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Top 7 tips for controlling pests in your backyard garden

As spring and summer begin to settle in across the Upstate, so do the pesky insects that like to feast on our backyard vegetable gardens, flowers and plants. Rather than use pesticides to keep backyard bugs in check, here are 7 tips for controlling pests naturally:

1. Diversify your garden

Long, straight rows of a single crop are like an ‘All You Can Eat’ neon sign to insects. A ‘messy’ garden with several different kinds of plants creates a more natural environment that encourages nature to work with you rather than against you.

Even in a small residential garden, you will have more pest problems if you grow nothing but 20 varieties of tomatoes than if you grow 20 different types of plants. The ideal garden includes an assortment of vegetables, herbs and flowers to attract beneficial insects that keep pests under control. A simple way to do this is to separate similar crops even by just a few feet, Also, plant a few herbs or flowers in between your vegetable crops, and let some of your herbs, such as borage, produce flowers. Borage is great to grow in your vegetable or herb garden because it is such a magnet for bees and other pollinators and because it is considered a good growing companion for other plants.

2. Attract beneficial insects

Along with a diversified garden, you can lure helpful insects by growing specific plants with food sources and/or reproduction habitats. Planting a variety of these plants, especially so that some of them are blooming throughout the season, is ideal. Plants that lure beneficial insects include ornamentals such as Alyssum, Bee balm, Cosmos, Marigolds, Rocky Mountain penstemon and Zinnias. Herbs also are appealing to useful insects, such as Cilantro, Dill, Fennel, Lavender, Lemon balm, Parsley and Thyme.

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And just what are the beneficial insects? They include bees which are pollinators and lady bugs which eat aphids. Green lacewings eat spider mites, ground beetles eat pest larvae, slugs and snails, spiders eat a variety of insects, and praying mantises eat many pests including beetles and grasshoppers.

3. Try natural solutions

There are many natural and environmentally-friendly pest control solution ideas out there. The most important thing to know about them is that it may take persistence and multiple applications to get the desired results.

For example, a non-toxic homemade insecticidal soap is popular natural pest control method. You can make a simple solution by mixing 5 tablespoons of liquid dish detergent in 1 gallon of water. Fill a spray bottle with the solution and spray the entire affected plant, especially the undersides of leaves. The solution kills pests by suffocating them and is ineffective once it dries, so wash plants off within a few hours of application. You can spray your plants once a week with this solution but avoid applying it during extremely hot weather to prevent foliage damage.

Alternative additional ingredients include crushed garlic or hot pepper which act as a deterrent to future invaders. Insecticidal soap is effective against spider mites, aphids, mealybugs, other soft-bodied pests, eggs of pests, and young larvae of pests.

4. Fertilize

A healthy plant can withstand some infestation without detriment. That is a natural occurrence. Keep your plants at their best by using a granular fertilizer when you plant them. Dosing them weekly with liquid fertilizer during flowering and fruit/vegetable production periods will give you amazing results. Watch your fertilizer ratios and aim for something balanced like a 10-4-3. A high first number (nitrogen) can give you excessive long, leggy growth.

5. Time your plantings

If you’ve had repeated failures with a certain crop because of pests, it may be a good idea to switch your growing season. For example, if flea beetles make skeletons out of your brassicas (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, mustard, radish) every spring, try planting in later summer for a fall crop. Pests are winding down in the fall and are less likely to cause problems.

You can also consider planting successive crops throughout the summer. If squash beetles wipe out your first planting of pumpkins in spring, they may not attack the second crop planted a month later. And with some frost protection in fall, you may still get a good crop.

6. Use crop covers

This one can be a lot of work, but some find crop covers—light, gauzy material available at your local garden center—to be a good way to protect plants from flying pests like aphids, flea beetles and birds. Covers allows enough sunlight through for plants to grow, protects plants from frost in spring or fall, and provides a little shade for cool season crops, like lettuce, in the summer. For plants like squash and pumpkins that require pollination to produce fruit, you should take crop covers off in the morning for a few hours to allow access for bees and other pollinating insects.

7. Vigilance

There are many great choices when it comes to natural ways to treat garden problems. However, nothing is better than prevention. Well-tended gardens are less likely to suffer devastating infestations. Walking through your garden at least three times a week and inspecting plants closely will help you recognize, treat and prevent problems before they get out of control.

About the Author

Tina Clark is the owner and president of Carolina Garden World in Spartanburg, SC. A native of Erie, Pennsylvania, Tina found Upstate South Carolina in a job move then found her way to Spartanburg Community College where she completed a degree in horticulture. A frequent presenter at area civic organizations, garden clubs and schools, Tina is sustainability certified and organizes a free Sustainability Day event for the community at Carolina Garden World each year in celebration of Earth Day.

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