What’s vexing your veggies?
You carefully prepare your vegetable garden, working in compost, starting seeds indoors, and transplanting after the last frost. Then, it never fails. Your plants drop their flowers, get strange dark spots or mysterious white splotches, or are attacked by miniscule insects. Don’t worry. You can manage these common summer vegetable problems by using “integrated pest management (IPM).” IPM is a sustainable, science-based approach to pest management that identifies and reduces the risks from pests using a variety of methods tailored to the problem.
The selective use of pesticides makes IPM different from organic gardening. However, one IPM tenet is to always use the least toxic methods first.
The least toxic methods are actually preventative measures. Rotating crops, buying disease-free plants, providing proper irrigation, and taking good care or your plants are the least expensive and least toxic ways to enjoy a healthy garden. Your local Cooperative Extension has a lot of good, research-based information to help you choose and grow healthy veggies.
Once your garden is planted and growing, IPM requires that you determine your tolerance threshold for pests and problems in your garden. In other words, can you live with the loss of two tomato plants, but draw the line at losing three? Can you live with a few squash bugs but think a dozen is unacceptable? These are the types of questions we often ask folks who come to our office for answers to their gardening problems.
Monitoring and identification is the key to successful IPM. I enjoy taking my morning cup of coffee out to my garden, and walking around to see what’s happening. I am always surprised at how much I learn from quietly observing my plants. I’m delighted to see a new bud here or a beneficial insect there. Once you become familiar with your garden, you will quickly notice when things are off kilter.
Many clients come to us lamenting that their plants died suddenly or overnight. However, this is rarely the case. Most plants exhibit several signs or symptoms well before their demise, but we fail to notice them. Regularly observing your plants will enable you to spot potential problems as they arise.
Catching problems at the onset allows us to use the least toxic (and often least expensive) method of control. If you see an insect, or condition you don’t recognize, such as a curled or mottled leaf, you can collect it and bring it to your local Extension office. They will identify it and recommend control methods. Often people spray a variety of chemicals to control a problem, only to discover that the problem is easily managed by simply spraying water. Properly identifying your problems will save you time and money, and help protect the health of your family and our environment.
Only after you have identified a problem is it time to consider which IPM control methods to use. IPM control methods can be physical, cultural, biological or chemical. The most effective IPM programs use a combination of these techniques to control problems.
Physical controls include hand picking, fencing out, pruning, or any other technique that physically prevents a pest from taking up residence on your plants.
Cultural control is essentially growing and cultivating the plant according to its specific needs, modifying the habitat as necessary. Often, these needs are detailed on seed packets or plant tags, in catalogs, or in reference books. Your local Cooperative Extension also has information on proper cultural care for growing many vegetables.
Biological control is using a living organism to control your problem by eating it or damaging it. Beneficial insects, such as lady bird beetles, praying mantises, or green lacewings, are introduced to prey on the nonbeneficial insects. The eggs or larval forms of the predacious insects are commonly sold in nurseries and garden centers.
The final method of control is using chemicals. The precise and careful use of pesticides sometimes may be the only way to control a problem, especially if the problem has already gotten out of hand.
So, how can you use IPM to solve some common summer veggie vexations? Here are a few common problems and ways you can solve them using IPM. These problems are often brought on by high temperatures, low humidity, or wide temperature fluctuations – conditions we often experience in northern Nevada during August.
Every summer people are mystified because their tomatoes have dropped all of their blossoms. This problem occurs when the temperature drops below 55 F at night, or rises above 90 F during the day. However, uneven watering, low humidity, unusually heavy fruit set, or nitrogen irregularities can also cause blossoms to drop. While you can’t do much to change the weather, there are some steps you can take to help your plants hang on to those blossoms. To increase nighttime temperatures, you can cover your tomatoes with a lightweight floating row cover at night, or use “walls of water” to insulate around each plant. These are easy to use and available at local nurseries. Most importantly, make sure you water regularly, thin fruit, and apply an organic mulch to regulate soil temperature and fertility.
Spider mites thrive in the hottest days of summer. They will turn your veggie plants into a dry crispy mess if you don’t control them. Since spider mites like it hot and dry, control them by altering their environment to make it cool and humid. Increase the humidity and lower surrounding temperatures by hosing or misting plants during the heat of the day.
If your vegetables are covered with a strange white or grey residue, you may have powdery mildew. Powdery mildew is a fungus that prefers hot, dry conditions. This is confusing to many people since we tend to associate “mildew” with warm, humid conditions. To control powdery mildew, remove the affected plant parts, increase air circulation by thinning and selective pruning, and increase the humidity by misting your plants. Regular watering and keeping the soil moist will also help reduce the infection.
As you develop your IPM program, you will discover that many of your veggie vexations are easily solved with good horticultural practices, a little common sense, and getting to know the cycles and rhythms of your garden.
This is a reprint of an article I wrote when I was the commercial horticulture program coordinator for the western area of University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. For more specific gardening and horticulture advice be sure to visit your local Cooperative Extension office.
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