Week Five-Organic Pest Management
June 7, 2014
Author: Ian Whittington
Category: General News Stories from the Garden
After a month in class we’re now meeting every other week. This means we’re going to have to make even more of an effort to get out to our gardens. Luckily we’ve been having a reasonable amount of rain, so not getting there every, or even every other day, hasn’t been an issue. So far nothing has died. In fact, things are finally getting bigger.
But making sure my plants get enough water isn’t the only problem I’m going to have to contend with. No, you see I’m not the only one hankering to nibble on my plants. Which brings me to this week’s topic: organic pest management.
It’s no secret that having pests can be annoying. I mean who wants to come to their garden to find it all eaten by a beetle or caterpillar? But what do you do to make sure some lousy bug doesn’t eat all your plants? Your first instinct might be to go to your local hardware store and buy the strongest pesticide you can find. Problem solved right? In a word, no.
You see, pesticides don’t just kill the insects terrorizing your plot. They also kill the good ones. For the most part I think people get that some insects are good. We all know that bees are important for pollination, and who doesn’t love ladybugs? But what I think people don’t seem to understand is that there are far more good insects than bad ones. For instance, insects are an important part of breaking down organic matter, which is necessary for having healthy soil. Insects can also be a food source for many animals. In fact, many insects eat the ones we consider to be pests.
The important thing to take away is that there’s already a natural balance. In the first class Joe stressed respecting all the natural processes involved in gardening, and that mindset is just as important in organic pest management. Rather than try to intervene in the natural processes already in place to manage pests, we need to work with them.
But what does this mean? Well, first you need to figure what your problem even is. The worst thing you can do is make assumptions about having a pest. Not only will you waste time, you might do more harm than good. For instance, what if instead of a pest problem you have a nutrient problem in the soil? In trying to rid yourself of a pest you’d be neglecting another issue entirely. Or perhaps you think you have one type of pest when you really have another.
To find out what your problem is you need to investigate the situation by looking at the clues before you. Some clues to look for are the five D’s:
- Defoliation- Parts or all of the foliage or leaves are missing. Related to insects with chewing mouthparts.
- Discoloration- Stippling (tiny yellow or clear dots in the leaves), mining, streaking. Result of insects sucking out chlorophyll or tunneling through leaves. Related to insects with sucking mouthparts.
- Distortion- Leaves are curled up, twisted, or galled. Usually related to sucking insects.
- Dieback- Shoot or branch dieback. Usually the result of borer damage, or when larvae bore into a plant’s stem and eats the plant’s vascular system. Sawdust-like material on the stem or plant base can indicate the presence of a borer.
- Doo-doo- Insect excretions, such as droppings, sawdust, webbing, spittle and honeydew. The type of excretion left can be used to try to narrow down the insect.
Looking at these symptoms can help you identity a potential pest if there even is one. Now say all the clues do indeed point to an insect pest problem. We’re not going to reach for the pesticide, so what’s our best course of action?
Inspect your plants as often as possible. If you’re lucky enough to actually spot a pest, either squish it or drop it in a bucket of water mixed with a little natural soap or mild dishwashing liquid. The dish soap will paralyze and kill soft-bodied insects while squishing will, well, squish them. But other than that there really is no magic bullet. If your plants are healthy, you really don’t need to do anything. Remember, plants have been around far longer than we have and have been able to survive pests attacking them. I mean they’re still here, right?
The other day I saw an episode of Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman on the Science Channel. The topic was how aliens on other worlds might think, and to investigate this they examined the intelligence of species on Earth. One thing they looked at was plants and all the ways they communicate. It turns out they’re far more complex than we give them credit for. Did you know that when a pest attacks some plants send off pheromones? Not only can these pheromones attract good bugs to attack the pests, they can also warn other plants so they can in turn emit their own pest deterring pheromones. See, plants can handle themselves. When you think about it these pests we’re so worried about are only a problem for us because they want to do the same thing we do. Eat. As a gardener yes, that is a problem. But my point is your plant will be fine.
Now although I’m advocating a letting it go approach, that doesn’t mean you just sit back and watch your plants while downing a bottle of beer. There are still a few organic tricks you can do to mitigate pest damage. For instance, you could use some of that beer to create a slug trap. Slugs can wreck havoc on your plants in just a night, which is when they’re most active. Put a small amount of beer in a wide, shallow jar, bury it up to its neck in soil and boom! Instant slug trap. Those suckers will crawl in and die.
But more importantly, you also have to put work in to making sure your plants are healthy. If your plants aren’t, then they won’t have the strength needed to naturally ward off pests. Besides making sure your plants are watered and have good soil, this also involves knowing when to plant them. If you plant a cool weather crop like cabbage in the summer, then you’re setting it up for struggling in conditions it’s not tailored for. Not to mention the fact that you’d be trying to grow it in a season where harlequin bugs, a cabbage pest, can thrive. Again, it’s all about balance and natural processes. Yes, it could get to a point where tougher action is needed, but having a few pests here and there doesn’t mean you’re at war.
And really, you shouldn’t waste so much energy fighting mother nature. In the long run you won’t win.