Gardening and integrated pest management

If you spot damage like this on your rose leaves, congratulate yourself. It means beneficial leafcutter bees find your landscape a good nesting site.

leafcutter-bee-damage-blogWhat’s bugging you in the garden? For me, it’s mosquitoes.

With such a rainy June, these pests are out in full force now and I really don’t like it. Fortunately, a few squirts of insect repellent takes care of the problem quickly.

This shouldn’t be the case with insect pests in the garden. Some gardeners I know reach for the insecticide the moment a pest appears, but others are like me and take a wait and see approach.

No matter what’s bugging you in the garden, there are many choices for waging war on insect pests. Even though I rarely resort to chemical warfare, I’m glad to have that in my arsenal. I just don’t automatically use it first.

Instead, I take a more diplomatic approach called integrated pest management (IPM). This step-by-step strategy is a measured response that let’s me pick my pest battles carefully.

What I like about IPM is its commonsense attitude that lets me choose the most environmentally-friendly weapon first. The goal is to make smarter biological, cultural and chemical choices to reduce pesty garden problems.

To help you in your pest control efforts, here are seven questions to as before taking any action:

How many insects do you consider a problem? Not every insect is a pest. In fact, out of the thousands of species of insects, only a few—about 10 percent are real pests.

Many of the remaining 90 percent are either beneficial or harmless. If insects are simply gnawing at the leaves, but leaving the broccoli alone, you might not need to take any action.

How healthy are your plants? The healthier the plants; the fewer the pests. If you want to grow healthy plants, use good cultural practices like selecting disease-resistant plant varieties, giving plants room to breathe and watering only when plants are thirsty. In the veggie garden, rotate crops annually and get rid of diseased plant materials quickly.

How often do you conduct inspection? Careful observation is one of the key IPM practices. Keeping an eye out in the garden will help gauge whether the insect is causing damage or is on your side. With regular inspection you can catch a pest problem early and decide on an appropriate control.

What’s the safest action you can take? When the number of pests have outweighed your patience, start with physical and mechanical controls first. Go after plants that are affected. Handpick insects, like tomato hornworms from plants, use sticky insect barriers or traps, or spray with a forceful stream of water.

What predators can help you with the dirty work? Beneficial insects can target specific insect pests and need to be encouraged in the garden. Lady beetles (ladybugs), lacewing larvae and spiders help control pest populations.

Planting a layered landscape with low-lying plants to flowering shrubs helps attract insects to the garden. The more insects in the landscape, the more insect predators. Resources, like Whitney Cranshaw’s Pests of the West, can help you tell friend from foe.

What biological controls can you use? Biological insecticides, like viruses, bacteria, fungi and nematodes, are living organisms that target certain pests. Beneficial nematodes are effective against grubs and cutworms. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil bacterium that helps control assorted caterpillars.

What chemical controls are safest for you to use? Before reaching for the chemical controls, try the least toxic first. For example, diatomaceous earth (DE) is a substance made from the remains of fossilized microorganisms.

The powdery substance is usually dusted around the base of plants to control slugs, snails, grubs and other insects. Other safe chemical controls include insecticidal soaps, horticultural oils and repellents, like Neem oil. Just make sure the control won’t harm beneficial insects, too.

Someone once told me there are natural, biological and mechanical controls for just about every insect problem. Please try these first before using chemical pesticides that kill on contact.

What natural insect pest remedies have worked in your garden? Please share them by commenting here.


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Such great info! It really helps to know what bugs are good and which bugs need dealing with. My nemeses is aphids. I trust and rely on lady bugs to help me and they are out in force in my garden as we speak!

I’ve heard mixed reports on earwigs. I see them on my daisy flowers. Are they eating aphids or are they harming my flowers?

Hi Michelle–Thanks for asking about earwigs. In Whitney Cranshaw’s book he writes that European earwigs feed on fruits, vegetables and flowers and also feed on insects (like aphids) and insect eggs. Even though earwigs may cause damage in the vegetable and flower garden, he thinks they are often blamed for injuries caused by other insects.

You can use mechanical controls by picking them off plants, mulching around plants to limit access or using a baited trap. CSU’s fact sheet, also written by Whitney, has good info:

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