There’s no greater joy for a gardener than a plot full of perfect-looking flowers or vegetables. The problem is that many garden bugs 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 just by following these simple, natural and cost-effective tips for dealing with garden insect pests. I know they work because my family and I use them both at home and at our wholesale plant business.
Start with “clean” soil. Good soil can actually deter garden insect 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 garden insect pests 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, garden bugs 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 garden bugs that are traveling through your garden. Contact your local garden center or county Extension agent for help in identifying the good garden bugs versus the bad ones.
Use beneficial insects whenever possible. Insects like ladybugs can be invaluable in the fight against garden insect pests. They eat aphids, mites and the eggs and larvae of many destructive insects. Other beneficial garden bugs 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 garden bugs 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.
For additional help, contact your Extension agent (most likely listed in your phone book under the county government section, or click here to visit the Cooperative Extension System Offices website). Extension agents are a great source for free information.