Every day is about protecting trees—and plants and indeed the whole Earth—for Vanessa Dawson, founder and CEO of Arber, a natural pesticide and plant-care company.

Vanessa Dawson and Greyson in the Garden

Vanessa Dawson and her son Greyson in the garden. Photo courtesy of Arber.

Vanessa Dawson and her son Greyson in the garden

The following is excerpted from our newsletter, “Sunset 101: The Ultimate Guide to Raised Beds.” To find out more about Sunset’s newsletters, click here.

Sometimes, out of chaos comes stillness. During the pandemic, many of us found it in meditation, in nature, in loaf after loaf of sourdough bread. Some of us tried new things, and some of us rediscovered pastimes that had grounded us in the past. 

Faced with not just lockdown, but also moving to a new house and having a baby, Vanessa Dawson definitely needed some calm in her life in 2020. She found it in the garden, a place that she was familiar with having grown up in a family of green thumbs, but which she had gotten away from as she tried to live an apartment-based urban life for a time.

Dawson found that she loved and found comfort reconnecting with the earth. “I just really find it so calming and enjoyable getting my hands dirty,” she explains. But the rediscovery came with a jarring observation: So many of the fertilizers and pesticides promoted as being good for your plants are actually harsh and unnatural. “It was just so shocking that the products that still exist on the market to take care of your plants, which are like the most organic thing you have around you, are just chemical and toxic and horrible,” she says.

So she founded a Los Angeles-based garden-care product company, Arber, to fill that huge hole in the pest-control market. We spoke to Dawson about how to keep pests from taking over your garden, and asked her advice on avoiding other common raised-bed pitfalls, as well.

If I’m understanding right, Arber is all about natural pest control?

Yeah! Exactly. We use biologicals, which are a bio-pesticide so they’re a biological component, which was basically discovered from nature. It’s microbes, and bacteria, and plant extracts, and things that are all organic and naturally found or derived. But we don’t necessarily call ourselves “natural.” I think that word gets very greenwashed in a lot of industries, and we are a registered product that has gone through years of scientific discovery and toxicity data and registration. So it’s much more robust from an efficacy perspective, and much more robust from a safety perspective.

What has gone wrong when someone feels that harsh chemicals are the only thing that’s going to eradicate stuff?

Starting with bad inputs. Starting with a soil that doesn’t contain enough nutrients, a lack of compost, a lack of diversity of microbial content, just really not having that diversity of nutrition within your initial input is a huge one. 

And then also forgetting to amend with nutrients. Arber has a line of liquid compost, for instance. When you’re operating in a garden bed, or a contained area, it doesn’t have all of the natural components you’d get in a larger ecosystem so it’s important to continue to add nutrients to the flower bed. I think that’s a big one people forget about as they starting contained gardening.

And I think one of the huge ones, too, is not taking preventative action against diseases and pests. I think using preventative products is definitely a great way to approach that. So getting into a system of application of an organic and/or biological product that not only boosts the plant’s immunity so our bioprotectant, for instance, actually triggers the plant’s immune systems, so it builds up its defenses and it’s less susceptible to diseases and less susceptible to pests. And/or using a preventative control product, which is again, going to attack any unwanted fungus mold or mildew that shouldn’t be on the plant. Or insecticide, too, which will support a wider range of pest problems than gardeners can.

Don’t get frustrated if it doesn’t work out perfectly from the get-go. There’s always another growing season around the corner, and there’s something that grows at every time of the year.

Vanessa Dawson

And what about weeds? Do these products control weeds? Or is there just no remedy other than to yank them out?

I would say that one the reasons that containers beds are ideal, is you’re not going to get these issues. You’re kind of working with a blank slate of good soil without the seeds or other natural things that befall it. But the natural rhythm of weeding is actually quite enjoyable. That is literally probably the best way to solve for it. There are some organic products on the market but they aren’t all that efficacious. I definitely suggest that for raised-bed gardens you manually take those weeds out.

Is irrigation something you can go wrong with if you don’t quite know what you’re doing?

There are different forms. You can use sprinklers or you can drip which is great if you’re in an environment where you are more susceptible to leaf diseases, because often water can build up on a leaf and cause fungus and mildew. Raised beds are already going to have really great drainage. It’s hard to overwater in a raised bed, which is really great, so having an irrigation system is a little bit more of an advanced technique, and a little bit more complex to set up. 

I wonder if you recommend, just to keep it simple, that new gardeners start by watering by hand, or should they go ahead and put in that drip system first?

I would definitely start with hand-watering to begin with. I think that irrigation can get a little more complex and expensive. It’s definitely an option, but I think hand-watering the raised bed is a good way to start.

What kinds of mistakes do you find first-time gardeners making a lot that you’ve got to fix, with raised beds? Are there particular misconceptions, or wrong paths that we go down?

Starting with the right inputs is really critical, so start with the good organic soil with the compost. Using preventative disease and pest control products, similar to Arber biologicals. You really can’t overuse them, so you want to start early in the season with preventative products, because once pests build up aggressively it’s really much harder to manage them, so starting in a preventative fashion is really key. 

I think over-planting is a big one that beginner gardeners often do. If you’re planting, it’s shocking, but one little seed produces a massive plant, so just making sure that you are using a method for how much space each plant needs to grow, both depth and width above ground in order for it get the best yield, or the best foliage. There’s a really great method called the square-foot gardening method, which is a fun way to start for a beginner so you don’t overplant an area.

Vanessa Dawson and son Greyson digging in the garden

Photo courtesy of Arber

Do you have a favorite garden tool?

That’s a good one. Honestly, my spray bottle. I’m so preventative in fashion, I think just a good spray bottle for spritzing or spraying or continuing to apply my disease and pest control products. A good pair of gardening gloves is always, always a win. 

What is one of your favorite things to grow?

I get a lot of enjoyment out of vegetable gardening.  I think it’s just really fun to be able to plant and harvest. It really depends on where I am in the landscape. Hydrangeas have always been a favorite of mine. They just fill a space beautifully and they flower often. 

I wonder if you have any advice for people to set their expectations and attitudes when they’re thinking about starting a garden. 

I love the idea of starting with a raised bed, because you’re starting with a really controlled environment and I think one of the biggest things with gardeners is they start with bad inputs. So they set these really high expectations and then they don’t start with the best ingredients and then they blame themselves. So don’t blame yourself. Start with something really small in a controlled environment and then just the act of tending to your plants and getting your hands dirty is part of the enjoyment. Don’t get frustrated if it doesn’t work out perfectly from the get-go. There’s always another growing season around the corner, and there’s something that grows at every time of the year. You really can really continue learning year-round with it.

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