Keeping a home vegetable garden pest free can be quite the task. Luckily there are ways to prevent garden pests that can make a gardener’s job so much easier. Natural garden pest control is a multi-step method of prevention and then the use of certain techniques or products if the bugs keep coming.
Why Prevent Garden Pests?
Eariler this year, I published an e-book all about natural garden pest control, and it is an in-depth look at ways to prevent garden pests (without chemicals!), identify them, and manage them during the growing season. You can check out Natural Pest Control for the Home Garden here. Natural pest control in the home garden isn’t just a one-step process. It involves prior planning and implementation for it to be effective, but I have you covered! Here’s where to start!
Healthy Plants and Soil
Having healthy soil is a key component to healthy plants. First have your soil tested by your local Cooperative Extension office. This is usually a free service that will give you valuable feedback about the PH of your soil, as well as its phosphorus and potassium levels. All of this information will help you to make amendments such as adding lime to raise PH or purchasing the specific type of fertilizer you need, instead of adding a general fertilizer that may actually be hurting your soil, instead of helping. Along with the soil test and amendments, use a good quality mulch, such as pine straw, to keep weeds at bay and also to foster a protected environment for earthworms and other champions of healthy soil. Not only will this save you time from weeding, but you’re keeping more moisture in the soil, which helps you to cut back on watering. (Need a DIY Potting Soil recipe? Check out mine!)A healthy plant growing in a proper environment where it can thrive is the next step in keeping pests away. You can confidently do this by using those small tags that come on newly purchased plants. Does the plant like full sun? Put it in full sun. What about partial shade? Find a spot with occasional shade during the day. Purchasing plants online has also given gardeners the opportunity to try a wide variety of plants, but be sure you know your zone (See the US Zone Map), and choose plants that will thrive in whatever climate you live in. You’re setting yourself up for a pest and disease problem if you try to force a plant to acclimate to your climate when they would rather be in a cooler/warmer place.
If you’ve discovered that a plant is planted in an improper location, and it’s been struggling with pests and/or stress, then don’t be afraid to move it. Just be sure to practice good transplant practices to avoid damaging the roots, and place that plant where it will thrive!
Though not specifically a pest prevention method, cover crops that are used in the “down season” or in between plantings are incredibly helpful for building up the health of your soil. Healthy soil grows healthy plants, and as mentioned above, this is the first step to preventing pests. Cover crops also help to suppress weeds, which makes gardening so much easier for you! There are many types of cover crops out there, and what’s best for your garden depends greatly on where you live, so reach out to your local cooperative extension for a list of recommended cover crops for your area.
Another common means of pest prevention is to choose plants that are healthy. This may seem like a given, but take the time to inspect the plants you’re purchasing. In some cases there may already be pests, such as aphids, present, and you don’t want to bring a problem into your garden from the start. Also check for the overall health of the plant. Are the leaves yellowing or dying? Check under the leaves for any sign of pests or disease, as well as the stems, soil and roots.
The same applies for seeds. Purchase certified insect-free seeds if possible. (I love Baker Creek Seed and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.) And take care to keep seedlings healthy and pest-free if you’re starting your own at home. Starting out with healthy plants to go along with your healthy soil will go a long way to preventing pests.
Along with healthy soil and proper placement in the garden space to help control pests, using certain flowers, herbs, and other plants can be a preventative measure. Using companion plants is a wonderful method of controlling pests without resorting to sprays or soaps. Many pests are deterred by strong scents, and many herbs are known for their heady fragrances, lucky for us! Check out my article on Companion Planting for more information. And find out how to grow garlic, which is a fantastic companion plant!
An age old practice made practical for the home garden. Crop rotation is exactly what it sounds like. If a certain plant or crop was grown in a location one year, move it to a different spot the next. This is especially true if your plant or crop suffered from a pest that overwinters underground. The pest will come back the next year and begin feeding right away if you haven’t practiced crop rotation. A good example of this is squash vine borers. They attack the stems of squash and other cucurbits, killing the plant as they eat their way through the plant. They then overwinter under the soil to come back the next year. Practicing crop rotation will keep them from having a ready-made meal the next year.
And when using crop rotation, be sure to not just rotate a particular crop, but others than may be closely related. For example, a squash and zucchini are very similar, so when you decide to rotate your squash to a new spot, don’t plant zucchini in its old place. They’re plant “cousins,” and will attract the same kinds of pests.
While this may sound very technical, it’s actually the practice of spreading out your crop so it isn’t all in one place. Why do this? You’re making it more difficult for pests to find their next meal. For example, in the fall, cabbage moths may abound, and if you have all of your brassicas (kale, broccoli, cabbage) planted together, the moths and the worms that follow will have a field day in your brassicas patch. Instead, plant other types of plants, such as flowers, herbs, and other vegetables, to confuse the pests. This simple practice can also make for a beautiful garden design, so have fun with interplanting!
All of these methods will help you to prevent pests in the home vegetable garden. Next week, I’ll share about pest control products that home gardeners can use when prevention methods haven’t solved the problem. I’d love to know what pest prevention methods you use in your garden!