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Most gardeners face plant-muching pests in their vegetable garden from time to time, and usually they aren’t that big of a deal. But, sometimes pest numbers rise to an unacceptable level and the little buggers cause more than mere aesthetic damage. As gardeners become more and more aware of the potential dangers of exposure to synthetic chemical pesticides, many of us want to skip the sprays altogether and turn to other pest control methods instead. By far, the most useful technique for controlling garden pests is preventing them from nibbling on your plants in the first place. The good news is that preventing pests in your garden is easier than you think, if you employ the 5 very effective strategies I outline below.
Admittedly, when I graduated from college with a degree in horticulture, I was a chemical pesticide “junkie.” I used a broad assortment of synthetic pesticides to control pest insects in my own garden, as well as in the gardens of a few dozen clients. When a friend and fellow horticulturist started suffering the ill effects of acute pesticide poisoning, I decided to stop spraying synthetics and go organic. Yes, I still used organic pest control products, like horticultural oil and insecticidal soap, for several years after that, but then I stopped using those products, too. For the past eleven years, I haven’t sprayed anything in my garden to control pests – not even organic pesticides. I have a beautiful garden because I understand the role pests play in my landscape (they’re food for the good bugs!) and I employ measures to keep them in check before their damage gets out of hand. Here are my best tips for preventing pests in your garden.
Preventing pests in your garden: 5 strategies for success
- Encourage beneficial insects. While pollinators are great to have in the garden, the beneficial insects I’m talking about here are those that take a literal bite out of pest insects. Ladybugs, lacewings, minute pirate bugs, parasitic wasps, damsel bugs, and other beneficials naturally help keep pest numbers down by eating the bad guys for lunch or using them to house and feed their developing young. To attract these good bugs to the garden, you need to supply them with protien-rich pest insects to consume as prey, as well as carbohydrate-rich nectar. But, not just any flower will serve as a nectar source for beneficial insects. They need a special type of floral architecture from which to source nectar. Here is a list of some of the best plants for beneficial insects. The more pest-munching beneficials you have around, the less likely it is for pest numbers to get out of hand. It’s all about creating a good balance. If you want to know more about how to attract beneficial bugs to your garden, here’s an excellent guide.
- Choose your plants wisely. Some plants and plant varieties are more prone to pest issues than others. Preventing pests in your garden is sometimes as simple as choosing pest-resistant vegetables. For example, if squash bugs constantly plague your winter squash plants, ‘Butternut’ and ‘Royal Acorn’ are two of the most resistant varieties. Or, if Colorado potato beetles always try to defoliate your potato crop, plant ‘King Harry’ potato (a variety bred at Cornell University) which has very hairy leaves that the beetles won’t eat. Seek out pest- and disease-resistant varieties of other vegetables, too.
- Employ physical barriers. One of the most useful methods of preventing pests in your garden is to put a physical barrier between the plant and the insect. Cover pest-susceptible plants with floating row cover, a lightweight, spun-bound fabric that rests on top of the plants or on wire hoops. Make sure there’s plenty of slack in the cover and pin the sides to the ground to keep sneaky pests from crawling under the edges. I use row cover to keep imported cabbageworm caterpillars off my cabbage, broccoli, and kale. I also cover my young bean plants to prevent Mexican bean beetles, my young cucumber plants to keep cucumber beetles at bay, and my young squash plants to deter squash beetles and vine borers. Just remember to remove the row cover when the plants come into flower to allow access to pollinators.
- Utilize intercropping. Preventing pests in your garden can also be the result of increasing the diversity of your vegetable patch. By inter-planting different vegetable crops with each other – and with flowering herbs and annuals – pests may have a more difficult time locating their host plants. Rather than planting a single crop in a row or block, mix everything up to keep even small monocultures out of the garden. Though there’s much research still taking place regarding exactly how intercropping works, it appears that this technique “confuses” the pest insect. In order to locate and confirm that a particular plant is a suitable host, some pests may have to land on the plant a certain number of times. When crops are interplanted, the pest might land on a different plant species every time, making it harder for the bug to hone in on its dinner.
- Grow healthy plants. It may seem like a no-brainer, but in this horticulturist’s opinion, this is the most important method of preventing pests in your garden. Just like you and I, plants have an immune system (albeit one that’s quite different from our own), and when plants are healthy and un-stressed, they’re naturally less attractive to pests. Plus, healthy plants have a whole host of cool tricks for deterring pests through the use of their own chemical defense system (you can read more about that amazing stuff here). The healthier your plants are, the better able they are to fight off pests all on their own. Feed your plants by feeding your soil a healthy diet of organic matter and make sure they’re planted in conditions where they’ll thrive (sun plants in sun, shade plants in shade, etc.). Raising happy, healthy plants is one of the easiest steps toward preventing pests in your garden.