Integrated Pest Management for the Garden

Hedgehog - Pest in the Garden

If you want to graduate from green thumb to supreme green thumb, practice Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for the garden. IPM is a proactive approach to pest control that offers long-term protection against weeds, plant diseases, and common pests while being eco-friendly and safe for people, pets, and wildlife. 

Many gardeners will reach for an arsenal of insecticides as soon as they smell pest trouble. But these chemical controls are only a temporary solution, and they’re not the healthiest for your garden. An effective IPM plan requires you to be in tune with your garden and commit to understanding its ecosystem without relying so heavily on toxic pesticides. 

So what exactly is Integrated Pest Management, and how can you practice it in your vegetable patch? We’ve got the inside scoop down below: 

What is Integrated Pest Management?

Integrated Pest Management is a science-based approach to controlling pests. It ‘integrates’ various techniques, such as biological control, monitoring, and habitat manipulation, to prevent pest infestations. IPM is performed in a manner safe to humans, wildlife, pets, and the environment. 

Misconceptions about IPM

There are three common misconceptions about IPM. The first is that IPM doesn’t allow the use of pesticides. IPM does allow pesticides, but only when pest damage exceeds a certain threshold. If and when pesticides are used, they are applied safely and responsibly and only as a last resort. 

The second misconception is that IPM only allows the use of organic pesticides. Both organic and synthetic pesticides are allowed in an IPM program. 

The last assumption gardeners make about IPM is that it only targets insects and arachnids. IPM targets all pest populations, including weeds, fungal plant diseases, and mammals. 

Man applies pesticide in garden
Man Applying Pesticide
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

7 Steps to Integrated Pest Management for the Garden

IPM might sound like the perfect solution to your garden’s pest problem. It offers long-term pest protection, is kind to the environment, and minimizes pesticide use. 

But IPM isn’t a one-step approach you can set and forget. It’s a multi-step process that must be carefully planned and executed. 

Here’s the good news: IPM will bring your gardening game up to the next level.

Step 1: Identify Pests

The ancient proverb, ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,’ rings true for the pests in your garden. Why? Because you can’t build an effective IPM program if you’re unfamiliar with the pests you want to control––that would be like a detective trying to solve a mystery without the clues. 

After identifying which bugs, arachnids, mammals, weeds, and diseases are plaguing your home garden, learn about the various pests. Here are some questions to ask about each pest:  

  • What does damage from this pest look like? 
  • What does the pest look like during different stages of its life cycle?
  • What time of year does it enter different stages of its life cycle?
  • What time of year does this pest cause the most damage?
  • Which plants does this pest destroy?
  • Does this pest have natural enemies? If so, what are they?
  • What environment does this pest find attractive?

Once you learn to identify a pest’s habits, damage, and life stages, you’ll be able to promptly apply the proper control measures before an infestation gets out of hand.

Step 2: Identify Beneficial Insects

A bug crawling through the vegetable garden isn’t necessarily a Code Red. In fact, some bugs help the garden and aren’t considered pests. Butterflies, ladybugs, and bees are examples of garden helpers you want to protect in your IPM program. 

Learn about the garden’s beneficial organisms so that you don’t mistake them for pests, especially during the different stages of their life cycles. Sure, ladybugs are hard to miss, but do you know what baby ladybugs look like?  

Once you know the difference between the friends and foes in your garden, you can better prepare effective control measures that target the pests while protecting the beneficial organisms. 

Lady Bug Larvae
Lady Bug Larvae
Photo Credit: Rolf Dietrich Brecher / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Step 3: Set an Action Threshold

Before you begin your IPM program, decide for yourself what your pest damage tolerance is. 

How much pest damage is too much? It’s normal to see a crawling pest or two (or three) and a weed pop up now and then. When this happens, your garden isn’t necessarily in jeopardy. But once the damage exceeds your tolerance, also known as an action threshold, that’s when IPM allows pesticide control. 

Remember, you need to decide in advance what your action threshold is. Otherwise, you might crack under the pressure of pest damage and lower your tolerance out of frustration (and convenience). 

Step 4: Monitor

The key to effective IPM is to be proactive, not reactive. All your efforts can slip through your fingers if you’re not keeping a close eye on your garden. A pest infestation can grow out of control if you’re not careful. 

Monitor your garden for any signs of pest activity or pest damage. Keep a notebook on hand and record daily observations rather than rely on your memory. That way, you’re not left thinking, “Did the tomatoes have this many Japanese beetles last week?”

Don’t forget to pack the magnifying glass as you search for pest clues. 

Step 5: Apply Control Measures

As you observe and monitor your garden, you may notice signs of unwanted visitors. Are gophers stealing your kale? Are deer chewing on the lettuce? Perhaps a strange fungus is growing in the soil. Once your garden suffers from a pest, it’s time to put some IPM control measures in place. 

Here are some examples of IPM pest control techniques you can use in your garden. We’ll cover these strategies in further detail later in this article: 

Step 6: Evaluate Results

How well did your control measures work? Did they control the pest, or did the pest persevere? At this stage of your IPM plan, you’ll need to determine whether to adjust the current control measure or try a new technique. 

Step 7: Continue to Monitor

IPM is an ongoing process that doesn’t have an ending. It requires you to maintain a relationship with your garden, paying close attention to its health and subtle changes. After evaluating your control measures, continue to monitor your garden for pest activity and promptly respond to each pest issue. 

Mole poking out of the ground, surrounded by fresh dirt
Photo Credit: Beeki / Pixabay

Strategies for Integrated Pest Management for the Garden

You’ve learned how to recognize weeds, insects, and plant diseases in the garden, but what can you do to prevent (or get rid of) an infestation? Here are some control measures you can put in place: 

Manipulate the Habitat

Pests are often drawn to the garden because it’s a suitable habitat. The garden provides food, water, and shelter, which is all a pest needs to thrive. So what are some ways you can manipulate the garden to be less attractive to bugs, weeds, and fungi?

  • Install a drip irrigation system: Overhead watering from a garden hose or sprinkler system wets the vegetation and creates an appealing environment for moisture-loving pests. A drip irrigation system delivers water directly to the plant’s root system while keeping the foliage dry. 
  • Apply mulch: Organic and inorganic mulches block weeds from sprouting in the soil. Examples of mulch include shredded bark, grass clippings, and newspaper. 
  • Remove plant debris: Garden pests will readily take shelter in plant debris. Remove dead flowers at the end of the growing season and collect stray autumn leaves ASAP so the pests have nowhere to hide. 

Improve Maintenance

A poorly maintained garden is more likely to fall prey to hungry pests than a well-maintained garden. Why? Because healthy vegetables are better equipped to resist damage from pests and diseases, and a thriving garden usually won’t contain elements that pests find attractive, such as plant debris and excessive moisture. 

Here are three simple ways you can improve your garden maintenance: 

  • Fertilize: Fertilizing the garden encourages healthy vegetables that are more likely to resist invasions. 
  • Remove weeds: Uproot weeds as soon as you spot them in the garden. Otherwise, they’ll spread before you can say “Integrated Pest Management.”
  • Clean your tools: Remember to disinfect your gardening tools so that you don’t spread pathogens throughout the garden. 
Woman Pulling Weeds
Photo Credit: PinkFairaeDust / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Install an Exclusion Barrier

Pests won’t do much damage if they can’t enter your garden. Consider how the problem pest is entering your garden–– if the pest flies, a fence won’t do much good. Does the pest travel through underground tunnels? An underground fence might do the trick. 

Here are three examples of exclusion barriers that can help protect your garden from pest nibbles: 

  • Underground fence: Installing an underground wire mesh fence can help protect your garden and ornamental plants from pocket gophers and other digging pests.
  • Above-ground fence: Installing an above-ground fence is an excellent way to keep out hungry deer and other large animals. 
  • Row covers: Protect your veggies and fruits from insects and spider mites with row covers. 

Use Mechanical Control

Mechanical control uses physical or hands-on methods to remove pests. Examples include: 

  • Hand pulling weeds from the garden
  • Handpicking pests crawling on your veggies
  • Setting traps to catch small animal pests, such as moles and gophers

Apply Biological Control

Get pests under control by unleashing their natural enemies. 

Remember when you learned all about the pest’s life cycle? This is when that knowledge becomes important, as some biological control measures will only work during a specific life cycle stage. 

The following are natural predators that can help you control common garden pests, and you can purchase most of them online or at your local garden center:

  • Beneficial nematodes are microscopic roundworms that kill many soil-dwelling pests. Different species of nematodes attack different kinds of pests, so you’ll need to research the best species for your garden.
  • Milky spore disease is a bacterium that helps control Japanese beetle larvae living in the garden’s soil. 
  • Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a microbe in the soil that kills Japanese beetle grubs and other pests in the early stages of their life cycles. Different Bt strains target different types of pests. 
  • Ladybugs (aka lady beetles) will gulp down the aphids attacking your fruits and vegetables.

Apply Pesticides

Pesticides are an appropriate IPM response when pest damage exceeds your tolerance level, aka your action threshold. You can apply either organic or synthetic pesticides as long as you use them safely. 

Safety tips for pesticide applications: 

  • Apply selective pesticides instead of non-selective pesticides. Non-selective pesticides will kill any pest in its path, while selective pesticides will only kill the target pest while protecting beneficial organisms, such as pollinators. 
  • Combine pesticides with other IPM methods, such as exclusion and improved maintenance. 
  • Perform spot treatment instead of broadcast treatments. In other words, apply pesticides only where pest activity is present. 
  • Always read and follow the pesticide’s labeled instructions. Misapplying pesticides is unsafe and illegal. 
  • Always wear the proper safety gear, including chemical-resistant gloves, long pants, and long sleeves. 
  • Correctly identify the pest and apply the pesticide that targets that particular pest. If you misidentify the pest, you risk using the wrong pesticide. 

Are organic pesticides safer than inorganic pesticides? Not always. Organic pesticides contain chemicals that exist in nature, while inorganic (or synthetic) pesticides contain chemicals created in a laboratory. 

Several safe and eco-friendly organic pesticides exist. But just because a chemical occurs in nature doesn’t guarantee it’s safe for humans or local ecosystems. That’s why it’s always important to do your research on inorganic and organic pesticides

Grow the Right Plants

The health of your plants has a significant impact on their susceptibility to pests. The healthier your plants and the more suited they are for the local climate, the greater their success. 

Here are some ways you can ensure a healthy, thriving garden: 

  • Grow disease-resistant varieties. Some vegetable seeds are resistant to common garden diseases. 
  • Grow pest-resistant varieties. Some plants appear to have built-in pest-resistant properties. Garlic, leeks, and onions are popular among gardeners for their pest-resistant properties. 
  • Transplant healthy plants. Before adding a new plant to your garden, ensure it doesn’t have an existing disease, such as root rot. 
  • Think sunlight and shade. Before you buy a plant or its seeds, determine whether your garden’s location provides enough sunlight and shade for the plant to thrive. 
  • Test your soil. The more you know about your garden’s soil, the better you can take care of your plants. 
  • Check your Hardiness Zone. Knowing which hardiness zone you live in can help you determine the best time of year to plant your veggies and fruits. 
USDA map of plant hardiness throughout the US
Photo Credit: USDA / Flickr / Public Domain

FAQ About Integrated Pest Management

1. What Are the Pros and Cons of Integrated Pest Management?

Integrated Pest Management is a popular method among gardeners because it provides a long-term solution to pest problems. It’s also eco-friendly and prioritizes the safety of humans, pets, and wildlife. 

But IPM does have its drawbacks. It requires you to build a complex understanding of your garden (or other areas you’re trying to protect). 

Take a look at the following pros and cons to see if IPM is suitable for you: 

ProsCons
✓ Slower development of pesticide resistance

✓ Minimal pollution

✓ Reduces risk to people and pets

✓ Balanced ecosystems and protected biodiversity

✓ Saves money in the long run

✓ Infestations are less likely to occur
✗ Takes time to learn

✗ Hefty upfront cost (sometimes)

✗ Physically demanding

✗ Trial and error

2. Why Should I Avoid Using Pesticides?

Relying solely on pesticides isn’t a sustainable way to control pests. Pesticides offer a quick and convenient solution, but they don’t fix the root cause of a pest problem. Pests are usually attracted to an area because it provides food, water, and shelter, and pesticides alone won’t remove these factors. 

Pesticides have other disadvantages, too: 

  • Non-selective pesticides can harm the environment by targeting beneficial insects and other wildlife. 
  • Pesticides can pollute stormwater runoff and enter local bodies of water. 
  • The misapplication of pesticides can be harmful to human health. 

3. What Are Common Insect Pests That Occur in the Garden?

When monitoring your garden for pest activity, here are some common insect pests to look out for: 

  • Slugs
  • Aphids
  • Whiteflies
  • Tomato hornworms
  • Colorado potato beetles
  • June beetles
  • Japanese beetles
Lady bugs devour a slug
Ladybugs Devour a Slug
Photo Credit: Steve Jurvetson / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

4. How Do I Practice Integrated Pest Management for the Home?

IPM can be practiced anywhere where pests exist, including inside the home. Creating an IPM plan for your home is an excellent way to prevent damage from common pests, including cockroaches, termites, ants, and mice. 

Here are some simple ways you can practice IPM for the home

  • Store food in airtight containers
  • Wipe counters after preparing food
  • Wipe the dining table after eating
  • Sweep the kitchen floors at the end of the day
  • Mop up food spills
  • Store trash and compost in sealed containers
  • Set sticky traps and bait stations where pest activity is high

5. How Do I Practice Integrated Pest Management for the Lawn?

Is your lawn suffering from fungal diseases or insect pests? Take back your yard with an IPM program that focuses on good lawn care. The healthier your grass, the less likely it will succumb to pests. 

Practice IPM for the lawn by implementing the following maintenance practices: 

  • Lawn mowing
  • Fertilization 
  • Thatch removal
  • Aeration 
  • Leaf removal
  • Overseeding
  • Soil testing

When to Hire a Professional

IPM for the garden requires quite a bit of homework. You need to monitor your garden daily, recognize changes in plant health, and learn the various stages of pest life cycles. 
While you’re focused on darkening your green thumb, don’t let other distractions get in the way. Hire a local lawn care professional to take some of the weekend chores off your to-do list. From mowing the lawn to aerating the soil, a lawn care pro can handle IPM for the yard while you negotiate with the gopher stealing your carrots.

Main Photo Credit: Jo Garbutt / Flickr / CC BY 2.0 with text overlay

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell is a freelance writer and actor in New York City. She earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia and enjoys a warm cup of French press coffee.