Why waste time and money treating pests, when you can prevent pest problems in the first place? Set aside your organic products and follow this guide to prevent pests from becoming a problem in your garden.
Pest problems can be disappointing, frustrating, and a big letdown when a hopeful garden season ends abruptly because of a pest infestation. This guide will help you better understand how your garden works, so your effort doesn’t get wasted.
The Truth About Organic Pesticides
Dealing with pests and diseases is a natural part of gardening. Even expert gardeners and farmers experience crop failure from time to time. Here’s the good news: Prevention is the first line of defense against pests, and is far easier (and more fun!) than dealing with pest outbreaks.
Because I don’t deal with pest outbreaks, I don’t use pesticide sprays in the garden, even when they are organic or homemade. That’s because many natural solutions can be at least mildly toxic to the soil life—if not just as toxic—as chemical products.
Whether purchased or homemade, pesticides of any kind (organic or not) can kill beneficial insects (killing insects is their purpose, after all), alter the pH balance of the soil, leave a toxic residue on the crop, destroy beneficial soil microbes, or a combination of these consequences.
Soap-and-water spray, for example, is commonly used for natural pest control. But it might also kill beneficial soil microbes and change the soil pH, depending on the brand and dilution.
Because I don’t want to damage my garden ecosystem long-term or poison the food I plan to eat, I don’t fight pests—I prevent them. If I fail at preventing them, then I learn from them, but I don’t spray.
12 Steps to Natural Pest Prevention
One of the keys to natural pest management is patience. For example, in the first year that we dug up our front yard and replaced it with an edible landscape, we had quite a few pest problems. I was really disappointed—we had put so much time, money, and physical effort into building healthy soil and creating the edible landscape. I wanted to save it from being devoured by pests!
Instead of making a rash action, however, I waited, and continued to practice all of the following techniques. While we were doing our part, the beneficial soil microbes were busy getting acquainted to this new environment we had just created. That first year was a little like the Wild West, as the soil organisms duked it out and eventually came into a balance (or truce).
We have seen progressively more improvement each year as the soil ecosystem has become more established.
The beneficial soil microbes help feed plants, keeping them healthy and well-protected against pests. If we had sprayed anything—even an “organic” pest solution—it would have disrupted their natural establishment period, delaying the balance we desired.
It could have become a never-ending dependence on pesticides, when patience—and a willingness to feed the good guys what they require—is what it took.
The following are some ways I have found to help prevent pest outbreaks naturally.
#1: Encourage healthy soil.
Healthy soil makes healthy plants with strong immune systems, which are better able to fight off diseases and pests. Organic matter, natural fertilizers, mulches, and no-till gardening will feed and shelter beneficial soil life.
Fertilizers are where I like to put my energy for building healthy soil. Worm castings, for example, are the richest known fertilizer and contain humus, the building block to soil.
I also like to fertilize using plants called nutrient accumulators such as comfrey. These plants reach deep into the subsoil with their roots and can gather available nutrients. Used as mulch, their leaves may fertilize the soil as they decompose.
Fish and seaweed fertilizer is the only store-bought fertilizer I use on a regular basis. Diluted, I use it once a month in the garden to activate soil microbes.
A soil test can help you identify nutrient deficiencies. Get my free Guide to Organic Soil Amendments to determine which soil amendments will improve your soil.
See the following articles for more information on generating and protecting healthy soil:
- 7 Ways to Fertilize the Garden with Comfrey
- 7 Ways to Improve Soil Quality
- Mulching in the Garden
- The Lazy Gardener’s Way to Make Fertilizer
- Transitioning to a No-Till Garden
#2: Choose resistant varieties.
Give your garden a leg up by choosing plant varieties that are naturally resistant to pests. This can be as easy as reading through the varieties listed in your favorite seed catalog and choosing one that is known for resistance.
For example, tromboncino squash appears to be more resistant to pests than other summer squash varieties.
Check out this article for more interesting notes on choosing resistant varieties.
#3: Plant in the right place.
Plants will tolerate less than ideal conditions as long as they can, but over time they can become weaker and more likely to succumb to pests. Instead, reserve plants that need full sun for the full sun areas of your garden, and plant the leafy greens and root crops in partial sun areas.
Likewise, be sure to match the water needs of certain plants to appropriate areas of the garden. Give crops the proper watering. When plants get too much or too little water for their individual needs, they will be stressed and more susceptible to catching a “bug.”
Avoid chlorinated water whenever possible by capturing rainwater, since chlorine can destroy beneficial soil microbes.
To see how we avoid chlorinated water in the garden as much as possible, check out the following articles:
- Catch More Water for Irrigation by Connecting Rain Barrels to a Rain Garden
- Front Yard Rainwater Catchment
#4: Attract beneficial insects.
Beneficial insects are those that prey on pests. Many will come to your garden as they search for nectar, pollen, and shelter; and you can encourage them to stick around by growing flowers that provide these essential elements.
Some of my favorite annual flowers to plant among vegetable crops are: calendula, coriander, parsley, and sweet alyssum.
The following tall flowers and perennials will benefit the garden as an edge border: comfrey, coneflowers, cosmos, daisies, dill, sunflowers, and yarrow.
Read more about planting these flowers:
If the beneficial insects like the habitat you’ve provided for them, they will lay their eggs nearby and grow an army to patrol your garden for pests.
#5: Repel pests.
Strong-scented herbs can help deter pests when planted among or near the vegetables.
Some of my favorite annuals to plant among the vegetables are calendula, coriander, and garlic.
Strong-scented perennial herbs can be planted as an edge border. Anise hyssop, chives, lemon balm, sage, and thyme are some of my favorites.
Would you like to learn more about improving the biodiversity of your garden to reduce maintenance and increase yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
#6: Rotate crops.
A good crop rotation practice will confuse pests, reduce their concentration in specific areas, and help you manage soil fertility.
The idea is to use plant families to decide what to plant where in the garden. Plan to leave at least two to three years between planting members of the same crop family in a particular area of the garden.
This strategy can be challenging in a small garden or if you have shade and therefore do not have full range of the garden in which to rotate crops each year. In this case, you may not be able to rotate crops appropriately.
You can try growing your favorite crop in the same place each year, but if it is overcome by a pest, it will be wise to leave that crop out of the rotation of that bed for at least two years. Plant a cover crop and allow that section of garden to rest for a season.
Hint: A couple of feet away from the original planting area is not far enough for rotation! You may have to take a year or two off of growing a crop to completely eradicate a pest. I know this is sad news, but growing a crop every year that gets decimated by a pest is also frustrating.
#7: Practice interplanting.
Interplanting means alternating specific crops, herbs, and flowers to confuse pests. Pests enjoy monocrops, which is why industrial farms are often heavily sprayed with pesticides. Instead of monocrops, alternate rows of vegetables with rows of beneficial insect-attracting and pest-repelling herbs and flowers.
For example, I like to interplant my cabbage family crops with cilantro, calendula, and onions to attract beneficial insects and repel pests. Calendula stalks exude a sticky sap that pests like aphids consider delicious. When they get stuck in the sap, beneficial insects like ladybugs will enjoy the tasty great.
#8: Use floating row covers.
Summer-weight row cover fabric allows water and light to penetrate while keeping pests out. You may only need to use floating row cover over young plants until they’re established. Weigh down the sides with heavy objects like bricks or rocks.
If a particular pest on a particular crop seems to be a recurring problem for you—and you’ve followed the other tips in this article to the letter—you might consider using permanent low tunnel hoops for any of the following crops: beans, beets, cabbage family plants, chard, cucumbers, eggplant, melons, potatoes, pumpkins, spinach, or squash.
Row cover or low tunnels can keep out Mexican bean beetles, cabbageworms, leafhoppers, leafminers, squash bugs, cucumber beetles, and flea beetles.
Just be sure to lift the cover for a few hours each morning to allow bees to pollinate the plants.
#9: Create permanent walkways.
Pathways of white clover, wood chips, or gravel each encourage different beneficial insects, while temporary pathways that are tilled each year destroy these insects and their habitat. The type of pathway material you use will depend on your specific situation.
White clover that is seeded into existing grass can be easy to maintain, as it can be mowed or cut with a string trimmer. It will invite pollinators and beneficial insects into your garden area, and fertilize the soil with nitrogen, too.
Wood chips are usually a free or low cost solution for creating pathways, especially in areas where the grass has been removed and you need a solution for preventing mud during a rainy season. Wood chips will create beneficial fungal networks that will benefit the soil in your garden beds.
Gravel is less common in garden areas, but can be used effectively in pathways to prevent soil erosion. Spiders and other beneficial insects will enjoy the habitat in gravel. In cold climates, gravel will absorb heat and create warmer ground temperatures throughout the growing season.
Having permanent pathways allows you to have permanent beds where you can continue to build their fertility over time. This can, of course, support your garden’s resistance to ‘catching a bug’.
#10: Found a few pests? Leave them be.
Having a few pests is actually a good thing, because without them, the beneficial insects that dine on them wouldn’t stick around! Beneficial insects are attracted to gardens that have their favorite foods, so a few pests will draw them to your garden for a delicious treat.
In other words, the occasional pest “bait” is okay.
#11: Handle an outbreak.
If it appears that a few pests have turned into a major outbreak, promptly remove diseased and infested plants and dispose of them in the garbage (not the compost pile) to keep the damage from spreading to other parts of the garden.
It bears repeating that I don’t promote treating pest problems with pesticides—organic or not. Rather, I recommend starting back at #1 above and continuing to work through the prevention tactics in this guide.
However, if you’re going to treat an outbreak, it is essential to properly identify pests, beneficial insects, AND the larval stages of each—before destroying any insect.
The larval stages of each insect sometimes look completely different from the adult insect, and often it is the larvae that are the beneficial predators or pests, while the adults simply sip nectar from flowers.
Accidentally destroying beneficial insects reduces the ability of your garden ecosystem to self-regulate.
TIP: Click here for a database of beneficial insects and pests, which includes photos of each throughout their life cycles.
#12: Be proactive rather than reactive.
I look at a pest outbreak as an opportunity to learn about how I can strengthen my micro-farm ecosystem.
Example: Is there a mineral my soil is lacking that is making my plants sick enough to catch a “bug”? If so, what organic material might supply it?
Knowing that some pests are a natural part of gardening reminds me that I want to work with nature rather than against it. On a small scale, I am choosing to not wage war on nature, even when I’m frustrated by yet another lesson in patience and observation.
TRACKING PESTS: Keep notes of what pests you encounter, what plants they were attracted to, when they showed up, what methods of prevention or treatment you tried, and whether or not those actions kept them at bay. Often, when we become detectives, we can determine where we are lacking in our own path to natural pest prevention. With your purchase of my book The Suburban Micro-Farm you’ll get some free bonus materials—including my monthly checklists with room for taking important notes like these!
Although pest problems can be disappointing and frustrating, this guide to pest prevention will help you discover how to strengthen your garden’s immune system so it doesn’t ‘catch a bug’.
What practices have helped you prevent pests in your garden?