Integrated Pest Management for the Lawn

Grub on lawn

Pesticides offer convenient, fast-acting lawn pest control, but they’re not a long-term solution. For pest control that keeps the grubs and chinch bugs away for good, try Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for your lawn.

Here’s why IPM is the sustainable choice: Pests infest the lawn when food, water, and shelter are available. Pesticides alone can’t remove these factors, so pest infestations will come back again and again if you rely only on pesticides to protect your lawn. 

IPM offers long-term results by removing a pest’s food, water, and shelter and making the lawn less attractive for pests. Through IPM methods, you can finally end pest infestations on your lawn. 

What is Integrated Pest Management?

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a pest control approach that minimizes pesticide use to protect the health and safety of people, pets, wildlife, and the environment. IPM uses strategies such as removing a pest’s food and water sources and strengthening your grass so it’s less susceptible to pest damage in the first place. 

You can use pesticides in an IPM program, but only as a last resort and only in the safest, most environmentally responsible way possible. 

IPM principles can be applied in all areas where pests exist, including your lawn, home, and garden.

Pro Tip: A pest is any animal or plant harmful to people or human interests (such as destruction of property). That’s right — even the weeds in your yard are pests. 

crabgrass
Crabgrass Weed
Photo Credit: Richard Arthur Norton at English Wikipedia / CC BY 2.5 / via Wikimedia Commons

How Integrated Pest Management for the Lawn Works

Pests tend to take up residence in poorly maintained lawns. Why? Lawns that aren’t regularly mowed and cared for provide a plethora of food, water, and shelter for grubs, armyworms, chinch bugs and even weeds. 

An effective IPM plan for the lawn comes down to good lawn care. The better you take care of your lawn, the less inviting it is to pests. 

Here is how the basic principles of IPM apply to lawn care: 

  • Food removal: Pests need food if they’re going to survive. If no food is available on your lawn, these foraging marauders will search elsewhere. Food sources for most lawn pests include things like weak grassroots and overgrown grass blades. 
  • Water removal: Pests need water to live, and some need water to lay their eggs. Removing excess water from your lawn can disrupt the pest’s life cycle and prevent future infestations.  
  • Habitat manipulation: Change your lawn so it’s no longer a suitable habitat for lawn pests. A pest won’t stay long if the living conditions aren’t up to par. 
  • Exclusion barriers: Keep pests like rabbits, moles, and voles out of your yard with physical barriers, such as above-ground and underground fences. 
  • Modified maintenance practices: Improper lawn care leads to weak grass, which can create an inviting habitat for pests. A few tweaks here and there to your lawn maintenance routine can make a world of difference. 
  • Biological control: Ward off pests with their natural predators instead of synthetic pesticides. For example, invite birds to your yard with a birdhouse and bird feeder as your winged visitors will eat worms and other pests.
  • Mechanical control: Mechanical methods include removing pests from the lawn by hand (weeds) and other physical approaches (place traps for gophers and pour hot water on fire ants). 
  • Monitoring: You want to catch a pest infestation early so that it doesn’t have time to grow, so keep an eye out for potential signs of pest infestation. If your turfgrass is anything but thick and green, a pest might be lurking beneath the surface. 
  • Pest-resistant grass types: Some turfgrass types are bred to resist insect damage and lawn diseases. 
  • Action threshold: Before beginning your IPM program, determine how much pest activity you can tolerate before turning to pesticides. Your pest tolerance level is also known as your action threshold. 
  • Minimal chemical control: If pesticides become necessary, use the least amount of chemicals possible. Choose pesticides that will do the least harm to beneficial organisms, such as earthworms, and the wider environment. 

10 Ways to Apply IPM Principles on Your Lawn

We just showed you how Integrated Pest Management and its combined techniques work. Now let’s detail 10 ways you can put these techniques into practice on your lawn: 

Lawn mower mowing grass
Photo Credit: Counselling / Pixabay

1. Mow Your Lawn Regularly 

Mowing your lawn on the weekends might be a headache, but bearing the consequences of unkempt grass is worse. 

Tall grass creates a welcoming environment for pests by providing shade, hiding places, and moisture. That’s why mowing your grass is an example of the IPM technique habitat manipulation. 

Remember, there is a wrong way to mow your grass. If you were previously mowing your lawn the wrong way, improving your mowing routine falls under the IPM technique modified maintenance practices. 

Here’s how to mow your grass the right way so that pests don’t flock to your lawn: 

  • Don’t mow too low: You don’t want your grass to grow too tall, but you don’t want to cut it too short, either. Cutting the grass too short will prevent it from photosynthesizing and jeopardize its health. As a result, weeds have a greater chance of invading your lawn.  
  • Follow the recommended mowing height: To find a happy medium between cutting too high or low, follow your grass type’s recommended mowing height
  • Follow the rule of one-third: Never cut more than one-third of the grass’s length at a time. Otherwise, you’ll stress your turf. For example, if your grass is 3 inches tall, don’t cut off more than 1 inch during a single mow. 
sprinkler system watering lawn near gravel bed
Photo Credit: Aqua Mechanical / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

2. Water Your Lawn Correctly 

Watering your lawn wrong way creates a moist environment that many pests love. 

Here’s how to water your lawn the right way:

  • Water in the mornings: The best time to water your lawn is before 10 a.m. (ideally before 8 a.m.). You want your lawn to be able to absorb the moisture before the afternoon sun evaporates the water. 
  • Never water in the evenings: The evening might seem like a good time to water your lawn because the sun won’t be out for a long time. However, grass needs the sun’s help to dry. Without the sun, water droplets cling to the grass blades at night and create a moist environment for pests and disease. 
  • Water less often: Watering too often encourages a weak and shallow grass root system, and your lawn becomes vulnerable to pests as a result. Water your lawn deeply and less often to promote a strong and deep root system. Most established lawns require 1 to 1.5 inches of water per week. 

3. Remove Thatch

Thatch is the layer of dead and living organic matter that accumulates between the soil surface and turf blades. Pests love to snack on thatch, and they’ll overwinter in it. By removing thatch from your lawn, you eliminate a pest’s food source and habitat. 

When to remove thatch: Remove thatch when it becomes one-half inch thick or more. A thin layer of thatch is good for your lawn –– It acts as a mulch and is food for helpful earthworms. 

4. Aerate Compacted Soil

Compacted soil can be stressful for your turf. The soil becomes so squeezed together that water, oxygen, and nutrients can’t move through the soil and access the roots. Your turf will also have difficulty developing a deep root system (because there’s no room to grow). 

Core aeration relieves compacted soil by pulling up soil plugs from the ground. After core aeration, your grass can eat, breathe, drink, and grow. 

So how does core aeration play into an IPM program? Let’s take a look: 

  • Core aeration boosts your lawn’s health by giving the roots access to water, food, and oxygen. A healthy lawn is more resilient against stressors than a weak lawn. 
  • Core aeration helps minimize thatch buildup, restricting a pest’s access to food and shelter. 

5. Test Your Soil

If your lawn is going to grow healthy and strong to combat pests, it needs the right amount of nutrients. 

The best way to feed your grass nutrients is with fertilizer. But how do you choose the right fertilizer? You need a soil test. 

A soil test can reveal many things about the health of your lawn’s soil, including: 

  • Fertility levels
  • pH
  • Organic matter percentage
  • Texture (relative proportions of sand, silt, and clay)

To learn about the best fertilizer for your lawn, send a soil sample to a local laboratory. Lab results will show the appropriate amount of fertilizer nutrients – and any other necessary amendments – to add to your soil. Check your local university cooperative extension to see if it offers laboratory soil testing. 

Remember, a soil test ensures that you apply the right amount of fertilizer so your grass can combat pests and disease. Over-fertilizing can be harmful to your grass, and under-fertilizing prevents your grass from reaching its full potential. 

6. Overseed

When your grass looks thin and sparse, it’s time to overseed your lawn to make it a dense carpet again. Spread grass seed on your lawn once a year to help maintain a full, healthy yard. A patchy lawn is vulnerable to weeds moving in and taking over the space. 

7. Remove Debris

Your yard’s rock, wood, and brush piles provide an excellent source of shelter for pests, including spiders, rodents, and snakes. 

If these piles are near your home, pests don’t have far to crawl, slither, or scamper into your house. What to do? Store materials (including your firewood) away from your house, or hire a yard cleanup service to remove the debris. 

And rake up those autumn leaves, too. A thick layer of leaves can kill your grass and provide winter real estate for pests and lawn diseases. 

8. Remove Water Sources

Pests need water when seizing your lawn, so with no water in sight, they will move on to your neighbor’s yard. 

Not only do pests need water for rehydration, but mosquitoes need to lay their eggs in stagnant water (also known as standing water). 

Here are a few simple ways you can get rid of excess water in your lawn: 

  • Clean dirty gutters. When gutters are clogged, they collect standing water. 
  • Remove empty flower pots and buckets from your yard, as these containers collect water when it rains.
  • Empty and clean out birdbaths daily. 
  • Add a fountain or waterfall to your garden pond to keep the water moving – this wards off mosquitoes. 
Vegetable Garden with Mesh
Mesh Barrier Protecting Plants
Photo Credit: RubyGoes / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

9. Build a Barrier

Do deer enjoy a morning stroll through your lawn? They won’t damage your turfgrass, but they might munch on some of your plantings and bring in ticks. Protect your yard from deer and excess ticks by installing a fence around your lawn. 

Ticks are vectors of pathogens that can cause diseases, such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), which means you don’t want these critters crawling around your lawn. 

If gophers or other burrowing pests are always digging up your lawn, you can install an underground fence around your yard to block their path. 

10. Select the Right Turfgrass

Your lawn will struggle to grow healthily if your yard has the wrong variety of turfgrass. Hint: The best turfgrass for your yard will depend on where you live. 

If you live in the northern states, you’ll want to grow cool-season grass. Cool-season grasses thrive in areas where winters are long and summers are mild. 

If you live in the South, warm-season grasses are the best choice for you. Warm-season grasses flourish in areas where summers are long and winters are mild. 

The states sandwiched between the North and the South are in the transition zone. Both cool-season and warm-season grasses can grow in the transition zone because summer and winter are both extreme in this area. 

Bonus points: The best turfgrass for your lawn may be one that is resistant to common lawn pests and lawn diseases in your area. 

Key Principles of IPM for the Lawn

Mouse in a Mouse Trap - Mechanical Pest Control
Photo Credit: EinarStorsul / Pixabay

Mechanical Control

Mechanical control is a hands-on or physical approach that manages pests. For example, if moles or gophers are destroying your lawn, a mechanical approach would be to set traps. If weeds are flooding the yard, you can pull the weeds by hand instead of removing them with pesticides. 

Biological Control

Before grabbing the pesticides, consider controlling the pest with a natural predator. You can find the following biological controls in your local garden shop or you can order them online: 

  • Beneficial nematodes are microscopic roundworms that exist naturally in soil. Different species of nematodes attack different kinds of soil-dwelling pests, so do your research before releasing nematodes on your lawn. 
  • Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a microbe in the soil that kills pests in the early stages of their life cycles (mosquitoes and Japanese beetles, beware). The Bt strain you’ll want to use depends on the pest you’re trying to control. 
  • Milky spore is a bacterium that helps control Japanese beetle grubs

Apply Minimal Pesticides

If a pest infestation becomes so severe that it warrants pesticides, you want to remain within the guidelines of your IPM plan. Remember, when using pesticides in an IPM approach, you must do so in a manner that protects people, pets, wildlife, and the environment. 

Here are some tips on how to lower the risks of pesticides:  

  • Adhere to your action threshold. Determine your action threshold, or how much pest damage you and your lawn can tolerate, before you begin your IPM program. When pest damage exceeds your tolerance, that’s when you apply pesticides. Avoid using pesticides if you’re able to tolerate the pest damage. 
  • Perform spot treatments instead of broadcast treatments. For example, if your lawn has weeds, spray only individual weeds or heavily weeded areas instead of broadcast spraying a large area where weeds are sparse. 
  • Apply selective pesticides instead of non-selective pesticides. Selective pesticides target specific pests without harming beneficial organisms (such as pollinators). Non-selective pesticides will kill the target pest plus beneficial organisms. 
  • Combine pesticides with IPM techniques. Just because you’re applying pesticides doesn’t mean you should stop applying your other IPM techniques.
  • Correctly identify the pest. Selective pesticides target specific pests. If you identify the pest incorrectly, you’ll apply unnecessary pesticides that target the wrong little bugger. 
  • Use organic pesticides instead of synthetic pesticides. Organic pesticides are usually more eco-friendly than synthetic pesticides. 
  • Always read and follow the label instructions, even if you’re familiar with the product. Mishandling pesticides can be your family, pets, wildlife, and the environment. 

Monitor Your Lawn for Pests and Damage

Closely monitor your lawn for pest damage so you can execute your IPM methods before it’s too late. The sooner you expose pests to habitat manipulation, modified maintenance practices, or biological control, the less likely you’ll need to turn to pesticides. If you don’t monitor the pest infestation, it can quickly grow out of control. 

FAQ About Integrated Pest Management 

1. How does IPM save you money?

Integrated Pest Management is a long-term method for pest control. When you practice IPM correctly, pest infestations are less common and less severe. As a result, you’ll spend less on pesticides and repairing pest damage. 

2. Why should pesticides be your last resort?

The goal of an IPM program is to provide effective pest control without risking the health of humans, pets, wildlife, and the environment. Relying too much on pesticides would work against this ultimate goal. 

Here’s why: 

Pesticides can be harmful when mishandled. For example, rodenticide (a type of pesticide used on mice and rats) poisons over 10,000 children across the U.S. every year. 

Pesticide residue pollutes local bodies of water via rainwater runoff. 

Non-selective pesticides harm the ecosystem by killing beneficial organisms.  

Pesticides don’t solve the underlying problem, which means you’ll likely need to use them again and again. 

Pests can develop a resistance to pesticides, which means you’ll have to use more and more chemicals for them to be effective.

3. How can you apply IPM principles to your garden?

If spider mites and Japanese beetles are ruining your harvest, here are some simple ways you can practice IPM in the garden: 

Research the problem pest and its life cycle. Some organic pesticides are only effective during a particular stage of the pest’s life cycle. 

Install a drip irrigation system that slowly waters the plants’ roots while keeping the leaves dry. Wet foliage can increase pest and disease problems.  

Grow disease-resistant and pest-resistant plant varieties if the same pest or disease invades your garden year after year.

Protect beneficial insects that help with your gardening chores, like ladybugs, butterflies, and other pollinators. 

Monitor pest damage and apply control as needed. Ignoring pest damage could lead to the pest infestation growing.

4. How can you apply IPM principles to your home?

The last thing you want is for outdoor pests to move indoors. Cockroaches and mice don’t make polite dinner guests. Here’s how you can practice IPM for the home: 

— Store food in airtight containers.
— Fix leaking pipes and faucets. 
— Seal cracks and crevices with caulk. 
— Sweep up crumbs on the floor. 
— Wipe kitchen counters after preparing food. 
— Put food away when you aren’t cooking or eating. 
— Wash dirty dishes. 
— Clean pet food bowls at the end of the day. 
— Set bait traps or bait stations, if necessary. 

When to Hire a Pest Control or Lawn Care Pro

From cutting the grass to aerating the soil, IPM for the lawn can chip away the little free time you have. Hire a local lawn care professional who can make your IPM plan a walk in the park. 

Is your lawn already battling an infestation? Don’t let pests ruin your weekend either. Call in a pest control professional who can send those pests packing and get your lawn green and healthy again. 

Main Photo Credit: Rob and Stephanie Levy / 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.