneficial insects for good measure.
And don’t forget about the use of cover crops.
You won’t ever find the right way to do it all…
Yet, you have to take some action to keep damaging insects away.
If you feel like you’ve tried it all and nothing is working, trap crops may be the answer you’re looking for.
The job of trap crops, or sacrificial crops, is exactly what the name suggests. In essence, you plant another vegetable in anticipation of a predator, to keep your higher value crops safe.
Most garden pests have a preferred food.
Take flea beetles for instance. They adore eggplants, mustard, rocket, radishes, horseradish and more. It’s not always easy to know what they will like the most from season to season.
However, what a keen gardener does notice, is that whatever food comes first, is the pest’s first choice. The young tender seedlings of beans and of spicy greens are their dessert.
One can say the same thing about tomato hornworms. They will devour an entire tomato plant in the course of a day, well, almost. You might even fear that they will eat the ripe, juicy red tomatoes you’ve been saving for yourself.
Don’t despair, plant a trap crop.
Some organic farmers have long been aware of this technique, though the word hasn’t spread too quickly. Also, the use of trap crops is usually delegated to large farms, not backyard gardeners, so the advice is generally limited.
If you’re avoiding the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides in your garden, keep reading. Not only will your harvests be healthier, but nature will also be too.
And if you’ve already started rewilding your garden, know that bats, birds and beneficial insects will love you for your kindness to the environment.
In the case that you already know which insects have been a problem in your garden, you’re off to a great start. Now all you need to do is find the right seeds to sow – at the right time.
There are two main ways to use trap crops
1. Plant the same species as a trap crop
In a conventional way, you can plant the same crop as the one you’re trying to protect, only earlier than your main crop. As we’ve mentioned, the newest plants are eaten first.
This gives your garden time to let the first crop begin to grow and attract whatever it is that wants to feed on it. Then you can destroy it (some say with chemicals, yikes! – rather try a natural soap-based solution) or by burning or throwing those first crops in the trash with the insects on them.
Call it a decoy plant if you like, to keep insects off your main crop.
2. Plant a different species as a trap crop
Another strategy in trap cropping is to plant another, more attractive species to lure the baddies, or undesirables, in.
Depending on the pest(s), netting can be used to intercept the intruders. You can also remove the insect offenders by hand.
It’s also worth noting, that you don’t need to harvest anything from your trap crop.
With this mindset from the start, you won’t feel any loss of harvest. Only more abundance in the veggies you truly love.
The important thing to remember about trap crops is that you don’t want to kill everything that comes to dine in your garden.
What you do want, is to attract beneficial insects who can do the job better than you. Bringing in those insects that will even help to pollinate your garden.
Work together and give nature free reign, with a little bit of your planting input.
Choosing where to plant your crops can be time consuming.
I’d like to encourage you not to think about it too hard and over-plan your garden. Because sometimes you can’t avoid things not growing right. For some pests, it’s beneficial if plants are intercropped, for others, border planting of trap crops works better.
You’ll find the most comprehensive trap crop chart here.
Examples of Trap Crops
To get the gist of it, we all know that potatoes attract the potato beetle. Vicious little things. Plant tansy with your potatoes to keep them away.
Blue Hubbards can also be used as a trap crop for squash borers, cucumber beetles and squash bugs. This works best when planted around the edge/border of your garden to protect the interior plants.
Plant hot peppers with your sweet peppers to protect them from pepper maggots.
Sow beans and other legumes to control leafhoppers, spider mites and leaf beetles.
Plant collard greens at the edge of your garden to protect your prize-winning cabbages from cabbage worms and diamondback moths.
Nettles often attract a plethora of aphids early in spring. This is followed by beneficial insects such as lacewings and ladybugs.
You might need to sacrifice one crop to fruitfully enjoy another.
When it comes down to it, you might need to forgo the kale, to harvest large heads of long-storing cabbage.
As soon as you notice an invasion of the kale, it’s time to take elimination action. Again, in organic gardening, hand-picking works wonders. Yes, it takes time, though it is effective and non-harmful to the rest of the garden.
Depending on the damage, you could also choose to remove an entire crop at the peak of infestation. You could also remove a branch of infected leaves.
It also leaves you with the chance to try out an organic garlic spray.
If you choose to compost your inferior crops, be sure that your compost is far from the garden, so the insects don’t come back for more.
Trap cropping works in any size garden.
No matter if you are square foot gardening, growing vertically because of a small plot or have multiple acres of land, you can find a way to make trap crops work.
You can also integrate the method of trap cropping into your container and raised bed gardens. Heck, you could even use it in a greenhouse setting, trapping the insects outside the entrance and keeping your tomatoes safe inside.
How Soon Will I See Results From Trap Cropping?
Successful trap cropping in your garden depends on so many factors: insect population, weather and soil conditions, time of planting, etc.
It’s not a one-and-done thing to do in your garden.
If you do have an infestation, chances are good that it will take more than one year to get rid of the pesky insects. However, if you’ve done everything right, you should see results in the first season.
Besides trap cropping, you can also not plant a specific crop for a growing season, or two. This way, nature can restabilize while you wait and purchase those veggies you would like to grow from other farmers or local markets.
It takes time and commitment to utilizing organic pest control. Congratulations on taking up the challenge.