Published on 05/01/08

Stop veggie pests before they stop garden

By Bob Westerfield
University of Georgia

Warm weather is a welcome sight for gardeners. But the problems it brings with insects and disease are not. Fortunately, there are several things we can do to help prevent and control them.

As you begin to establish your vegetable garden, put most of your money and energy in the soil. Unless you are one of the lucky few with good bottom soil, great garden soil must be created. Soil testing will provide a recipe for fertilizer and lime if needed. Maintaining proper nutrition will go a long way to healthier, pest-resistant plants.

Soil amendments are also critical. Compost, bagged top soil or aged manures should be added into organic-deficient sands or clay. The addition of organic amendments will create large spaces between soil particles and better drainage and oxygen exchange. This leads to more vibrant plants.

Another technique to stop pest problems is through crop rotation. By planting different families of vegetables in different areas of the garden, we can essentially “starve out” localized pests. For instance, tomatoes and potatoes are in the same vegetable family and should never be planted in the same spot during the same year.

Encourage beneficial insects. There is a whole army of good insects out there ready to control most of your pests if you just learn to coax them in. Avoid wide-spread applications of broad spectrum insecticides, particularly early in the day when most of the beneficial and pollinating insects are present.

Consider planting colorful flowers or perhaps a bed of wildflowers to attract predator insects and pollinating bees. Although you can purchase beneficial insects such as lady beetles or lace wings, it is doubtful that they will do much good on the small acreage of a typical home garden.

Resistant varieties can also be used. Varieties of vegetables are readily available that may be disease or insect resistant to a number of problems. Remember, sometimes the downside of very resistant varieties is less flavor compared to old standbys.

Consider ventilation in your garden when planting rows or laying out tomato cages. Crowded plants that have no room for air movement around them can lead to disease problems. Allowing a few feet around plants gives room to move around and harvest without damage to the plant and allows air to dry off plants.

Irrigation is also a critical management strategy. Plants should be watered at the ground level when possible. Overhead irrigation should be avoided. The use of soaker hoses or irrigation tape is an excellent way to keep foliage dry and help control moisture-loving diseases. Remember to water plants at night or early in the morning and only when plants need it. Usually, a garden only needs water once or twice a week. Overwating can lead to problems.

We don’t want to grow the largest squash or cucumber when freshness and flavor are involved. Harvesting early and frequently will ensure a continued production and helps to prevent damaging disease and insects that can easily detect aging fruit or vegetables.

Finally, if there is a need to spray for control of a pest, consider the least toxic route first. There is often a safe organic alternative way to control pests without the use of something more toxic. Frequent scouting by walking through the garden regularly will help reveal problems early and sometimes just hand picking a few bugs is all it takes for control.

By following a few simple procedures it is possible to have close to a perfect garden. It’s a matter of creating great soil, using defensive tactics and keeping a careful watch.

Bob Westerfield is a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension consumer horticulturist with the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.