To be successful controlling garden pests organically or naturally, you have to use multiple methods, be persistent, know what you are doing and have the right products.
First, some clarification on the difference between “organic’ and “natural” when it comes to pest controls. Products labeled as “OMRI listed” are certified by Organic Material Review Institute to comply with established organic standards. Some natural alternatives (occur in nature but are not derived from plants or animals), such as some forms of sulfur, are not truly organic, but are OMRI listed and used by organic gardeners.
Here are some tips you can use to help control garden pests organically or naturally.
Have a keen eye and act quickly. The more time you spend in the garden, examining plants for the first signs of problems, the better the chances you’ll be able to control pests with organic or natural measures. These measures work best when started early, before insects or disease become firmly established. This is especially true for natural and organic sprays, which usually have to be applied more frequently than synthetic alternatives. For example, organic fungicides like neem oil extract and the bacteria Bacillus subtilis work much better when applied early-on to prevent diseases, such as powdery mildew, than they do if applied when the diseases are in full rampage. They also may have to be used as often as every 7 days to be effective.
Know the pests. Understanding pest life cycles and knowing when to expect outbreaks is critical for control. Local nurseries and your state Cooperative Extension Service can provide such information. It’s also important to understand relationships between pests, such as the interactions between ants and aphids, and how some insects can result in secondary problems like sooty mold. Keep track of insect and disease outbreaks and record them in garden notebooks for future reference.
Encourage and/or release beneficial insects. Learn to recognize the garden “good guys” and include plants that will help attract or encourage them in your garden. Controlling insect pests successfully by releasing beneficials, such a predatory nematodes or lacewings, takes precise timing and viable products. While results of such releases may be mixed, there is no doubt that unleashing lady beetles or praying mantises, is a lot of fun and a great biology lesson for kids. Consult your local nursery or Cooperative Extension Service on ways to attract or release beneficials into your garden.
Plant resistant varieties. From disease-resistant rose varieties to tomatoes resistant to nematodes and verticillium wilt to sycamores that are less susceptible to anthracnose; the list of plants that can protect themselves is ever-increasing. Use your local cooperative extension, web searches and plant suppliers to find out about the latest and greatest pest resistant varieties.
Handpick. Simple things like frequent handpicking of snails, grasshoppers or tomato hornworms can help reduce pest numbers.
Use barriers and traps. Floating row covers can prevent many pest problems in vegetable gardens. Other effective barriers include paper or plastic collars to exclude cutworms from reaching young seedlings, strips of copper to impede snails and bands of sticky material to keep ants out of plants. Trapping pests can be as simple as setting out pans of beer to catch snails, rolling newspapers to snare earwigs or hanging yellow sticky traps to reduce whiteflies. More sophisticated traps or lures can help monitor specific pests, such as coddling moth, and help time control measures. You can find those through specialty suppliers on the internet.
Clean-up and rotate. Good sanitation and crop rotation can go a long way in preventing pest populations from exploding. Remove mummies (unpicked fruit) from fruiting plants, and dispose of plant debris that could harbor overwintering insects or disease. Soil cultivation can also reduce overwintering pests as can rotating annual plantings so they are never grown in the same place year after year.
Good cultural practices. Healthy plants can better withstand or overcome attacks from insects and diseases, so good care is always important. Certain practices, especially improper watering and fertilizing, can make plants more susceptible to pests. For example, gardeners often do not realize that overhead watering can promote black spot on roses or that drought stressed trees are more likely to be attacked by certain borers or spider mites.
The right spray at the right time. The last decade has seen an increase in the quality and quantity of organic and natural pests controls on nursery and garden center shelves. Products like those in the Natria line offer time-honored organic options like insecticidal soap and neem oil extract. They also include exiting new products derived from an improved strain of Bacillus subtilis, a bacteria (harmless to humans) that combats diseases like black spot and powdery mildew.
The more you know about organic and natural pest controls –how they work, and how and when to use them - the more successful you will be. And remember, even though they are natural or organic, these products are still pesticides and must be used according to the label instructions. Following the label ensures the safety of the user and pollinators, protects plants and will provide the best results.