Eco-Friendly Gardening: Controlling Pests

Bugs! You hate them. They destroy your flowers and they have first pick at your vegetables. You don’t want to see them crawling, flying or hopping around your yard so you grab a bottle of pesticide and start spraying. As the spray settles on your plants, you think you are in the clear. But there are many insects that will be affected by what you have just sprayed and many that will not be affected. You may have even just wiped out the wrong bugs. Experts agree, before you spray for any insect, you must first positively identify it and then look at all of your options.

One very important fact to remember is that not all insects are bad. In fact, there are many good insects or beneficials. We all know and love the Ladybug. She voraciously eats her way around aphid-infested plants. But have you ever seen Ladybug larva? Most often when there are adult ladybugs there are larva. These small, ugly, black, insects look nothing like their parents but eat even more aphids. If your first instinct is to spray you could have wiped out future generations of these beneficial insects. If you kill beneficials routinely you are opening your plant to more infestations. Pests find host plants easier than beneficials find their food and pests tolerate pesticides better than beneficial insects. Stressed plants produce chemicals that actually draw pests. Make it harder for pests to find your plants by keeping them healthy. Keeping plants healthy includes watering, adequately feeding, and planting the right plant in the right place. Azaleas planted in the sun suffer from lace bug damage more than azaleas planted in the shade, where azaleas prefer to be planted.

If you are waking up to damaged plants you may have night feeders. Slugs are notorious night feeders but there are many other insects that do their damage at this time. Take a flashlight with you when it gets dark and try to find insects in action. You might be amazed at the amount of activity you see, not all of it being detrimental to the health of your plants. If you do not know what you are looking at, gather a sample or two and take them to the Cooperative Extension Service, Master Gardener, or look it up in one of the many good gardening books available. After positive identification check to see if your plants are infested with that insect or if there are only a few insects doing damage. If you only have a few insects you may be able to hand pick to control their destructive ways. Get a can with a lid, use gloves and pluck the insects from your plants. Make sure you put the lid on the can and then just throw them away.

Another option to consider is sharing. If you plant parsley or rue, you may see striped caterpillars munching them to a nubbin. Before you destroy these caterpillars you may want to consider what they will turn into. These are probably Black Swallowtail Butterfly Caterpillars. Watching these caterpillars turn into chrysalis and then into butterflies is truly amazing. You can plant extra of the butterflies’ favorites, share with them, and still have enough for yourself.

As we mentioned before, not all insects will be affected by one insecticide. In fact, even if the insecticide lists a particular insect on its label it does not guarantee it will be adequately controlled. A very good example of this is spider mites. Spider mites will infest spruces at an alarmingly rapid rate. Orthene, a popular insecticide, lists spider mites on its label but mites are spiders, not insects and must be sprayed with a miticide. Orthene is a suppressant, not an eradicant, and since mites will reproduce quickly, just spraying them with a suppressant will do little to solve your problem. If you are going to treat with chemical sprays, make sure you are using the right one and make sure you follow the label directions carefully. Applying chemicals at the wrong time can cause damage to you and your plants.

Monitoring is an important step in controlling insects. Insects are active at different times of day and at different times of the year. If you are observant, you can identify destructive insects early, treat them effectively and not cause further damage to your plants or the environment. If you are diligent with these practices and are determined to live in harmony with insects, your garden will be healthier. The knowledge you gain and your understanding of the ecosystem will make you an asset to the gardening community.

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