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A few simple steps tell unwanted garden guests to bug off
Planning, maintenance and homework are key to fighting pests
0312Bugs-TomatoHornworm
Tomato hornworm

What is integrated pest management?
If you’re looking to use less pesticides on your garden, try taking this approach to managing pests. This way, you’re treating for a specific problem, not just spraying with chemicals and hoping for the best.

Sanitation (getting rid of old crops), using cover crops, preparing and fertilizing soil

Crop selection (if you have grown something that was a problem in the past, consider trying something else)

Variety selection (growing disease-resistant plants)

Pest-free transplants (this is especially important with squash)

Planting date (you can avoid some pest problems by harvesting early)

In-season management (Don’t overfertilize or overwater, watch your plants for signs of disease and keep rows clean and weed free)
 

ATHENS — Georgia gardeners who start each spring planting for a bounty of vegetables can also plan on a bumper crop of something else.

Pests.

Thanks to our mild climate, there are lots of pests who burrow into our clay soil and wait out a chilly winter. They emerge when spring’s warm temperatures start to coax our vegetable plants into growing and blooming, timing their attacks just as gardeners start to get hopeful about the coming year’s crop.

But if you can catch the pest in the act and identify what’s chewing your plants, according to two entomologists from the University of Georgia, you’re well on your way to identifying the pest’s life cycle and pinpointing the best way to eradicate it.

Speaking during the recent Georgia Organics annual conference in Athens, Alton “Stormy” Sparks and John Ruberson, both professors of entomology at UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, made the case that if you know what’s attacking your plants and understand its life cycle, you can target your pest management and have a healthier garden overall.

The process of integrated pest management, he said, involves layers of preventative maintenance in the garden at different stages. And it starts before there is even a plant in the ground.

Or, more specifically, it starts once you’ve removed all the plants from last year’s garden.

“The worst thing you can do is leave a crop out there,” Sparks said. “They’re just carrying over loots of pests to the next crop.”

After you have followed proper sanitation procedures in your garden — in other words, removed debris from the previous season, grown cover crops during the off season and prepared your soil for the new season, it’s time to consider what you’re planting.
Crop selection, Sparks said, sets you up for everything else.

“Crop selection tells you what problems you’re going to have,” he said, then pointing to the next crucial step: Variety selection.

“You don’t have anything that’s resistant to common pests,” Sparks said. “But you can influence it to a degree with variety selection.”

This means looking for types of plants that are bred to be resistant to common diseases. This is key with tomatoes, he said, but if you have problems with squash borers, it’s probably better to purchase pest-free transplants.

For gardeners who want to focus on one or two larger crops — or, for a farmer with several acres to plant — one way to get around pests is to stagger your planting dates. That way, if you know the breeding cycle of the bug that is infesting your crop, you can get a second planting in between cycles. Or, some pests don’t show up until later in the growing season.

“There are pest problems you can avoid by harvesting early,” Sparks said. “It’s kind of a sanitation issue on a micro scale.”
Ruberson said most pests fall into two main categories — caterpillars and beetles.

There is a small percentage of caterpillars that “like to eat what we eat,” he said, noting that it’s usually the immature form of a caterpillar that will do the most damage. Their work falls into three categories — defoliators, stem borers and, the worst, fruit feeders.

“These can be devastating,” he said. “You don’t know you have a problem until you pick the fruit and there’s a hole inside.”

Caterpillars such as cabbageworms or pickleworms overwinter in the stems of plants, Ruberson said, so picking up the plants from the pervious year is crucial. Others, such as corn earworms, require a little more planning.

Overall, basic control of caterpillars include planting resistant crops, biological control with natural pests, planning your planting dates and using chemical controls, such as Bt.

For beetles — the largest group of insects — you could have defoliators, soil pests and weevils. But unlike the caterpillars, which as moths can travel hundreds of miles, most beetle problems are homegrown.

Finally, the last step of integrated pest management is “in-season management,” which means controlling your fertilizer, water and plant development to have healthy plants.

“If you have a healthy plant, your pest problems are going to go down,” Ruberson said. “Plants have very strong defensive systems, and we’re just starting to learn about that.”

If you’re able to identify the pest munching away on your plants, Sparks and Ruberson said, you’re able to get a jump on the pest management process. They recommended collecting samples, if you can, and contacting Cooperative Extension to help with identification. “You need to know the life history, the biology, is it flying in from outside -- all of this is looking for a weakness you can exploit,” Ruberson said.

And it’s also important, Sparks added, to get up close and personal with your plants.

“You gotta be out there to know what’s happening,” he said. “For the most part, it’s visual examination of the crops. That’s why I have a bad back — I spent a lot of time bending over.”

A colleague once said, he quotes, that “the best thing you can put on a plant is your shadow.”

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