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organic gardening
Published July 6, 2022 by Nicole Burke

Organic Ways to Treat Pests in a Vegetable Garden

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pests
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garden vegetable pests

Under Pressure... Pest Pressure, That Is

What about bugs?

I’ve got bugs all over my plants! How do you plant your plants so close together and not get bugs?

Why are your plants not getting eaten by bugs the way mine are?

I can't post a picture of a plant on social media without getting asked about bugs. And I get it. Few things are more frustrating to a gardener than lovingly tending your edible plants, only to have your prized veggies become a tasty meal for something else.

I know this because I also, of course, have bugs in my garden and, yes, they eat their fair share of leaves.

A pest-free garden is pretty much an impossibility. Pests are essentially just waiting at the ready for some food to appear. In fact, the only way to avoid having any kind of bug or unwelcome critter in your garden would be to garden in a hermetically sealed environment.

First, let's look at why we have pests in our garden in the first place. Then, we'll look at why it's important to treat pests organically and the steps to take in your own garden to keep is as organic and pest-free as possible.

holes in kale leaves from pests

Why Are Pests in Our Gardens in the First Place?

Pests are part of the food growing process.

In nature, bugs eat healthy plants. I learned this when I bought bushels of sweet corn from an organic stall at the farmers' market, only to open each ear and find caterpillars. When I told the farmer working the stall about the caterpillars the next week, she said, "Honey, if the caterpillars don't want to eat it, it ain't no good."

That was an aha moment for me. Bugs on your produce prove that it's something worth eating. Even bugs don't want to eat food sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, and if they don't want it, is it really something you want to put in your body?

If you have a healthy and thriving garden, then of course bugs are going to want to eat from it, just like those caterpillars wanted that delicious sweet corn. I mean, if I were a bug and I saw this garden, I'd totally want to do a little fine dining there.

organic gardening raised beds

Pests are simply evidence that you're growing your plants well—that they're organic and delicious. A pest attack might feel like an insult, but take comfort in the fact that it's really a compliment. Nature knows good food when it sees it.

What that means is that even the most experienced of gardeners have pests in their garden. Bugs aren't eating your lettuce leaves because you're a newbie. They're eating the lettuce leaves of master gardeners, too.

garden pests

Why Is Organic Gardening and Farming Better for the Environment?

Let's say you pop out to your garden, notice some aphids on the leaves of your collard greens, and spray a little pesticide to kill them. Harmless, right? You're just affecting your own little microcosm, right?

Now picture a farmer spraying his entire vegetable patch. Picture a big agriculture company treating field after field. In each of these scenarios, we're doing a lot more than just spraying a leaf and killing one particular bug.

Pesticides used in food production involve more than just the chemicals that kill bugs. They also include herbicides, aka weed killers, along with nematicides, molluscicides, piscicides, avicides, rodenticides, bactericides, insect repellents, animal repellents, antimicrobials, and fungicides. 

As you can see, there's more to the food we're buying from the grocery store and eating in restaurants than we'd like to think. That tomato on your sandwich, that lettuce in your salad—if it looks like it hasn't been harmed by nature in any way, it's most likely been treated with some form of pesticide. When you eat a flawless strawberry, you're also consuming all the chemicals that were involved in keeping that fruit so perfect.

Spraying a leaf to deal with a pest is not an isolated occurrence. You might move on, harvest from your perfect-looking plant, enjoy it, and live happily ever after, but the truth is that our food system is connected to all the other systems. Pesticides interrupt a natural cycle, and there are many repercussions for humans, pollinators, our water supply, and other mammals.

garden pollinator

Humans Are Affected by Pesticides

A recent study here in the US tested people's urine and found byproducts of pesticides in 90 percent of the samples. These pesticides mostly come from eating fruits and vegetables from the store, even thought the EPA has done tests that show only trace amounts of pesticides remain in the fruits and vegetables we consume.

The pesticides that we do eat seem to stay inside our bodies, which makes sense considering they're designed to stay inside the body of a pest while they do their damage. It's bizarre for me to think that 90 percent of us has some trace of byproducts of pesticides in our bodies. 

And it's worse for the people who grow our food. Research from California, where the majority of our food here in the US is grown, has linked negative health impacts to not just the farm workers who spray pesticides on farms, but also their families.

The EPA goes to great lengths to ensure pesticides don't end up in baby and toddler foods because children are the most affected by these strong chemicals. But what does that mean for the farm worker who comes home with spray on their shoes and clothes and all those chemicals end up on the floor and in the air that their children are breathing?

Our food is grown by people.

People who matter, people who have children, people who are trying to provide for their family in a meaningful way and want to stay healthy. People whose safety should matter to us.

Pollinators Are Affected by Pesticides

As I'm sure you know, honeybees are in decline, their colonies collapsing.

In the past decade, a new type of pesticide called neonics have been used to treat corn, soy beans, canola, and other widely grown crops here in the US. These pesticides have been linked to the dramatic decline of pollinators and wildlife. In fact, in 2017, U.S. beekeepers reported losing an unsustainable 33 percent of their hives in just two years.

This new method for keeping our plants "healthy" and pest-free has a major impact on other insects, insects that we know we need to keep, like bees and butterflies. Remember, you don't just kill the "bad bugs" when you treat garden pests.

pesticides are bad for bees and pollinators

Groundwater Is Affected by Pesticides

Every time it rains, all those sprays that have been applied to your grass and your garden are washed down the street and into the sewer, where they end up in the city's water system. If you live near an ocean, those chemicals are now affecting marine life. Same thing with rivers and lakes.

Wildlife Is Affected by Pesticides

That bug being sprayed may be bugging us, but it makes an appetizing little snack to something higher up on the food chain. Unfortunately, whatever pesticides it got into end up climbing the whole food chain and impacting local wildlife.

We're all interconnected. The idea that you can just spray a set of plants or an isolated farm is just not realistic. You're really impacting insects that we rely on to build our food system and the animal that eats them and the animal that eats them and so on.

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4 Changes to Make to Avoid Pesticides

There are four things you can do to help, both in and out of your garden.

  • One: Prioritize buying organic food, especially foods that appear on the Dirty Dozen, a list of fruits and veggies found to contain traces of the most pesticides, per the Environmental Working Group.
  • Two: Support local farms. They're less likely to use big agg practices like spraying entire fields with pesticides. Let them know how important it is for you to have organic food.
  • Three: Plant your own pollinator garden. Do what you can to provide healthy food for the garden "good guys". When bees and butterflies can't find safe food in huge fields of crops, they rely on little plots of earth filled with organically grown food for them.
  • Four: Stop reaching for the bug sprays. Follow the steps below to treat pests in your own garden organically.
pollinator garden

How I Deal with Garden Vegetable Pests

My organic gardening philosophy is to play a little defense but overall stay on the offense. Staying on the offense means trying to score yourself rather than focusing on the things that are trying to score against you. And the more you put your focus on that, the better your garden will grow. And you will be so much happier. 

Let's look first at how you'll play defense. Your job here is to protect your garden.

How to Protect Your Garden from Pests

Nothing protects your garden better than a simple physical barrier that lets water, sunlight, and air in, but keeps pests (such as white flies, flea beetles, aphids, and all those other buzzing and crawling things that eat your leaves and drive you mad) out. I cover my beds with garden mesh fabric, or agfabric, created specifically for pest protection and available for purchase at any garden store.

The key is to cover your garden from the moment you first plant your transplants into the garden or sow some seeds. Young plants are particularly vulnerable to pest pressure, but garden mesh will give them all the protection they need from the get-go. Again, this is a preventative measure, not a form of treatment. If you add a cover once pests are already present, you risk trapping the bugs underneath and giving them a garden free-for-all.

Garden mesh has the additional benefits of helping to lock moisture in your raised beds and providing some shade and shelter from strong winds and other harsh weather conditions. All without requiring any expensive greenhouses, fencing, or chemicals. 

(Read more about garden mesh by clicking on the article below.)

If you want to protect individual pieces of fruit while they ripen on the vine, tie see-through organza bags (the kind you might store jewelry in) around fruit clusters.

how to protect fruit from pests
LOOKING FOR MORE TIPS AND TRICKS TO GROW YOUR OWN ORGANIC GARDEN?

This month in Gardenary 365 is all about Organic Pest Control. Get all the tips you need to deal with pests, plus access to the complete Gardenary online course library, including Salad Garden School, Kitchen Garden Academy, and more.

Ways to Organically Deal with Pests in Your Garden

Organic Gardening Pest Control Means Staying on the Offense

In addition to protecting your plants, you'll play offense in your garden in three key ways: pruning, feeding, and supporting. You'll quickly see that all these tasks are connected inside a thriving organic garden.

Before we get into the four steps to control garden pests organically in your kitchen garden, I just want to remind you that bugs eat healthy and struggling plants alike. Keep calm and garden on.

organic gardening pest control

Step One to Organically Deal with Pests in the Garden

Prune Away the Damage Caused by Pests

The first thing you're going to do is remove visible damage. As soon as you start to see holes in your leaves that make it clear a pest is eating from your plant, grab a clean pair of pruners and remove the leaves that have been eaten. Remember, never remove more than one third of the plant; if it's necessary to do so, it's probably best to just remove the plant from the garden entirely and start fresh.

While you're pruning, consider removing extra fruit or extra large growth on the plant. When our plants are under attack, we need to remove as much of their burden as possible. I liken this to that Jim Gaffigan joke about what it's like to have a fifth child. "Imagine you're drowning," he says. "And someone hands you a baby." When you're already struggling, the last thing you need is for someone to give you another thing to carry, right?

We don't want to take away a lot of the healthy leaves because those help the plant photosynthesize and work through the issue. But we do want to take away any other part of the plant that might be weighing it down or draining its resources. Removing extra fruit, for instance, helps the plant focus on fighting for itself.

If the removed leaves are ones that you would typically want to eat (like kale or cabbage leaves) and they're not too damaged, you can take them inside, wash them, and eat them. Yes, really. (More on that later.)

organic gardening pest control

Step Two to Organically Deal with Pests in the Garden

Clear the Area Around the Pest-Affected Plant

Next, use a little hand rake or your fingers to pick up dead leaves, weeds, and debris around the base of your plants. One of the reasons I don't recommend putting wood mulch in your raised garden bed is because mulch and debris just give pests a convenient place to hide. 

Once you've removed the damaged leaves and cleaned the area, search for the pest. The best time to do this is in the early morning or evening because pests prefer to come out when it's cooler and dark. Caterpillars, for example, like to hide in the shade of your plants when it’s hot and then come out to dine at night.

Check the stem of the plant, the underside of the remaining leaves, and the surrounding soil area—all places that pests like to hide. If it's dark, use a flashlight to help you scan up close. Remove every pest that you can find by hand. If you notice aphids or other smaller pests, give the plant a good, strong spray with your garden hose.

organic pest control - squire aphids with hose

Step Three to Organically Deal with Pests in the Garden

Nourish the Plant

The third thing that I do is nourish the affected plant. I like to say pesticides are like antibiotics from the doctor. My focus is more on giving the plant some vitamins. Compost has all the nutrition the plant needs to overcome the stress of dealing with pests attacking it.

Add a layer of fresh compost around the base of the plant and water it well. As I'll discuss further in a moment, the plant knows how to fight for itself. It's designed to fight for itself—that's in its DNA. All you have to do is give the plant the ideal conditions, a little vitamin boost, so that it can fight for itself. You're really just here to support its efforts.

adding compost to plants

Pause; Repeat Steps One Through Three

Wait and See if the Pest Returns Before Treating With Pesticides

Many of us are accustomed to instant gratification, but the garden does not deliver such a thing. After following steps one through three, observe your plants every single day for two weeks to see results. Make it a point to head out and check the plant around the same time every day to see if the pests show up or if there's new damage on the leaves. 

This is a gross analogy, but think of the human pests we all loathe: lice. The thing with lice is you get rid of all the adult ones but then you have to keep checking for the next two to four weeks because those adults probably had babies. Once you've taken care of the babies, then you're good, but the treatment requires vigilance for at least a month.

Garden pests are similar. These guys are often minuscule, and they have minuscule babies. You're going have to stay on your plants as the days go on, especially over the first few weeks, just to make sure that you really got the pests out.

If you see any new damage, then start back at step one and go through the steps again.

Step Four to Organically Deal with Pests in the Garden

Treat If Necessary

If you've waited and observed that the pest situation is not getting any better, then it's time to go in full defense mode against the pest. You have two options: you can introduce your pest's predator or you can treat with organic pesticides.

Option one is pretty fun (at least I think so). Every pest has something that likes to prey on it. Your pests have predators. When raccoons were stealing all our produce once, a woman at the garden store told my husband to pee all over the garden to make the raccoons think that a large predator like a wolf or coyote was around. We skipped the urine treatment but learned an important lesson: natural predators can help us in the garden.

Do a little research to find out what eats your pest in nature. One of the most common examples that most everybody knows is that ladybugs eat aphids. How can you set up your garden, then, to be a more welcoming environment for ladybugs? How can you attract more ladybugs into your space to handle the issue for you? Another example is birds eating caterpillars. You could add a bird bath or bird feeder to your backyard.

This is essentially permaculture. It's creating a little ecosystem in your small garden space; it's taking a more holistic approach to pest control, the way that nature intended.

I generally try the first three steps and see if nature will take care of the issue before I ever consider using spray, even something organic like castile soap. If severe cutting and cleaning doesn’t rid the plants of the pest, you can apply a spray or soil treatment, such as diluted castile soap or garlic barrier (an extract of garlic mixed with water and sprayed on plants). In extreme pest infestations, you could use Monterey Bt, but if the pest issue is that severe, I typically just remove the affected plants, clean the area, and start again. 

ladybugs on cilantro - garden pests control

Let's Return to Eating Those Leaves

Pest-Affected Leaves Are Better for You

Sounds too good to be true, right? Let me explain.

Texas A&M University did a study where they poked holes in strawberry leaves to imitate an attack from a pest. The strawberries with holey leaves had more antioxidants and nutrients than those that were not "attacked". This is because our plants actually have built-in defense systems and start fighting for themselves the moment they feel threatened. They don't just surrender to the invaders until we step in with herbicides.

It makes sense, right? Your plant wants to stay alive as much as you want it to stay alive.

So those organic plants are overall better for you, not just because they haven't been sprayed with a bunch of synthetic stuff we don't want to put in our bodies, but also because they're filled with more of the good stuff that we do.

If you keep taking over for your plant and fighting the bullies for them, they never get to flex their muscles, strengthen their own defenses, and become the healthiest version of themselves. They just stay reliant on us. Meanwhile, we're doing bad things for the environment in the name of helping them.

So go ahead… eat those pest-affected leaves, holes and all.

Find a garden coach near you for more help with your organic garden

If you're getting bugged by bugs in your own garden, you can find help from a Gardenary-certified garden coach. Find a coach near your or schedule a virtual session with a coach almost anywhere around the US. We will help you grow to the next level right away.

A Better Approach to Pest Control

Now if you notice in here, I barely included any sprays or treatments, and I only recommend resorting to such measures if the pest pressure is getting intense. Even though there are prescribed organic treatments for all different kinds of pest situations, I wanted to give you an alternative to the typical regime. Pest control without any spray bottles at all is possible.

I hope this has helped you see the beauty of staying on the offense and relaxing a bit. Your plants are not helpless, and it's so much better for our own health and for the environment to step back and let them do their thing.

When the bugs do show up, we can see it as a sign that our plants are something worthy of eating and remember that pests are a natural part of a healthy and thriving organic garden. But that doesn't mean they have to win. Bugs are never a sign that we need to throw in the trowel and give up organic gardening practices.

Maybe now you have a more holistic view of not only your own garden but also the food that you're buying from the grocery store. Watch the wonder of what's happening in your own space. Maybe grow a couple extras of your favorite plants so that you have some leaves and fruits to share with a very hungry caterpillar or two.

And the next time you see a bug, don't be bugged so much. Be comforted by the fact that nature is doing its thing and that you're growing beautiful, healthy, organic food in your garden and that you're just going to have to beat those pests to the plant so that you get to eat it before they do! 

LOOKING FOR MORE TIPS AND TRICKS TO GROW YOUR OWN ORGANIC GARDEN?

This month in Gardenary 365 is all about Organic Pest Control. Get all the tips you need to deal with pests, plus access to the complete Gardenary online course library, including Salad Garden School, Kitchen Garden Academy, and more.

Organic Ways to Treat Pests in a Vegetable Garden