Plant Care, Spring Gardening, Summer Gardening

How to Strategize and Manage Garden Pests Like a Pro

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Learn how to create a strategy to eliminate unwanted moles, slugs, weeds, or any other garden pests from your yard using IPM and other natural pest-control strategies.

Mole pushing up through dirt in Spoken Garden's post Among all the different garden duties you perform daily to keep your garden or yard looking amazing, monitoring garden pests is probably a task you wish you could eliminate forever. Unfortunately, every garden has its own interlopers, unwanted guests, and damaging denizens that could derail or utterly destroy your garden dreams in a very short amount of time. From taking bites out of your favorite plants’ leaves, pushing up mounds of fresh dirt in the middle of your lawn, to turning leaves from bright green to black and slimy, pesky pests thrive where they shouldn’t. In order to keep your garden looking it’s best, you need a plan to maintain control. Which specific pests could be attacking your yard? How can you keep your garden free from invaders? In this post, we focus on various pests and highlight the strategies you should take in order to develop a plan of action. Now is the time to take back your garden!   Jump ahead to the section you need:  

Pest Management

For all general pest problems, there are many different ways to control or prevent them. Control methods, involving either non-chemical or chemical control, can be wrapped together into a system of pest prevention that many professional landscapers and gardeners know as Integrated Pest Management or IPM. We discuss this in more detail below. This “whole-picture” way of pest control includes different pest prevention, suppression, and eradication methods used to lessen or stop the damage to your garden.  

Garden Pest Identification

Any living organism that has a negative effect on your garden or it’s health is considered a garden pest. For example, a weed is a plant pest that can eventually outgrow and take over your garden area. Another example of a garden pest is a slug who loves nothing more than to eat your plants and leave a slimy trail of destruction in its wake. Pests can also be moles tunneling under your grass creating dirt mounds or insects chewing holes in your plant’s leaves thus spreading diseases to plants.    

Why do Garden Pests Show Up?

Pests show up in your garden for many different reasons.  Some seek shelter while others come hungry noticing that your garden provides tasty meals.  Other pests are just short-term guests who pass through or decide to stay for a few days. Eventually, they leave but not after wreaking havoc in your yard.  Other reasons pests show up in your garden include:
  • Seizing various opportunities, especially if a plant is susceptible for whatever reason (too much water, not enough water, etc),
  • Filling in available space in garden areas, such as in beds or containers,
  • Infesting stressed plants,
  • Because there is easy access to your garden for whatever reason and they feel like they can take over.
All of these reasons result in your garden not being it’s beautiful, healthy, vibrant self. No one wants that to happen.

How Often Do Pests Need to be Managed?

Each pest is different and so are the circumstances. There isn’t one plan or solution to fit all of them. For this reason, each pest needs to be briefly studied, observed, and then properly managed differently according to the damage it is causing. Some pests may only need to be treated once in a season, while other pests require consistent, on-going maintenance. Ultimately, prevention and control are the best strategies overall.

Types of Garden Pests

For the purposes of our post, we will focus on or refer to three different categories of pests: animal, insect, or plant.  

Animal Pest Examples:

  • Moles
  • Slugs/Snails
  • Squirrels
  • Deer
  • Cats
  • Raccoons

Insect Pest Examples:

  • Aphids
  • Caterpillars
  • Spider Mites
  • White Flies

Plant Pest Examples:

  • Dandelions
  • Thistle
  • Morning Glory
  • Hog-weed
  • Grasses
  • Clover

Integrated Pest Management Methods

Various methods exist for pest management, categorized into Physical or Mechanical, Cultural, Environmental, Biological, and Chemical. With a combination of all of these methods, you can create the best management strategy. Ask yourself:
  • What factors are making it conducive for particular pests?
  • What are the optimum habitat needs for pests, such as food source, water, warmth, secondary pests, or any previous circumstances that are enhancing the pest’s foothold in your garden?
  • What good would spraying be if you don’t first remove their habitat, food, or water source?
The list below highlights different ways to prevent and control many different pests in your garden.

 

Cultural Pest Control

Cultural pest control occurs when you modify the environment by adhering to the best growing practices of a specific plant. Basically, this means you want to keep the plant healthy according to its spacing needs, soil, sun needs, etc, in order to lessen pest damage. By maintaining the plant’s optimum needs, or “culture,” plants will be less stressed and less susceptible to attack or infestation. Examples of cultural pest control:
  • Planting pest-resistant or disease-resistant plant species
  • Removing any diseased parts of plants
  • Keeping your garden clean of any decomposing or leftover debris
  • Keeping your leaves or stems picked up to lessen the chance of pest habitat

Environmental Pest Control

This type of pest control is similar to cultural pest control but is used when you modify the garden environment so that pests find it unsuitable for living. Essentially, you can make life hard and force the pests to move out. Any conditions can be modified including soil, light, heat, water, or shade. Examples of environmental pest control:
  • Adding compost
  • Pruning trees around the plant to let more light in
  • Creating more air flow around the plants
  • Adding natural ingredients to the soil
  • Adding more shade
   

Mechanical or Physical Pest Control

Mechanical pest control occurs when any type of physical or mechanical method is used to prevent, control, or remove pests. Examples of this type of pest control include:
  • Physical barriers or fencing
  • Hoeing
  • Weeding
  • Cultivating
  • Weed-eating
  • Setting up garden netting to keep flies and moths off apples or other fruit
  • Using traps
  • Hand removal
 

Biological Pest Control

Biological pest control refers to using living organisms to control all kinds of pests. In this method of IPM, the natural predator of a pest is used to manage the situation. General examples of biological pest control include:
  • Using parasitoid-wasps for aphid control
  • Using ladybugs to eat aphids
  • Using goats to eat ivy or blackberry
  • Using a praying mantis to control either caterpillars or aphids
  • Growing other plants that will compete for the same space and resources
  • Promoting plants that actually seek out and harm weeds
  • Using insects or animals to prevent, control, or remove those weeds from your property
 

Chemical Pest Control

The use of natural or synthetic substances to prevent, control, or eradicate a pest. For example, a lot of people buy insecticides which are usually neuro-inhibitors that can be detrimental to honey-bees or other mammals. Other examples of chemical pest control include: A lot of gardeners go straight for the chemical control for any pest problem in their yards to solve the problem fast. However, this form of management can create pest-vacuums, super pests, and/or lessen biodiversity in your garden to devastating effect, especially if you don’t opt for non-lethal varieties. Spraying with non-toxic, non-lethal chemicals should be your last step. Used together with the other control methods can lead to the best result rather than using chemical substances alone. Before reaching for that bottle full of chemical, it’s a better strategy to take a step back and look at your garden as a whole.    

Control Garden Pests (Like a Pro)

Step 1: Identify the Pest or Problem

What is causing your plants to have damaged leaves or stems, withering leaves or flowers, root-die back, defoliation, or other issues? If you don’t see the actual pest or any damage to your plant, but it’s not healthy or is dying, here is a quick way to know if the cause is either a living or non-living reason:
  • Is there a pattern to what you are seeing, or is it uniform throughout a plant or group of plants?
  • If there is a pattern or it’s uniform, then you are looking at a non-living cause. You need to look for environmental, nutritional, or human causes to the issue, such as temperature or moisture extremes, snow, ice, salt, or even pesticides.
  • If there isn’t a pattern then the cause could be living. You need to look for insects, mammals, birds, bacteria, fungi, viruses, or other living organisms.
  Pro Tips:
  • Be sure you are very familiar with your plants and their characteristics so you know if there is an actual problem or if the plant is supposed to look like that.
  • There are resources or databases available online to help determine your pest/problem. Check out University of Minnesota Extensions’ Online Diagnostic Tools or Penn State Extensions’ 101 Plant Problems.

 

Step 2: Evaluate Available Options or Solutions

When you know the cause, you can then identify what your plant needs in order to survive and thrive. Look for those specific points in your garden before you start making your strategy. If the cause is a pest or organism, you need to think: FOOD, SHELTER, ENVIRONMENT.
  • Does it feed on a specific plant or species?
  • Does it live under certain climatic conditions?
  • Are there other pest indicators in your garden that would suggest its presence?
Gathering the answers to these questions and more will help you to determine your next steps to make a specific strategy for control and to possibly prevent the pest from returning. Tips:
  • If you have exhausted all your Environmental, Physical, Biological, and Cultural control and preventative methods and still have the problem, then using some kind of chemical control is warranted.
  • The link below is an affiliate but we recommend it due to its safety and non-toxicity. We have a puppy running around our yard so we are always on the search for pet-safe, Earth friendly products.
   

Step 3:  Implement Your Strategy

What: Now that you have hopefully identified the cause of the plant damage, you can finally implement your strategy to prevent, control, or eradicate the pesky pests using the methods outlined in Step 2 above. Part of this strategy needs to include a specific level or threshold you, as the gardener, are comfortable with implementing. How:  Some things to keep in mind when implementing your strategy are:
    • The time of year or seasonal implications for best pest control, like pest life cycle and susceptibility to environmental modifications.
    • Using the correct tools, such as a hoe or garden trowel for weeding, rakes and a wheelbarrow for mulching, gloves to handle and dispose of debris, or nozzles and spray equipment for chemical applications.
    • Potential impact on other plants or your garden surroundings. For example, will one predator to aphids also be a predator to a beneficial insect in your garden? Or, will one type of chemical treatment positively impact different plants or will it be toxic? Are the weather and temperature correct for the strategy?
Tips:
  • Whether your level of damage is on the low end or as high as half a plant or group of plants devastated by a pest, you will need to first determine this level of severity to know how best to approach prevention, control, and/or eradicate your garden pest.
  • For the best pest control results, make sure to incorporate all of the control methods listed in step 2 as a whole-system approach.
 

Garden Pest Strategies

Let’s put some of these methods in action! Three common pests that we see in our gardens (especially if you live in the Pacific Northwest like we do) and a few best practices on how to prevent, control, or eradicate them are:

      1. General Weeds 

  • These are plant pests which are any plant in your garden that you don’t want.
  • These plants tend to out-compete desired plants and also use up finite resources like water, nutrients, space, and light.
  • A combination of control methods from step 2 works really well to control weeds in your garden, including hand pulling, roto-tilling, soil modification, mulching, moisture, and denser plantings to shade/outcompete undesirable plants.
  • Also, physically blocking weed germination in the soil with burlap or other fabrics with mulch on top can work very effectively.
 

      2. Slugs 

  • These are animal pests. Slugs are closely related to snails and other mollusks but lack the hard shell.
  • They feed on soft plant tissue of many ornamental and vegetable plants, eating the plant leaves and stem tissues literally down do almost stubs in some cases.
  • Their signature mark is leaving a slimy film over the remaining parts of your plant and a slime trail to and from the feeding area.
  • Slugs can be kept away from your plants by using natural deterrents to make wide rings around planting areas, like with diatomaceous earth or different slug-repellent pastes.
  • If you see a slug slime trail, be sure to destroy it so other slugs won’t follow the trail.
 

     3. Moles 

  • These are animal pests in the rodent family. They are blind, barely have any back legs and use their front legs more like flippers to dig, tunnel, and destroy.
  • They eat mostly insects and earthworms.Mole, the garden pest extraordinaire-Spoken Garden
  • Being under the surface of your garden, moles tunnel and can severe plant roots. As they move, their mole-hills form as their excavated tunnel material gets pushed up to the surface. This makes a manicured lawn look like a serious of small bombs have exploded all over the yard and can seriously damage your lawn mower.
  • Furthermore, due to their tunneling, they create pockets of voided soil where water can collect which can change your gardens water drainage and create uneven areas of our garden where the soil collapses.
  • Moles can be controlled a few different ways besides trapping and killing them. It comes down to modifying their food in your garden so they don’t want to visit and make a home there.
  • We suggest using different forms of castor oil from the Castor Bean and apply it so it filters down into the soil. This works really well to deter and push moles out of your yard.  The castor oil coats the mole’s food so that it doesn’t taste good and they (hopefully) leave for good!

Garden Pest Products

 

Biological Control Resource

Learn more about controlling pests and weeds with this book. It lays out an introduction to biological control.    

Castor Oil Pellets

Control the moles, voles, or other underground critters by using the non-lethal castor oil pellets. You just sprinkle them in the mole tunnels and it will coat the area with a nasty taste. This brand from Yard Gard is organic and safe to use around kids and pets so that’s important. Unfortunately, they do not offer Prime shipping but it is the highest rated product for castor oil pellets.    

Entomology Resource

If you want to read and learn more, check out this book Entomology and Pest Management.    

Diatomaceous Earth

Diatomaceous earth, which is made up of the skeletal remains of microscopic marine creatures, keeps slugs away from plants because they won’t crawl over it. Make wide rings around planting areas with diatomaceous earth

Garden Pest Elimination Videos

Below are a couple of videos that might also be useful for you.      

 

Pest Management Strategy Conclusion

Having a well-rounded strategy to prevent or control pests in your yard is part of the best gardening practices. Regular housekeeping and debris pick up can go a long way in helping keep insects and weeds out of your yard while not giving them a place to nest or make a new home. Once established though, modifying the garden environment, increasing desirable plant numbers to out-compete undesirables, using natural predators, and physically removing or blocking/netting the pest can all be effective control methods. Now we want to hear from you! Which type of pest control would you try from the list above? Let us know by leaving a quick comment below!   See you in the garden! ~ Sean and Allison   P.S. Find us on Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram so you don’t miss a thing!   P.P.S. Check out our Resource Library page for FREE printable cheat sheets and more!  

Garden Pests References Used:

 
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Learn how to create a strategy to eliminate unwanted moles, slugs, weeds, or any other garden pests from your yard using IPM and other natural pest-control strategies.

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About spokengarden

HELLO AND WELCOME! We are Sean and Allison of Spoken Garden. With combined backgrounds in horticulture, gardening, landscape, and teaching, we hope to educate and inspire you.

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