Natural Pest Control in the Garden

Posted by on Aug 20, 2015 in Grow Better Greens Podcast | Comments Off on Natural Pest Control in the Garden

In Episode 12 we’re discussing pests, like Japanese beetles, and how to manage them in the garden! You have some serious decisions to make when you see bugs destroying your plants, decisions about how aggressive you’re willing to be as you fight back. As organic and nutrient-dense growers, we definitely have strong opinions about our own courses of action, but we want to be sure that you choose to do what feels right for you. We’ll describe a handful of options that fall under the realm of natural pest control in the garden. Farewell to Japanese beetles!

You can listen in here, or download for later:

Natural Pest Control in the Garden

What is Pest Control?
What is Natural Pest Control?
Why Fight Back at All?
The Basic Needs and 3 Natural Controls
1 – Mind Control
2 – Mechanical Control – Building a Bug Vacuum!
3 – Chemical Control
Soil Minerals and Japanese Beetles!
Why Do You Grow Food? Urban Gardener, Sam

What is Pest Control?

Pest control is the practice of managing destructive pests in your garden, ideally in a manner that matches your ethics. You’re literally controlling the population of insects, caterpillars, and moths – anybody who’s eating your veggie plants, by killing them, distracting them, or driving them away.

Usually, when we think of pest control, we imagine huge farm equipment, rolling down crop rows while spraying insecticides, or maybe even cropdusting planes getting the job done. In the home garden, we might envision gloved-hands grasping a spray bottle from the hardware store, knocking out our least-favorite garden pests with a vengeance.

But these scenarios can seem way out-of-sync with how some of us approach health in general! When we have a ‘pest’ of our own to deal with, we don’t usually start with the strongest available medicine, especially if it causes unnecessary side effects or weakens our otherwise functioning systems.

If we’re gardening to improve or sustain our own health, it makes sense to approach health-centric decisions for our plants in the same way that we would our own bodies. How can we be healthy if we’re eating sick plants?

What is Natural Pest Control?

Natural pest control is the management of destructive pests in your garden that does not involve any harmful synthetic pesticides. These options are often less severe and a bit more mindful of the entire wellbeing of our garden’s ecosystem.

Sometimes, when we use certain sprays, powders, or potions (natural or not), it can be like dropping a bomb on the whole community. We don’t always need to be so destructive! Imagine for a moment that you might be killing a bug that’s presence could offer you some help in the future; maybe they feed on the eggs of another pest that hasn’t arrived yet. You might be killing off your next line of defense!

Why Fight Back at All?

Some gardeners have adopted the attitude that it’s okay to just ‘leave some’ for the bugs. I can understand this philosophy entirely, as it’s kind of how I feel about other garden critters, like bunnies and chipmunks. Often times I plant extra, knowing that they’ll be snacking on some, too. There’s enough for all of us, right?

But, with insects, there’s a whole other reason to manage their presence – and it involves taste! Many plants release enzymes and poisons to dissuade pests from munching on them. These chemical changes are totally detectable on the human tongue! (Want to know more wacky facts about plants’ behaviors? Check out the book What a Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz).

Recognizing that the presence of bugs can make your green leaves taste bitter in your salad bowl might be enough to convince you that you need to take action. If the whole idea of pest control makes you uncomfortable, don’t worry, we’ve got some options below that work well without bringing too many bad vibes into your backyard paradise – but none of them will work unless you get the basics in place, first.

The Basic Needs and Three More Natural Controls

First thing’s first – nothing that you do to fight off pests will matter if you don’t prevent plant stress in general. Plain and simple. Plants, just like us, are much more susceptible to getting sick if they’re stressed out.

In fact, there’s a strong argument that the bugs only arrive if your plants are in a state of weakness, as they’ve become easy prey. There’s even evidence that stressed-out plants call upon bugs to ‘do them in’ and take them out of the gene pool!

Temperature swings, being stepped on, being strangled or crushed by a neighboring plant, wind, hail, rain – all of these everyday occurrences can prove really stressful for a plant. The more you can attend to your plants basic needs, the more you’ll develop an awareness of what’s happening with their overall state of health.

Plants’ Basic Needs

  • Food – are you feeding your plants and the soil around them?
  • Water – plants need water to deliver nutrients throughout their systems!
  • Shelter – plants need protection from harsh temperatures, whipping winds, as well as hungry animals and clumsy humans.

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Mind Control

I’m not sure that I subscribe to the idea that bugs have tiny little brains and are not as smart as us humans – I mean, define smart! But I do know that they think, feel, and behave differently than we do and a simple study of their behavior can help us to influence how they interact with our plants.

Row Covers

First off, they seem to eat what they can easily find. If they can’t find our plants, then they can’t eat our plants! Many greens are susceptible to egg-laying moths that feed upon their leaves – in the form of adult moths, teenage caterpillars, and sometimes even as larval eggs. That’s three generations feasting on you greens, with each mama moth laying thousands of eggs.

But not if the moths can’t find your greens, hidden underneath an inexpensive and easy fix: the Floating Row Cover.

Row covers (also known as garden fabric, remay, and agribon), can be placed loosely over your garden beds, as soon as you sow your seeds. They can also be draped over bendable wire hoops to create a taller tunnel. Below you can see a row cover pulled off of its wire hoops, exposing the greens underneath for a quick harvest.

Rain and hose water will still make their way to your plants, and your plants will still grow and reach for the sun – as long as you leave the fabric loose enough. Row cover comes in different weights; you can even buy thicker fabrics to protect against both insects and frost, which will extend your growing season into the cooler months.

Trap Crops

Another Mind Control solution is to plant what’s known as a ‘trap crop’. In the same way that pests can’t find your veggies hidden under fabric, they’re unlikely to go looking for them if they’re busy. Busy munching on something else!

By planting a decent-sized stand of some plants favored by your least-favorite bugs, you can distract them (or trap them) away from your food crop. For example, Japanese beetles love borage which readily volunteers all over my garden. I always make sure to move some close to my plum trees, which is where I also notice Japanese beetles munching in late summer.

Mechanical Control

Mechanical control is the act of physically removing pests from your plants, whether by hand or by using another tool. There are three methods of mechanical control that I rely on and recommend to others.

Hand Picking

This is actually really easy, as long as you don’t mind touching bugs. While you don’t actually have to touch the bug (you can use a soft cloth or a credit card to flick them off) if you’re someone who jumps each time a bug touches you, you’re likely to cause damage to your plants (so keep reading!).

But, if you think bugs are no big deal, simply grab a bowl or bucket of soapy water and start sweeping them off of your leaves and straight into the container. I’ve found that just a few nightly sessions of this works really well at significantly reducing a population.

Bug Vacuum

For those with way more bugs or way less bug-tolerance, you can totally suck them up, hands free! I started with a battery-operated turkey baster-looking device that I bought on Amazon, but it didn’t seem to have enough strength! So, I made my own bug vacuum, using a 5 gallon bucket, a wet/dry vacuum attachment for a 5 gallon bucket, and a few plumbing supplies. You can check it out here:

Beneficial Predator Insects

Sometimes people need someone else to do their dirty work for them and pest control is no different. You can totally release insect ‘bounty hunters’ into your garden to control the amount of bad guys that are munching on your plants. The examples below can be found online and in gardening catalogs (or keep reading for a DIY option!):

  • Ladybugs eat aphids
  • Lacewing larvae eat moth eggs, scale, and thrips
  • Assassin bugs kill tomato hornworms

I also use beneficial predators in my garden, but I have never bought any. Instead, I’ve made sure to put some effort into planting a diversity of flowers, herbs, and medicinal plants, most of which make great hosts for the good guys. I just keep on trying to make my garden ‘the place to be’ for the all wildlife!

Chemical Control

Remember, chemical does not always mean poison or synthetic! There are many natural chemicals that gardeners turn to to control pests.

I actually don’t use any of these, as I think that they still could harm the good guys. But I can appreciate that sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures – imagine that you’re hosting a wedding in your garden, selling greens at the farmers market, or needing to preserve everything you grow due to a terrible financial blow. You might feel like you need some immediate, more reactive help.

Here are some chemical options, in the form of sprays, powders, and dried plants:

  • Soap and soap with essential oil(Dr. Bronner’s peppermint or lavender)
  • Borax
  • tomato leave/elderberry leave concentrate
  • dried yarrow flowers, marigolds, mint leaves
  • hot pepper spray or crushed pepper flakes
  • Diatomaceous Earth (a soft fossilized rock that’s abrasive like pumice – and razor sharp to bugs)
  • Concentrate of the very pest that you’re trying to get rid of. For example, you can steep rushed up Japanese beetles in water and then spray them on Japanese beetles. For real

Remember to check in and reapply chemical controls after heavy rains.

Soil Minerals and Japanese Beetles

A bit of a cliffhanger! On the next episode, we’ll fill you in on our favorite method of pest control; using soil minerals in the garden. We’ll also explain you why that pesky Japanese Beetle sticks around for so long.

This up and coming, beyond-organic strategy is focused on managing the mineral make-up of your soil, in order to keep your plants healthy enough to become inedible to bugs. It’s one part immune-system bolstering and one part roadmap to genetic expression.

Tune in to Episode 12 next week (August 27, 2015) to learn how nutrient dense growers manage pests with soil minerals. We’ll also tell you how you can DIY it all alone, or with a little bit of handholding from us.

Thanks for reading my blog : ) I appreciate your time and wish you much success in growing healthy food!