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The Homeowners Column
Organic or Not — Tips for Reducing Pest Problems
State Master Gardener Coordinator
Over the last few years I've noticed more interest in vegetable gardens. To me there are few things in life more satisfying than grazing in the garden. As a quirky TV character once said "You think slower when you graze." Or how about the satisfaction from making a meal of home grown vegetables. In addition, the health benefits from eating fresh vegetables are widely accepted.
However you are not the only creature wanting to graze in your garden. There are all kinds of insects that would love a taste of tomato. I have met some folks that are quite philosophical about insects on their veggies. A gardener once explained to me his "green worm on the broccoli" philosophy. He figured that "worm" had spent all its life on broccoli, day in and day out eating nothing but broccoli, so he figured that "worm" was pretty much broccoli. So if he happened to eat one of those "green worms" in his broccoli casserole, well that was ok because those little "green worms" are just another form of broccoli.
Not everyone shares his tolerance level and insects can reduce yield. Organic or not, the following tips make good garden sense in reducing problems.
- Do not work in the garden when plants are wet. Many diseases can be spread in water.
- Rotate crops among plant families when possible. Major plant families include
- the tomato family tomato, pepper, potato, eggplant;
- the cucumber family cucumber, squash, melons; cole crops (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale); and
- the onion family onions, shallots, chives, leeks.
- Choose a sunny location. Most vegetables need at least eight hours of sunlight to be productive. Leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach will tolerate more shade than vegetables that must flower to produce a crop.
- Choose disease resistant varieties. Check your local Extension office for recommended varieties.
- Plant flowers in your vegetable garden. Many flowers will attract the beneficial insects, parasites and predators, that help control pests. Good choices are sweet alyssum, dill, fennel, tansy, cosmos, yarrow, coneflower and sunflower.
- Water properly. An inch a week through rain or irrigation is adequate. Keep leaves dry by watering at soil level.
- Feed the soil. Add plenty of compost to improve drainage and add beneficial nutrients and organisms to soil.
- Inspect plants regularly. Learn to identify common pests and beneficial insects. I know its gross, but a quick pick of a tomato hornworm or a diseased leaf may eliminate or reduce problems.
- Tolerate some damage and learn when insect control is necessary.
- Some vegetables are more prone to insect damage. For instance broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, cantaloupe, squash, potato and cucumber are pest magnets. However carrots, green onions, lettuce, pea and radish seldom have insect problems. Asparagus, bean, pepper, spinach, and tomato sometimes have insect problems.
- Provide good air circulation to help control disease. Stake or cage plants and allow proper spacing.
- Use floating row covers to protect plants such as broccoli and cauliflower from insects. Keep in mind some crops such as squash require bees for pollination. Uncover once flowers form or hand pollinate.
- Plant at correct time for your area. Sweet corn and squash do not germinate well in cold soils.
- Time plantings to avoid insect problems. For instance, to avoid the worst time for squash vine borer and corn earworm, plant squash and corn so it can be harvested by July. To reduce bean leaf beetle damage, plant beans after soybeans have emerged in the fields.
- Destroy crop residue after harvest.
Call your local U of I Extension office for the publication Vegetable Gardening in the Midwest or call 1-800-345-6087 to order.