There are a lot of pests and diseases—even nutrient deficiencies—just waiting to pounce on our vegetables/flowers/trees/shrubs. It can be overwhelming to know what to do. So here are some things to keep in mind:
- Identify the problem: If you are not 100% sure what the problem is, bring a sample to a reputable garden center to get it identified. If you think it’s a disease and it’s really an insect, you can spray it with a fungicide and it is nothing but a waste of time and money—and it’s not taking care of the problem. Or you might think fertilizer will take care of those yellow leaves when it’s really a cultural problem. Fertilizing a sick plant can make it worse instead of better.
- Select the correct solution: There are certain products more effective against caterpillars or slugs or mites, for example, so get a product that specifically mentions your particular problem. Again, if you’re not sure, ask a professional for their input. That’s what garden center employees are here for. Speaking of caterpillars, do remember that all caterpillars turn into moths or butterflies.
- READ the label: NEVER ever use any garden product—even an organic one—without reading the label. Note any protective gear it suggests. Some years ago, there was a product on the market for borers (it has since been taken off the market) that had a DANGER (skull and crossbones) symbol on the label. It called for long pants, long sleeves, rubber gloves, goggles. I was out one evening walking the dogs and saw a neighbor spraying a tree in his yard. He was wearing a tank top, cut-off shorts, and flip-flops. We chatted for a minute and I asked what he was spraying. “Something for borers.” I cringed. “Uh, Kenny, did you read the directions?” “No, why?” Why indeed!
- More is never better: Do not use a cannon when you really need a slingshot. Never ever exceed the label directions. Over-feeding a plant, for example, can do more damage than underfeeding. Over spraying with a fungicide or insecticide, might take care of your insect or disease problem, but it might damage the plant you’re trying to protect.
- Ask if there are organic controls for your problem: It’s better for our environment—and for any wildlife, butterflies, hummingbirds, bees that might be around. However, remember that even an organic solution can harm pollinators if used incorrectly.
- If possible, avoid spraying pesticides on plants in bloom: A pesticide cannot distinguish between bad guys like aphids or mealybugs and good guys like honeybees, ladybugs, and butterflies. Several years ago, in Wilsonville, Oregon, a landscape company sprayed Linden trees in full bloom for aphids—killing over 50,000 honeybees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
- Garden products aren’t as smart as you think: A broadleaf weed-killer will kill anything that is not grass. It can’t tell the difference between a dandelion and a geranium. A product that can kill voles can also kill birds, squirrels, cats, and dogs. That’s why you need to read the label to make sure you use the products correctly.
- Timing is important: I limit my spraying to the late evening (right about sun-down) to avoid killing any honeybees/butterflies/hummingbirds or damaging tender young foliage. And, because so many of the “bad guys” are night feeders, I’ll get more of them, too.
I am a totally organic gardener so I mostly rely on hand-picking and other organic controls for insects and, instead of weed-killers, simply put on gardening gloves and pull my weeds by hand or pull out my favorite little hoe and chop them out. But, on rare occasions, I do find it necessary to treat insect problems. For example, I read those label directions again—even though I’ve read them before.