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?