Tom Ingram Ask a master gardener
“I struggle to find a balanced approach to dealing with pests in my garden. I don’t want to kill them all, but I don’t want them to destroy my garden either. Any suggestions?” – SC
Integrated Pest Management is an environmentally conscious approach to controlling garden pests through a multi-practice strategy. By using IPM, we work to eliminate the pest problem through good management rather than just looking for the next chemical solution. Yes, there are products that can quickly solve most insect problems, but there are always downsides. IPM is a strategy that helps us minimize the downside as much as possible while encouraging and supporting our insect neighbors.
First, let’s define “pest”. A pest is a living organism that can be harmful to people, our food, or our homes. If these creatures don’t come into our business, so to speak, we don’t experience them as pests – they are just fellow inhabitants of our planet living their lives. When they start eating our broccoli, tomatoes, etc., they enter pest status.
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Integrated Pest Management consists of four practices: cultural controls, biological controls, mechanical and physical controls, and responsible chemical control as the last (and hopefully least) practice.
In this article and the next, we will discuss these in more detail. So, let’s go.
The best way to minimize pest problems in your garden is to properly manage the plants and conditions in your garden. If you’ve had trouble with a specific disease or diseases in your garden, start by looking for disease-resistant plants. Seed packs carry a lot of information, and there are often options that have some amount of disease resistance bred in. This is not achieved through genetic modification, but through careful crossing to create a stronger, more resilient strain. For example, you can find tomato seeds resistant to fusarium wilt, tomato mosaic virus, early blight and others. So if you have had problems with these diseases in your garden, start with plants that are resistant to these diseases.
Next, do your best to create an environment that encourages healthy plants. To start, most vegetable and flowering plants need 8-10 hours of sun per day. If your plants don’t get enough sun, they become weaker and more susceptible to disease.
Another aspect of culture control is maintaining a healthy growing environment. That means you can’t “hands off” your garden. Personally, I like to water my plants by hand. This is a great way to keep an eye on them as I’m outside several times a week. If you are in your garden and notice a disease problem, cut off those diseased leaves and discard them. This helps reduce the problem rather than allowing it to persist and spread. Be sure to clean your secateurs with a 10% bleach solution afterwards to prevent your secateurs from becoming a vector of the disease. Also watch out for problem insects. If caught early, physically removing the bugs is a good option.
Crop rotation is another way to minimize plant diseases. I know we all have our favorite vegetable garden layouts, but when we plant the same plants in the same spot every year, we are unknowingly encouraging a pathogen population to grow by giving them what they need to thrive. Crop rotation discourages this build-up and helps minimize problems before they start.
But to rotate effectively, you need to learn about vegetable plant families. For example, if you grow tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes, you might think you’re properly rotating your plants by changing their locations in your garden. But tomatoes, peppers and potatoes all belong to the same cultural family and are therefore subject to many of the same diseases. Visit our website www.tulsamastergardeners.org for information on plant families. Just go to the lawn and garden help section and click on vegetables.
A final item in the culture control category is mulch. Yes, we’re talking mulch again here. But a good mulch layer forms a barrier between some of the soil borne diseases and our plants. If the pathogen can’t squirt out of the soil onto your plants’ leaves, you’ve come a long way in minimizing disease in your garden.
Biological control is interesting because it consists of using good bugs to fight bad bugs. As an example, let’s talk about aphids. Aphids can send shivers down the spines of gardeners because they reproduce like crazy and can literally suck the life out of your plants. An IPM practice to minimize aphid damage may involve ladybugs (aka ladybugs). Although ladybugs look cute and sweet, they can devour up to 50 aphids a day. You can buy a container of ladybugs at many garden centers, take them home, release them near the aphids, and let nature do the work. The downside is that once the aphids’ food supply is eliminated, the ladybugs set off in search of food. But this is still a very environmentally friendly way to approach aphid control.
Another aspect of biological control is likely to require a shift in thinking from “all insects are bad and need to be eliminated” to “all insects have a purpose”. For example: wasps. Many wasps feed on the insects that we do not want in our garden. So at the first sign of a wasp nest, remember that these insects could help you control the insects you don’t want in your yard. Encouraging birds by adding a bird feeder is another great idea as birds love to feed on caterpillars.
IPM has more to offer than can be covered here today. So check back next week and we’ll cover two more strategies in your integrated pest management toolbox. See you in the garden!
You can get answers to all of your gardening questions by calling the Tulsa Master Gardeners Help Line at 918-746-3701, stopping by our Diagnostic Center at 4116 E. 15th St., or emailing us at email@example.com .