By JOE LAMP'L — My strategy for how I deal with many challenges in the garden and landscape is one of "wait and see," starting with the lowest impact first. Taking the path of least impact first is a sound strategy if you have the time and patience. My father taught me as a young boy that for every action, there is a reaction. With pesticides, that scenario is certainly played out every day. In our attempt to deal with even a single pest problem aggressively, we create a potential chain reaction that extends beyond the intended consequences.
That nonselective pesticide we so often reach for to deal with a problem was never made to detect the difference between a good bug and a bad one. And pesticides are effective at what they were made to do. Yet when only about 3 percent of all bugs and insects are even considered pests (the ones that do actual damage to our plants), why then do we so often choose to take such an aggressive path without regard to the consequences?
Like people, insect pests have a preferred diet. They eat what they like and leave the rest. So why then treat everything in the yard or garden? With acknowledgement to the desire to nip it in the bud, our zone of treatment is typically much larger than necessary. In this case, the consequence or reaction is that the nonselective pesticides are also making contact with the good bugs. Those are the ones that Mother Nature put here to fight the bad ones on our behalf. But when the good guys are killed off, there's no one left to fight the true pests. Even worse, with no natural predators, the bugs you really wanted to kill evolve to resist the deadly effects and come back, more prolific than ever.
My preferred method to dealing with an evolving problem is to proactively address it as early as possible, and with the most benign options first. Start with creating a biodiverse garden and landscape by planting lots of native flowering plants and shrubs. These naturally attract beneficial bugs, and it's a great way to have them around when the pests arrive.
Like using fences to keep out larger pests, physical barriers are about the best method I know for keeping the smaller ones from harming your plants as well. A light cover (commonly referred to as row covers) placed over your tender young plants will serve as a barrier to prevent the likes of flying insects (think cabbage moth) from laying eggs on leaves, which quickly hatch into the larvae that begin eating their way to adulthood on your plants.
Another option is to place certain decoy plants among the plants you want to protect. Known as companion planting, the purpose of adding these plants is to attract, repel or confuse pest insects from attacking your preferred plants. Companion planting is used most frequently in vegetable gardens. One example is planting dill around cucumber plants. The scent of the dill is thought to repel cucumber beetles from being attracted to cucumber, so placing the two together is a natural form of pest control. There are many combinations, and some work better than others. Every situation is unique. It's fun to experiment with the many combinations. If you care to explore this topic further, you'll find plenty of information online and in books.
My next line of defense is a good offense. The primary game plan is a daily (or as often as possible), early morning visit to the garden -- hot cup of coffee in one hand and cup of soapy water in the other. As I stroll through the garden, I inspect the plants and leaves. Any pests found hanging around get a gentle tap into the cup of soapy water. The key is frequent visits. It's good for you and the best way to prevent a problem from getting worse.
The end result of taking the greenest approaches first is a garden teeming with life and the satisfaction of knowing nothing you did will harm a single unintended visitor. Mother Nature is allowed to work her magic before your eyes, and all is well in the garden -- a very satisfying reward indeed.
(Joe Lamp'l, host of "Growing a Greener World" on PBS, is a Master Gardener and author. For more information visit http://www.joegardener.com.)