The Organic Gardener's Guide to Pest Control

You don't have to use toxic chemicals or poisons to keep your garden free of pests.

| June/July 1999

Once we decide to do an unnatural thing like turning the topsoil upside down and planting seeds that aren't native to this climate, we are sucked into providing more care for the garden. We have to control the area so that nature's garden doesn't overrun ours. We have to provide the soil with additional nutrients, since our method of planting and the plants we want to grow need different things than the soil cover nature would plant and provide for.

The ultimate control would be to dig a moat around the garden, fence it and enclose it entirely in an insect netting. But that won't keep out disease organisms that float on the wind or come in on shoes or clothing. I suppose it should be a plastic or glass-enclosed space with an air lock, where sterile clothing can be put on. That should work, but, of course, the space would have to be water and temperature controlled. And it still needs Oh, why go on. The more we try to control the growing conditions the more complex it gets and yet, inevitably, a disease organism or white fly or aphid or some other pest will get in. Much better, and far less expensive, is to try working with nature as closely as possible.

First, an attitude check. Don't think of the garden as a place where a wide variety of animals, miniscules and vegetables are lying in wait to attack your plantings. The vast majority of critters are beneficial. I'd even argue that everything I encounter in the garden is beneficial, including mosquitoes. It is important to remember this, lest you be tempted to spray something to kill an insect or bacterium that may be doing some damage to your crop. If you use a poison that kills on contact, you are killing hundreds of thousands of beneficial insects and microscopic organisms for every one of the critters you have identified as a problem. That said, let's begin.


Both knowing and spotting your culprits is the first step in any sensible method of pest control in the garden. The easiest and surest means of identification is to catch the pest in the act whether it be ground ivy creeping into the garden or a rabbit eating lettuce.

Animals can also be identified by footprints, manure, sometimes scent, fur and, finally, their habits. Insects are most often identified by what they eat, as most have favorite foods and do not eat indiscriminately. Some insects are very hard to see, whether due to camouflage, size or because they don't wait around to be seen. Some of them generate telltale manure. Others can be identified by the part of the plant they eat or the way they eat.

Miniscules, or microscopic organisms, are fungi, bacteria, viruses and nematodes. The work of these organisms can be seen in wilting, curling, mottled, discolored, spotted, blistered, white or powdered leaves; in lumpy, swelling, oozing or pinched stems; in fruit or flowers with spots, lumps, watery places or rot; and in plants that are stunted, dying or wilting.

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