If you grow it, they will come. Pests.
Problems of all kinds crop up in the garden. Beginning gardeners sometimes get discouraged by the loss of a crop. It happens to everyone somtime—and often more than once. Don get discouraged! There are some things you can do to ensure your success and lessen the likelihood of unwelcome guests in the garden. You should also prepare for losses. In this blog, we’ll cover:
How much can you take?
Knowledge and experience will help you avoid losses, but some losses are inevitable. Having organic, fresh, nutrient-dense foods means produce doesn’t look perfect. That’s okay! The flavor and health in that food makes it superior!
Expect 10% losses—sometimes 30%! You can lose a small part of your harvest before it affects you. By using permaculture principle 1 (Observe and Interact) every day, you will know when something changes. Sometimes a seeming pest benefits the plants.
A short story: when I began my permaculture system, I was growing a lot of dill (more on that below). We had a caterpillar begin to seriously munch on the dill leaves. It turns out that it was a tiger swallowtail butterfly caterpillar. My young daughter and I enjoyed watching the caterpillars grow fat on the dill. We thought of the butterflies they would become. After the caterpillars wandered off to their cocoons I realizes that they’d pruned back the dill plants. They did this right before the strongest heat and light of the summer. All the dill plants made it through the heat waves—and there was plenty of dill for everyone!
Why integrated pest management?
Your food will be healthier for you and your family. You will have healthier food and environment by using integrated methods and avoiding toxins. What is better for you is also better for everything else in the environment. Beneficial insects, bacteria and fungi can find their balance in your garden. You also help reduce the build-up of pesticide resistance. So if you really do have to resort to using something, it will be more effective.
When you do have to intervene, experiment with what will work on that pest. What worked for a friend may not work for you: be willing to try different things! Also recognize that what might work for you one year, might not be appropriate the next year.
Setting up for Success
1. Plant a polyculture. This strategy has a lot of benefits. Companion planting is one step in the right direction. It puts plants that feed on different soil nutrients or that deter pests of the neighboring plants together. Go a step further and plant a true polyculture—mixing many types of plants together. Continuously rearranging plants in the garden avoids predictable patterns and keeps pests confused. This strategy can be an effective means of keeping populations distributed and creating opportunities for pest predators and beneficial organisms to find their niches, too.
Polycultures are more like natural ecosystems. They create lots of variety—in contrast to monoculture cropping. For a potato beetle, a few rows of potato monoculture looks like a buffet. When potatoes are mixed in with perennials, flowers, veggies and especially fragrant herbs, insects are more confused. A few may find your plants, but it is not likely to be hordes.
Another thing is to use plants that attract pest predators. By encouraging a rich ecosystem, it can correct itself. Plants in the carrot family (dill, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, etc…) attract predatory wasps. Don’t worry, these guys aren’t interested in you! Praying mantis and ladybugs showed up in our polyculture in the second season and have been increasing in numbers ever since. Spiders are helpful, too—though you may never see them.
Use strong smelling herbs and flowers (like marigold) to confuse insects that rely on smell to locate your favorite veggies!
If you grow in containers—like the Garden Tower—your ecosystem is small, but still active. Choosing your plants and arranging them with these tips in mind will help you achieve better plant health.
2. Space plants for good air flow and light penetration. Besides insect pests, bacterial and fungal problems can affect your garden yields. Soil fertility and management allow us to pack plants in, we want to make sure there is adequate air flow to discourage fungal growth. Breezes also discourage insects from settling on your plants. Good air-flow spacing also means plants get adequate light saturation to be productive. Remove dead or dying or infected leaves from plants.
3. Plant and harvest at the right time: By planting late or early and harvesting at the right time, you can avoid a wave of pests and their lifecycles. Last year, I planted winter squash around the fourth of July. By doing this I avoided the squash vine borer that can devastate a crop, but I also didn’t get much of a crop from the vines (which grew vigorously). This year, I’ll plant more plants and hope to get a better yield. It also turns out last year wasn’t a big year for vine borers.
4. Know what you’re dealing with: Identify the pests first. If you need help, take in a photo to your local nursery, their knowledge and experience can be very helpful.
5. Support pest predators: Predatory wasps do love the carrot family (mentioned above). If you have an abundance of these foods in your garden, the wasps will come to live with you—and lay their eggs on the caterpillars of pests. Setting up homes for frogs, lizards, and birds and making water and spaces available to them will help to create a natural balance.
6. Use sacrifice crops: Plant extras of things that pests love and be willing to sacrifice some of them to the pests in exchange for more of what you want.
These are some passive ways to organize your garden to deal with pests. Pest management techniques also range into using traps (like a shallow pan of beer for slugs) and repellants of all kinds. Many of these are sold commercially and work well. Recipes for sprays also abound and most of the ingredients (like cayenne pepper) are common to your household.