Controlling pests in the garden without reaching for synthetic pesticides doesn’t have to be intimidating or difficult. It merely requires a little forethought. To simplify pest management, I use this easy-to-follow six-step approach to organic gardening pest control. Not only does it help you have a beautiful garden, but it also maintains a healthy balance between the “good” bugs and the “bad” ones.
Six-Step Approach to Organic Pest Control
This six-step approach begins with ways to avoid the pest in the first place and ends with wise, organic gardening solutions to more challenging issues. It’s important that each time you encounter a pest problem in your garden you proceed through these steps in order.
This allows you to gain a true understanding of the predicament and reduce the chances of it happening again. And, of course, it also ensures the greatest chance of success – even on the first try!
I love this six-step approach. It’s so successful because it works with nature, instead of against it. Plus, it’s easy. Once you’ve formally followed the steps a few times, the whole process becomes second nature.
Each time you encounter a garden pest, you’ll automatically proceed through each step and the solutions will become easier and easier to find… often without involving a spray bottle.
Step 1: Design the pest out of the garden
This is accomplished by choosing resistant varieties, properly spacing plants, and placing them in conditions where they thrive. You won’t have to battle the pest if the plant never gets it in the first place!
By positioning your plants appropriately in the garden (i.e. shade lovers in the shade, bog plants in low-lying areas, and succulents in drought-prone sections) they’ll have healthier immune systems and will be better equipped to handle any problems. Also, don’t crowd plants; it’s easier for a pest to hop from one plant to the next when plants are too close together.
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If you’re battling a particular pest, think about whether the host plant is really thriving in its current location. Azaleas are notorious for having issues with leaf-sucking lacebugs when they’re planted in full sun, but move the plant into the shade, and the lacebugs often disappear. It might simply be a matter of relocating a pest-prone plant, or replacing it with a hardier variety.
When you feel the plant is sited correctly and is otherwise thriving (except for that darned bug!) then move to step two.
Step 2: Examine the actions of yourself and other people in your garden
Take a good hard look at what you’re doing in the garden. Perhaps you may be the cause of the problem (gasp!).
Are you maintaining good cultural practices in the garden? Are you fertilizing properly and taking good care of your soil? Are you pruning correctly and using clean equipment? Sometimes it’s just a matter of tweaking our own routine.
Maybe you have slug problems because you’ve been watering at night instead of in the morning, or perhaps you applied a high-nitrogen fertilizer – this can cause a lot of tender, green growth which is extra tempting to pests.
Have your gardening habits changed? Often altering our own maintenance activities can alleviate a problem. If you can’t find any inappropriate action on your part, then proceed to the next step.
Step 3: Verify, thru thoughtful research, what the true problem is
Identify the insect pest that is causing the issue and learn about its lifecycle and habits. Use your resources – this is half the battle!
There is no place in responsible gardening for unstudied action; in other words, no spraying pesticides “just because it might help.” Doing so almost always causes way more harm than good, sending the natural balance of the garden off kilter and causing subsequent pest outbreaks.
To properly identify the pest that’s causing the problem you may have to trek into the garden at night, carefully examine the undersides of the plant’s foliage, take your bug in a baggie to a local nursery for an ID, contact your local Extension Service office, or get a magnifying glass.
By whatever means necessary, you need to correctly identify the culprit. Then, take the time to learn about it and find out when it’s most vulnerable.
Some garden pests are better controlled during their larval stage (corn earworm, Gypsy moth, squash vine borers, and cabbage worms), while others are susceptible as both larvae and adults (black vine weevil, flea beetles, and Japanese beetles).
There is no one be-all end-all solution; each pest responds differently to its environment and care should be taken to determine what treatment will be most effective.
Once you know who the perpetrator is, you can begin to look for potential solutions by proceeding on to step four.
Step 4: Determine if mechanical or physical controls will be effective
Many times a garden pest can be dealt with by using a little physical intervention. This can mean hand-picking or squishing insects, using a sharp stream of water to knock them off the foliage, employing a trap, or using a physical barrier to keep the pest off the plant.
In the vegetable patch, floating row covers are an extremely effective pest barrier. This light-weight fabric rests on top of the plants and prevents insects from landing to feed. It works great for deterring everything from Colorado potato beetles and cabbageworms, to asparagus beetles and spinach leaf miners.
How about hanging pheromone traps in the orchard? These lures attract adult coddling moths then trap them on their sticky surface.
There are many, many mechanical and physical controls that are easily employed to get rid of pernicious pests. But, if after an extensive search, you still can’t find one to solve your problem, move on to step five.
Step 5: Are there biological controls that would work for pest control?
Biological controls involve using other living organisms to combat pests. It’s a bug-eat-bug world out there, and there are tens of thousands of species of beneficial insects who are more than happy to dine on common garden pests.
These “good” bugs include ladybugs, lacewings, syrphid flies, praying mantids, ground beetles, parasitic wasps, and many others. Interplant your vegetable garden with plenty of flowering annuals and herbs to attract and support these pest-munching predators. Their effectiveness is astounding.
Other biological control methods include the use of naturally-occurring bacteria to combat specific pests. What’s great about these bacteria-based products is that, when used properly, they only affect the targeted pest, and most are very safe to use around beneficials.
Bacillus thuringinesis (Bt) is one common bacterial-based product used to combat caterpillars such as tent caterpillars, cabbageworms, gypsy moths, corn earworms, and others. Most of these biopesticides can be used on fruits and vegetables right up to the day of harvest. They are incredibly effective.
Beneficial nematodes are another great method of biological pest control. A few different species of these microscopic organisms target the grubs that feed on turf roots, including the larvae of Japanese and Oriental beetles.
They’re sprayed on the lawn twice each spring via a hose-end or backpack sprayer. They work great to keep grub numbers in check. Other species of beneficial nematodes are useful against stem borers, such as squash vine borers, peach tree borers, and iris borers.
There are biological solutions for a remarkable number of pests, but if you are unable to find one to remedy your problem, proceed to the final step.
Step 6: Apply an appropriate organic pest control product
Nine times out of ten you won’t have to utilize this step – especially if you’re careful to take your time and follow steps one through five.
In most cases, the problem can be solved well before getting to this point, but if nothing else has been effective, start searching for an appropriate organic pest control product. Make sure what you choose is suitable for the issue, and always, always, always follow label instructions.
But remember, even though these products are generally safer to use than conventional chemical sprays, they should still be your last option. Be smart, choose carefully, and respect them. Just because they’re natural, does not mean you should take exposure lightly.
Even More About Organic Pest Control
- Natural Pest Control Remedies For Your Garden
- Organic Garden Pest Control Supplies
- Using Eggshells As Organic Pest Control
- How To Use Neem Oil Insecticide On Plants
Do you follow any of these steps when fighting pest infestations in your garden? Leave a comment below and tell us about your experiences.
This was written by Jessica Walliser. Jessica is a horticulturist and the co-host of KDKA Radio’s The Organic Gardeners in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s the gardening columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and is the author of the Amazon best-sellers “Good Bug Bad Bug” and “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden“. Visit her online at jessicawalliser.com and savvygardening.com.