In the garden: ways to fight pests other than with insecticides

I like to encourage gardeners to solve their insect problems organically. Instead of looking for an insecticide, this is an opportunity to approach the problem in a creative and more environmentally friendly way. We don’t always need to kill bugs to win the battle.

Putting in place physical barriers that keep certain insects away from a crop is a simple solution. For example, a floating cover or small-mesh insect netting can be very effective in keeping aphids and cabbage worms away from your broccoli plants. Be sure to set it up as soon as you plant the seeds or seedlings.

Since home grown cabbage crops do not require pollination, you can leave the cover in place all season long and enjoy a bug-free harvest. I also use row covers on beets, spinach and Swiss chard to keep leafminers away.

From time to time I have to resort to hand picking insects, although it can be difficult to catch the little rascals. I fill a small bucket with water and add a squirt or two of dish soap. When I spot a pest, I can quickly pull it off the plant and put it in the bucket. Soap breaks the surface tension of water.

This means that the insect falls to the bottom of the container and drowns. There are times when you may need to up your game by using an organic spray. It’s easy to think that because they’re organic, these products can be used freely.

To be honest, I don’t have much experience with bio sprays as I’ve usually been able to solve my bug problems with the above methods or by making homemade traps. It wasn’t until I researched all the sprays while writing “The Vegetable Garden Pest Handbook” that I discovered something important: Just because a product is organic doesn’t mean you you can ignore the instructions on the label. Some of them can have unforeseen negative impacts.

Take neem oil, for example. For years I’ve heard gardeners rave about this organic spray, and assumed it was completely safe to use. When I checked I found out that it can kill pollinators.

Does that mean you can’t use it? No. This means that you should apply it when pollinators are not active, either very early in the morning or late in the day. You should also not use it around blooming flowers. Other organics such as insecticidal soaps, pyrethrins and spinosad are also toxic to pollinators, so the same rules apply.

Certain types of organic sprays should not be applied around bodies of water such as ponds, rivers or lakes. For example, horticultural oil, neem oil, and pyrethrins are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms. Even spinosad is slightly toxic to fish. Also, we should never pour excess spray solution down a storm drain.

Always start by positively identifying the insect in question, then check the label to make sure a product will control that pest before you buy it. Remember to mix products exactly as directed: more is not better! It’s a waste of your gardening money to mix them up at a higher rate in hopes of eliminating an insect problem once and for all.

Most organic produce can be used up to the day of harvest, but check the label for this information as well. We gardeners have many effective biological tools at our disposal. It is our duty to use them wisely.

Susan Mulvihill is the author of “The Vegetable Garden Pest Handbook”. She can be contacted at [email protected] Watch this week’s video at

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