Banish the Beasties!

By Chrissa Carlson

Summer brings vacations, backyard barbeques, and impromptu visits on the porch. But it also brings guests to the garden. After a promising spring, things can get creepy as insects descend on our carefully tended leaves, roots, and fruit. As the temperatures spike, pests take advantage of stressed plants and ample habitat to wreck your botanical world.

But wait! Before we get down to buggy business, we’d like to let you know that Urban Farmhouse is on a tour de farmers markets to visit with you, share garden know-how, and sell fall seedlings and our organic Bug Brew! We love a challenge, so bring your worst pest laments to:
Mt. Washington Farmers Market on July 25th
Lauraville Farmers Market on July 31st
Druid Hill Park Farmers Market on August 22nd

Like our own health, caring for our plants’ health can take two forms: prevention and intervention. Preventing pest problems using good planning and cultural practices should be your primary strategy. Interventions, particularly of the chemical variety, should be executed with care to avoid taking out the good guys (beneficial pollinators and pest-predators) along with the bad guys, not to mentioned poisoning your plants and polluting your soil.

So how do you make your garden less palatable to pests? Here’s an ounce (or so) of prevention:
• Recruit help. Beneficial insects, such as ladybug larvae, lacewings, and parasitoid wasps can get a pest problem under control before you even know it started. Beneficials often include nectar as part of their diet, so planting a buffet of zinnias, cosmos, and sweet alyssum can welcome them home. Letting herbs such as mint, dill, and cilantro bloom can also attract beneficials.

If you see evidence of beneficial insects at work on a pest infestation, let them do their work! Adding your own pesticides to the effort may kill some of the pests, but it will cut off the predator’s food supply and not allow their populations to grow, preventing further infestations. Check out the gross awesomeness of a parasitized tomato hornworm below: those protuberances are larvae that eventually did in that hornworm, and then emerged to ensure further infestations never took hold.

• Become a master of disguise. Herbs, such as basil, oregano, and dill, can mask the sweet smell of your tender crops, and keep those pests away.
• Keep your garden well-weeded. Besides stealing water, nutrients, and sun from your on-purpose plants, weeds provide additional habitat for buggies. A crowded garden also has limited airflow, setting up the perfect conditions for the development and spread of disease.
• Avoid over fertilizing, particularly too much nitrogen. Nitrogen stimulates leaf production, and while it can be thrilling to see your plants spring to life after a dose, those tender young shoots are gourmet fare for insect pests.
• Manage water to avoid plant stress. Soil should dry at the surface between waterings to avoid wet feet and encourage deep roots, but don’t let your soil dry down deeper than that. Water-stressed plants are more susceptible to pest infestations, and are less productive in general.

In spite of your best efforts, you will still have unwelcome visitors. Expect to have at least one of your crops fail per year—learn what went wrong and start fresh next year. But should the unthinkable occur, here are some low-impact strategies for getting the problem under control:

• Spa treatments: Soaps, oil, and extracts. Insecticidal soaps, horticultural oil, and products containing botanical extracts are effective against many different types of pests. These sprays are available at most garden centers and don’t kill off beneficial insects. They must make contact with the pest in order to kill them, so be sure to coat all leaf surfaces, including the undersides of leaves. Urban Farmhouse offers an organic Bug Brew, made with castile soap and extracts of our own organic garlic and chili peppers, that is effective in thwarting attacks of aphids, whiteflies, and other soft-bodied insects.
• Blast ‘em off. In general, water goes on the soil, not the leaves, to get it where it is needed most and avoid disease-ready wet leaves. However, early infestations of aphids can be checked by a hose blast. Repeat for a few days and reassess the need for further intervention.
• Know when to wave the white flag. Pick and dispose of heavily infested plant parts (in the trash, not the compost pile). Wash your hands afterwards to avoid spreading eggs and disease to other plants. And while it is never easy, it is sometimes better to sacrifice a heavily infested plant for the benefit of the team: better to lose one than the whole farm.

Urban Farmhouse is available for garden coaching sessions to help you troubleshoot pest issues and keep your garden productive through the dog days. Contact [email protected] to schedule a coaching session or to purchase our Bug Brew.