You’ve worked hard getting that garden planted and tending it with care, but inevitably nature takes its course and the bugs find those veggies. Is it any surprise they’d want to eat the delicious fruits of your labors? You can’t blame them, after all. But you can prevent pest damage and control problems.
Pest control begins with prevention. Pests are less likely to attack a healthy, thriving plant and diseased or deficient plants are most susceptible. To keep ahead of pests, start by building healthy soil, providing just enough water, and making sure your plants have the nutrients and organic material they need. Companion planting and crop rotation are great ways to prevent problems by using diversity and change in your favor. Plants like marigolds and calendula are said to have pest deterrent properties, and pungent herbs such as cilantro, basil, garlic, and oregano can also repel pests, so interplant them in your vegetable beds. Companion planting also adds variety, color, and contrast to the garden. Think of the chemical-dependent agricultural practice of monocropping, and try to do the opposite.
Problems with pests can often be averted or avoided simply by being observant. Take time to explore your garden and plants, keeping a close eye especially on plants that appear wilted or have holes and bite marks in the leaves. Also look for the tell-tale sign of a slimy trail left by slugs and snails. Observing your plants can help you decide what pests you may have and how best to control them.
You can pick off pests such as catapillars and slugs as you find them. If you notice a lot of slugs and snails, you can try baiting them with beer traps. Introducing beneficial insects that eat the problem pests is a great way to restore balance and contain pest attacks. Ladybugs are a favorite beneficial because they eat the aphids that suck the life out of plants, which is why it’s said that finding them in the garden is a sign of good luck. You can buy ladybugs at your local garden store if you have an aphid infestation and release them in the garden shortly after it’s been watered.
If prevention, hand-picking, baiting, or introducing beneficial insects fails to control your pest problem, only as a last resort would I recommend spraying. Using a natural incesticide may be much safer than using a chemical one, but it can kill all bugs, including the ones you want to keep in the garden. Neem oil is something every organic gardener will want in their arsenal, as it can repel and control many pests as well as fungal diseases and powdery mildew. You can make a spray from neem oil and dish soap to spray on the leaves of plants up to the day of harvest. Spraying strongly scented and spicy oils such as those from garlic, hot peppers, and onions can also keep the pests away, especially for pests that eat the foliage of plants. You Grow Girl has some handy organic pesticide recipes.
For larger pests such as rodents and birds, often the best prevention is keeping dead and rotting fruit picked up and harvesting often. A sturdy fence is a must for keeping the deer away. I cover my strawberry and blueberry patches with bird netting. Bamboo stakes are placed around the beds, then topped with cups or jars so the stakes don’t poke through the netting that is thrown over the top. Netting can be staked in place with garden staples, and is easy to move for harvesting. Moles and gophers can be quite destructive, and while there’s all kinds of traps available, I can’t bring myself to kill the critters. What has worked very well in my garden is just letting the critters know that there are predators around. I let my dogs and cat into the garden with me while I work, all it takes is a little training so they learn not to step in the beds. If you don’t live with animal companions, you can try borrowing a friend’s pet once in a while, or seek out pet fur that you can scatter around so their scent is present.
Another tried and true gardening practice that helps minimize pest damage is simply planting more than you can use. With extra plants, you’ll know you will have plenty and can share the harvest if pests happen to find a plant or two. Scattering plantings around and intermixing different types of plants is a good habit to get into. If you do end up with more food than you know what to do with, you can always donate it to the local food bank, freeze, dehydrate, and can it for later, or just share with friends and neighbors. Too much garden-fresh produce is a lovely problem to have!
Photo: Aren’t I lucky? A ladybug graces my fennel plants, contrasting nicely with the feathery foliage.