We all know the feeling of dread that arises as mid-summer creeps in. Just as we’re getting the hang of things and our gardens are thriving- here come the bugs. One day you walk out to the garden and low and behold- everything is decimated! Cabbage moths are flying around laying eggs, kale is covered in little aphids, bean beetles have taken out the leaves, leaving skeletons behind. This can be absolutely gut wrenching and while finding the patterns and overcoming them can take a little practice, we’re here to help.
Integrative Pest Management (IPM) is the name for what is generally a sustainable approach to pest management. It utilizes a non-specific combination of biological, cultural, mechanical, and chemical tools that ideally minimizes economic, health, and environmental risks. It’s an alternative to simply spraying large amounts of chemical pesticides that often hurt us and our gardens more than they help. While it may seem like a fancy term it really just means all of the combined efforts you put into making your garden work.
Biological Methods of Pest Control
It’s no secret that a garden operates best as an ecosystem. We talk about that a lot on our blog here because it’s true! So it’s not a surprise to know that some of the best long-term solutions to pest control involve bringing in some helpful friends (animals, as well as plants) to lend a hand.
Capturing and relocating animals is a big no-no for anyone who cares about the environment. The best way to bring in these helpful animals is to attract them by creating the perfect environment!
Every gardener, new or seasoned, has walked out into their garden one day to find their plants decimated. And it’s a heartbreaking discovery! There are quite a few reasons this could be but if you have an overnight disappearance, the culprit is likely rabbits. And rabbits can be somewhat difficult to get rid of! Your fence has to be just right, they get used to your scare tactics, and dig, and jump. I could keep going. But, like all members of an ecosystem; bunnies have their weaknesses.
Attracting an owl to your property can solve this problem permanently. Barn owls will feast on small animals such as bunnies, squirrels, moles and other small rodents. These meat eating predators don’t make their own nests but squat in suitable locations such as barn rafters. You can purchase or make barn owl boxes to offer them a home on your property!
Bats are our friends! And they eat a TON of bugs, some of them up to 1,000 every hour that they’re feeding. And they’re feeding at night so you know what they’re eating? Mosquitoes! What could get better than that? They also eat moths, wasps, beetles, and gnats, making gardening more pleasant for you and growing more pleasant for your plants. Like all animals, bats need food, water, and shelter. They like to live in tight, warm, dark places (such as your attic) and will find their way in there! Though they don’t destroy or chew through things to get inside- if there’s a way in, they’ll find it. But you can supply a non-attic home by hanging a bat box on your property. Your garden will provide ample food and as for a water source- if there isn’t a stream or pond nearby, a birdbath may do the trick.
Does it not bring joy to every person to watch a toad hop along the road or around the perimeter of one's garden? These amphibians have a voracious appetite feasting on beetles, slugs, crickets, flies and others. Read all about attracting toads to your yard.
Even though snakes are not typically considered the most comforting creature to walk by, for a gardener they should be! Garter snakes specifically are commonly found in North Carolina as well as most of North America. These snakes, harmless to people, eat all the pests you can’t stand. Garter snakes eat grasshoppers, slugs, grubs, and larger ones may even eat mice. While they also eat frogs, toads, earthworms, and other helpful critters, so goes the circle of life. Garter snakes hang out below the frostline in the winter, congregating in crevices to stay warm and then emerging in the spring. If you find one of these little guys in your garden (or maybe their shedded skin) let them be and thank the gardening gods!
Pollinators, Predators, Parasitizers
Beneficial insects are considered one of these three things- pollinators, predators, or parasitizers. These labels refer to the role they play in your garden ecosystem. Pollinators are the helpful insects and sometimes animals that spread pollen from plant to plant, ultimately providing us with fruits as well as seeds. Predators would feed on our unwelcomed garden guests. And parasitizers provide biological control of pests in the garden by utilizing the bodies of certain pests. Aphids also serve as the main food source for ladybug larvae.
Ladybugs, a garden predator, are a good sign in your garden. They feast, and I mean feast, on aphids and mites- the bugs that don’t chew but suck the life out of your plants. A single ladybug can eat up to 5,000 aphids over its lifetime. The great thing about ladybugs is if there are aphids they will come! If you have an aphid problem, you can purchase and release ladybugs into your garden to feast.
Orb Weavers and Wolf Spiders are the common, non-venomous, garden spider varieties. Though you may also find other spiders in your garden that are less human-friendly (Black Widows of Brown Recluse for example) the harmless varieties are more often out in the open. They are attracted to prey by movement so they tend to eat a lot of flea beetles or leaf hoppers.
You may not be particularly familiar with parasitic wasps, as they are very small and hard to see, but you are certainly familiar with their work. These wasps lay their eggs on pests, using their body as an environment for early life. Braconid wasps lay eggs on tomato hornworms. If you see this, let the caterpillar live so that the eggs can hatch and the hornworm will die shortly thereafter. Trichogramma wasps lay eggs inside other insect eggs including japanese beetles, mexican bean beetles, and squash bugs.
Cultural Methods of Pest Control
It’s been suggested that managing and preventing plant stress can help plants to better withstand damage caused by insects or diseases. Creating an environment where your plants can thrive can mean a reduction in destruction all around.
Interplanting or Companion Planting
Interplanting and companion planting can be helpful because pests that attack one plant will often attack other related plants. And so having all your kale in the same place means that all your kale will get attacked. Interplanting can interrupt the process by diluting or covering the odor of preferred species. Certain species or companion plantings can offer even more benefits. Marigolds, for example, are said to repel many insects altogether.
Crop rotation is often discussed in the context of large farms but it’s a great way to manage your pests and soil at home too! Planting similar, or the same crops, in the same place year after year can often increase pest problems as many pests overwinter or lay eggs in the soil. So they wake up or hatch in the spring and their food source is planted right in front of them! Many similar plants also use similar amounts or types of nutrients so by planting similar plants in the same spot over and over again you can deplete the nutrients, weakening future plantings and potentially putting them at risk for stress and therefore lowered resilience.
Mechanical Methods of Pest Control
This is a really useful method in small garden spaces or early in an infestation. You should inspect your plants regularly for eggs, larvae, or adults of relevant pests. Handpick these pests off of the plants, either squashing or dropping into a bucket of soapy water. This is a great tool for larger insects like Squash Bugs or Colorado Potato Beetles, though it may not be the best method of aphids, mites, or flea beetles.
Row cover can work really well as a barrier to protect young plants. Not only that but it can add some frost protection as well (depending on the thickness of the fabric). Row cover is used to literally cover your plants so that insects are excluded from landing on or eating them. It does have to be removed once plants are flowering so that they can be pollinated but that can give the plant plenty of time to mature and become strong and healthy.
Chemical Methods of Pest Control
Organic pesticides are generally considered those that come from natural sources, so they’re not chemical pesticides. While in some cases they can be harmful to beneficial insects, they are generally considered safe. It is important to not solely rely on pesticides and to integrate other practices into your gardening as well.
Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a bacteria that is used to kill caterpillars. It produces a toxin that, when ingested, destroys the midgut of an insect. Different bacterias target different insects. It stops the insects from eating more within two hours of ingestion, though it may take several days to actually kill the insect. Bt is not harmful to humans or animals and also does not harm most beneficial insects.
Neem oil has gained popularity in recent years as a safe and effective organic pesticide. It is helpful for dealing with specifically sucking pests such as aphids and mites. When applied correctly, it is not harmful to beneficial insects.
The best way to tackle pests in your garden is to combine as many different methods as you can manage. A wide variety of tools will help to guarantee your success. Check out our Pest Watch Guide for more details on specific problem pests!
Written by Hannah Gibbons