Pest Control Choices for the New Gardener

tomato worm

Pest. Send in the bears!

Every gardener has her limits, beyond which she cannot be bribed, cajoled, pleaded, mandated or lured by fat-free slow churned chocolate mint ice cream. Mine is pest control.

A pest can be a spider, snake, bug, beetle, tarantula, bee, wasp, termite, ant, grub, snail — you get the drift. If it’s smaller than one of our cats and doesn’t purr when I approach, it’s a pest.

Birds aren’t pests, though they can easily damage a budding garden. They’re great at picking up the seeds you just planted, leaving you to wonder why not everything sprouts. However, robins and thrushes are great about taking care of slugs and caterpillars. So it’s a tradeoff.

Lizards are snakes with feet. This doesn’t mean some can’t learn to be pests, but it’s possible to think ‘Oh how cute!” when one skitters by, instead of thinking “OMG I’m gonna die if I can’t get on the roof before that reaches me.”

Pest control boils down to organic, physical and chemical. Without getting all political or green, here’s the very basic basics:

Organic Pest Control

Organic pest control is not just for the organic tomato growers that produce the pretty (and often expensive) produce at your local supermarket. Organic methods aren’t exactly cheap – it turns out it can cost some real money to go organic.  For instance, the Idaho OnePlan site lists organic insect pest control materials and practices designed to support operations from the gardener up to large-scale farming operations.  This approved methods and practices list includes vertebrate pest control methods—repellents, predators, traps, approved poisons and baits.

The advantage: Organic pest control can often be accomplished with household items. Garlic, onion, cayenne pepper, jalapenos, even flour gets called into action by several organic pest control methods. Beats the heck out of spraying the neighborhood with pesticides that may contaminate the groundwater before their half-life expires.

The disadvantage: Planting marigolds to repel rabbits, deer, squirrels should sound like an advantage – unless you can’t stand the smell of marigolds (*raises hand vigorously*). Choose your solutions carefully, lest the cure be worse than the cause.

Physical Pest Control

Sure, you can chase a raccoon with a trash can lid and a triangle, making noise as you dance threateningly around the garden perimeter. You can encourage the lizards to eat the ants, crickets, beetles, flies and grasshoppers.  You can introduce vipers to hunt down the lizards.  And badgers to slay the vipers. And bears to slay the badgers. But then you’re going to have a pack of wild bears tromping through your strawberries. Bears are considered apex predators, so unless you’re best buddies with a BLM wildlife relocation specialist or live next to Yellowstone National Park, this may not be the best path to take. So try bunny fencing – also known as hardware cloth.

The advantage: Barrier pest control can work well against a variety of pests. Bunny fence also slows down roadrunners.

The disadvantage: Predator chain pest control solutions can be worse than the original problem, unless you really want 35 ravenous black bears living on your back lot.

Chemical Pest Control

Those of us who grew up riding our bikes through the Malathion mosquito fogger trailer’s haze may not be the best of poster children for chemical pest control. 1,1,1-trichloro-2,2-di(4-chlorophenyl)ethane, or DDT, was banned in the United States on December 31, 1972 (although some state bans took place far earlier, thanks to efforts of the Environmental Defense Fund).

The advantage: Pesticides are fast acting and highly effective against a specific type of pest.

The disadvantage: Pesticides can also be toxic to humans. If you’re human, this should concern you.

 Bottom Line

Chatterbox the Cat

This is a pet, not a pest.

At some point in your lifespan as a gardener, you’re going to need to deal with pests and figure out which pest control solutions work for you. Whether you go organic or physical or chemical – or some mix of these methods – do your homework early, before you find yourself with 35 ravenous black bears in the back yard and still no cure in sight for those pesky tomato worms.

Everyone out of the pool (or house, in this case)

tomato hornworm

If I’d seen a tomato hornworm, all calm-face bets are off.

I use the hostile outdoors as my excuse for wanting to garden inside – it works when you live where very little grows spontaneously except sagebrush and inch-high flowering “weeds.” I also blame my heart medications, several of which say “avoid sunlight” in their warning.

But the biggest reason I am gardening indoors is that I’m not a fan of bugs.

I don’t run and scream anymore. I used to run and think about screaming. I’d go find the closest heaviest, flattest object to throw at them, or trap them under a coffee can and await rescue (me, not it).

Now, after 50-odd years in the desert, I don’t panic, scream, run or hide. I am calm and collected as I move away from the basking snake or crocheting spider, and lizards are actually rather amusing to the cats.. So I’m a cool customer around many living things that used to freak me out.

Unless they’re in. my. house.

Then all bets are off. The reason we have 1800 square feet surrounded by walls and a roof and double-paned windows is to keep our stuff in, and keep bugs out. “Bugs” means anything that can walk, crawl, fly, web or otherwise move, and is not bigger than our cats.

So when I discovered I had to navigate a crowd of gnats to get from kitchen to living room to watch 60 Minutes and munch on dinner, it was everybody out. Tomatoes and cauliflower showing any sign of bugs on leaves – out Out OUT.

Last I looked out, the wind was still kicking along at about 500 mph. The bugs are probably long gone by now. Maybe a few plants will leave also.  I wish them well.