Everyday Gardener: Controlling pests in the garden

As I type this I can almost hear the four-lined plant bugs out in my garden chomping away on many of my perennials — even my wee basil plants that are just trying to get a start for the summer. My basil! I have no qualms about squishing these yellow bugs with the fat, black stripes on their backs or flicking them into a pail of water to drown. But I don’t spray them with chemicals anymore. Sevin, insecticidal soup, homemade soap sprays, I’ve tried all kinds of concoctions to try to get rid of four-lined plant bugs and other pests over the years. None of them worked very well.

I don’t use chemicals on bugs anymore. It’s not that I think all chemicals are bad; I don’t. Though I do think chemicals should be used judiciously. Don’t worry. I’m not going to be all preachy in this column about what you should do when trying to deal with pests in your own garden. I’d just like to share what I’ve learned about pesticides over the last few years so you can make your own, informed choices about pest control whether that be through chemical or natural means.

Organics are always safer

By far, the most eye-opening information I’ve read about pesticides came from my friend Jeff Gillman’s book “The Truth About Organic Gardening: Benefits, Drawbacks, and the Bottom Line.” Before reading Jeff’s book I thought organic pesticides were always the safest choice in the garden. I was wrong. Though it’s true that organic products are usually less toxic than synthetic insecticides, Jeff’s research (and the research of others) has shown that some organic products can be quite dangerous to all living things, as well as the environment.

The truly unsettling thing is that because we think of organic pesticides as “safe,” or at least safer, we don’t use them with the same care we might if we thought we were handling something that might hurt us. In many ways, this makes organic products even more dangerous than synthetics because gardeners (me included) are out there using them without gloves, without eye protection, in a stiff wind so we get the blow back on our skin — not good. Not good at all.

Jeff writes in detail about the toxicity levels of several organic and synthetic pesticides in the book. I want to point out what he said about three commonly used organic insecticides: pyrethrum, neem and rotenone (note these are active ingredients not brand names). Gardeners often perceive these three chemicals as reasonably safe choices for people and the environment when, in fact, all three are broad-spectrum insecticides.

That means unlike many organic pesticides that are designed to eliminate a specific pest or pests, they kill ALL insects they come in contact with, including beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings, bees and butterflies. Neem, studies show, may also adversely affect humans and the environment, which I found surprising since neem is so often touted as being a good, safe, organic remedy for garden pests.

Caution, warning, danger

You’ll notice I said above that I was naming active ingredients rather than brand names (except when I mentioned Sevin). That’s because active ingredients are what you need to look for on product labels to really understand what you’re buying. If you don’t recognize the names of ingredients, but are wondering how toxic a product is, check the label for these key words: caution, warning and danger.

Caution means a product is less toxic than others, meaning it could cause a mild reaction if eaten, inhaled or absorbed through skin. Warning indicates that a product is toxic and strong reactions may occur if eaten, inhaled or absorbed. Danger is scary and you’ll know that because you’ll see a skull and crossbones on the label. These products are poisonous and should be used with extreme caution.

Natural pest management

As gardeners, you may have already heard about IPM or (Integrated Pest Management). Though the term sounds wonky, it’s really a common-sense approach to pest control that can include chemicals but doesn’t make them the focus of the strategy.

Gardeners who practice IPM start by taking time to evaluate and monitor pest problems before doing anything. After identifying the pest or pests causing problems, the first course of action is to try physical controls, which might include handpicking bugs off plants, using traps or erecting barriers.

Often, if you do some research, you’ll find a product that focuses on the specific insect you’re after so you’ll minimize harm to other “good” bugs. The truth is, most of the pests in our gardens have their season and then they’re gone. The harm they do is unsightly, but it usually doesn’t kill plants. In most cases, doing nothing seems to me to be the best course of action.

Meleah Maynard is a writer and Master Gardener. Contact her at [email protected]