Natural pest control in the vegetable garden: Integrated Pest Management

If you are growing a food garden, and possibly feeding your family from it, the last thing you want to do is douse it in poison, right?

Well, if you use chemical pesticides, herbicides, and even some fertilizers, that’s exactly what you’re doing. And when you buy fruit and vegetables at the grocery store, it’s likely that it has been sprayed as well. Nasty.

So how do you manage to grow healthy fruit and veg, without having insect damage, or ending up with broccoli full of little green worms?

Well, chances are, you might have to put up with some pest damage, and a few worms in the broccoli, when you grow organically or better. Sorry.

But! With proper management, you can minimize the damage, without risking your health by using pesticides.

That’s where Integrated Pest Management (IPM) comes in. Now, IPM is rather broad, and can be used in different ways for different purposes.

But for this article, IPM is a way of using completely natural (meaning, no chemicals. Ever.) ways of controlling and minimizing pests in the home vegetable garden.

Natural pest control in the vegetable garden
Growing broccoli is extremely satisfying. Unless it’s full of little green worms. Then it’s just . . . gross.

Protect your garden

My two favorite ways of protecting my garden are: inviting beneficial insects into the garden to take care of the pests; and creating super healthy soil.

Plus, there’s always just hanging out in the garden and picking the little buggers right off the plants. A handful of slugs is a rather slimy sort of thing, but it works!

There are numerous beneficial insects, and their job is to munch on the pest insects. Sometimes it is the adults who are the munchers, sometimes it is the larvae, and sometimes it’s both.

With IPM, we want to create ecosystems that invite these beneficial insects in, and convince them to stay. So we need to find out what kinds of plants they like. One great way to keep beneficials in the garden is to create ‘wild’ areas, where they will feel at home.

Natural pest control in the vegetable garden
Our garden is on a large terraced area, held back by a wall of boulders. There are some trees and shrubs, a few different flowery things, and plenty of weeds. It’s the perfect ‘wild’ space for beneficial insects to live; and a lovely place for garter snakes to hang out as well.

Creating balance

The whole point of the beneficial insects, the healthy soil, and the plants that attract them, is to create a natural balance within the ecosystem of your garden.

One day you might go into the garden and notice that there are a lot of aphids, or some other pest insect. Oh, no! What should you do?

Well, if you have already put things in place to attract and keep beneficial insects in the garden, all you have to do is wait.

Beneficial insects come when there is a lot of food. So, if you suddenly have an influx of pests, you might only have to wait a bit, and watch for an influx of beneficials to come eat them. That’s the balance that nature provides.

Now, this doesn’t happen over night. The beneficials need to build up enough of a force to take out the bulk of the pests. But if you take certain steps, and be consistent, you can help the balance fall in favor of the beneficials.

Ways to implement IPM in your home vegetable garden

The following are a few of the things you can do to help your garden produce healthy plants so they can avoid as much pest pressure as possible. Some predation is inevitable, but you really can ease the pest pressure by implementing these suggestions into your garden building.

#1 Create healthy soil

Healthy soil creates healthy plants. And healthy plants are much more resistant to disease and pests than weak plants.

Now, don’t get me wrong: healthy soil isn’t a magic bullet. You can still get predation and sick plants even if you have healthy soil, but not near as much as if your soil is poor.

The best ways to create healthier soil are:

  • Add compost
  • Get a soil test to see what your soil is lacking and add it
  • Add more compost

A good compost is the best thing in the world for your soil. But there are many other amendments you can add, to ensure that you have all of the nutrients required to grow healthy plants. Check out this list of free soil amendments you can get.

#2 Which plants to plant

It’s important to keep things flowering in the garden as long as possible, and start as early in the spring as you can. This will ensure that there is plenty of food for the beneficial insects, and they’ll be much more likely to stick around.

Early blooms also ensure early pollinators have something to eat. So, don’t whack those dandelions! They are an important food for pollinators.

Certain beneficial insects prefer certain plants. But there seems to be a pattern of beneficials being attracted to umbellifer flowers. There is a long list of herbs, vegetables, and weeds that have these types of flowers: cilantro, dill, chervil, lovage, celery, Queen Anne’s Lace, wild carrots, and the list goes on.

Planting these in and around the garden, and letting them go to seed, will go a long way toward attracting the beneficial insects you want. I let a lot of chervil and cilantro go to seed last year, and just left it in the garden. Now it’s coming up everywhere!

I just leave it growing until I need the space it is growing in, and then I compost it. But there is still plenty left growing which will go to seed.

Chervil and cilantro are very quick to bolt and set flowers, so they are great to spread around the garden. And when cilantro goes to seed, you will then have coriander!

Dill is another great one for the garden. It has large umbellifer flowers, and then it sets seed and you have some great seeds for adding to your pickled or fermented veggies. Yum. And don’t forget to save some for planting next year.

Brassica flowers are also quite popular with the beneficial set. I have kale in flower right now, and it is always buzzing, with a wide variety of insects partaking of the flowers.

I always let some brassicas, mustards, and herbs flower, because they attract a variety of helpful insects. (Of course, I let other things flower too, so I’ll have seeds to plant next year.)

Also, as I mentioned earlier, leaving some wild spaces around the garden is excellent for attracting and keeping beneficial insects in the garden. Undisturbed areas make great places for them to make their homes, so don’t weed them or whack ‘em with the weed whacker!

Natural pest control in the vegetable garden
In last year’s garden, this row of mustards went to seed, and was always buzzing with a variety of flies, bees and wasps. And it made a LOT of seeds.

#3 Beneficial insects

Different insects provide different services in the garden. Sometimes it’s the adults that chow down on the pests, and sometimes it’s both the adult and the larva. It’s amazing how much the little buggers can eat!

Although it really isn’t possible to keep all of the pest insects out of the garden – it is nature, after all – if you do as many of these things as possible, you can make a dent in the pest pressure.

There are two ways to get beneficial insects into your garden: buy them, or attract them naturally. Since I’m a cheapskate, and never have any money to spare anyway, I always go for the natural way – planting the plants they like. : )

Let’s talk about the kinds of insects that you want in your garden. Keep in mind that these insects don’t live everywhere, in every climate. But there will generally be something similar, which does the same thing, so do some research and see which beneficial insects live in your area.

  • Ladybugs – best known for adults and larvae munching down on aphids, mealybugs, etc.
  • Green Lacewings – into aphids, too; but also whiteflies, leafhoppers, mites, etc.
  • Hoverflies – some species’ larvae go for aphids and other plant-suckers.
  • Tachinid Flies – their larva is parasitic, meaning the adults lay their eggs in the host, and then they eat them. Gack. Very helpful in controlling cabbage looper caterpillar.
  • Damsel Bugs – Chews on mites, aphids, leafhoppers, and other plant pests.
  • Minute Pirate Bugs – Pests they find tasty: aphids, spider mites, and thrips. They’re speedy, and they can eat a LOT.
  • Ground Beetles – Eat ants, aphids, caterpillars, maggots, and slugs. Nice to have something in the garden that helps with the slugs.
  • Soldier Beetles – Larvae and adults prey on many pests, including aphids, cucumber beetles, caterpillars, grasshopper eggs, and beetle larvae.
  • Braconid Wasps – These wasps lay a lot of eggs – up to 200! The larvae munch from inside their hosts. It’s gross, but it’s handy. Prey includes cabbage worms, aphids, flies, leaf miners and tomato hornworms.

#4 Polyculture

Polyculture – as you might presume – is the exact opposite of monoculture. And monoculture is the bane of modern food production. It is just a bad idea.

But then contemporary farming is full of bad ideas. But that’s not what we’re talking about today.

Today, we’re going to learn how to create a polyculture in the garden, without actually mixing all the seeds together and just flinging them out into the soil. That would be interesting, but not so quick and easy to harvest. And there would be a lot of wasted seeds.

You can still grow a polyculture. Instead of growing one thing per row, break it up, and plant a variety of veggies, with herbs or flowers between them.

I have green onions in a couple of different areas of the garden. I have broccoli in three different spots, with different herbs and flowers planted with them. I also plant salad greens in different areas, so they don’t all get hit by the pests (mostly slugs).

This technique is designed to confuse pests (the flowers and herbs offer different smells and colors, to confuse pests and mask the vegetables), and the hope that if pests find one patch, they might not find the others.

And to be perfectly honest, I just think a garden looks so much more interesting planted this way! Rows of identical plants is pretty boring, you have to admit.

Now, if I were to have a market garden, I would have to be a little more organized, to make harvesting quicker and easier. But as this is just our home garden, I can plant things willy-nilly, and it looks beautiful!

Planting your garden as a polyculture isn’t a sure-fire way to avoid all insect damage, but it is another tool from the permaculture tool box.

Natural pest control in the vegetable garden
In this small area there is kohlrabi, broccoli, green onions, calendula, nasturtiums, and dill. Polyculture in action.

#5 Birds

Birds eat bugs. Betcha already knew that. They eat mosquitoes, which makes them superheroes, in my book.

Seriously though: inviting birds into the garden is a great way to help keep the bad bug population down. Sure, they might eat some beneficials, but that’s okay. They also eat our earthworms, but I don’t hold that against them.

In order to invite birds into the garden you need a few simple things:

  • trees or shrubs
  • places for them to land and survey the garden
  • water
  • bugs and stuff

Birds like to feel safe. If they feel exposed, they don’t feel safe. Having trees or large shrubs near the garden will give them somewhere high to hang out. They might even build their nests there, like the robins did in the magnolia last year.

The birds in our garden sit on the fence, or sometimes on the trellis I built for the snow peas. They sit up there until they decide it’s safe to swoop down and go after a worm or insect.

Water is also a good thing to have in the garden, and not only for the birds. Insects will take advantage of it as well. So make sure there is a place for them to sit as they drink. A rock or brick works well.

Of course, in order for birds to want to hang out, there have to be bugs and worms and stuff for them to eat. Our garden has a lot of worms, as evidenced by the robins scratching away in the garden daily.

Sometimes it’s annoying, as they can dig into the sides of the beds, and undermine what is growing there; but it is something I’m willing to put up with.

They eat pest insects; so don’t feel that they aren’t good inhabitants of the garden. They are wonderful. And they also add their manure to your soil!

Natural pest control in the vegetable garden
This little watering hole in the garden is for the birds, bees, dragonflies, and whoever else needs a sip on a hot day.

I would like to build some bird houses to put in the garden, to encourage birds to nest there. And then there’s the cuteness factor birdhouses will add. Very important.

#6 Covering the plants

This is something that can be very helpful if you have heavy pest pressure. It may not make the garden look all that inviting; but it is definitely a viable solution if you just can’t keep those little green worms out of your broccoli.

Bootstrap Farmer has some great netting for protecting plants. Proteknet keeps out pest insects, while being very breathable, and allowing water through.

It also lets in far more light than other row covers. This product is better than most, and I’ve be told that it lasts quite a few years without becoming ratty on the edges, if you take care of it.

If you’re looking for row cover that will also help keep your plants warm in spring or fall, this isn’t the one. But if you’re just looking to keep out those pesky vegetable pests, Proteknet is a great option.

Natural pest control in the vegetable garden
Proteknet crop protection netting, for when you have heavy pest pressure, and the natural way just ain’t cutting it.

The balancing act

And there you have it: 6 aspects of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) that will help you protect your precious veggies without resorting to using poisons, or spending too much money. Another excellent tool from the permaculture tool box.

The Proteknet can be more costly than some row covers; but the rest of the IPM suggestions cost, at most, the value of a few seed packets. And if you play your cards right, some of them will reseed and come back year after year.

Now that you know a little, you can go ahead and do some research and find out more. What are the pest insects in your area? What are the beneficial insects that live around you? What can you grow to attract them?

By putting these suggestions into action, you will be taking steps toward balance in nature, and away from toxic gunk. Excellent choice!

As always, if you have any questions or comments at all, please leave them in the comments box below, and I’ll get back to you quick as a bunny.

Thanks for dropping by!

Health, Hope & Happiness

Tracy

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