Managing pests by studying your garden
Nobody wants to share the fruits of their labor with bugs. You can deal with them by spraying organic pesticides, setting traps, and picking off bugs. You can also cultivate a healthy, diverse set of plants, which helps resist pests. But another important element of a solid pest management strategy is to know your garden. Some perennials are susceptible to the same pests each season, for instance. I always know that leaf miners will find my sorrel and aphids will seek comfort and shade in my currant bushes. So I pretreat and pay special attention to those areas every year to keep them from coming back. I also walk my garden a few times a week searching for unwanted bugs. If I notice five aphids on my radicchio, I brush them off, problem solved. Left unnoticed, those five aphids can explode into a community of hundreds.
pay attention to your plants
Scan your plants. A quick way to zero in on any pest problem is to simply scan your perennials. If any jump out as looking unhealthy, investigate. Signs your plants may be under siege include dead areas, wilted or discolored leaves, unusual growth, and lack of fruit. Once you pinpoint your unhealthy plants, turn over the leaves, stems, buds, and shoots to look for the culprit. If I find bugs I usually either pick them off and squash them, or spray them with soapy water.
Trap pests in glue. Another way to learn more about the bugs in your yard is to use sticky traps. These are blue, red, or yellow paper traps with a strong adhesive coating. Bugs are attracted to the bright colors and fly right into the glue. Checking sticky traps a few times a week yields lots of useful information. If I see a dozen cabbage moths, for instance, I know I need to treat my broccoli with Bt to kill off any hatching cabbage loopers before they have a chance to feast.
Evaluate the results. Consider your pest management tactics experimental until you know they work. After treating your plants wait a day or two and then inspect them. Look to see if there are any dead bugs or smaller colonies. It's also possible the damage may have worsened. If there's no change, or things are worse, it's obviously time to try something else.
One final piece of advice: Learn to love ugly fruits and vegetables, or at least accept them. Once you’ve identified the bad bugs, decide what level of harm is acceptable. Do you need picture perfect berries or are you okay with eating greens with a few holes in them? Learning to live with less-than-perfect produce can help lighten your pest management burden, and make gardening a whole lot more fun.
Acadia Tucker is a farmer in New Hampshire. Her book, Growing Perennial Foods: A field guide to raising resilient herbs, fruits, and vegetables, is available for preorder in our bookstore. Her second book, Growing Good Food: A citizen's guide to backyard carbon farming (Stone Pier Press), will be published in Spring 2019.
This is part of our series on regenerative gardening, or how to grow food that taste good and help the planet. To find out more about growing your own perennials, check out our Perennial Profiles.