If you wanted to know more about ecological farming and gardening – would visiting a hydroponics farm be a priority?

Growing vegetables in plastic trays without soil, and drip feeding them liquid fertiliser, seems a world away from the how we envisage working with Nature.

So, I was a little sceptical when a friend insisted on taking me to visit Graham and Fiona Grant’s hydroponics farm.

Wardell Hydroponics produces Asian greens, fancy lettuce, and kale for one of the major Australian supermarket chains.

Graham and Fiona took over the business a few years ago and struggled to grow greens without the leaves getting decimated by plagues of insects. Like the people they bought the business from, they fought back with broad action chemical pest controls in their production sheds. Killing everything.

It was costing them a fortune. Even spraying 3 to 4 times a week the pest numbers just bounced back There were no predators or parasites to control their populations.

Now Graham and Fiona do things differently

They have cut out their use of synthetic pest controls by buying beneficial insects. Eggs of the predators and parasites of the pests doing most of the damage. Using commercial organic sprays as an emergency back-up instead of their first response.

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This is a common approach. There are companies specializing in supplying these insects.

“It’s not ideal though”, Fiona said. “We’re still reliant on buying ‘pest controls’. We want to do things differently. We want to solve the problem for the long term, rather than having to regularly buy-in stuff.”

When I visited their farm in July 2017, they were experimenting with using ecological techniques.

Getting to the root of the problem

Graham and Fiona are growing plants around their production sheds to provide food and habitat for the beneficial insects. “That way the insects can complete their life cycle on our farm and resupply their own populations, rather than us buying them in,” Graham said.

It’s a great way to maintain resident populations of ‘beneficials insects’. Plus they are there on site, ready to breed rapidly in response to pest outbreaks.

We’re doing a similar thing at the Learning from Nature demonstration site at Hill Top Farm. We’re planting shrubs and small trees in our orchard for beneficial insects. Selecting varieties that flower for long periods of time – providing tasty supplies of pollen and nectar for our beneficials.

Graham and Fiona are using another interesting ecological approach.

They are looking at the needs of their main insect pests – to find alternative ways to control numbers and reduce damage.

One solution they have come up with is to plant sacrificial crops – plant species their pests prefer to eat, in every 7 or so rows. For their pest species they find that Land Cress, Kang Gong and Greek Basil work.

“Now we get more sellable produce – plants are bigger with less damage to the outer leaves”.

Fantastic result!

And a great example showing how ecological approaches can be used in all sorts of production systems.

Are you using other ecological tools to reduce insect damage? It would be great to hear what you are doing. Please leave a comment below.

Lead illustration © Jamie Brown, 18th Apr 2014 Rural Weekly.  Other picture – Wardell Hydroponic