Now that frost has melted your squash plants into a puddle of goo and the last tomato has been picked from your vines, it's a good time to think back over the garden year past. If you're like me, one of the biggest problems you faced was keeping vegetables happy without chemicals when pesky vine borers, hornworms, or aphids came to call. To that end, here are ten tips for keeping your garden bug-free...naturally!
1. Learn the bad bugs. New gardeners may be surprised to discover that most of the insects they find in the garden aren't dining on their daikons. If you're new to bug-identification and would like to learn to identify the bad bugs on sight, I recommend books like Garden Insects of North America, websites like bugguide.net, or a visit to your local extension agent.
2. Learn the good bugs. I'm tempted to say that any bug who isn't obviously bad is a garden ally, but you should work especially hard to protect invertebrates who improve your soil, pollinate your crops, and control problematic insects.
3. Attract beneficials. Once you know which insects are good for your garden, you can start attracting these beneficials by providing year-round nectar sources, watering holes, nesting sites, puddling habitat, and untilled soil. In general, letting the area around your garden go wild can serve nearly all of these purposes at once
4. Add other insect-eaters to your garden ecosystem. A variety of larger animals, ranging from shrews and lizards to snakes and birds, team up with predatory insects to keep pest-insect populations in check. As with beneficial insects, you'll need to give beneficial vertebrates the habitat they crave in order to survive year-round in your garden or nearby.
5. Monitor pest-insect populations. Once you decide that the natural ecosystem isn't doing a good enough job of dealing with bad bugs on its own, your first step should be to carefully monitor populations of the insects you want to eradicate. Many bad bugs show up regularly at certain times of the year, so you can mark your calendar and know when the first Japanese beetles, for example, are likely to arrive.
6. Time your crops to beat bugs. Early or late plantings and succession planting can all be effective ways to deal with pesky insects like cabbageworms and squash vine borers.
7. Choose resistant plant species and varieties. Many of the most common fruit and vegetable varieties require constant chemical sprays to keep bugs at bay. On the other hand, if you know which bugs are most problematic in your neighborhood and then carefully select fruits and vegetables with those insects in mind, you may be able to cut your work load in half while harvesting delicious, beautiful fruits.
8. Block out pests with row covers. If all else fails, you can provide a physical barrier between plants and pests with a row cover. Just be sure to erect the row cover before any nibblers come to call, and hand-pollinate flowers as necessary.
9. Hand-pick at the first sign of damage. If you catch pest populations right when they start, hand-picking can be an effective method of control. Work in the early morning when insects are moving slowly and be sure to pick at least three times a week for best results.
10. Learn to eat blemished fruits and vegetables. Although the produce coming out of your garden might not look quite like the perfect, shiny offerings at the grocery store, you'll soon discover that real apples taste ten times better...even if you have to cut out a wormy spot.
To learn more about how to work with your garden ecosystem to minimize pests, check out my ebook The Naturally Bug-Free Garden...currently on sale for 99 cents!