How to Design a Safe, Effective Pest Control Strategy

Have you ever watched a ravenous ladybug careen across a leaf in search of an aphid to devour? And when it finds one… well, that little spotted beetle isn’t so ladylike.

Prey, meet predator.

It’s almost as though the African Savanna were miniaturized.

In horticulture-speak, this scene I’ve just described is known as “biological control.” It’s when predatory insects help keep pest populations in check.

Intro to Integrated Pest Management

Biological control is a key part of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) — a practice that many small organic farms have followed for decades.

The basic strategy behind IPM is to combine multiple methods of control to safely and reliably manage pests.

“Multiple methods” is the important part.

Because if you rely on chemical sprays only, for example, pests will eventually adapt to tolerate even the most poisonous of toxins. (The corporate farming industry is currently facing this exact predicament.)

But diversifying your approach can prevent this inevitable resistance and more effectively control pests.

And that’s the goal: control, not total eradication.

It’s usually impossible — as well as potentially expensive and unsafe — to wipe out a pest population entirely.

But by mixing the following tactics, you can achieve balance in your garden.

Cultural Control: Start with smart practices.

The likelihood of a pest infestation has a lot to do with the growing environment. So here are a few ways to ensure your Tower Garden is as inhospitable to pests as possible.

Keep your Tower tidy.

Dead plant debris often acts as a haven for pests and their eggs. So be sure to maintain a clean garden space.

Regularly harvesting and pruning your plants will also rob pests of places to hide and prevent the growth of plant diseases. Plus, when your plants don’t touch, pests that can’t fly will have a harder time spreading.

Plant a variety of crops.

Intercropping or companion planting — the process growing different kinds of plants together — offers many potential benefits to plants (such as improved flavor and increased yields). But this practice is also a useful for pest control.

Say you have two bags of candy. One is a diverse mix of suckers, bubble gum, chocolates, and so on. The other has only chocolate, which — in this scenario — happens to be your favorite type of treat.

Which would you choose?

Probably the one with only chocolate, right? It’s easier. You don’t have to navigate around the stuff you don’t like as much.

The same is true for pests. They have favorite feeding plants.

If you grow several plants of the same variety in close proximity, you’re giving pests an easy target.

But if you grow an assortment of crops, bad bugs will get confused and have a difficult time finding those that they prefer.

Grow a trap.

You may already be growing a few plants that naturally repel pests. But have you considered trying to attract them?

On the surface, that suggestion sounds preposterous — why would you want to attract nuisance bugs?

The key is to strategically draw pests to “trap plants,” thus distracting them from your more important crops.

You can think of trap plants as decoys.

Grow dill and nasturtiums, for example, to lure tomato hornworms and aphids, respectively. Then, rather than swarm your tomatoes and greens, these bugs will congregate on the trap plants.

When they do, you can easily douse them with a pest spray or simply discard the infested plant (unwanted visitors and all).

Check out a list of effective trap plants here.

Biological Control: Partner with nature.

Earlier this spring, I had a bit of an aphid problem. Fortunately, local ladybugs took notice. Not only did they put a sizeable dent in the pest population — they also laid dozens of little yellow eggs.

Within a few days, hungry ladybug larvae hatched and made my garden practically spotless. Soon, these spiky critters will grow up and repeat the cycle.

Nowhere is the natural order more obvious than in the animal kingdom — even when those animals are teeny tiny.

Get comfortable with good bugs.

If you believe any creepy crawly in your garden is a bad thing, you may want to reconsider.

The ladybug is just one of many garden allies that can help with pest control. Assassin bugs, predatory wasps, and even honeybees also contribute to a healthy, balanced garden.

With their help, pest control essentially runs on autopilot. Cool, right?

Nurture the natural order.

You can order ladybugs and other beneficial insects. (There are many dealers online.) But if you haven’t created an inhabitable environment, they may take flight as soon as you release them in your garden.

So I recommend you first try to attract good bugs. You can do this by:

  • Growing flowers and allowing herbs to flower (which will also appeal to pollinators, thereby increasing the yields of your fruiting crops — bonus!)
  • Providing shelter for bugs to nest and lay eggs

If you follow these two steps, you’ll likely draw garden helpers. And if you decide to purchase and release additional reinforcements, they’ll probably stick around longer.

Mechanical Control: Get your hands dirty.

Though predatory insects are powerful garden guardians, more manual control methods may sometimes be necessary.

Remove by hand.

The most common mechanical control device is handpicking. And it’s exactly what it sounds like.

If you’re a little squeamish, you may want to wear gloves when removing pests. After picking them off your plants, drop them in a bucket of soapy water (or squish them, if you’re into that sort of thing).

For pests too small to pick (e.g., aphids and mites), try removing them with tape, a hand vacuum, or a strong stream of water.

Exclude with a barrier.

Exclusion is simple: Just prevent pests from accessing your garden in the first place. You can accomplish this by using row crop covers, growing in a greenhouse, or even moving your garden indoors.

Set a trap.

A final form of mechanical control is the use of traps. (This time, I’m referring to manmade products, such as yellow sticky traps, rather than trap plants.)

I don’t advocate for these — though they can be effective — because they’re nondiscerning. By that I mean they also tend to attract and incapacitate good bugs, including pollinators.

Chemical Control: Spray whatever remains.

Using chemicals should be a last resort because most pest sprays will harm beneficial bugs, too (which may throw your garden’s ecosystem out of balance).

But if you’re able to isolate and target the pests only, chemical sprays can be pretty handy — especially for major infestations.

Pick a safe solution.

If I were a gambling man, I’d bet you’re against spraying chemicals on food that you grow and will ultimately eat. But did you know most organic farmers use toxic chemicals to control pests?

It’s true!

Bear in mind, “chemical” is not synonymous with “synthetic” or “bad” — though this is a common misunderstanding.

In fact, many chemicals are natural and, in the context of growing food, considered organic.

Take azadirachtin, the chemical compound in neem oil, for example. It’s the insecticidal ingredient that makes several organic-certified sprays deadly for aphids, whiteflies, and other soft-bodied pests.

And the neem tree produces it naturally.

So how do you know which chemical sprays are safe to use? At most home and garden supply stores, just look for the OMRI label, which distinguishes products that meet organic standards.

To ensure you don’t damage your plants, always follow mixing and application instructions on product labels. And avoid spraying during the day, as — with sun exposure — some solutions may burn the leaves of your plants.

Mix your own pest control concoction.

If you’re still wary of buying commercial chemical sprays, you could alternatively create your own solution.

For example, this universal pest control formula uses ingredients you probably already have on hand:

  1. Liquefy one garlic bulb and one small onion.
  2. Mix in one teaspoon of cayenne powder and one quart of water.
  3. Allow mixture to sit for one hour.
  4. Strain solution through cheesecloth.
  5. Add one tablespoon of liquid dish soap (such as pure castile liquid soap — not dishwashing detergent).
  6. Mix well, and apply to pests.

You can find more homemade recipes for natural pest control here.

Ready to achieve garden harmony?

Successful pest control starts before you even plant a seed. So I hope the methods I’ve shared above help you design a balanced, productive garden.

Have any questions or tips of your own? Let’s continue the conversation in the comments below.

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