Is it possible to control pests in the garden without using pesticides? Many gardeners determine to use organic practices. But soon they find themselves discouraged when bad insects arrive in their gardens. How do organic gardeners keep bugs from eating their plants?
A healthy, productive, organic home garden goes beyond home remedies for pest control and organic alternatives to pesticides. Natural pesticides have their place, but I’ve found that natural pest control goes beyond these stop-gap measures.
Pest control without pesticides looks different than you might think. So how do you do it?
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Change Your Pest Control Mindset
One of the most important things you can do when it comes to organic gardening is to change your pest control mindset. We want to change from thinking, “let’s get rid of all the pests” to “let’s look at the big picture.” Here is what I mean:
Accept that some pest issues are good.
Most organic gardeners know that we want beneficial insects in our garden. Not only do many of them pollinate our plants, but they also consume detrimental pests.
For example, ladybugs lay their eggs where there is a ready food source, often an aphid infestation. If we want the beneficial insects, we have to allow them to find a food source, which is often the bad pests.
Some pest issues also alert us to plant or soil health issues. Pests tend to attack weaker plants. Also, healthy plants are better able they are to withstand pest attack. If pests continue to plague our gardens, we may need to dig deeper and figure out possible underlying issues with our soil or plant health. Not all pest issues are bad — sometimes they serve as the symptom to a bigger problem.
Renowned organic gardener Eliot Coleman in his popular book, The New Organic Grower, says it this way:
“Pests [are] not enemies to be killed but rather indicators to be heeded.”
He goes on to say, “The plant vigor resulting from [raising soil fertility] stimulates the plants’ immune systems and renders plants resistant to pests and diseases.”
Understand how spraying insecticides can do more harm than good in your long term pest control strategy.
When I started gardening, it took me a long time to realize that spraying insecticides can do more harm than good. While the broad spectrum, non-organic pesticides kill everything, even organic pesticides can do more harm than good.
When you kill the beneficial insects along with the bad ones, the bad insects are typically able to rebound more quickly than the beneficial ones. So you set yourself back even further. The pests that do live can be even stronger and do more damage in the garden.
Joe Lamp’l of Joe Gardener explains this phenomenon well in this short video:
We also need to remember that pesticides cause harm to bees and other pollinators. I’ve heard from more home gardeners this year who have struggled with a lack of pollination. I personally believe the use of pesticides and herbicides in our gardens and yards plays a role in this.
Our bees are so important and we need to protect them. Even organic pesticides can potentially harm bees. If circumstances require an application, keep these pesticides away from flowers and apply at a time when bees aren’t as active, such as evening.
Allow a higher tolerance for insect damage.
If you walked into my garden, you would not find a sea of immaculate plants. Instead, you would notice bean leaves with holes and squash leaves pruned off. In the height of summer, a grasshopper would jump across your path, and a stink bug would startle you as you inspected a tomato.
You’d begin to see a pattern — a reflection of my high tolerance for insect damage.
Before I take any action against a damaging insect, I always consider whether it is worth it to spray. Often, I wait it out and my plants recover.
I’ve watched beneficial insects swoop in to attack aphids. I’ve also observed how natural insect life cycles come into play. One year I thought I’d definitely lose my bean plants to heavy damage. But they not only withstood the attack, but they also grew back healthier after the insect’s life cycle rotated into a different phase.
Lower your expectations.
As you’re trying to establish your garden and switch to an organic method, I recommend lowering your expectations.
If you’re growing your first garden, you don’t yet know what insects are already around. Until the beneficial insects find your garden, you probably have to accept more damage than you’d like. Plant more to make up for this damage. Plan to succession plant so you can look forward to another harvest if the first one doesn’t go well.
If you’re transitioning from a conventional to an organic garden, past insecticide applications likely wiped out the beneficial insect population in your garden. It will take time to attract new ones and for them to establish themselves in your garden. But by staying the course, over the years, you will see a difference.
Accept some failures.
Especially when you’re just beginning, you need to be ready to fail. The gardeners you see on Facebook or Instagram have probably been doing this a while and have already learned from their own failures.
They’ve tested many of the methods in the next section and fine-tuned it for their gardens. You can do the same, but until you get there, be prepared to accept some disappointments.
Plan Your Garden Around the Pests for Hands-Off Pest Control
While shifting your mindset will take you far in maintaining an organic garden without pesticides, thankfully there are practical steps you can take to control pests.
Plant multiple plantings.
When I started my first garden, I had planned on one planting and that was it. I didn’t realize that since I have a long growing season that I could plant multiple plantings in my garden. For example, I always have issues with the squash vine borer. Knowing this, I plan two plantings of squash and zucchini (one in early spring and one in late summer) so that I still harvest enough when I take into account insect damage.
Succession plant to control damage from pests.
Most of us can also plan for succession plantings. Succession planting is where we take out one crop and put in another. I’ve done this well with bush beans and other crops. It takes some planning, but it’s really not that hard and it’s completely worth it. Read more ideas on succession planting here.
Adjust the timing of your plantings to get ahead of pests in the garden.
You may find it helpful to get some plants in the ground earlier than normal. This year I started squash and lettuce seeds indoors, despite my previous recommendations to always direct sow them. The result? I was able to get a longer harvest before the insects became a problem.
Think of ways to utilize the early and late parts of the seasons to avoid the highest pest pressure. Season extension ideas like the ones here also can help.
Choose resistant varieties of plants.
Look up some ways to choose resistant varieties of plants you want to grow. This might be more advanced for some. But if you know that you always have a problem with a certain insect, do some research through university studies or your local extension center and find some varieties that resist that insect better than others.
For example, the University of Arkansas suggests that black zucchini, among other squash varieties, contains more resistance to squash bugs.
You can even observe your own garden and discover which insects are attracted to which plants. I noticed that the year I planted Arkansas Traveler tomatoes, I saw more tomato hornworms than any other year. Whether that is related, I’m not sure, but anytime we observe patterns like this, it’s good to test.
Test Companion Planting Combinations for Pest Control
You will hear a lot of buzz around companion planting for pest control. While you’ll find general companion planting suggestions that everyone can agree on, other ideas come from observations.
That’s why it’s important to test companion planting combinations in your garden. Not everything that works in another garden will work in yours. For example, I’ve read that nasturtium can provide resistance against squash bugs. But when I planted nasturtium near my squash, it did not work for me.
However, anytime you can use companion planting and add diversity to your garden, it is a good thing, even if it doesn’t prevent the specific insect you want.
Focus on Plant Health and Soil Health
The healthier your plants are, the more resistant they will be. Earlier this year, I found aphids covering one of my tomato plants. I was really worried about it, but that plant was very healthy. So it was able to withstand a little damage until the ladybugs and syrphid flies were able to come and take care of the aphids.
The key there, besides a healthy beneficial insect population that has increased throughout the years of my organic gardening practices, was the health of the plant. And, the health of the plant is directly proportional to the health of the soil.
What can you do to increase the health of your soil? Look up ideas for cover crops. Learn how to compost. These practices, over time, build soil health, which will help the plants growing in it withstand damage from pests.
Remove Infested Plants Immediately for future Pest Control
We often have such an attachment to our plants that we want to will them to make it, even if insects have taken over. A better practice is to remove infested plants and kill the insects attacking them.
For example, If I see my squash plants overrun by squash bugs, I do not let the plants stay in my garden. If they complete their life cycle, the problem will only increase season after season. At early signs of infestation, I clip off infested leaves and feed them to my chickens. But if I’m too late, I give up and pull the whole plant.
Observe Insect Patterns: Test, Adjust, and Note
Observe patterns and write down when you see certain insects. In the Complete Garden Planner, I have included a section where you can write down when you first see different insects. Then, the next season you can adjust your planting times to hopefully avoid them. With this small step, you can avoid the lifecycles of certain insects in your area.
Test to see if timing your plantings differently helps and adjust each season as you learn more. Write down when you plant and how much damage there is from year to year. Focus on one pest at a time that inflicts the most damage to your garden. Then, move on to another.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that insect populations and the timing of their arrival do vary from year to year. We can’t prepare for everything, but we can take steps to control as much as possible.
More Resources on Pest Control without Pesticides
- Learn more about how to control cabbage worms on your brassicas, broccoli, kale, and cabbage.
- If aphids were a problem for you this year, consider these organic methods for aphid control I tested.
- For both a “big picture” view of integrated pest management, as well as how to control specific pests organically, you’ll find great information from a university extension expert in this post: managing insects in the home vegetable garden.
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