With spring here, it's time to start planting your vegetable garden. The key to a successful growing season is to plan ahead and prepare for common pests that, if allowed, can do significant damage to your crops. Pest infestations may come as a surprise, but if you know what to look out for and when to look, you just might be able to greet these unexpected guests at the door with an action plan in place. Or, even better, take preventative measures to keep pest populations to a minimum altogether! To get you started, below are three common spring garden pests and natural strategies to manage them:
Slugs are soft-bodied mollusks, usually grey or brown. They are difficult to spot because they feed at night and hide in moist dark areas during the day. How can you tell these sneaky pests are visiting your garden? Look for holes and ragged edges on leaves. Small seedlings can be consumed entirely! For proof of slugs, visit your garden first thing in the morning and look for the trails of slime they leave behind on plant leaves and in the soil. They'll eat just about anything, but particularly like your spring greens and brassica plants.
Given that slugs seek dark moist areas to hide beneath during the day, they are pretty easy to trap. Lay a wooden board in your garden bed, wait for the sun to come up, then hand-pick to remove. You can also trap them by setting out small containers of beer in the evening - that’s right, slugs love cheap beer and will dive head first into a container and drown! In addition to trapping, you can slow their feeding by applying a thick woody or straw mulch, which will increase the difficulty of their journey from one plant to another. A protective ring of coffee grounds or diatomaceous earth (DE) around each plant can act as a deterrent. Preventative measures include removing old plant debris from the soil and encouraging predators, like birds, by creating an inviting habitat. If these controls don't work, you can invest in Sluggo, an iron phosphate organic bait, which is safe to use around pets and wildlife.
Photo: Gardening Soul
Aphids are soft-bodied insects that can be as small as a pinhead. They come in several colors including red, gray, green and black. They are usually found in groups, often seen on new shoots or the underside of a leaf, feeding on plant’s juices. Leaves heavily infested may become curled or yellow. Left untreated, aphids can stunt or kill the plant.
To mechanically control aphids, squish them by hand or trap and suffocate them with soapy water. If you want to make your own soap treatment, use the suds and apply to the leaves of the infested plant. Alternatively, you can buy organic soap spray, like Safer Insect Killing Soap. Neem Oil, an organic leaf polish, will also do the trick. An integrated pest management (IPM) technique for aphid control would be to attract or release predators into your garden. Both ladybugs (especially their larvae) and the praying mantis have hearty appetites for aphids. You can order these beneficial insects online to release into your garden or you can try to invite them in by planting fragrant, colorful flowers. Interplanting vegetable plants that have strong odors, such as onion and garlic, will mask favorable plant scents, such as cabbage.
Photo: The Enchanted Tree
Flea beetles, so named because of their ability to jump like fleas, are small, shiny, and difficult to spot. However, you know they are present when you see small round pinholes in leaves, especially on young seedlings. Where damage is most rapid, leaves can look lacy. When this happens, plants can be stunted.
Flea beetles are difficult to manually remove, but infestations can be slowed by applying organic dusts, like diatomaceous earth (DE), which you can get by the scoop from the Villagers soil bar. Made from crushed fossilized sea creatures, DE is a powder that creates harm to the beetle's exoskeleton, causing them to lose their waxy cover and dry out. Another option is to hang small yellow sticky traps, which attract and trap the beetles. As a preventative measure, install hoops and row covers over your crops to keep them out all together.
Photo: Forestry Images
To read about other spring pests, like cabbage loopers and harlequin bugs, check out The Organic Gardener's Handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control: A Complete Guide to Maintaining a Healthy Garden and Yard the Earth-Friendly Way. Here are a few other general preventive measures to take to minimize the pests in your garden this season:
- Rotate your crops each season. New to crop rotation? Eliot Coleman's original The New Organic Grower breaks it down.
- Interplant your vegetables. Carrots Love Tomatoes is an excellent resource on companion planting.
- Harvest frequently! Don’t let your mature kale leaves become a breeding ground.
- Improve the health of your soil by adding plenty of biologically active compost. Both worm castings and biochar are loaded with beneficial microorganisms, an excellent addition to the soil.
- Plant flowers around and in your garden to attract beneficial insects. Stop by and check out our Baker Creek Heirloom Seed collection.
Leave a comment if you have any questions!