Are you frustrated by finding pests in the garden? Don’t waste time and money treating pests. Instead, follow this guide for preventing garden pests from becoming a problem at all.
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Pest problems can be disappointing when a hopeful garden season ends abruptly because of a pest infestation. This guide will help you better understand how your garden works so you can grow your best crops. Preventing garden pests is an essential part of your garden maintenance plan.
The Truth About Organic Pesticides
Dealing with pests and disease is a natural part of gardening. Even expert gardeners and farmers experience crop failure from time to time.
PREVENTING garden pests is far easier (and more fun!) than dealing with pest outbreaks AFTER they show up.
You might be surprised to learn that I don’t use pesticide sprays in the garden, even organic or homemade products. That’s because some natural solutions can be as toxic as chemical products to soil life.
Pesticides of any kind (even organic and homemade products) can kill beneficial insects. Killing insects is their purpose, after all! They can 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.
I don’t want to damage my garden ecosystem or poison crops I eat, so I don’t fight pests. If I fail at preventing them, then I learn from them, but I don’t spray.
Naturally Preventing Garden Pests
One of the keys to natural pest management is patience.
For example, the year I replaced the front lawn with an edible landscape, I had quite a few pest problems. I was really disappointed—I had put so much time, money, and effort into creating the garden. 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 I was doing my part, the beneficial soil microbes were getting acquainted with their new environment. These soil organisms duked it out and eventually came into a balance.
I saw progressively more improvement each year as the soil ecosystem matured.
What do soil microbes have to do with pests?
The beneficial soil microbes help feed plants, keeping them healthy and well-protected against pests. If I had sprayed anything, it would have disrupted their establishment period and delayed the balance I desired.
It could have become a never-ending dependence on pesticides. Instead, patience was the answer.
Read more: See How Easily You Can Create an Edible Landscape
Would you like to yield delicious harvests while partnering with nature? Check out my mini guide, The Permaculture Inspired Vegetable Garden.
12 Steps to Preventing Garden Pests
The following are some ways for preventing pests from taking over your garden without the use of chemicals.
For an example of how this can play out for a specific crop, see: Grow the Best Cucumbers with These 12 Steps
#1: Encourage healthy soil.
Healthy soil makes healthy plants with strong immune systems, which are better able to fight off diseases and pests. Healthy soils feed and shelter beneficial soil life.
Natural fertilizers help build healthy soil. Fish and seaweed fertilizer, used once a month, can activate soil microbes.
See: 7 Ways to Improve Soil Quality
#2: Choose resistant varieties.
This is an easy tip for preventing garden pests: Choose plant varieties that are naturally resistant to pests. Seed catalogs list varieties that are 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.
Reserve plants that need full sun for full sun areas. Likewise, plant crops according to water needs. If a crop requires more water to stay healthy, grow it in an area that stays moist longer.
Crops may tolerate less than ideal conditions for a time, but eventually the stress will weaken them and they can succumb to pests. Planting in the right place is an easy step toward preventing garden pests.
#4: Attract beneficial insects.
Beneficial insects prey on pests, and they will naturally come to your garden in search of nectar, pollen, and shelter. Encourage them to stick around by growing flowers that meet these needs.
For example, some of my favorite annuals are: calendula, coriander, and sweet alyssum.
Plant tall flowers and perennials at the garden edge, such as: comfrey, sunflowers, and yarrow.
See: Growing Comfrey in the Permaculture Garden
Provide beneficial insects with habitat and they will lay their eggs nearby to grow an army. Beneficial insect patrols are key in preventing garden pests.
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 award-winning book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
#5: Repel pests.
Strong-scented herbs can deter pests when planted among or near the vegetables. This is a super-easy way to support your efforts in preventing garden pests.
Some of my favorite strong-scented annuals include calendula, coriander, and garlic.
Plant strong-scented, perennial herbs at the edge. Anise hyssop, chives, and thyme are some of my favorites.
#6: Rotate crops.
Crop rotation confuses pests, reduces their concentration in specific areas, and helps you manage soil fertility.
Leave two to three years between planting members of the same crop family in a particular area.
Of course, this can be challenging in a small or shady garden. However, if a crop is overcome by a pest, don’t plant it in that spot for at least two years. Or plant a cover crop to allow that area to rest for a season.
This is a difficult step to take in preventing garden pests, but your patience will pay off.
#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.
Confusing pests is a sneaky trick for preventing garden pests from finding your crops. For example, I interplant my cabbage family crops with cilantro, calendula, and onions.
See: 7 Reasons to Grow Calendula.
#8: Use floating row covers.
Summer-weight row cover 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 the problem crop.
Be sure to lift the cover for a few hours each morning to let pollinators in.
#9: Create permanent walkways.
Permanent pathways encourage beneficial insects while temporary pathways that are tilled each year destroy them and their habitat.
The type of pathway material you use will depend on your specific situation. White clover, wood chips, or gravel are a few of my favorites.
Having permanent pathways allows you to have permanent beds where you can continue to build fertility over time. Better fertility 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. Seems counterproductive, but without a few pest “baits”, the beneficial insects that dine on them wouldn’t stick around! Beneficial insects are attracted to gardens that have their favorite foods.
In other words, the occasional pest “bait” is okay.
#11: Handle an outbreak.
When a few pests turn into an outbreak, remove infested plants to keep the damage from spreading.
It bears repeating that I don’t promote treating pests with pesticides—organic or not. Rather, start back at #1 above and work through the prevention tactics in this guide.
However, if you’re going to treat an outbreak, identify pests, beneficial insects, AND the larval stages of each. Take a look at the photo below: Did you know that these critters are ladybug larvae, a precious beneficial insect?
Destroying beneficial insects reduces the ability of your garden ecosystem to self-regulate.
TIP: Click here for a database of photos for beneficial insects and pests throughout their life cycles.
#12: Be proactive rather than reactive.
A pest outbreak is an opportunity to learn how to strengthen your garden ecosystem.
Example: Is your soil lacking a mineral that is making your plants sick enough to catch a “bug”? If so, what organic material might supply it?
Having a few pests is a natural part of gardening. It reminds me that I want to work with nature rather than against it. I choose NOT to wage war on nature, even when it means a lesson in patience.
Keep notes of the pests you encounter, when they showed up, what treatments you try, and the outcome of those actions. When we become detectives, we can determine where to focus our attention in our journey to preventing garden pests.
With the purchase of my book The Suburban Micro-Farm you’ll get a variety of free bonus materials—including my monthly checklists with room for taking important notes like these!
Preventing garden pests naturally will strengthen your garden’s immune system so it doesn’t ‘catch a bug’.
Have you been successful in preventing garden garden pests? What practices have helped you create a healthy garden?
- 6 Reasons to Grow Borage in the Permaculture Garden
- Choose the Right Trellis for your Climbing Vegetables
- Growing & Harvesting Beets Year-Round
>>> Get my free 19-page Guide to Organic Soil Amendments for more ideas:
YUN FENG says
Amy, Enjoy your articles! many help tips and useful links that I can refer to. There are so much information out there these days, but I find yours is one of the best! keep the good work! Thanks a lot!
I agree, thank You Amy. Good job! I am learning so much from you.
You’re very sweet. Thanks, I’m so glad this helpful for you 🙂
Cathy E says
I really enjoy your blog and also your book. My husband and I are both from the Cincinnati area (him Norwood and my family in Amelia, then Batavia) originally, before the Army sent us to Oklahoma 20 years ago, so I find that interesting as well. My grandfather had a beautiful large garden there in Cincinnati that I remember with fondness.
Anyway, any ideas on how to deal with chiggers, specifically? I can’t find a lot on dealing with them naturally except using DE. I am not opposed to DE but, from what I understand, widespread use even of that is not good for beneficial insects. We are being eaten up with these extremely itchy bites (myself and the five kids–they don’t seem to bother my husband, weirdly), we’re talking dozens of bites apiece, and it kind of makes me want to stay out of the garden! We have been moving to more of a permaculture approach the last few years, and specifically added wood mulch this year, but chiggers were a problem last year as well.
There are plenty of solutions for treating chigger bites naturally, but I don’t know of any solutions for dealing with the chiggers themselves. That sounds frustrating. Good luck to you 🙂
Your articles are so thorough. I’m learning. Thank you.
I’m so glad!
We don’t have a problem this year, but I’m anticipating a different story next year. We recently moved to our homestead and only have 3 small garden beds with tomatoes. Next year, we’ll be planting a much bigger garden, about 1/2 acre total. We are trying to do all we can to keep our food as organic and natural as possible. Thank you very much for this article! It’ll definitely be helpful!
JE Lilly says
My husband and I just bought a home last summer near the woods and as I’ve been designing the gardens, I’ve been wanting to set things up from the beginning to prevent pest problems. Thank you for this helpful article. I’m too cheap to buy pesticide and too lazy to get around to spraying it as often as they suggest so your suggestions suit me well.
A match made in heaven 😀
I plant an early sacrificial zucchini plant to attract the persistent squash bugs. when they are discovered after egg laying I pull and dispose of the plant then plant the rest of my squash. Any further discoveries are removed by hand.
I tried the dawn dish soap route and it was just OK.
I have a patch of chives that I love for its flowers. It’s about 5 years old. Last year, the patch was decimated by black aphids (I think). What can I plant in the patch to deter these awful pests so I don’t have the same problem this year? Or do I just pull everything out and start over?
Try following the steps in this article… 😉
I love your articles and have learned so much from them as I’ve been moving toward a more permaculture approach to gardening and homesteading. We recently moved to a new home on the edge of a small town, so I’m starting all over again. It’s a lot of work, but I know it will pay off in a few years. This first summer, though, I’ve had a plague of grasshoppers that have eaten nearly everything I’ve planted (except tomatoes, cucumbers, and a few other plants). Any suggestions how to deal with the grasshoppers (besides getting some guinea fowl!)?
Grasshoppers can indeed be devastating. So frustrating to see your hard work devoured by pests. Instant gratification: Organic repellents and pesticides can help in the short term. Try garlic spray or neem oil, which are safe for soil ecology, pollinators, humans, and pets.
As a long-term strategy, like I discuss in this article, the grasshoppers are giving you an opportunity to see that there is an imbalance in your mini ecosystem. This happens often in new gardens that are still getting established, so don’t be too alarmed.
Birds will be your best natural ally in the long term. Set up bird houses in the garden to attract insect-eating birds like bluebirds. Set out bird baths, and border your garden with berry-producing shrubs, brambles, or mulberry trees that the birds would love, so they have food, water, and shelter all in one place.
I’ve heard of a parasitic spray that is used in the springtime in lawns to control the population of baby grasshoppers, but I don’t know much about that.
I recently discovered pollen beetles decimating my elderberry buds and flowers. (The silver lining is that when the blossoms browned and fell off last year, I thought I had a soil imbalance, but it turns out that its these little beetles!) Apparently, they are a big issue with brassicas in Europe. None of the 30 something articles I read about them talk about elderberry or suggest a home solution to save this year’s crop, so I’m trying to figure out what imbalance they indicate and how to shift the dynamic for next year. Any suggestions are more than welcome!
Hi there! Your best bet is to learn about the life cycle of the pollen beetle and take the steps listed above with that in mind. For example, build up habitat to attract ground dwelling predators of the pollen beetle larvae (carabid beetles, staphylinid beetles and spiders). Plant more of what the predators like and less of what the pest likes. Improve soil organism activity to counter larvae activity through the suggestions above. Consider covering the shrub during the period when the beetles are laying eggs on flower buds. Good luck! 🙂
Carel Opperman says
Enjoy every time when I have the time to
read your program.