Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Lower South
May, 2010
Regional Report

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Learning to tolerate a minor amount of pest damage can minimize the need for spraying a garden crop.

Poison-Free Pest Control

When I envision my next wonderful garden planting, I imagine vegetables loaded with a bountiful harvest, bouquets of perfect flowers ready to be cut for an indoor vase and fruit crops in glorious abundance. I somehow manage to forget to include insect pests in my visions of gardening grandeur.

No worry, the pests are not offended in being excluded from my dreams of a perfect garden and faithfully show up to carry out their unwelcome role of potential spoiler each and every year. Now please understand that I am not a violent person. But I do take considerable pleasure at the sound of a grasshopper crunching beneath my feet or tossing a grub into the chicken tractor to be pecked to death by a delighted hen.

Despite my indifference to entomological suffering, when it comes to managing garden pests I am not inclined to subject the little invaders to a chemically induced early demise. I prefer to take a more natural approach whenever possible.

I garden because I love to be out in nature, playing and learning and enjoying the outdoors. Spending my weekends mixing up "stinky water" to blast around the place is not my idea of a day in the garden. So wherever I can avoid spraying, I do.

Here are some ways to enjoy a productive garden while minimizing or avoiding the need to use pesticides. The acronym P.E.S.T.S. works as a good guide.

Permit a few pests
A pest free garden is an unrealistic goal. In the scientific system of managing pests known as Integrated Pest Management, it is a given that there is a tolerable level of pest damage below which spraying is not warranted. Will you tolerate a hole in a spinach leaf? What about two holes? Three?

Just because an insect happens to be a pest, such as an aphid or caterpillar, doesn't necessarily warrant the need for control. By monitoring the landscape or garden on a regular basis we can make the decision as to when we need to step in and do something and when nature is taking care of things just fine.

Exclude pests
A screened porch allows you to enjoy the breeze without the bugs! We can screen out pests in the garden too. Rowcover fabric is a thin, lightweight material made of spunbonded polyester fabric. It is so lightweight that a square yard weighs just over a half ounce. Plants can lift it up as they grow. It allows light and water to pass through but screens out insects and other potential pests.

Place rowcover fabric over a planting of greens after seeding to block out hungry caterpillars and beetles. Cover a squash planting with rowcover to keep out squash bugs and vine borers, but remove it when the first female blooms open to allow pollinator insects in. By then the plants are far enough along to set and ripen a good crop of squash before borers can lay eggs on the plants, hatch and bore into the stems enough to cause vine death. Some gardeners with just a few plants will leave the cover on and lift it briefly every day or two to hand pollinate the blooms with an artist's paintbrush.

Learn what the eggs of pests look like. If you can identify a cluster of squash bug eggs or a cluster of stink bug eggs, for example, you can easily smash a couple of dozen would be pests with one squish of a thumb and forefinger; and eggs can't run away!

Prevent cutworms from playing Paul Bunyan with your newly set transplants by wrapping a 2" wide strip of newspaper around the base of the stem about 4 times prior to planting. Allow the paper collar to extend just below and about an inch and a half above the soil surface. Cutworms won't bother a stem wrapped in paper or aluminum foil either, for that matter.

Support beneficial insects
Most insects are either of no direct consequence to our plants or actually beneficial in that they eat the species that eat our plants. The vast majority of pest control is done for us, without us ever having to lift a spray wand. There are natural enemies of pests that are at work 24/7 keeping pest populations suppressed.

A poor little aphid is running for its life from the moment it hits the leaf. (Does my feigned concern sound sincere?) Lady beetle adults and larvae are chasing it down, as are lacewing larvae with giant "ice hook" type mouthparts. Parasitoid wasps are flying overhead, about to land and inject an egg to hatch and grow inside its body, eating it from the inside out! Syrphid fly larvae are laying eggs nearby that will hatch out into Jabba the Hut-type maggots who'll begin to grab aphids to suck the contents out of them!! I tell you I cannot imagine how an aphid ever survives or for that matter ever gets a wink of sleep!!!

The first step in enlisting these natural enemies in our gardening plans is to avoid killing them with broad spectrum insecticidal sprays. Keep in mind that just because a spray is organic does not mean that it can't harm any beneficial insects. And remember, when you destroy a beneficial insect you inherit its job.

Stay tuned for next time as we continue with comments on beneficial insects and finish our PESTS approach to poison free pest control.

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