How to Best the Pests in the Garden

March is when gardeners sprint out of the gate in the race against Mother Nature’s short Texas spring. Many seeds and transplants can be planted outdoors this month, and buds and blooms signify that the plant world is awakening for yet another season. However, when plants begin to thrive, so do insects – the good, the bad and the ugly. Thankfully, there are ways to help your plants thrive while controlling the pest population in the garden.

To control pests, you need to know which pests are beneficial and which are harmful. Beneficial insects, such as Lady Bugs and Praying Mantises, eat the larvae and immature stages of harmful insects like Aphids. The list of damaging insects is long, but do not underestimate the power of the good guys.

Ladybugs eating aphids on a cucumber plant.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is key to controlling pest populations in the garden while minimizing, or eliminating, the use of chemicals. IPM combines cultural, biological, mechanical, and if needed, chemical control practices while minimally disrupting the beneficial life cycles and environment in the garden. When using the non-chemical alternatives, IPM is a great practice for organic gardening.

Cultural control practices are ways to reduce the number of pests in the garden by how it is managed. These practices include:

  • crop rotation
  • weed management
  • choosing pest resistant varieties
  • correct fertilizer and water use

Even leaving certain areas or beds fallow for a season can help disrupt insect life cycles and reduce the number of pests. Cultural control is all about the habits and management utilized in the garden.

Biological control is using beneficial insects to prey on harmful ones. This method may reduce the need for spraying insecticides, which can kill both harmful and beneficial insects. This is not a guaranteed fix since they can fly away and may only have specific insects they eat. These insects can be found and bought at some local nurseries or online. Making sure your garden is a place that attracts beneficial insects is a great place to start with biological control. If there is a major pest problem that requires a chemical insecticide application, try to choose one that targets only harmful pests and does not kill beneficial ones.

Using physical means to control harmful insect populations is mechanical control. This can include:

  • removing insects by hand (scouting)
  • spraying high-pressured water to remove insects
  • adding physical barriers such as row covers

High-pressured water removes small insects while hand-picking is better for larger ones. What I have found to work best to prevent a decimated crop, is being out in the garden scouting every day or two.

Pest management is a challenge for gardeners of all experience levels. Mother Nature doesn’t make gardening in Texas easy, but it can be done with some time, patience, and IPM. Happy scouting!

And be sure to check out our next virtual Garden Workshop on Saturday, March 20 to learn more about garden pests. Sign up here:

Emily Anderson is the Garden Coordinator for the North Texas Food Bank.