Keeping Your Garden Safe from Pests

If you prepare your soil well, follow the plant spacing guides, and water as needed, you’re already off to a good gardening start. This post offers advice on how to tackle the next big problem for gardeners: pests. 

One of the main reasons vegetables gardens or flowers are unsuccessful is that pests have successfully feasted on them. This post is divided into fencing for the bigger animals and other methods to curb the insects. 

First, the good stuff: embrace spiders, snakes, birds, toads, bees, and many other bugs in your garden. You can all work in harmony together. 

Good Fences Make Good Gardeners

Even if you don’t “see” pests around, there’s a good chance they’re in your yard or visiting your deck. Deer, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, chipmunks, voles, woodchucks, and others can steal a harvest or hurt plants. 

If you start a large garden, consider adding poultry wire or other fencing to the perimeter. Sinking the fencing a few feet into the ground will also help. For a few hundred dollars and a bit of labor, you can have some peace of mind. 

If you choose not to fence, check your plants daily (especially when they’re young) and react quickly to noticeable damage. It is possible to spray deterrents (like “Liquid Fence” that will keep some animals away. However, these sprays often smell bad (not great for patios/decks with seating) and need to be reapplied after rain. 

Barriers, Sprays, and Hand-Picking: Battling Insects and Fungus

Insects can be hard to see and tricky to identify. Google lens might tell you what you have: spider mites, vine borers, cabbage worms, tomato hornworms, etc.  

For larger, slower insects (e.g., caterpillars, beetles), picking them off and dropping them into a bucket of soapy water can do the trick. This can be time-consuming, but it’s quite effective and doesn’t harm the broader ecosystem. 

Neem oil is a good general-purpose organic spray that can take care of aphids, mites, and some other insects. 

Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis kills caterpillars by paralyzing their digestive systems. It is organic and is considered (by most) to be harmless to humans. This spray will kill cabbage worms–but it will also kill monarch caterpillars and those other “beautiful” butterfly larva. It’s best to use any spray pest control sparingly and in targeted areas. 

A brick raised garden bed holds small garlic plants in the front. At the back of the garden bed a round tent of white floating row cover keeps young plants safe in the early spring.
Floating row cover keeps
young plants safe.

Row covers are another organic method for keeping pests separate from plants. Dr. Perks is currently trying this method to prevent squash vine borers (aka clearwing moths) from eating her squash plants. 

Additional Tips and Tricks

Crop Rotation: Planting different types or families of vegetables in different spots year to year can help prevent pest damage. Pests (like squash vine borers) overwinter in the soil. Moving a pest’s buffet to a different garden bed or space the following year may slow the pest down. 

A dangerous fungus (verticillium wilt) will also build up in the soil and harm plants like tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and eggplant. Verticillium wilt causes yellow foliage, wilting, and even death. If you had fantastic tomatoes one year and pitiful tomatoes the next, verticillium may be why. Rotate these crops to different beds annually. 

Companion Planting: Companion planting refers to planting two or more types of plants near one another for at least one plant’s benefit. For example, the Merrimack Garden has onions planted near kale and broccoli. Onions are said to give broccoli better flavor. We also have basil planted near tomatoes to repel tomato hornworms. 

Gardening is a lot of trial and error. Pay attention to your plants, do your best to meet their needs, and if that doesn’t work…try again next year!