The Basics of Organic Pest Control

The Gardenist

I was raised by gardeners to be a gardener but back when I was a kid, my parents had no idea about the 'down the road' repercussions of the poisons they frequently used to control garden pests. These days, armed with a little more knowledge of organic practices, I have a basic three pronged approach that covers off at least 90% of the troubles I encounter.

The great mystery of gardening, to me, is how the bad bugs know where my good plants are. Take the most disgusting of all garden pests, tomato worms (hornworms) for example. I started planting tomatoes in my current garden about 5 years ago and until that time, I can confidently say that no tomatoes had been grown within 500 feet (maybe even 1000 feet!) of my garden for many many years. Yet somehow those thick putrid green tomato worms quickly found my plants and started munching away. I have no idea who told them and how they got there, but with the use of my three handy tools, I haven't seen them since.

Soapy Water, Neem Oil and a copy of Good Bug Bad Bug by Jessica Walliser will take you far in your fight against bad bugs. It is important to know that in the garden, all bugs aren’t bad. Experienced gardeners love bugs (as long as they’re the good kind) because they know beneficial insects are an effective natural solution to garden pests. Jessica's book has taught me a lot about who is who (good and bad) in my garden and it is a reference I frequently consult.

In the case of my tomato worms I have to admit, I didn't yet own a copy Good Bug Bad Bug. If I had I would have spared myself the gagging torture of hand picking off every tomato worm I found (something about the marshmallow squishy texture of hornworms makes me want to vomit). It was fully a season later that I bought the book and learned that my efforts of hand picking probably had less to do with my successful eradication than the fact that they had little white sacs hanging off them. I assumed the sacs where an army of baby hornworms in waiting, but in fact, they were the cocoons of beneficial parasitic wasps. The wasp larvae in these sacs kill the worms and grow into wasps who will lay eggs on future hornworms. I clearly have a good natural cycle going because I haven't had tomato worm trouble since.

Soapy water (an easy mix of your favorite dish soap and water) will kill 90% of bugs you find. Make sure that the bugs you have are not beneficial first and if not, you can either spray the pests with the solution or carry a cup full around the garden. As you encounter trouble makers, flick them off your plants and into the cup where they will perish.

Neem oil which is made from the seeds of the tropical neem tree is an all purpose organic pesticide. It repels insects, preventing a problem before it starts, as well as suppresses feeding and molting, interrupting their lifecycle. During the winter, I spray my indoor plants with a light mix of of Neem oil and soapy water as a preventative measure and in the summer I carry on outdoors as needed.

Year of practice and experimentation have taught me a lot, but I still have some mysteries....like how do the wasps find the hornworms? I have no idea.
Do you have any handy organic gardening tricks to share?

Image: Sarah Starkey/5 Fear-Conquering Tips For First Time Gardeners.