Gardening is an excellent way to produce your own food and enjoy your backyard. You’ll find out quickly that you aren’t the only one that enjoys all of your hard work. One of the most common complaints that gardeners have about their garden is dealing with pests. Pests are insects that cause harm to your plants. Keep reading to see how you can keep them out of your garden.
What Are Pests?
Pests are harmful insects. It’s important to recognize that not all bugs that get on your plants are pests. In fact, many bugs are actually beneficial (we call these beneficial insects). You might think that a ladybug is up to no good on your tomato plants, but that’s one of your best friends in the garden. Ladybugs are predatory insects that eat pests like aphids.
Many insects can be pests. Aphids, slugs, squash beetles, tomato hornworms, and armyworms are all common examples of insects that will spend their days eating your vegetable plants if you’ll let them. Insects in different stages of their life cycle may not be pests, depending on the stage. For example, cabbage moths are pollinators that are good to have around. However, these same moths will lay eggs on your cool season crops that will hatch and eat your crop.
Spend time learning what insects are in your garden. Become familiar with the beneficial insects and the pests. You’ll want to keep bad bugs out of your garden, but you’ll want to keep the beneficial insects around.
Steps to a Pest-Free Garden
When you see a pest, you shouldn’t automatically reach for the pest spray. Some chemicals are over-used and contain harmful compounds that can cause harm to you. When you spray these chemicals on your vegetable plants, they’re getting on the food that you’ll be eating. Pesticides should be a last resort in the garden. Instead, you’ll want to rely on what’s called integrated pest management, or IPM.
Integrated pest management can be thought of as a ladder. You start on the bottom rung and work your way up as needed. The bottom rung is the least harmful form of pest control, while the top rung includes control with pesticides.
The first step to a pest-free garden is to use beneficial insects and companion plants. Remember, not all insects are bad. It’s possible to attract beneficial insects that will help you take care of any pest insects that come around. There are a few ways that you can attract beneficial insects. You can set up insect houses around your garden. You’ve likely seen these in online garden centers. They look like a strange bird house with lots of holes and tubes for insects to hide out in. Ladybugs and beneficial insects love these homes. Another way to attract beneficials is to put plants other than vegetables into the garden. Many herbs and flowers can work to attract good bugs to your garden.
Companion plants are helpful for keeping pests away. Common companion plants include herbs like mint, rosemary, lemon balm, and garlic along with flowering plants like nasturtiums, marigolds, and bee balm. These plants are both pretty and functional. Some of these plants work by attracting beneficials, others work by emitting scents that confuse pests. Marigolds release a scent that can help mask vegetable plants. Nasturtiums will attract many good insects that can help keep pests away.
If companion plants and beneficial insects aren’t enough, you can use physical barriers. Some pests will crawl their way to your plants. Slugs, caterpillars and other soft-bodied insects may make their way to your plants across the top of the soil. You can use a physical barrier to keep them off of your plants. A great physical barrier that is also organic and natural is diatomaceous earth. Diatomaceous earth is a white powdery substance that is made from fossilized remains of microscopic creatures called diatoms. It’s safe for humans and pets, but it can cut up the underside of soft-bodied insects as they crawl across it.
When you see a pest on your plant, remove it by hand. If you’re not fond of touching insects, you can wear gloves. It’s a good idea to carry a bucket filled with soapy water when you go out to the garden. Any bad bugs that you see can be dropped into the bucket of soapy water. Physically removing the bugs will help to break the life cycle, which is important for keeping your number of pests down. If you notice eggs on the leaves of your plants, you can remove those easily with a strip of duct tape. Use the duct tape to remove the eggs from your plants, fold the tape over to conceal the eggs, then crush the eggs with your fingers between the two sides of tape.
Not all insects are easily deterred with physical barriers, handpicking, beneficial insects, and companion plants. If you find yourself dealing with a tough pest, the next step is to try natural pest control chemicals. There are many organic pest controls that are safe. These differ from synthetic pesticides in a few ways. Natural options are derived from plants and natural sources. Natural pesticides are usually effective on a certain group of insects, not all insects. This is helpful because you don’t want to kill any beneficial insects that are around. You just want to get rid of the bad bugs.
Neem oil is a commonly used natural pesticide. It’s effective against many pests and won’t harm your plants. If you’re having issues with slugs and snails, you might want to try out iron phosphate. Iron phosphate tends to hold up better to rain than diatomaceous earth, so you won’t have to reapply it as often. Insecticidal soaps are another great option to try.
Once you’ve tried those natural pesticides, but you’re still having issues, you can try some more intense methods of natural pest control. These options are highly effective but they can be overused, creating resistance. That means pests will become accustomed to them and they won’t affect pest populations any more, creating more difficult pests to get rid of. Bt is a great option. Bt stands for Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt is a microbe that lives in the soil. It’s toxic to many soft-bodied insects, but it’s not harmful to people or animals. However, it can cause harm to beneficial insects as well, so it’s best to use it as a last resort.
A similar treatment to Bt is milky spore (in fact, the two are actually related). Milky spore is a permanent treatment for tough insects like Japanese beetles. You can apply milky spore to your garden soil and lawn. It will cause grubs in the soil to die, which is great if you have harmful grubs like those of the Japanese beetle.
Your last resort should be harsh, synthetic chemicals. These should be used only in serious, emergency situations. If you’ve exhausted all other means, then you can use them as directed. When using a synthetic pesticide, keep in mind that it will kill all insects that come into contact with it, including the good guys.
Honeybees, pollinators, ladybugs, and other beneficial insects will also be destroyed by these chemicals. Since all of the insects will be destroyed, it leaves behind an ecological hole around your garden. Nature doesn’t like empty holes, so insects will quickly return to your garden. Unfortunately, the insects that will return first are usually the pests, not the beneficial insects. That can lead to an endless cycle of relying on synthetic pesticides. This coupled with the fact that overuse of pesticides can lead to resistant insects and health risks means that these should be used as a last resort only.
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