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How to deal with garden pests

A few years ago, I heard someone say: “If your garden isn’t being eaten, it’s not alive.” The sooner you accept this unavoidable fact, the sooner you can move on from obsessing over having “a perfect garden.” There’s no such thing as a garden free of flaws! Occasional nibble holes on your greens will prevail. It’s all a part of the garden game. Insects, most often referred to as garden pests, are a natural part of the cycle of growing food. Don’t fret, it means your garden is alive but let’s take a closer look into finding some balance.

Two seasons ago, a friend texted in a state of garden emergency. He wrote: “Aaah Jaz! What the heck! My tomatoes are getting mauled by aphids. I’ve never ever, in my 10 years of growing tomatoes, seen aphids so much as land on one.” At that point in my gardening experience, I hadn’t yet seen aphids on tomatoes either. My aphid curiosity was high and I thought about my own tomatoes, so I went outside to look. The day before getting my friend’s message, I had spent hours in the garden and hadn’t noticed anything – surely, I didn’t have aphids too?

But, what did I find? Aphids! Under the leaves of ALL twelve of my tomatoes! White aphids, green aphids, black aphids, they seemed to be all of the colors of the rainbow. It was not a pleasant discovery.

Along with aphids – squash vine borer, cucumber beetles, flea beetles, slugs, and leaf miner have all entertained on the stage that is my garden. So when that fine garden balance is off, what do you do? I turned to research for some answers. This article is here to help you THINK about how to approach pests. Here are some starting points:

1. Prevention

First and foremost, prevention is key. This comes in the form of mindful observation. Walk around and inspect your garden. All of the time. A high frequency of inspection is vital. Most garden pests are tiny and camouflaged but they are visible to the naked eye. Train your eye to know the signs because spotting an issue before it’s full-blown is crucial. For example, cabbage worms start out as tiny eggs on the backside of the leaves of brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, kale, etc.) but if you squish the eggs early they won’t grow into full sized crop eating caterpillars that can… and will…. literally eat your whole crop.

2. Identify The Pest

You must identify what pest you are dealing with. Releasing ladybugs, which eat aphids, won’t help if you have squash vine borer. Write down a list of the crops you are growing and read about which pests are common to your vegetables and at what time they are busiest. You can bet I’ve gone into my garden at midnight with a flashlight to check out slug activity – see photo below! Learn what each stage of its growth looks like from egg to adult. It may seem like a lot at first, but after one season of observing and dealing with the culprits, you’ll catch on. You’ll also want to learn which insects are beneficial, so you’re not killing the good ones.

3. Determine the Plant’s Condition

How bad is the problem? Can you manage the problem on your own like squishing a few cabbage worms? Or do you need to take a more aggressive approach? Discovering how bad the pests are and analyzing the condition of your plant will lead to several different solutions. Pests will find the weak and sick plants in your garden first before healthy, strong plants.

4. Utilize Row Covers

Covering your crops while they grow from seed to seedling to a young plant can greatly prevent pest infestations. You can use row covers until they are about halfway to maturity, but will need to be removed to let those beautiful pollinators do their thing and pollinate.
Row covers are an investment that won’t disappoint. Multifaceted, they can be used for numerous things such as shade cloth, which help sensitive plants from overheating and bolting during hot summer weather. Row covers can also extend the growing season, as they act like a warm blanket for your plants. You’ll be able to grow cold-hardy crops for a longer period of time under a cover.

Photo Courtesy of Emily Grenat
5. Companion Planting

Just like how your good friends keep you strong, plants have good buddies that keep them strong too. Some plants have built in qualities that help to repel pests. Take the beautiful (and edible!) nasturtiums for example. Nasturtiums are known to attract aphids. This means that if you plant them near crops that are commonly susceptible to aphids, like kale, the aphids may just stay and feed on the nasturtium plant. This is called a “trap plant” which basically acts like a decoy.

Companion planting isn’t just for pest repellent either but can boost flavor. Basil planted next to tomatoes is known to help keep pests away but also enhance the flavor of tomatoes! Now that’s a win-win situation.
Click here, for a full companion planting guide.

6. Biodiversity

The introduction of a large range of flowers and vegetables to your garden is not only lovely during bloom time and delicious during harvest time but will help strengthen the diversity in your garden and encourage beneficial insects to move in. You might really like kale and want to grow only kale, but if you have a widespread cabbage worm or aphid infestation, it could decimate your whole kale patch. Planting a variety of vegetables will increase your growing success.

The bottom line is that a small amount of pests are natural, even welcomed in my space but too many pests create an imbalance that can destroy crops and all of the hard work and time that you’ve poured into the garden. For my tomato aphid problem, I bought 1000 ladybugs, went out to the garden at dusk, watered it and set them free. About 70% of the ladybugs took off to explore other gardens but the other 30% committed to my garden and that was all I needed. Supposedly one ladybug can eat approximately 50 aphids per day? Aphids begone.

The takeaway? Pests happen! Keep your eyes open and inspect your garden often. Your garden is alive. Let it be alive, find a balance and learn from each discovery.

Dig Deeper:

Watch our ASK gardenstead episode on How To Get Rid Of Pests In Your Garden for a full discussion between Jaz and Shannon, two passionate gardeners discussing their experiences handling pests.

Struggling with Japanese Beetles? Forward to 16:40 on our Growing Tomatoes episode for our solutions.

yellow petaled flower by elias sorey unsplash

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