Organic Pest Control Done Right

Caterpillar on leaf

Gardening is all fun and games until some sort of nasty pest comes along to ruin things, but you don’t have to run out to the garden with chemicals to keep them at bay. Organic pest control methods are gaining ground with home gardeners and professionals alike, and the results can be incredible. Not only do organic methods keep native pollinators and honey bees alive, they can result in significantly healthier, cheaper plants.

Manipulating the landscaping

I know there are endless numbers of old wives’ tales that offer weird advice for keeping pests at bay, but that’s not what we mean when we’re talking about organic pest control. In fact, the most commonly used methods of organic pest control have been studied in great detail and are used in commercial nurseries and farms. Although it may seem simple, one of the easiest things you can do to control pests without dangerous chemicals is to manipulate your garden to create ideal growing conditions for each and every plant.

Spacing and pruning are vital to keeping pests at bay, since it’s easier to see the earliest signs of pests on well-spaced, tidily pruned plants. Get your vines and leggy bushes off the ground with trellises or cage supports and provide just enough mulch to keep weeds at bay, but not so much that you attract snails, slugs and insects.Plants should be spaced far enough apart that they can grow up and out without growing into each other, air circulation is important to making your garden inhospitable to many kinds of pests.

Spray when you must

Sometimes, bugs get on top of our plants before we realize it and gardeners are forced to do something to save them. A lot of people panic and reach for toxic chemicals, but in most cases they aren’t necessary—some of the most common plant pests can be destroyed with jets of water from the garden hose. If you have aphids, whiteflies, mealybugs or other sap-feeding plant bugs, daily jets of water directed at the colonies will disperse small to medium pest loads by knocking members to the ground, starving them. Make sure you spray early in the day so mold colonies can’t take hold.

Tougher, slow-moving bugs like scale insects are easily dispatched with insecticidal soaps or neem oil. Both of these chemicals are safe for humans, but can cause phytotoxic reactions in plants, resulting in sunburn and dried tissues in sensitive varieties, so make sure your plants are well-watered and you’ve tested a small spot before application. Insecticidal soap is just that—soap, specially blended to dry bugs out; neem oil is a versatile material derived from the neem tree (Azadirachta indica), a Southeast Asian native.

More mobile pests like caterpillars, snails and slugs are often hand-picked from plants. It takes some dedication to get them all, so gardeners will combine hand-picking with Bacillus thuringiensis (a soil bacteria deadly to caterpillars and fly larvae) or garden-friendly iron phosphate baits when populations are high. Neither of these ingested poisons kill immediately, but within a few days you should find your caterpillars or mollusk numbers are significantly reduced.

Organic pest control isn’t a bunch of hocus pocus, there’s real science behind many common control methods. In addition to keeping the pests at bay, your garden will become a friendly place for a variety of beneficial insects that will further help with garden chores.

Learn how to use beneficial insects for pest control in Good Bug, Bad Bug: Using Beneficial Insects in the Greenhouse>>

Kristi Waterworth
image: Michael Hodge (Creative Commons BY)
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