When I grew my first vegetable garden, I was introduced to a method called "The Three Sisters." It is a Native American style of companion planting, which involves interplanting corn, beans, and squash so that they can all benefit from each other. The corn offers supports for the beans, the squash prevents weeds by shading the soil, and the beans push nitrogen into the soil and provide nutrients for all three. It was an interesting plan, and I couldn't help but become more interested in learning how other plants could be companions and help each other out. That first year, I planted every single one of my beds with companions: basil and tomatoes, potatoes and rosemary, nasturtiums and zucchini, broccoli and lettuce. It was a complete mash up with a very unique and detailed order that only I could really understand. The best part? I had hardly any insect or weed pests that year.
Now, it could have been a coincidence, but I was convinced that I was onto something after attending a lecture on IPM, or Integrated Pest Management. It is a common sense, holistic approach to pest management. Rather than use pest eradication, you will find that IPM uses all responsible tactics possible like a gardener's knowledge of plants, pests, and the environment to reduce the number of pests invited into their gardens before using any sort pesticide. Now, while this may sound like it, IPM is not organic gardening. In fact, organic gardening is simply defined by textbook standards as not using synthetic pesticides on crops. Practicers of IPM can still use pesticides to deter pests, but it's often used as a last resort. As a gardener who prefers not to use any type of sprays, I agree with the practice of IPM for this main reason: it is neither feasible nor responsible to completely kill all insects or prevent all disease problems.
It's really as simple as that! In fact, it's almost like a small mantra to repeat to yourself - it's okay to spot pests and to not reach for the spray! For example, I can remember one moment where I found a small army of aphids attacking one of my sunflowers. While I knew that I could have easily found an insecticide to apply, I tried a mechanical control tactic. I pulled up my garden hose and sprayed them off with a steady stream of water. Aphids have very weak legs and strong mouthparts (that's what they use to suck the life out of your plants), therefore they were too weak after the blast of water to walk back up the sunflower stalk. After about two more days of this, they were gone! It was wonderful.
Pests are part of the natural environment. They are often found in the garden as an annoyance and can include insects, weeds, plant diseases, and wildlife. While they are a nuisance, they are also part of a growing community of insects and biological life in your garden. In other words, that insect pest may be a meal for another beneficial insect. This is where the entire debate on insecticide (and other pesticide) uses come in; many insecticides that kill an insect pest will also kill a beneficial insect, whether through the application or from the affects that it causes. This includes bees, butterflies, moths, lady beetles, flower flies, lacewings, and more.
Where does that leave your pest issue? There are many control tactics that you can use to keep the pests away, but I believe the best one is planning for less pests early on in the game. That's where the Three Sisters come in. While the Three Sisters is not necessarily a tactic for preventing insects, it does make an exemplary control for weeds.
Prevention is the first component of making Integrated Pest Management happen. This is done first by using your knowledge of prior problems to create a better future for your garden. A few ideas would be using exclusion tactics such as putting up a fence or placing chicken wire around the base of a young tree to keep the rabbits at bay. If you have insect issues, maybe try investing in netting, row covers, or sticky traps. It is also important to make sure any transplants you are purchasing from your local nursery look healthy and free from any insects or plant diseases that could potentially be introduced to your garden.
This is also known as scouting, or inspecting your plants carefully over regular periods to check for pests and signs of disease. This is such a major part, and if anything, should be something that you do at least once per week to keep up with any major changes! Look for sick or abnormal looking plants. Search the undersides of leaves for insects, their eggs, or chewed holes. It is important to properly identify pests when searching; for instance, the flower fly is colored like a bee, but has a head like a fly. Their larvae eat aphids and are a good sign in your garden! Know which insects are most likely going to move into your garden so that you can determine what the next step is ahead of time.
My favorite form of planned control is companion planting and crop rotation. One of the best garden tips I ever received was to diversify your garden! Grow many different types of plants. Plant flowers and herbs amongst your vegetables. They are helpful plant friends that can only benefit your garden as a whole. Not only do herbs and flowers help to keep insects away (they don't enjoy the smells), but they also can help flavor your vegetables and provide nutrients to the soil. There are many other cultural controls that you can use such as mulching, crop rotation, sanitation, and timing out your garden properly.
How bad is your pest problem? If you come across a similar situation to what I experienced with my sunflowers, then it's not as bad as you think. There was not a giant family of aphids waiting in the background! If anything, practice the art of fixing the problem as soon as you see it. If you are bent over in the cabbage bed and notice a cabbage worm, pick it off. With IPM, you are basing your entire pest management regimen off of how bad the initial plant injury level is. While a commercial gardener may have more of an issue when it comes to controlling the pests that attack their plants, for the home gardener, it just takes a little bit more time and patience of waiting out the initial attack.
Integrated Pest Management is a wonderful way to look at how your actions can affect the entire biological structure of the garden at large. With the idea that in order to see less pests you must first plan around them, I think that could help any one gardener to stop reaching for their spray bottle.
Photo credit: Kayla Haupt