When you live in a city with a warm climate like Jacksonville, it’s easy to get the outdoor itch, especially as spring approaches. In addition to anticipating blooms and blossoms, you can count on pests showing up – all kinds of them.

The trend today is to seek eco-friendly remedies: treatments that don’t contain chemicals that harm the environment, beneficial wildlife, pets, or children.

Dr. Chris Kerr
Dr. Chris Kerr

Dr. Chris Kerr, the environmental horticulture gent for the Duval County UF/IFAS Extension, sums up the best way to avoid the use of synthetic insecticides. “Prevention is key. The healthier the lawn is, the less damage pests are going to do.”

A healthy lawn and garden means proper watering, mowing, aeration, and fertilizing. “Pesticides are not often needed if you manage your lawn appropriately,” he said. “It’s the pathway to freedom in most issues.”

Here are some common lawn pests Dr. Kerr sees in the Jacksonville area:

Chinch Bug

This small, slender insect kills grass by eating the roots. They’re most active during hot, dry weather.

You can treat with horticultural soaps, diatomaceous earth, or products containing pyrethrin. You can also introduce natural predators such as ladybugs and green lacewings, but Dr. Kerr says prevention is the best cure. “A real heavy thatch buildup is the right condition for them, so thatch management is the right approach.”

Mole Crickets

Mole crickets, which look like a cross between an insect and a lobster, cause millions of dollars in turf damage across Florida. “Mole crickets feed on root systems, and below-ground tunneling activity can create a gap between soil and plants and cause desiccation,” Dr.Kerr said.

In the spring, you can spot the crickets (pictured above) through disturbed soil or tiny tunnels just below the soil surface. Pour a mixture of water and liquid dish soap over a few square feet of your yard. If you have them, they’ll come to the surface.

If they cause dead spots in the summer, it’s too late for treatment. Larra wasp larva or nematodes in your yard are alternatives to synthetic pesticides. Planting shrubby false buttonweed or partridge pea in your yard will invite Larra wasps to set up housekeeping.

Cutworms

Black cutworm
A Jacksonville gardener’s enemy: a black cutworm. Credit: Rasbak, CC by SA 3.0.

These fat caterpillars stay burrowed in the ground during the day and feed on plants at night. They can eat right through the base of seedlings and topple a plant overnight.

If you want to avoid chemicals, you can go on a nighttime combat mission: Get a flashlight and search around the base of your plants. When you see one, hand pick it and drop it into soapy water. You can also use nematodes, trichogramma wasps, or diatomaceous earth. Finally, encourage fireflies to come to your garden. They’re a natural predator of cutworms.

The most common in Florida is the granulate cutworm. Black cutworms, very common elsewhere in the U.S. are also found here.

Dr. Kerr says most pests need the right hosts and the right conditions to survive. That means you should pay attention to what’s going on in your lawn at all times. “Monitor regularly and verify if a pest is establishing. Catch it when it’s a small spot and target it,” he said.

He recommends consulting with a county extension agent when you have a problem. This way, you can identify your pest and decide on the right course of action. Often, treatment of your entire lawn or garden is not necessary and can do more harm than good.

Beneficial Insects

Using beneficial insects that prey on pests is a key part of integrated pest management. But Dr. Kerr is not a fan of buying predatory insects such as ladybugs or green lacewings to turn loose on your property. “It’s really not an economical approach,” he said. “Ladybugs and lacewings lots of times are collected from other regions, and often they just fly off. They also eat other beneficial insects. Their record on pest control is not impressive.”

He prefers creating lawns and gardens that will draw native pest predators. “If you build it, they will come,” he said.

Place Plants With Care

This is part of Dr. Kerr’s philosophy of putting the right plants in the right place.

He uses the azalea, a popular flowering shrub in Florida, as an example of putting the right plant in the wrong place.

“I see a lot of azaleas planted in full sun. That guarantees the azalea lacebug is going to show up. If you select the right site, you’ll probably never have an issue.”

The “right plants” for Jacksonville could include Captiva St. Augustine grass, a variety of a popular turf developed by the University of Florida to resist cinch bugs. Zoysia is another grass suited to the area.

“Selecting the right cultivar is important,” Dr. Kerr said. He recommends banker plants, crape myrtle, and even the often-despised smilax vines, which are useful in attracting beneficial insects.

“Offer a variety of different floral sources,” is his advice for pest management. “For people not comfortable using synthetic insecticides, the more tools you use, the better the control.”