Up A Friendly Fight
by Deborah Huso, Contributing Writer
Earth-conscious pest control is easier than you think!
Most of us who relish our lawns and flower gardens have
been there — after spending weeks carefully planting bulbs, sowing grass
seed, and positioning flowering shrubs, we’ll awaken one morning to find
our efforts at landscaping jeopardized, perhaps even destroyed, by pesky
insects or munching wildlife. While any home and garden store will have a
vast array of chemical offerings designed to make our infested yards
beautiful again, you really don’t have to go the toxic route to prevent or
fight pest infestations of your turf and ornamental plants. There are plenty
of Earth-friendly options for controlling pests and even more options for
preventing infestation to begin with.
Plant the Right Plants
Laurie Fox, Virginia Cooperative Extension
horticulturalist at the Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension
Center (AREC) in Virginia Beach, says a lot of people set their landscaping
and gardening projects up for failure from the beginning. “Plant plants
that are habituated to your area,” she says. “Use your common sense and
choose plants that have a chance to do well.” Fox points out that many
people in coastal areas of the state like to plant tropical trees and
bushes. “They will grow here,” she notes, “but it’s not a healthy
environment for them.”
That doesn’t mean gardeners can only sow native
plants if they want a healthy flowerbed. Instead, Fox says, one just needs
to pay attention to the kinds of conditions required by plants and make sure
those conditions match the environment of one’s home. Most plants come
with labels for climates and environments in which they do well, and
gardeners can always call their local Cooperative Extension offices for free
advice. She recommends the New York/Mid-Atlantic Gardener’s Book of Lists
for detailed information on which plants best suit which areas.
Traci Gilland, a horticulture extension agent in
Portsmouth, says having a healthy garden isn’t as hard as homeowners may
think. Gardeners just need to be careful not to plant shade plants in full
sun, for example. Stressed plants, she points out, are the most vulnerable
to pest infestation. “Make sure you keep your garden watered and
fertilized,” she says. “Don’t let it get stressed out. Healthy gardens
don’t get overrun by insects.”
Fox says one way to ensure a healthy garden while
protecting the environment is to consider cultivating a BayScapes garden.
Initiated by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay (ACB), BayScaping
encourages the growth of native and low-maintenance plants as well as
grouping plants by type so that those requiring more watering, for example,
are all in one place, reducing water waste. Fox designed a BayScapes garden
at the Hampton Roads AREC. She used many native plants that are tolerant of
wet growing conditions and says gardeners living in coastal areas should
consider visiting the garden for landscaping ideas.
“The ACB promotes diversity,” Fox explains. “A
diverse landscape is less susceptible to pests and disease.” Anyone who
plants flowers all of the same species is asking for trouble. Detrimental
insects tend to be attracted to large gatherings of their favorite foods.
Furthermore, if gardeners have a multitude of flower varieties, if one type
of plant falls victim to infestation, it won’t affect the overall look of
Fox also recommends long-term planning for flower
gardens. “When you change plants frequently,” she notes, “you risk
introducing new problems.”
Fighting Insects with Insects … and Soap and Water
Even the most attentive gardeners will run into pest
problems now and then. Gilland says one of the best ways to prevent insect
infestation from causing garden devastation is to pay attention to the look
of one’s lawn and flowerbeds on a daily basis. “I usually get calls when
insect infestation has reached a critical point,” Gilland says. “But you
can catch stuff early if you pay attention to your gardens every day.”
Among the most common insect pests are caterpillars —
which eat the leaves of many ornamental plants, as well as aphids —which
suck the juice out of plant cells, causing the leaves to discolor, curl, and
die. Japanese beetles also antagonize gardeners in May and June, and will
graze on just about anything. Spider mites tend to prey on weak plants in
dry, hot areas.
Sometimes pests can be controlled by letting beneficial
insects have the run of the garden. Gilland says many people make the
mistake of killing insects that prey on pests. She advises gardeners to
identify the problem insect before attempting any pest-control measures.
“Your local extension office can tell you if a bug is good or bad,” she
says. Among the good guys are lace wings, which lay eggs on plant leaves.
Unknowing gardeners often assume they’re pests and kill the eggs, but lace
wings don’t harm plants and, in fact, feast on many garden predators.
Praying mantises are also useful bugs to have around and fun to watch as
well. “If you’ve got predators feeding, let them do their job,”
Gilland advises. Nature will often take care of itself.
Sometimes pest infestations become too big for nature
to handle, however. In those instances, Gilland says, “Always start with
the least toxic of everything.”
One catch-all remedy is insecticidal soap, which can be
purchased in any home-and-garden store. Not so different from the folk
remedy of soap and water, insecticidal soap is especially effective on
soft-bodied insects. “It will take away 95 percent of an infestation,”
Gilland says. For Japanese beetles, she recommends picking them off plants
during peak activity periods (usually between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.) and
dunking them in soapy water. Because beetles can fly, spraying insecticidal
soap won’t help much.
There are more and more organic pest-control methods
all the time, though Gilland says, “Just because a product says it’s
natural or organic doesn’t mean it’s safe to handle without
equipment.” She recommends always using safety goggles and gloves and
wearing long pants when administering pest-control sprays.
Among the more environmentally friendly options is
Rotenone, a naturally occurring chemical derived from the roots of tropical
and subtropical plants. A natural insecticide, it’s good for treating
infestations of aphids and Japanese beetles. Pyrethrin is another naturally
derived insecticide that can be an effective controller of garden pests, but
like most insecticides, it will kill both good and bad bugs.
Lawns can also be vulnerable to garden pests,
especially grubs, which feed on the root systems of grass. Gilland advises
against getting overzealous in trying to control them. “When you’re
doing fall fertilizing,” she says, “cut a square foot of turf, roll it
back, and count the number of grubs you find.” If there are eight to 10
grubs, then there’s a problem. But three or four is nothing to worry
about. “Grubs provide food for all sorts of animals,” she says. If the
grub problem is serious, Gilland recommends using Beauveria bassiana, also
known as Naturalis-T, an organic compound that can be purchased at garden
stores. She advises getting grub-identification assistance from one’s
local extension office, however, as not all treatments work for all grubs.
For example, Milky Spore, a safe and naturally occurring bacteria, will only
kill Japanese beetle grubs.
Combating Furry Garden Invaders
Of course, not all garden pests are of the insect
variety. Most gardeners have negative experiences with furry interlopers as
well, including deer, rabbits, and squirrels. “A beautiful garden is like
a buffet for deer,” Gilland says. She suggests placing deer treats away
from the garden, so deer have something to munch on and won’t be attracted
to one’s ornamental plants. Gardeners can also plant a patch of sorghum
for deer to eat, so they won’t pester more important plantings. In extreme
circumstances, an electric fence may be in order, but Gilland says that
should be a last resort.
To combat rabbits and other ground-hugging rodent
varieties, turkey- or chicken-wire fence buried six inches into the ground
will deter most munching. “Most rodents don’t like to dig through
things,” Gillands says. Planting bulbs in tin cans and burying them in the
ground will also deter pests like voles from eating them before spring rolls
around. Dousing plants in Hinder, an organic pest control made of ammonium
soaps, will also deter deer, rabbits, and other wildlife. Having a dog or
cat to chase critters away isn’t such a bad idea either.
In the end, having a successful flower garden and lush
lawn depends more on common sense than chemicals. Fox suggests visiting
municipal gardens close to home to see how they landscape and what plants
are the most successful for your region. And be willing to accept some
insects, good guys and bad guys, and your garden and the Earth will be a lot
healthier for it.