10 Tips for A Pest-Free Garden—Naturally
You don't need lots of pesticides to have a great-looking garden.
By Steve Siegel, Ft. White, Florida
There's no greater joy for a gardener than a plot full of perfect-looking flowers or vegetables.
The problem is that many garden pests use our flower and vegetable beds as a salad bar. But instead of looking to pesticides for help, you can still have a beautiful garden (like the one at right) just by following these simple, natural and cost-effective tips.
I know they work because my family and I use them both at home and at our wholesale plant business. So here goes...
- Start with "clean" soil. Good soil can actually deter pests. But it takes time to prepare. Here's a method that works great for me:
First till in organic matter like compost when the growing season begins. This will keep your soil clean by adding natural elements and compounds that help keep pests away.
After tilling, cover your garden with black plastic for 6 months. The heat that builds up underneath it will kill most garden pests and their eggs, weeds, parasites and a host of other harmful microorganisms. After removing the plastic, lightly cultivate the soil. Now you're ready for planting.
- Buy disease- and pest-resistant seeds from a reputable dealer. It's easier to prevent diseases and pests than it is to get rid of them after they arrive in your garden.
When you look at seeds in a catalog, look for letters like V, F, N or T after the name of a seed; they indicate the problems to which the seed is most resistant. V and F stand for verticillium and fusarium, respectively-two diseases that affect tomatoes; N is for nematodes; and T is for tobacco mosaic virus, which causes leaves to wilt and yellow and damages the plant's roots.
- Selectively and aggressively thin out plants. This is essential because small, weak seedlings are more likely to become diseased. And they, in turn, may pass the problem on to healthy plants.
So be sure to prune away dead shoots and branches that restrict airflow. Plants need good air circulation to breath and stay healthy.
- Water plants in the early morning. Why? Well, plants primarily need water to help with photosynthesis, which occurs during the day. Also, if you water later in the day, the leaves will be damp during the cooler nighttime—an ideal condition for promoting fungus and other diseases.
When you do water, soak the roots rather than getting the foliage wet. Soaker or drip hoses are a good investment.
- Control weeds whenever possible. Weeds compete with your plants for valuable resources such as water, nutrients and light. And they often harbor insects and parasites, too. Be sure to pull weeds and their roots completely out of the ground.
- Keep your garden clean. Removing faded blooms, fallen leaves and weeds is important because decaying plant matter is a prime breeding ground for fungus, insects and diseases. Carry a small pail or bucket with you every time you enter your garden and use it to collect pulled weeds.
- Use insect traps regularly. Yellow "sticky" cards are available at most garden centers. When placed on the ground and in between the shoots or branches of plants, they'll catch many pests that are traveling through your garden.
Contact your local garden center or county Extension agent for help in identifying these pests.
- Use beneficial insects whenever possible. Insects like ladybugs can be invaluable in the fight against pests. They eat aphids, mites and the eggs and larvae of many destructive insects. Other beneficial insects include praying mantises, lacewings and parasitic wasps.
Most beneficial insects can be purchased from large horticultural supply companies. Your Extension agent can help determine the quantity you'll need for your garden. One important thing—don't use any chemicals for 10 days before releasing these insects.
- Practice crop rotation. If you grow the same crop in the same place each year, the specific pests that attack that crop will remain in the area, waiting for the next spring planting.
Rotating crops also helps keep vital soil nutrients from being depleted. For instance, plant legumes (which put nitrogen into the soil) where you last planted tomatoes, corn or squash (which deplete nitrogen in the soil).
- Pinch off dead or infested leaves as soon as you see them. This will stop them from contaminating the entire plant.
Well, that's it in a nutshell. If you'd like more details about these tips, contact your Extension agent (most likely listed in your phone book under the county government section). Extension agents are a great source for free information.
There are also many good books that explain these points in more detail. But even if you just follow these 10 tips, you'll be on your way to pest-free gardening. Go to it!