Methods for Organic Pest Control in the Garden

Pests and disease are a natural part of gardening, but sometimes they can get out of hand. As organic gardeners, we reach for organic solutions, but even those must be used correctly and cautiously. Read on to find out more about IPM (what is that?) and some potential organic pest control and disease problem solutions.

What is Integrated Pest Management?

Often abbreviated as IPM, integrated pest management is a system of monitoring, evaluating, treating, and managing garden pest and disease issues with biological, cultural, mechanical, and chemical means. Integrated means no one course of action is the sole solution–multiple activities across the spectrum are needed. Management means some low level of pest or disease is likely acceptable, whether from an economic, aesthetic, or quality standpoint. 

The steps are broken down into five actions:

  1. Monitor for problems.
  2. Identify the problem: What is that insect or disease?
  3. Assess whether it’s worth taking action. 
  4. Implement a treatment strategy using a combination of methods.
  5. Evaluate your success.

As organic gardeners, our solutions also need to be ecologically sound. We wouldn’t spray an organic broad-spectrum pesticide and risk killing all our pollinators! 

Remember that in pest control, the label organic doesn’t mean safe. It means the product is natural, not synthetic. Plenty of naturally occurring substances are still highly toxic. Rattlesnake venom is an organic rodenticide…

Monitor to catch problems early

If you don’t know there is a problem, it can grow to be a larger one. Since we don’t want to nuke our gardens with harsh synthetic chemicals, catching problems early is essential, and frequent garden walks are how to do it. I know that sounds rough, right?  You’ll get through it! 

Learn the symptoms and signs of common garden pests. Look for changing colors and holes in leaves, eggs, larvae, etc. Check the bottom sides of the leaves. When you find an unknown issue, it’s time for some research! 

Be as specific as possible if doing an internet search. Instead of “What is wrong with my tomatoes,” search “What eats tomato leaves in northern Georgia in August and looks like a big green disgusting worm.”

Identify and Assess the Problem

After working hard all season, it pains us to see anything “hurting” our garden plants, whether they are flowers or vegetables. However, a little pest pressure is no cause for alarm. Before looking for a solution, calmly–it can be hard when there are holes in leaves–assess if the problem is serious. 

If you have two tomato plants, you can probably hand-pick the offending insects for the 2-3 weeks when they will be a problem. If you have 100 tomato plants, you might need a different action. 

Implement a Combined Solution

Once you’ve identified there is a problem and it is severe enough to take action, combining cultural, mechanical, biological, and sometimes chemical methods is the next step. Some of these actions are multi-year efforts, like planting resistant varieties of crops or courting beneficial insects. Others are immediate actions.

Cultural Controls: Start at the Beginning

Cultural doesn’t mean playing indie folk music or introducing your peers to literature. It refers to how we garden. Rotating crops, selecting disease-resistant varieties, and choosing the right plant for the right place are all examples. If powdery mildew is a problem, watering with a drip line in the morning to keep leaves dry would be an example of cultural control.

Plants have evolved with pests and are naturally resistant to some degree. One of the best measures to control pests organically in your garden is to help your plants be healthy and vigorous. Healthy plants resist disease, and struggling plants can attract harmful insects, just like a wounded or sick gazelle attracts the lions. 

Plants growing in fertile soil in the right location–drainage, sunlight, pH, etc.–are less likely to have serious issues and more likely to recover if they do. 

Mechanical Controls

This one is easy to implement. Remove the bugs. This could include hand-picking larvae, snipping off leaves with egg masses, or even using the hose to knock off the aphids. Time to get your hands dirty.

Biological Controls

This might be the most fun. Plan ahead to encourage garden helpers like predatory insects, toads, and insect-devouring birds. 

  • Bluebirds are great for making dinner out of garden-eating bugs. Put up a few birdhouses.
  • Plant native plant species near your vegetable garden–they attract beneficial predatory insects.
  • Make toad huts! Toads are great garden helpers and devour insects. A large toad may eat a hundred insects a day.

At the far end of biological controls, we can even introduce specific insects or bacteria to combat a particular problem. While more common in commercial applications, home gardeners can also take advantage of this strategy. 

Lady beetles are a fun garden solution to an aphid problem and can be ordered online. Be aware that they will likely depart for greener pastures when their food (your aphid problem) is gone.

Organic Products for Garden Pest Control

Even though these products are organic, they are still a pesticide. Use only when other measures have failed, and take care to avoid unintended harm to beneficial insects and pollinators. Always follow all directions on the package completely.

Neem oil is natural and organic, but it can also harm beneficial insects. Most effective in the larval stage, mature insects are not typically killed. It’s not pollinator-safe. 

Insecticidal soaps are relatively safe, with no residual effect once dried. Most effective on soft-bodied insects. It’s somewhat pollinator-safe. Many plants are sensitive, so some foliage burn may occur. Test on a small spot first.

Diatomaceous earth works best on soft-bodied insects. Needs to be reapplied after rain, irrigation, or heavy dew. Efficiency is poor in humid conditions. 

Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a bacteria that is naturally occurring and toxic when eaten by insects. It is safe to apply and won’t harm most beneficial insects like predatory wasps and ladybeetles. Effective against the larval stages. Look for a specific strain that is effective against the pest you are having trouble with, as strains of Bt are not universally effective.

Beer is great for slug traps! DIY slug traps made with household items and a can of cheap beer are a great way to combat these slimy garden pests.

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