Pest Control

Putting Up A Friendly Fight

Story 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 the landscape.

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.


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