“Oh my gosh! What the heck is eating my plants?!”
Yeah, if you’re a gardener, you’ve most likely uttered that phrase at least once in your life. It’s going to happen. I mean, you’re growing delicious food — why wouldn’t they want a bite or two?
But when you find that something has been sampling your homegrown goodness, how do you prevent it? There are a number of ways to deal with pests, and integrated pest management for home gardeners is the best solution.
What is Integrated Pest Management?
The Environmental Protection Agency defines Integrated Pest Management like this:
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an effective and environmentally sensitive approach to pest management that relies on a combination of common-sense practices. IPM programs use current, comprehensive information on the life cycles of pests and their interaction with the environment. This information, in combination with available pest control methods, is used to manage pest damage by the most economical means, and with the least possible hazard to people, property, and the environment.
The thing is, Integrated Pest Management is generally targeted toward controlling pests inside your home and in your lawn. We’re about to take that methodology and figure out how to make it work in our home garden.
How Can Integrated Pest Control Help My Home Garden?
Using Integrated Pest Management strategies in your home garden could greatly reduce the number of pests that plague your plants each year. It isn’t a quick-fix by any means, but it can be a long-term solution.
I’m a huge advocate for organic gardening, which means I only want to use natural, non-toxic materials in my garden. Chemical pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are harmful to humans, pets and farm animals — why do I want to spray or spread them on and around the food I plan to feed my family?
Another way some large-scale farmers have been controlling pests is via Genetically Modified Organisms. GMO crops are specifically bred to be more resistant to insects and other detrimental pests, but again, at what cost to human health? You can buy GMO seeds and have a huge production during the growing season, but I would rather ensure a natural crop — even if it is a slightly smaller harvest.
There are other ways to control the pests in your garden without resorting to short-cuts that may eventually (or immediately) cause poor health in your family. My family has a few members with lowered immune systems, so they are more easily influenced by the harmful nature of chemicals. Therefore, natural solutions are always better options for us.
What Types of Integrated Pest Management Strategies Should I Use?
If your goal is to find out the best recipes for organic pest sprays and just use them more and more, you may have missed the point.
While you may want to start with safe, homemade, organic pest sprays, the end goal is to not need them at all by way of integrated pest management.
We’re not looking to be as aggressive year after year with the same strategies, we’re trying to control and maintain low levels of pests. That said, the first place you should start would be your soil.
Build Healthy Soil
Building healthy soil will help your plants defend themselves. Plants — like animals — have an immune system. Poor soil will only make your plants’ immune systems be poor. Rich, healthy soil will cause your plant to build tolerances to insects, diseases, and even weed invasion.
Begin building healthy soil with layers of rich compost. Once your initial garden bed is built with compost, regular addition of compost will help maintain a level of organic matter that will stimulate beneficial soil microbes and other helpful organisms. Your soil will become a breeding ground for microbes that will improve plant health by increasing the availability of the nutrients in the soil itself.
Nutrient rich soil will also help to reduce (and possibly prevent) pathogens in the soil that will infect your plants with diseases from the root up. By stimulating your plants’ immune system, their natural defenses against insect pests and diseases grow stronger each year.
Use Mulch Around Your Plants
Cedar and cypress bark mulch help repel insects due to the natural oils found in their wood. Cedar chips have been known to repel and inhibit termites, cockroaches, cloth-eating moths, carpet beetles and even some ants.
Mulch of any kind can discourage insects such as cucumber beetles from laying eggs in the soil while still maintaining a beneficial colony of microbes in the soil itself. This is not only good for the plants by keeping herbivorous insects off them, but it also helps build that strong soil, which will build stronger plants.
Remove Weak Plants from the Garden
Insects are animals of opportunity. If they find a weakened plant, they’re more likely to make a meal off of it than one that is strong and healthy. When you find a weak plant — weak for whatever reason — remove it from the garden.
Physical Pest Deterrants
When talking about your home garden, you typically think of insects and slugs when you hear the word “pests”. However, “pests” can also mean deer, rabbits, squirrels, birds and other animals that will eat your plants.
The first line of defense for your garden would be a fence. Whether you build your own privacy fence or surround your garden area itself with light duty fence posts and chicken wire, you definitely need some form of barrier.
If you have burrowing pests like moles and groundhogs, you may even need to lay a layer of chicken wire a foot or two under your garden’s soil. In fact, you’d need to excavate the entire garden bed area, line the whole thing (bottom and sides) with some form of wire mesh, and then replace all the soil (mixed with compost, of course). This is where it may be helpful to build raised beds — it’s easier to deter burrowers in raised beds.
While your plants are young, row covers will help deter birds and other small animals from eating up your seedlings.
We’ve all seen the quintessential scarecrow from time to time. To be quite honest, sometimes they work, and sometimes they don’t… but I’d rather have one that doesn’t work than not have one that might. The same can be said for other “physical” deterrents — physical items in or around the garden that ward-off certain animals.
In fact, they have even come out with motion activated “scarecrow” sprinklers! When you turn them on and set them, they’ll spray a blast of water when the motion trigger it tripped. What an awesome idea — natural pest deterrent and garden waterer all in one!
My dad used to use aluminum pie tins tied to a stake or bamboo pole to help keep his garden safe. He’d put them on the corners and also have a couple in the middle of the garden. The theory is that when the breeze blows, they rattle around and make noise that scares away animals. Does it work? Well, our neighbor had problems with deer and raccoons when my dad didn’t. I believe it did.
Sure, these will have to be done every year, but some things are worth doing every year, right?
Utilize Beneficial Insects
Insects that eat plants often get eaten by carnivorous and parasitic insects. It’s part of the circle of life, and we can take advantage of that knowledge by attracting those beneficial insects to our garden. Letting them do their natural job will reduce the time we have to spend doing it.
Ladybugs love pests like aphids and other soft-bodied insects. In fact, they have even been known to make a meal of a slug. Hover fly larvae will eat a ton of aphids, and the lacewing larvae will make meals of all kinds of bugs including moth eggs, mites and caterpillars.
While most beetles (like Japanese beetles) are harmful to plants, rove beetles, soldier beetles and other species of ground beetles are considered beneficial beetles. They eat decomposing organic material (which will help your compost), as well as a variety of garden pests including slugs, snails, caterpillars, cutworms, aphids, mites, nematodes, and grasshopper eggs and even other beetles!
Planting things like dill, yarrow, white clover and wild carrot will attract many of the beneficial bugs to your garden. You can either plant them as companion plants (by commingling them with your other garden plants), or plant them as edging around your garden.
Commingling your plants (planting more than one type of plant in the same general area) will help deter pests. Multiple plants of differing types will confuse not only bugs, but also animals like deer, rabbits, squirrels and raccoons.
Just like with any other pest, you have to determine what is plaguing your garden, and then determine the best route to deal with that threat. Different animals like different kinds of plants, and are deterred by different types of plants, as well.
For example, deer — much like humans — “eat” with their nose first. If something has an overly aromatic scent, it will turn them off to that particular area. Therefore, plants like sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, and lavender has been known to cause deer to leave that particular area alone.
Raccoons have sensitive feet, so plants that have fuzzy stems — like squash and cucumbers — will make raccoons think twice before stepping on them. They’re also sensitive to spicy veggies like chile peppers, so commingling those plants with the others will help keep raccoons at bay.
How do you manage pests in your home garden?
I’m still learning new tricks every year to help grow my integrated pest management skills. I want to know what you do to help deter pests in your home garden.