Integrated Pest Management
A Primer for Home Gardeners
Contributed by Carol Wasserloos, Master Gardener
Integrated pest management. As a name, it is neither memorable nor particularly descriptive. Most of us who have heard of it all think of it as belonging in the realm of orchard management or large scale agribusiness. Resources describing integrated pest management provided by the US Department of Agriculture and the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources target large commercial operations. Integrated pest management, abbreviated often as IPM, has been shown to lower costs, improve productivity, lessen environmental impacts, and increase consumer acceptability. More and more, it is the gold standard for commercial agricultural production.
Yet home gardens and lawns account for a significant proportion of our agricultural activity. Lawns are the largest “crop” in the country. Increasingly, we seek to grow our own foods, or at least to purchase it locally from small growers. In so doing, we are becoming conscious of the relationship between our own small holdings and the wider eco system. Many of us want to landscape our properties and grow our food safely, with respect for the environment. But we also want good looking gardens, and we are used to food that is largely unblemished. And here, integrated pest management becomes important for the home gardener, whether organic or traditional.
So what is integrated pest management?
Put simply, it is a problem solving method, designed to minimize or even eliminate the use of pesticides in agriculture or gardening. IPM uses a thoughtful, integrated approach to pest control. It recognizes that not every pest needs to be eliminated—indeed some damage is inevitable and acceptable. It encourages careful planning, and a knowledge of appropriate cultural practices. The crop is carefully monitored for emerging problems. Mechanical and biologic controls are favored over pesticides, whether organic or chemical. And perhaps most important, if a pesticide is used, it is used only after a careful identification of the problem and only in the most appropriate and least damaging way.
It follows that each crop, each garden, each season will present different demands and challenges. But there are common steps, including
Appropriate Planning and Cultural Methods:
- Begin from the “bottom up”. Healthy plants come from healthy soil. Get your soil tested, incorporate organic matter, and avoid over use of nitrogen based fertilizers, which promote weak growth.
- Make sure that you understand the cultural requirements of your crops (including lawns). Choose varieties and cultivars that are suited to your location and that are resistant to the common pests that beset your area. Follow planting or sowing instructions carefully.
- Be sure not to crowd your plants. Air circulation is critical.
- Water carefully, and avoid overhead watering. Water in the morning, so plants have a chance to dry before nightfall. Avoid working around wet plants.
- Keep beds weeded. Better, use a mulch.
- Experiment with companion planting. And consider incorporating plants that are attractive to beneficial insects, insects that will help control the bad actors.
- Clean up in the fall….many pests overwinter in crop debris of host plants.
Careful Observation and Monitoring:
- Recognize that some insect or fungal damage is probably inevitable
- Remember that most insects are not harmful. Most are beneficial or neutral.
- Be careful to identify the pest correctly. There are many fungal diseases, and many types of insects. Not all respond to the same treatments.
- Insects in particular will have three, four or even five life stages. A response that might be effective at one stage will be completely useless in another.
- Not all plant problems are caused by disease. Some may reflect soil deficiencies or physical problems, such as wind, heat stress, drought, or over watering.
- Use on line sources for help in identification of pests: a simple “google” search using descriptive terms can often help.
- Take a photograph, and use it at the garden center or for help via UMass Extension or WMMGA’s help line.
Use Physical or Biologic Control Methods:
- Many pests (potato bugs, for example) can be controlled in the home garden simply by picking them off your plants. Dispose into a soapy solution.
- Others (aphids for example) will succumb to an insecticidal soap spray.
- Consider the use of row covers, recognizing that they must be applied before pest damage is extensive. Other barriers include paper collars to protect seedlings from cutworms and diatomaceous earth to deter slugs.
- Remove and destroy (do not compost) damaged foliage. Pull and destroy plants that show signs of diseased roots.
- Research beneficial insects, and consider plantings to encourage them in your garden.
- Be persistent—a single intervention may not be enough.
If you must resort to Pesticides:
- Recognize that organic pesticides (those approved for use on organic farms and gardens by the Organic Materials Research Institute and the Department of Agriculture) are NOT harmless. Indeed, some may be as or more dangerous than synthetic alternatives, and they may kill or harm a wider variety of insects and/or fungi, including beneficial ones.
- Ask for help, either at a garden center you can trust, or better, through WMMGA or UMass Extension. Any of these sources will be familiar with local conditions.
- READ THE LABEL. See the accompanying article for a detailed description of what you can learn from the Environmental Protection Agency mandated pesticide labels. This information will include level of toxicity, the appropriate targeted pest and life stage of that pest, and requirements for the safe use of the compound in question.
- Remember that the label describes not only the correct, but also the only legal use of the pesticide in question.
- Use only the least toxic pesticide available to address the specific problem you have identified, and follow all safety recommendations.
- If using an insecticide, avoid neonicotinoids (chemical names include imidacloprid, clothianidian, thiamethoxam, acetamiprid, and dinotefurian). If looking for herbicides, avoid glyphosphate (Roundup) compounds. These have been touted as safe for humans in the past, but have come under increasing scrutiny because of serious potential health effects for humans, beneficial micro-organisms, pollinators and other beneficial insects. Use only if other alternatives are not available.
- NEVER use a pesticide while plants are in bloom, including neighboring plants or weeds. Apply at dusk or at night, when pollinators are less active. Do not spray on a windy day, or apply near water.
- The best general resource for up to date information on integrated pest management, pest control, safe use, low risk pesticides and pesticide ingredients is a joint project of the US Environmental Protection Agency and Oregon State University, The National Pesticide Information Center. There is a link for local resources, including UMass Extension. See http://nipc.orst.edu.
- The Xerces Society, a resource for information on invertebrate insects (bees and other pollinators) has done a great deal of work useful to home gardeners. See www.xerces.org/pesticides. There are links to articles on “Neonicotinoids in Your Garden”, “Organic Approved Pesticides” and “Farming for Pest Management”.
- The Organic Materials Research Institute (www.omri.org) and the US Department of Agriculture, Organic Agriculture (www.usda.gov) provide lists of approved pesticides for use on organic operations.
- University of Massachusetts Extension provides a wealth of information on Integrated Pest Management. See http://ag.umass.edu/integrated-pest-management for a definition and a process of ipm by agricultural commodity. See also the Extension’s Home Garden Fact Sheets. Massachusetts home gardeners can get answers to their specific questions by contacting email@example.com.
- The University of Connecticut also provides resources for integrated pest management for fruit, turf and landscape, and vegetable growers. See http://ipm.uconn.edu.