Integrated Pest Management: How to Sustainably Keep the Pests Out

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Today’s agriculture relies heavily on the use of pesticides. Even home gardeners don’t seem to have a problem applying Preen to keep the morning glory from sprouting and Sevin to eradicate what does grow. Unfortunately, while pesticides do have their uses, they also have many, many drawbacks.

Pesticides are toxic to both humans and animals, in addition to destroying the natural soil fauna. If that isn’t bad enough, what happens when the chemicals we think we need are stuck on a container ship, somewhere off the CA coast? Integrated pest management can help! In this article, I’ll discuss the principles and applications of this sustainable practice.

What is integrated pest management?

Integrated pest management, hereafter IPM, is the practice of pest management instead of pest control. It’s a proactive strategy that involves planning the field or garden to minimize problems before they occur. This involves considering the plant’s needs and environment, pest biology, and the interactions between the factors. IPM isn’t the same as organic gardening. It’s a thought and decision-making process.

Really, IPM is a very fancy name for “know your stuff and plan your garden accordingly.”

What are the key components of IPM?

Knowledge: regarding the pest, host plant, and surrounding environment. I cannot stress this enough! Know your plants, your garden, and your weather, and always keep learning. Know the difference between variegated cultivars and actual leaf chlorosis. Learn the life cycles of your plants and the pests that love them. Know the difference between rabbit and insect predation

Decision-making aids: pest identification, monitoring, and how much damage can be allowed to occur before taking action (i.e., action thresholds). There are many, many aids available. Field guides for your locality, Extension fact sheets, and good old-fashioned experience will help. Garden and learn! Correctly identifying the pest is critical to successful management. 

Pest management tools and tactics: biological, cultural, mechanical, and chemical controls (given in more detail below. For even more detail, check out the IPM Institute’s website.)

Three more sources on the history, principles, and practices of IPM:

What do IPM practices include? 

Soil preparation: healthy soils usually produce healthy plants. Soils lacking in nutrients make the plants more susceptible to disease and don’t usually support healthy soil fauna. Many natural fertilizers can be used as amendments, i.e., coffee grounds, banana peels, and eggshells, to name a few. Fertilizing need not be expensive. What’s in your compost pile?

Planting: selecting resistant varieties helps minimize problems. However, it should be noted that resistant does not mean the plant can’t develop the problem, and also note that resistance can decline over time. But it’s a good start. If you’re buying transplants, select healthy plants with no signs of disease. Here’s more information on disease-resistant vegetable varieties. Click on this link for your vegetable of interest. The NIH link discusses plant resistance biology. 

Sanitation: this one also can’t be emphasized strongly enough! After using them, cleaning tools with a bleach solution is a very simple way to eliminate most disease pathogens. Cleaning dead and rotting matter out of the garden will also help a great deal. Put that stuff in the compost pile so that you can turn it into productive soil! However, don’t put diseased plant material into your compost. That will only guarantee future problems. 

Inspection and monitoring should be obvious. Keep a very close eye on your garden! By knowing each vine, flower, etc., by first name, you can spot problems quickly and nip them in the bud (pun intended!)

Record keeping is also very beneficial. Keep track of everything from the weather to varieties you’ve tried and the results of those trials, management methods you’ve tried and the results, and crop rotations. Knowing which pests exist in certain areas, such as Phytophthora and detrimental nematodes, will significantly aid planting decisions. 

Examples of pest controls

Cultural controls act to disrupt the pest’s environment. One example is timing your squash plantings to avoid the life cycle of the squash vine borer. Other examples are crop rotation and plant spacing. Watering practices also fit into this category. Remember: Phytophthora swims. Excessive moisture, especially when combined with the proper weather conditions, is a recipe for disaster. 

Biological controls work by encouraging the natural enemies of the target pest. Parasitoids such as wasps and flies develop within the host’s body and kill it when mature. Pathogens are disease-causing organisms that debilitate or kill the target pest. Pathogens are more commonly used for insect control but can be used for plant control. Bt toxin is a popular biological control. These will likely be a bit more challenging in the current environment. 

Mechanical controls, such as row covers, physical barriers, collars, fences, mulch, and good old-fashioned weeding, can also be very effective. I’ve found that 3′ high chicken wire fencing is effective against rabbits, and bird netting helps assure that I get my hard-earned strawberries first! By pruning a Septoria-infected leaf early, I can often delay using a fungicide for at least some time. Traps baited with peanut butter help keep the mice out! Some even use trap plants, sacrificial cannon fodder to keep the pests out of your preferred areas.

Think deer gardens: hosta planted away from your regular garden to keep the deer over there and not here. Eggplant at the ends of rows to keep whiteflies out is another example. Look up companion planting. And look around the house. You may have cardboard you can use as plant collars or weed barriers. It’s free and degrades, improving soil quality over time. 

What about chemical controls?

Chemical controls, i.e., pesticides, are chosen and applied very carefully and no more than required to solve the problem. In IPM, chemicals are the method of last resort, used when all else has failed. There are too many chemical varieties to list in a single article! Some pesticides are biological and considered organic by virtue of their derivation, such as copper fungicide, whereas others are purely inorganic, such as Captan.

One huge note of caution: avoid neonicotinoids! These pesticides are implicated in the collapse of bee populations! They’ve been used as seed coatings and sprayed on ornamental plants, so look carefully when buying! Here’s a link with more information.

How do you keep the pests out?

With the supply chain issues we’re currently enjoying, it only makes sense to plan and manage our gardens using the most sustainable and locally available methods possible. IPM is a strategy that will help. By knowing as much as possible about our garden and its pests, we can make intelligent management decisions that preserve our soils and enhance productivity.

Keeping our food and supply chains local keeps healthy food on our tables and supports our local economy. How can you plan your garden using things you already have?

Amy Allen

Amy Allen

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  • We are prepping minded, and so want to think forward on what we can stockpile to assist our garden when we can’t get supplies anymore.

    We have two high tunnels, 80×30 each. We have discovered over the years that high tunnels are perfect protected environments for certain pests (aphids, whiteflies, thrips) and also certain diseases (Cercospora, Tomato Leaf Mold, Early Blight, Fusarium Wilt, Verticillium Wilt, etc.)

    We also have learned, the hard and painful way, that being PROactive is 100 times better than being REactive. In other words, attack your issues before you ever seem them. If you wait until you have problems, you’ll fighting a losing battle all season. I cannot stress this enough.

    To prevent and control caterpillars and worms, use BTk. We spray every two weeks.
    To prevent and control aphids, whiteflies, thrips and various other pests, we use Azera. Google it — it’s OMRI approved, and derived from Chrysanthemums and Neem Oil. It’s a two pronged solution, both killing instantly and stopping the insects metamorphosis and growth. The stuff is magic.
    To prevent and control Cercospora on your beets and Swiss Chard, use Serenade or Copper Sulfate, alternating every other week. If you’re not worried about being organic, anything with chlorothalonil in it, like Daconil does great too.
    To prevent and control tomato diseases, first, try to plant disease resistant varieties, then treat with the same fungicides that we use above (Serenade, Copper Sulfate, Daconil).

    In years past, we were reactive to our problems, and this year, we began treating these problems well before we ever saw any signs of them, and this year is the first where we are raising absolutely clean, pest free veggies. It is a pure joy to go and harvest basket after basket of spinach, lettuce, collards, broccoli, swiss chard, beets, celery, carrots, tomatoes, cucumber — all with no pest or disease damage.

    So at the risk of being repetitive, treat for pests and diseases BEFORE you ever see them, and the chances are you won’t EVER see them.

    • All excellent points! In fact I’ve written an article on the history of pest control that simply hasn’t been published yet(it was submitted yesterday), and the measures you’ve suggested are included. I totally agree that we as preppers need to think outside of the normal supply chain, and either create solutions ourselves or source things locally. IPM’s most basic concept is that PROactive is far more effective than REactive. Hopefully we can catch new prepper gardeners and teach them right, from the outset!

  • Great article, very informative.

    In my refuge, I plan to prohibit chemicals of all sorts, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides. Fertilizers strip the natural nutrients from the soil. All this lamenting about farmers not going to have fertilizers, could be a good thingN

    I’ve heard that compost tea is a repellant, both for foliar spraying and feeding, and for root soaking. And Neem Leaf extract for spraying. Lady bugs.

    • Thanks! I’m glad you found it useful. Good luck with your no chemicals plan. Sounds like an interesting experiment, at least.

      An anecdotal tale regarding ladybugs as pest control: a famous nursery specializing in carnivorous plants had a greenhouse full of Venus flytraps that were infested with fungus gnats. Since ladybugs love to eat fungus gnats, the owner bought some and let them loose in the greenhouse. Unfortunately, the ladybugs were very attracted to the flytraps and ended up being eaten themselves. The guy had no ladybugs and lots of Venus flytraps that still had fungus gnats. I don’t remember how he dealt with them.

    • Dear Refuge Man,

      You´re right, I´ve read quite a good few reviews on neem…and it grows even in tropical countries like mine!

      I think that no chemicals, or few chemicals is the best approach; we should just work on building cheap, affordable biogas digestors (gas will always be useful!) and use the liquid fertilizer.

  • Great article! We’ve been fortunate in that I started building the garden soil 7 years ago. In fact the whole reason I got chickens initially was that I wanted to make compost for the garden.

    I really think healthy soil and the correct varieties are key. It took us a couple years to pin down the correct varieties for our climate but now the kids and I have it pretty much figured out. And the soil continues to improve, for the most part. I managed to screw up the carbon/nitrogen (straw/poo) balance in part of the garden two years ago but we generally do pretty well with what we have. I also get a lot of dry leaves, etc from the State Park near me. We’re scavengers. We use any organic material we can to build our soil and we don’t suffer a ton from pests. I get stink bugs by putting tape on the eggs and pulling them off the leaves. The only thing I order is NOLO bait. We have a few caterpillars, the last few years few enough that I just squish them but in years past when they’re more of a nuisance I’ve used Bt.

    • Thank you! I also scavenge whatever I can, especially this year. I filled my compost bin and new raised bed with fallen leaves and comfrey, plus I’m giving Azomite a try. I’ve been thinking that the problems I’ve been having with my container plants getting funky seemingly out of nowhere has to do with the potting medium being so nutrient-poor as well. I feel like I’ve learned soils on an entirely new level 😀 Pity I’m only allowed three chickens and no roosters in the city. Oh well. I’m not a huge fan and other critters poo.

  • Dear Jayne,
    This was such a GREAT topic. In my hometown, tobacco, tomato, corn and sorghum farmers can´t grow without fertilizer, commercial seeds, pesticides, and everything in between. I know how this sounds, me being an ignorant of their work and related inconveniences…but what I find sad is, that they never thought in the remote possibility of trying in a small patch of their own land some other methods, just to see what happens, and have an alternative. I´m so used by now to have alternatives, multiple choices, redundancy and try sort around every possible situation, that I find it hard to believe.

    • Dear Jose,

      Our farmers are also extremely dependent upon inputs, both fertilizer and pesticides. Rising costs of these chemicals is said to be partly responsible for rising food costs, and when these things become unavailable food production will drop. This of course will create even more hungry people. Venezuela’s collapse has given you a training course that is only now coming to the US. I’m sure we’ll adapt, as you have, in order to survive. Buckle up! Rough ride has already begun.

  • any help on how to deal with weeds? I just can’t get ahead of them, they take over everything. can’t even pull them up, they take everything else with them.

    • Keep pulling! Trim tops in the areas where the weeds are really connected to the plants. Till a bit before planting and cover with cardboard to slow weed growth.

  • Bought disease resistant Frost Peach tree, develops leaf curl every year, lol, discovered a couple applications of organic oregano oil in water knocks it right out! Pear tree was suffering scab, treated it by pruning out the worst branches and hosing it down liberally 3 to 4 times with a neem oil/dishsoap diluted in water beginning in spring when it blooms. We plant tons of nasturtiums in the tomato greenhouse to attract aphids away from the tomato plants. We use rock phosphate or fishheads under each tomato transplant to eliminate blossom end rot. I learned what root maggots were this last year when they took out 75% of my turnips. Built raised beds and covered them with floating row covers to deter the fly that lays the eggs that hatch into those nasty little buggers. I hate to admit it but I do use Sluggo to keep my strawberries safe but otherwise, no chemicals whatsoever. I’ve tried the beer bait and while it works, in Western WA it can’t keep up. Next plan of attack?…ducks. I absolutely believe that we can grow food without using anything even slightly harmful to the environment or ourselves. We just need to research and diligently apply the methods of permaculture and nature’s own ability to survive in every climate and circumstance.

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