By Russell McCulley Photographed by Cheryl GerberEvery gardener knows the pattern: as the summer heats up, plants get stressed, putting most of their energy into producing fruit and flowers and basic survival. Then the insects and other pests move in to take advantage of the situation.
It’s tempting to fight back with the full force of insecticides. But, before you reach for the big guns—what Grant Estrade of Laughing Buddha Nursery calls the “nuclear option”—consider an arsenal of pest control methods that are kinder
to the environment.
Planting sunflowers among vegetables (right) can attract beneficial insects.
“Don’t overreact” when insects and caterpillars drop in for a snack, says Estrade. Common insecticides such as diazinon and malathion are effective. “But those things will take out everything, and it’s usually overkill,” he says. “They’re plants, they’re outside, they’re going to get nibbled on. That’s the way it works. If you’re just getting a few holes in the leaves but getting what you want out of the plant, that’s not really a pest problem.”
If you find that you’re sharing more of your harvest with pests than you wish, there are ways to take out the enemy without a lot of environmental collateral damage.
A butterfly garden can help deflect pests from the vegetable garden.
Identify the Culprit
Zero in on the problem by identifying the type of pest that is causing it. That way, you’ll know best how to fight back. Some of the most common garden pests are aphids, whiteflies, leaf miners, mealy bugs, caterpillars, cutworms, spider mites and thrips, which attack budding roses. “Identify it before you spray it,” Estrade says. “Once you’ve identified it, you can figure out how to get rid of it.” Identifying the pest helps you choose a product that is specific to the problem.
Advances in technology
and a growing organic gardening market have created a range of new, environmentally friendly products.
• Cutworms and tomato hornworms wreaking havoc in the garden? Try a product that contains Bacillus thuringiensis, or BT, a bacterial concoction that targets caterpillars without harming beneficial insects.
• Slugs? Bait containing iron phosphate, marketed under the brand name Sluggo, is very effective and environmentally sound.
• Other unwanted insects? Less discriminating organics are pyrethrin, which is derived from certain species of chrysanthemums, and diatomaceous earth, which is used to kill fire ants and other insects. Both are effective and safe for the environment when used correctly, but will kill just about any insect.
There are also several environmentally friendly repellents on the market, including a spray that contains cayenne pepper and food grade wax, and sprays made from concentrated garlic that ward off insects and mosquitoes. Most organic pest control products, incidentally, cost about the same as those made from synthetic chemicals.
Ladybugs are good for a garden's health.
The best defense against insects is, paradoxically, more insects; biodiversity “helps create an even playing field,” he says. “That’s the key to pest control.” One strategy is companion planting: mixing flowering herbs like dill or fennel, for example, in with ornamental plants to attract beneficial insects, or planting marigolds and sunflowers among the vegetables. Some gardeners plant a butterfly garden next to the vegetable patch, or install what Estrade calls “sacrifice crops” or “trap gardens” designed to deflect pests from the main garden.
Dill is not only delicious, it can help your garden stay pest free.
Biodiversity helps create habitat for beneficial insects and other natural pest fighters such as green anoles, the lizards common in South Louisiana. Red paper wasps may look threatening, but before you launch a wasp eradication program, keep in mind that the red wasp buzzing around the garden is likely feeding on pest eggs deposited on the underside of leaves. You can even buy some beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings and introduce them to the garden yourself.
Sluggo is effective in getting rid of snails and slugs, and is environmentally friendly.
As with any insecticide or repellant, you should read the labels on organic products thoroughly to make sure you are using them correctly and effectively—especially when treating fruits and vegetables. If you are unsure of a product’s safety, ask someone at a good garden supply store for advice. “If you’re growing food crops, you don’t want to be spraying it with something that’s going to kill you,” Estrade says. “I tell people, ‘read the label—would you want to eat this?”
Though your cat may want to play with them, these small lizards are a different sort
of pest fighters.