Updated 09/25/2017 with information on how to protect your garden from pests that overwinter in the soil.
Once you have gardened for a few years, you are bound to have a pest situation or two. Trust me, I know. I’ve put in my time trying to keep the garden pests to a minimum. However, my approach is never total elimination. Let me explain why.
Your First Defense Against Garden Pests
Let’s face it. Even if you wanted to (and who does?!), you couldn’t always be out in your garden combatting garden pests. Lucky for us, there are insects that, when present, can eliminate more garden pests than you and I together. Insects like ladybugs who devour aphids and other soft-bodied pests, and braconid wasps who lay eggs on a host which hatch and consume the host before emerging and moving into the next life cycle stage.
These insects are known as beneficial insects, and they benefit us gardeners. So, why not have them work for us? This article explains how to attract beneficial insects to your garden and what steps to take to ensure they will stick around, working in your defense.
Attracting beneficial insects is my first tip for combatting garden pests because it allows nature to…well, “do its thing” and that, in my opinion, is best for the entire ecosystem of the garden.
Backyard Garden Pest Intervention
In reality, there are times the number of garden pests in your growing space may be too high for comfort. After all, we are growing food, and we want to be able to eat it! For times when a pest situation seems to be escalating, these are my top two methods of intervention.
A Hard Blast of Water
Most garden pests, from insect egg to mature adult, can’t hold on to a plant strongly enough to survive a strong blast of water. In fact, a strong blast often times kills the eggs and can even kill the larvae. For larger, mature insects, the strong blast simply removes them.
I asked for this Bug Blaster for Christmas one year and have been using it ever since. Yes, you can just use your hose, but the difference is the efficiency of this tool. You can spray all sides of the plant quickly without putting too much water pressure in one area which I have found to be more challenging with my hose. I usually have to hold onto each leaf when I use my hose, as opposed to a quick spray with the Bug Blaster.
I recommend this method to remove eggs as well as flying insects that are harder to catch.
For crawling insects that keep coming back or major infestations when you want to know for sure that some of the pests have been removed, I recommend hand-picking them off. It’s the most effective method I have used for pest management of adult garden pests and even some larvae.
When the numbers of a particular garden pest are especially high or I see a group of the larvae crawling around prior to maturing and being able to fly, I take action.
I get a gallon-sized Ziploc bag, garden gloves and a hand shovel after I have spotted the pest infestation. Then, using the hand shovel or my own hands, I gather the insects and drop them into the Ziploc bag, sealing it in between gatherings. After I have gathered a sufficient amount, I place the sealed Ziploc bag into the trash can outside to ensure they can’t find their way back to the garden. And I don’t worry about getting every single one because I know the beneficial insects will keep working for me.
Planning Ahead in the Fall to Prevent Pests in the Spring
Did you know that many pests overwinter right in our gardens? That means they are ready to pounce as soon as spring arrives.
So, how can we lessen the chance of numerous pests overwintering in our soil and leaf litter?
In the fall, it’s super important to remove plant debris from the garden, including:
- rotting fruits and vegetables
- old plants (dead, damaged, diseased)
- fallen leaves
Many pests overwinter in leaf litter (they use it for shelter) and in the soil. Eliminating these areas will encourage pests to look elsewhere for their winter homes.
How should you dispose of diseased plant material and weeds?
According to The University of Illinois Extension Office, compost piles need to reach around 140°F to kill off disease and weed seeds. Since many homeowner’s compost piles won’t get that high (mine is usually around 100°F), it’s best to toss any diseased plants and weeds that have gone to seed into the trash or check with a local composting service. There is a greater chance that larger city piles reach high enough temperatures to kill off any issues.
Keep Your Supports and Trellises Clean
In addition to cleaning up plant debris, clean your garden supports and trellises as well. You can do this by simply leaving them outside during freezing temperatures to allow the cold to kill any diseases that may be hanging around.
The best way I know of to keep garden pests managed is to attract their predators, beneficial insects. When the numbers of garden pests start to climb to an uncomfortable level, I either blast them with a hard spray of water or hand-pick them off the plants. As I have mentioned before, I steer clear of all the “-cides” (fungicide, pesticide, insecticide, herbicide) because it causes harm to the beneficials as well as the garden pests, and I certainly don’t want that. In addition to these strategies, I make sure to clean up my growing space at the beginning and end of each season.