Over the last few years, small backyard gardens have been increasing in popularity. During the height of the pandemic the “victory garden” made a come back as people searched for both educational pass times and a source of fresh locally grown food when supermarkets were understocked and overcrowded. Backyard gardens are a great idea for bringing your own farm-to-table freshness into your home. They’re also solid learning tools for all ages—getting your hands in the dirt has never been a bad idea.
Caring for your backyard garden should be easy and enjoyable, but sometimes pests become, well, pesty. Let’s take a look at a few common garden pests, the problems they can cause, and effective and natural ways of dealing with them.
One of the first steps in dealing with backyard garden pests, aside from prevention (which we’ll talk about shortly), is identifying pest damage. You have to know what you’re looking for and what kind of pest is likely to have caused the problem. There are two basic ways to break down pest damage:
- Big critter damage—this includes easy to identify issues, such as uprooted plants, trampling, and mole tunnels, to name a few. Big critters like opossums, armadillos, moles/groundhogs, rabbits, or even deer can do real damage to your backyard garden. The good news is this damage is often easy to spot, and small critters can be easily trapped and relocated, or sometimes even bribed with peace offerings. (Note: always look to local wildlife guidelines before feeding wildlife in your area so as not to encourage bad behavior.)
- Little critter damage—this includes more minute issues, such as leaf mining, curled leaves, seedlings suddenly collapsing like they’ve been cut in half or even holes in produce. Little critters like cabbage worms, cutworms, stink bugs, beetles, pillbugs, and more, are much harder to spot, and can go from a little problem to a disaster in backyard gardens when left alone.
Read More: How To: Build A Raised Bed Vegetable Garden
After identifying the type of pest in your backyard garden, it’s time to make a plan for managing them. Specifically, let’s focus on those harder to find and relocate little pests like worms and other insects. There are a few things you can do to prevent infestations with each season of planting.
- Companion planting is a gardener’s best friend. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Some plants work really well as companions with other plants to help deter pests. For example, marigolds, which are safe to plant with almost every garden choice, have an aroma that many pests don’t enjoy, so an abundance of marigolds may keep large insect infestations to a minimum. As a bonus, pollinators love the flowers and will help by 1) also pollinating your vegetables, and 2) preying on pests (more on that shortly). Different herbs and flowers have different benefits, but not all of them play nice with all of your vegetables, so be sure to check before planting together.
- Plant spacing and diversity is another useful trick. Most seed and vegetable starters come with plant spacing guides based on the size of a mature plant. Following those guides helps ensure the plant has room to grow properly and maintains good aeration. If your backyard garden is planted too closely together, things can stay damp and mildewy, which creates an ideal safe haven for pests. But don’t just space them out, rotate your varieties using companion planting. For example, don’t plant all of your tomatoes in one bed, and all of your lettuce in another. Work them together so that if one becomes infested, the others are less likely to be equally infested and damaged.
- Squish on-sight tactics are highly effective for anyone who isn’t squeamish. Just like it sounds, as you inspect your backyard garden, you squish any pest you see on sight because it’ll probably be gone when you come back later for it. (Note: Make sure you are 100% sure about what you’re squishing before doing so, as you don’t want to accidentally eradicate useful insects, like ladybugs, whose larvae look very similar to that of some pests.)
While the above tricks are highly effective for pest management and prevention, the honest truth is that sometimes pests just get out of hand and a little more action is needed. But please remember to use discretion in these following practices. A garden, like many things in life, is a natural space that thrives on balance. Your goal isn’t to have a pest-free backyard garden, but rather a diverse and balanced space that can thrive. With that in mind, here are a few slightly more aggressive (though still organic) pest control methods to help your backyard garden thrive.
- Predator insects can be attracted by planting pollinator-friendly plants in your garden space, or they can be bought and released in your backyard garden to help control pests. You’ll need to do your homework to identify your pest properly and find its predator. Ladybugs feed on aphids; some wasp species prey on worms and caterpillars; praying mantis control a variety of pests. However, it’s very important to remember the balance we just talked about. Predators need prey to stay in your garden. If your goal is a pest-free space, then you’ll likely lose any natural predators because they lack a food source, and when that happens, the pests return two-fold, and the cycle becomes more vicious. Balance is key.
- Traps can be installed in a couple of ways. Just like companion plans, there are trap plants that work by trapping nuisance insects. For example, nasturtiums trap aphids. You can also install manual traps by using a bait that the pest will enjoy, and which also does not damage your garden or your health like heavy pesticides do. One easy example is beer traps. You can save old cans (like wet food cans from your pets), sink them so that the opening is level with the topsoil in your backyard garden, and then pour a little beer in the bottom of the can. (Cheap beer works best for this, so you don’t have to spend a small fortune pouring out beer in your garden!) Pillbugs and other small beetles are highly attracted to the open beer and fall into the trap, but cannot get out, thus effectively removing them from your backyard garden.
- Neem and BT sprays should be used as a last resort. While BT (a naturally occurring bacteria that, when consumed by worms/caterpillars causes them to feel full so that they stop eating until they die) affects only caterpillars and worms, it does not discriminate against species, and can just as easily kill the caterpillars than turn into monarch butterflies and stunning swallowtails as it does your pesky cabbage and cutworms. Neem oil is less lethal but can still deter even your beneficial pollinators. Both can be great options in necessary situations, but you should use them last in your new arsenal of pest prevention methods.
Read More: Beginning a Veggie Garden
Backyard gardening is nature’s therapy. Its strong and recent come back is enjoyable to witness and should be just as enjoyable to practice. With routine care and daily checking in on your plants, these new pest prevention and management tricks will help you continue on your backyard garden journey joyfully.
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Check out Daily Mom’s Garden Section for more backyard garden advice, tips, and tricks.
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