The first rule for organic gardening pest and problem, control is to relax about most pest control issues. You’ll see holes in leaves and chunks missing here and there because that’s how nature works.
If you want to see butterflies you have to allow the not-as-pretty caterpillars to eat your plants because those caterpillars turn into flitting beauties.
If you want fireflies, don’t sweat the slugs too much because slugs are a food source for fireflies.
It’s only when I see major damage I begin worrying and looking for controls.
You will find a ton of stuff about controlling deer but the only thing that works everywhere is a deer-fence. That’s it. Oh, and dogs.
Please understand deer psychology. This gorgeous woodland creature survives by being cautious, running quickly and performing “tall buildings with a single bound” kind of jumping.
What scares them is novelty.
So when they first smell soap, they’re cautious and will avoid the area if possible but if the soap fragrance continues, they’ll get used to it and ignore it. The first time they see flashing cd’s in a tree, they’ll be cautious, but repeated exposure to them will remove that caution.
Here’s a summary article about deer deterrents in the home garden.
There is no one-size-fits-all cure other than fencing.
If you constantly change your control method, you might avoid a great deal of damage.
The second thing you will read is that this plant, or that plant isn’t eaten by deer. Deer dislike some plants and prefer not to eat them. But here’s the kicker. What they don’t eat in your garden, they consider delicacies in mine.
Deer turn out to have different tastes in different parts of the country. Who knew? So find a local list, or find multiple lists and compare them to discover which plants are common to many lists.
And the third thing are sprays you can make yourself or purchase. I use several over the course of a season (novelty again) to preserve young tree seedlings.
The thing I will tell you is there’s a world of difference between a normal deer and a ravenous deer. Hungry deer eat anything up to and including daffodils (which are bitter and poisonous) and yew (the same). A hungry deer isn’t fussy and will strip down any plant within reach eating things they’d normally never eat.
Fencing is the only answer.
Dogs On Your Lawn
Fencing stops dogs from defecating on your lawn but if Fido does something and you find it within a few minutes, you can turn a hose on the area to wash down the Nitrogen into the soil away from the grass roots.
After a few minutes though, it’s a waste of time.
Again, there are sprays you can use to deter some dogs but others love the smells. I had one who loved the scent of a test product and would roll in it (yes, a Labrador Retriever.)
Are a problem in that fences don’t work but a simple gizmo called a “Scarecrow” works wonders. This is a motion-sensor controlled water sprinkler which will put a 10-second burst of water out when the sensor is tripped. Cats dislike being sprayed, so this is your answer.
Electric fences for corn patches work as do strong latches on garbage cans. These are big (an adult male can weigh 30-pounds) creatures and you don’t want to corner one.
You can use a Hav-A-Heart trap to capture and control them using peanut butter or recently opened/used tuna cans with fish residue as bait.
Note moving an animal to another neighborhood usually means condemning that animal to a slow death.
Beer and comfortable chairs seem to do the trick here.
I can’t begin to tell you how many stories I’ve heard of husbands who just want to “prune” that rose with their new chainsaw or run the lawn mower over the burdock that turns out to be rhubarb.
There is no control and there is no spray that works I’m afraid when a better half of the male persuasion takes it into his head to “help” in the garden. You’re on your own. But do try beer and an offer to watch the game (any game!)
Small animal control
Human urine dumped down their burrows works nicely as a deterrent. Over the years, I’ve moved many groundhogs out of my various gardens using this technique. It’s far easier than shooting, trapping etc and works just as well.
I’ll leave it to your imagination how you accomplish this but understand the groundhog likely leaves because:
1.) the smell is noxious in his lair and
2.) he can’t smell predators outside his burrow when his borrow is already fragrant with one.
I found one application is usually enough except for some big, city creatures who seem to require several.
This small tree-rodent is a problem in two distinct ways. The first is when it decides to dig up and move your recently planted fall bulbs.
A squirrel has several clues for finding and storing food.
The solution to that is to simply and excessively water the newly planted area to turn it into a mud puddle.
This does two things: it removes the scent of the bulb/food and it removes all traces of recent digging activity as the soil settles.
Understand that with specialized intelligence, the squirrel can’t see the disturbed soil, can’t smell the “food” and it doesn’t like to walk in mud in any case.
The second and more vexing issue is when you have flowers that are “just about” to bloom and the buds suddenly disappear. Or worse, find them lying on the ground just nipped off and discarded.
Squirrels may be persistent but they are not smart when it comes to food. Here’s how you control them in fruit
You can spray the buds or douse them with black pepper but sooner or later you’ll forget. (And no, contrary to Internet lore, it doesn’t make them go blind)
The answer, as unlikely and unpopular as this is going to be, is to feed the squirrels. Food will cost a lot less than your flowers and you will enjoy your garden.
You’ll only feed a few as they are quite territorial creatures and the “owners” of that feeder will defend it vigorously.
And once you see them playing around, fully-fed and only taking a nip of your garden here and there, you may find yourself enjoying their antics.
There are many home remedies for skunk “fragrances” but (thanks to an adventurous Labrador Retriever) I can tell you they are mostly ineffective. They’ll “cut” the smell a bit, reducing it below gag levels but you’ll want to go to the Vet and get one of the serious products if you want to deal with it promptly and completely.
To make matters worse, there are no methods to keep a skunk out of your garden if it wants to be inside.
They’re like small cats in that regard, agile and able to slip through cracks you can hardly see and/or climb over fences.
Your best bet is to avoid having food sources available for them by enclosing compost bins with lids and having lockable garbage cans.
The only effective cure for rabbits is a tight fence that goes six to eight inches into the ground to prevent them from slipping through cracks or burrowing underneath.
There are noxious sprays (for squirrels and deer) that also deter rabbits but in my experience, a rabbit has fewer taste buds than a deer and slightly more than a squirrel.
Use hardware cloth wire cages on your young trees or the bark will disappear quickly during the winter. I drive a stake into the ground and make a circle of the wire, bury the bottom in the soil so they can’t get under it and hold the circle to the stake with simple plastic slip-ties.
Moles And Voles
These are the pests that give most people the most amount of trouble and the remedy is an organic product containing iron.
Slugs love to eat it and consume it voraciously; causing them to die of iron poisoning. And no, coffee grounds don’t work and here’s why
And for goodness sake, don’t waste good beer on slugs! Seriously. You can control them naturally.
I know it seems easy to look at something creeping across the garden and whack it. Or take a look at your newly planted perennial with the lacy leaves courtesy of some unknown insect and decide to wipe out the entire insect family – good, bad or just visiting, they’re toast.
Ants can be controlled with several different natural techniques but do understand these are nature’s cleanup crews and they seldom do any serious plant damage.
Aphids are the most numerous and most common pest I see in my gardens but I have some very simple and effective controls I use (don’t have to buy a thing!)
Bumblees are a gentle giant of an insect and I happen to love them for the work they do. Here’s how to attract them to your garden.
Green lacewings are superb garden predators and are to be encouraged in your garden.
Japanese beetles. Here’s a research note about 100 years of Japanese beetles and some of the history of this pest in North America. Geraniums “stun” Japanese beetles and they tend to avoid this plant. Here’s the research and now you don’t have to believe what the Net will tell you.
Ladybugs are one of the most beloved of insects and this small beetle is one of the most voracious of helpful insects when it comes to reducing problems such as aphids.
Mosquitoes – you’ll read about coffee grounds controlling mosquitoes. Here’s the real research on this.
Red lily beetles have decimated more lilies in more perennial gardens than I’d even want to know about. Here are three organic gardening methods to control them.
Scales come in hard and soft body forms and normally aren’t a problem. But sometimes…
Mites: Here’s how to tell the difference between the good mites and the bad mites destroying your plants.
Whitefly can be a problem in both the garden and house. Here’s an organic method I learned about back in my nursery days that knocked infestations back 90% in a few days.
Here’s how to attract and keep butterflies in your garden. And let me be clear here – there’s an upside and downside but if you plan properly, you’ll get a ton more upside.
Specific Organic Disease Control Suggestions
Botrytis is the most common plant problem. This is Mother Nature’s first line of breaking plants down into compost. We just don’t want her to do it when we want the plants to keep growing or blooming. You’ll see it as black spots on leaves (particularly peonies) or gray fuzz on flowers or fruit.
Powdery mildew shows up as a white powder on leaves but then turns them black or twists the growing stems of roses.
But take a deep breath.
Let’s look at this in a more objective way. (yeah, I know it’s hard when your favorite plant just bit the dust).
The first thing to understand is that the vast majority of insects are doing something very positive in your garden. It’s only a very few that are problems.
And when you see something crawling over a newly eaten plant, you assume that’s the problem one. The odds are that insect is trying to find the guys who did the damage so it can eat them. Yeah, it’s a tough world out there if you’re a plant-destroying bug because the majority of other insects are trying to eat you.
Now here’s something you may not have known.
Stressed plants tend to produce sugar in their leaves – that makes the leaves sweeter. Plant-eating insects love sugar (just like we do) so they attack those leaves first.
Mother Nature has designed a system in which the plants indicate they’re sick and she sends in the insects to weaken them further so they can die quickly and be recycled (thus feeding the other plants with their composted leaves).
Ever notice that there’s always one plant that’s getting eaten more than the others. There’s always one tomato that’s covered with aphids while the rest are unscathed? That’s because that plant is the weakest in the bunch and those signals have gone out – lunch!!
The organic gardener understands this cycle and the first response is to improve the garden and soil health so that as many plants as possible will be healthy and live.
Plants Fight Back
I will bet that many of you don’t know that plants fight back against insects.
As soon as many plants find themselves being eaten – they produce hormones in the leaves that make themselves “bitter” or less attractive/palatable to insects. It’s a natural protective response that plants have.
When one plant in a group of similar plants is under attack and produces hormones, all the other similar plants in that area do the same thing (even though they’re not yet under attack!).
There’s an airborne pheromone-sharing that moves from leaf to leaf and it two plants are close enough together, that pheromone is shared and the second plant produces the same hormones to make itself bitter even though it hasn’t been eaten yet.. (Kind of interesting to know that plants have some measure of communication skills)
Approximately 95% of all insects survive by eating the other 5%. Ladybug beetles are ferocious predators you’ll kill when you use generalized insecticides.
But I Want To Wipe Them Out
If you use a broad-spectrum killer then you wipe out the bad guys (or most of them), but you also wipe out the good guys trying to eat the bad guys.
And guess which population recovers faster? The good guys or the bad guys?
If you said bad guys – you’d be right. There are more of them and they produce faster because they are the prey in the garden. They’re the food for many other insects so natural laws say they produce faster (the same reason there are more gazelles than lions).
Think about it – when you spray a broad-spectrum insecticide the bad guys recover first and they’ll eat your garden with no other natural controls around to pick them off. You’ll have a population explosion of bad guys.
How cool is that? Kill off all insects with a spray and you get more insect damage in the long run.
And the Solution Is
OK – gardeners who use organic methods believe several things.
We want to identify the insects in our garden so we know we’re controlling the right insect (and not an innocent bystander).
We control pests in our gardens. We don’t want plant leaves laced with insect damage. We don’t want vegetables wiped out by slugs and caterpillars. Contrary to the propaganda of chemical proponents, we don’t just let the insects have their way with our gardens.
But you can’t forget there’s a critical insect cycle going on in the organic garden. Here’s how to understand this natural insect cycle and encourage it.
But we use controls that have important characteristics.
Limited duration. Instead of lasting all season to wipe out everything in the garden, many organic controls only survive 24-36 hours in the garden. Sunlight and/or bacteria break them down very quickly.
Limited exposure. Organic gardeners don’t spray indiscriminately. We spray to control specific pests on specific plants because we don’t want to wipe out the good guys with the bad guys.
Mechanical controls. Organic gardens use mechanical controls such as horticultural glue traps, and hormone traps to attract and control pests.
Patience. A misunderstood component of gardening, we know there will be damage and we develop a sense of what level of damage we can handle to keep our gardens healthy.
We don’t panic at the first sign that slugs are in the garden. We start a trapping or control program but we understand that slugs feed birds and that attracting birds control many slugs.
We don’t panic when we see aphids, we’ll wash them off plants with a strong jet of water so the beetles can eat them on the ground – instead of nuking the garden to kill aphids and beetles.
We learn. Over time, we figure out what’s doing the damage and we decide how much or if we will control. We learn our insects and we figure out which are the good guys and which the bad.