Organic Integrated Pest Management

organic integrated pest management - green cabbage looper

What is it?

OIPM (Organic Integrated Pest Management) is just common sense applied to pest control in your garden.  Think of it as a layered approach to managing the damage that insects can do to your garden. 

Notice that phrase.  Manage the damage.  Insects are a fact of life.  You can never eliminate them, and you don’t want that.  They all, even the ones that we consider pests, have a role to play in a healthy ecosystem.   The healthy ecosystem concept is the key here.

Healthy Soil = Healthy Plants

It is a proven fact that healthy plants are less susceptible to both insect pests and disease.  Insects and disease-causing organisms to seek out unhealthy stressed plants.  That is why you will often see an entire row of healthy, vibrant producing plants in a garden, and right in the middle of the row is a stunted or damaged plant.  For some reason, it was weakened or put under stress.  It could be as simple a problem as the emitter that was supposed to water it was clogged, and it became water-stressed while all the other plants, which were getting water, remained healthy, pest, and disease-free.

Healthy plants then go back to healthy soil.   If your soil is healthy and teeming with life, more than likely, your plants will be as well, and your plant disease and insect pest problems will be minimal.

The Concepts of Organic Integrated Pest Management

organic integrated pest management - hands in healthy soil

Organic IPM is built around several concepts.

Cultural 

  • Build and maintain the healthiest environment possible in your garden.
  • Feed your soil.  Healthy soil is the best preventative in the garden.
  • Chose plant varieties that are disease and pest resistant
  • Maintain a clean and sanitary environment
  • Provide the best growing conditions possible

Physical

  • Maintain your tools and equipment in a clean and sanitary condition
  • Check your plants routinely and keep a garden log
  • Maintain a good crop rotation plan
  • Control weeds

Biologic

  • Plant resistant varieties
  • Plant companion planting to encourage beneficial insects
  • Use companion plants that repel pests
  • Augment with natural biologic control methods

Chemical

Integrated organic pest management tank sprayer
  • Use the least toxic method of control
  • If necessary, use organic insecticidal soaps and other means

More than anything else, OIPM is a system for gardening. It provides you a framework around which you can build a system in your garden for controlling pests using what nature has provided. OIPM is part of an organic system that will ultimately promote a vigorous and healthy garden while using organic and ecologically sound methods.

Cultural Aspects of Organic Integrated Pest Management  

Managing your garden from an IPM standpoint begins before the first plant or seed goes into the ground.  Understanding that plant health is directly related to soil health, the foundation of an organic integrated pest management plan is to ensure that your soil biome is as healthy, rich, and alive as it can be.  We do this by nurturing that life in the soil.  Adopting the philosophy that we feed the soil will probably do more for your plant health and productivity than anything else you can do.  

More than anything, it is a mindset, a method of planning and managing your garden. It encompasses your garden from the first plan you make to the last load of garden waste that goes into your compost bin.  Everything in-between must be considered a part of your IPM plan.

Planning

Organic Integrated Pest Management planning
  • Are you working with a well thought out plan? 
  • Are you practicing proper crop rotations? 
  • Do you do companion plantings? 
  • What plant varieties are you choosing?  I
  • s your garden soil properly prepared, healthy, and balanced?

There are a multitude of things to consider as you plan your garden.

Crop Rotation

Using a solid crop rotation scheme, even in a small urban garden, can go a long way to keeping your garden healthy and pest free.  Crop rotation can help mitigate damage from nematodes if you are plagued with that problem, and it can certainly be a critical factor in keeping your soil healthy and balanced.  

Plant with Companions

Your garden should be a colorful and inviting space for more reasons than just your aesthetics.  Adding companion plantings to enhance the visual look can also be an integral part of your IPM plan.  Using plants that deter pests and invite beneficial insects should be high on your planning list.   Plan with an eye to the visual appeal of your vegetable garden as well as the production side.  

shovel in soil

While you are shopping for your companion plants, review your choices for your vegetable varieties. 

Chose Varieties with Resistance

Check the seed or plant catalog and look at the information provided about disease and pest resistance. 

If you have had a problem in the past with a particular disease or pest, choose a variety that is resistant to that problem and save yourself some grief.  You are keeping a journal about your garden so you can go back and review information like this, aren’t you?  The ability to refer back to past years, experience, and past knowledge can make you a better gardener and your garden a more productive and inviting space.

Soil – The Foundation of Plant Health

Is your soil healthy, balanced and prepared? This probably should have been number one on my question list for this article.  Healthy vigorous plants are naturally more resistant to insects and disease.  Without good soil, you will have a difficult time growing healthy plants.  Have you had your soil tested?  Are you using quality amendments?  Do you mulch and compost?  Your soil is a living organism itself, and without proper care and feeding, it can languish just like your plants.

Maintaining

During the growing season, maintaining a healthy environment for your plants is sometimes difficult.  Practicing good garden habits is one way to make this a bit easier.  Develop some routines that will work to your benefit as well as the health of your garden.

Be in Your Garden

woman working in soil

Vigilance is your best weapon.  Be in your garden, and pay attention to it.  Look at your plants regularly.  Turn the leaves over and check for eggs or larva.  Learn the difference between beneficial and pest insects. Keep your beds clean and weed-free.  Don’t let your companion plantings age out.  Do successive plantings so that you always have fresh, healthy companion plants around your vegetables.

Insects as your Allies

Introduce beneficial insects and organisms into your garden at the appropriate times.  Set out

Trichogramma wasp tabs when trees are just beginning to bud.  Release Ladybugs when you see the first signs of aphids.  Innoculate your soil with beneficial nematodes and earthworms if you do not see signs of a healthy population.  Just remember that a lack of earthworms is an indication that something is wrong in your soil.

Keep your garden area clean.  Pick up trash, fallen leaves, pruned material,  and dispose of them properly.  If you are removing diseased material from your garden, remove it.  Do not compost diseased or insect-laden plant material.  

Healthy Habits for Healthy Plants

garden tools

Keep your tools and equipment clean.  Wash and disinfect your garden tools regularly after each use, preferably, especially if you are pruning or removing diseased or pest-ridden plants.  You can easily spread them to healthy plants using tools that can carry germs, viruses or eggs.

Prune, Pinch and Pick

Keep your plants healthy.  Prune and pinch back where necessary.  Feed when needed, and water appropriately.  

Harvest regularly when plants start producing ripe fruit.  Overripe fruit left on the plant or allowed to fall to the ground invites insects and disease.  Harvesting regularly encourages the plant to produce more and longer through the season.  You put all the work into this; you should enjoy the results as often as possible.

These suggestions are all just common sense.  There is nothing extraordinary about implementing and maintaining a good IPM plan.  Doing so will make your garden a more attractive space, a more productive enterprise and a much more enjoyable past time.

Physical or Mechanical Aspects of OIPM 

Any OIPM system has a mechanical aspect.  The term mechanical doesn’t translate well to the urban garden, but as it is accepted across the horticulture community, we will stick with it.

Mechanical refers to the physical methods of controlling pests in and around your garden by intervening in the way they spread, habituate, and reproduce.  It also includes a component of record-keeping that allows you to learn and build on experience.

Sanitation

One of the easiest ways to get ahead of a potential pest problem is simply keeping a clean garden.  Most gardeners are lax in this area because it is not understood.  However, just like in your kitchen, disease and pests can be spread from one growing area to another by dirty toils.  Not many of us think about our gardening tools as something we need to clean and disinfect.  But if you stop and think about it, the concept does make sense.   Ground-borne plant diseases can easily be spread from one growing area or bed to another as you move around the garden using your tools.  Insect egg and larva are also easily transported.   Just the simple act of hosing off your tools as you change beds or growing areas can be the difference between a localized problem and an infestation.

Keep it All Clean

The same goes for containers if you garden in them and reuse the same containers year after year.   If you have had a problem with disease or insects in a container, the wise choice is to compost the soil from that container and then disinfect the container with a 10% bleach solution before replanting.  You could save yourself heartache with this simple step.

Another aspect is weed control in and around your garden.   Many weeds are safe harbors for pest insects.  Allowing them to grow not only robs your soil or moisture and nutrients, but it can also provide a place that pests can reproduce.   Pick up downed fruit.  Remove cuttings and trimmings.  Keep a neat and orderly garden, and you will find that a lot of your pest and disease problems are minimized.

If you adopt a good regimen of sanitation around your garden, you are naturally going to be much more cognizant of your garden and its condition.  You should make a habit of inspecting your plants regularly. 

Get Down with your Plants

Don’t be satisfied with a cursory glance as you walk through the gardening doing your other chores.  Stop and look at the plants.  Turn the leaves and inspect the undersides.  Inspect new growth for signs of insects or damage.  Check the base of the plant at the ground for damage from earth inhabiting pests. 

The only way to discover pests in time to be effective in controlling them is to be constantly vigilant.

Planting and Planning.

Following an established crop rotation plan can also help deter pests and disease.  Many common garden pests and diseases overwinter in the soil.  By following a crop rotation plan, you can minimize the effect of these pests by denying them the environment they need to thrive.   There are many good crop rotation plans available online that can be adapted and implemented in your garden.

Planting companion plants that repel or deter pests is another good habit to cultivate.  Many flowering plants can repel pest insects and attract beneficial predator insects to your garden.   Also, many plants help build soil nutrition and strengthen plants with which they share a beneficial connection.

garden journal

Journaling

I always mention this.  I am the world’s worst, so I can’t chastise too much.  It is a good idea to make a drawn plan of your garden each season with labels on what is being planted where.   Then a journal should note planting dates, planting depths, varieties, and cultivars you are planting, any information on extra steps you have taken.  Included should be the companion plants you use, when they were planted and other pertinent information.   As the season progresses, make regular notes on when and how much water is applied, how much fertilizer is applied and the progress of your plant’s growth.  Keep track of any pests you find, what you did to control them and the results.  Over time you will begin to build a knowledge base that will benefit you in the future.

It’s A Year Round Thing

Don’t forget to journal in the offseason.  What amendments did you make to your soil?  What cover crops did you plant, and why? When you add beds or build new raised beds, how did you construct them, what method did you use to build the soil and any special notes that you think might be important in the future?

You will see the benefit in years ahead when you run into a problem or face a dilemma.  A simple glance back through your journal might remind you of a solution that has worked before or an idea that could save your garden.  You will begin to see the benefits as you plan by being able to refer to your history and see how various varieties and cultivars perform in your garden under certain conditions.  You may even find that certain varieties perform better in one area of your garden than another.  Such information can be valuable during your crop rotations.

Developing good gardening habits will go a long way to helping manage pests and diseases.   The simple steps outlined above can be a foundation on which you begin to build a garden that will provide you season after season of enjoyment, color, and sustainable, nutritious food.  

convergent beetles

Biologic Controls  

The whole point of IPM is to create an environment that promotes vigorous and healthy plant growth, which produces the strongest and healthiest plants possible.  Strong healthy plants are stress-free and are more capable of repelling both insects and disease.  We should understand that any garden is going to suffer damage from both.  We cannot eliminate pests and diseases from our ecology (despite what the big chemical companies would have you believe.) Nature has its means of maintaining balance. 

Our goal should be to allow nature to achieve that balance and then work within it. We can assist in that with a few simple management tools.

Resistant Varieties.

The first step in biologic control is to have the healthiest and best soil in which to grow your garden.  Plants that are strong, vigorous, and well-nourished resist diseases and pests much more readily than plants that are nutrient deficient or stressed in other ways.  Soil is the foundation of a garden.  Make sure you have a solid foundation.

Biologic controls start when you are planning your garden.  Where ever and whenever possible, choose your plant varieties from those that have a natural resistance to pests and diseases that may be common in your area.  Plant catalogs are a great source of information when doing your garden planning.  Most of the major plant and seed catalogs include information on each variety and what diseases and pests they have been bred to resist.  

companion planting

Companion Planting

Monocultures are non-existent.  They are unhealthy and invite problems.  Your garden should be a diverse and wildly creative place.  Do this by using companion planting and cover cropping.

Companion planting works in some ways.  Companion plants can attract beneficial insects that not only work as pollinators but also attract and support insects that prey on pests.  Companion plants can also repel harmful pests.  Some companion plants emit odors that either confuse or repel harmful insects.  Another class of companion plants provides support for some plants when planted together.  Several species of marigolds reportedly enhance the flavor of carrots when planted together.  Marigolds also help in controlling some nematodes.  Carrots planted with tomatoes are said to enhance the flavor of the tomatoes.  Legumes planted with corn or squash trap and store nitrogen in the soil.  

Soil Maintenance

Soil should never be bare and should have living roots active year-round.  The organisms in the soil depend to a large degree on the exudates from plant roots for nutrition.  Plant roots are key in aerating and adding structure to the soil.  The tops of cover crops provide green living mulch for the soil protecting it from the UV rays from sunlight and encouraging more active sub-soil life. 

Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is another form of biologic control that is often overlooked by home gardeners.  Utilizing a good crop rotation schedule can help mitigate and control the spread of diseases and pests in the garden.  It is also a good habit to promote good soil nutrition balance and health.

organic integrated pest management checking for bugs

At some point, you will find disease or pests in your garden.  Don’t panic.  They have been there are along but are probably just now noticeable.   Just like your body, most of the time, healthy vigorous plants will cope with the disease or pest and go on about their business of producing the vegetables you want.

Pests as a Service

Think of it like this.  Those bugs you consider pests also provide you a beneficial service.  They are often the first indicator that your plants are under stress, often before they show any outward signs.  If you begin to see a sudden influx of harmful insects, begin to think about why. 

  • Are your plants underwatered or overwatered? 
  • Are you feeding too much or do you need to feed more? 
  • Consider the presence of these pests as a symptom and not the underlying problem. 

They are there because something else is happening that you should recognize and investigate. You need to be aware of what is going on in your garden so that if the disease or pest becomes a problem you can take steps to intervene.  Your intervention should be measured by the threat posed by the pest.

Dealing With the Pests

Once you have determined if there is an underlying problem in your garden that is attracting the pest or disease, you may still need to deal with the pests themselves.  Mitigating soil problems or plant problems can take time, which can give insects the opportunity to get the upper hand.  Whatever is decided, the philosophy is to always use a minimalist approach, choosing the control method that has the least impact on the overall ecology of the garden.

Direct Action

In a lot of cases, that minimal intervention is to attack the pest or disease directly.  Horned tomato worms are a classic example.   The tomato hornworm is the caterpillar stage of the Manduca quinquemaculata, the five-spotted hawkmoth.  They are big and intimidating but harmless.  Many people find the best means of control is to pick the caterpillars from the tomato plants and dispose of them.  Aphids, unless the infestation is extreme, can often be controlled by simply washing your plants with a fine high-speed spray.  It will wash the aphids from the leaves and onto the ground where they will die.  

Biologic Controls

You will see ads for other biologic controls such as lady beetles and praying mantises.  You can order these in bulk from suppliers to release in your garden.  Lady Beetles are voracious eaters of aphids. The problem is that lady beetles and every other predator species will only hang around where there are insects to predate.   Unless you are releasing your insects into a controlled environment such as a greenhouse, more than likely, they will be gone within a few hours.

trichogramma wasp

Trichogramma Wasps

One preventive mitigation we suggest is to release Trichogramma wasps each spring as your trees are beginning to bud out.  These little wasps are harmless.  They do not sting humans and are only interested in finding as many caterpillars and other worms as possible during their short lives.  They sting the worms injecting eggs into the worm itself.  These wasp larvae feed on the worm until it dies and then emerges to start the entire circle again.

BT (Bacillus thuringiensis)  

BT is a micro-organism that is readily available at most garden stores.  It is useful around the garden in controlling several pests.  Typically it is applied as a spray to control caterpillars.  There are many brand name ready to use products.  There are several strains of BT available that target specific pests.   One in particular of note is BTi (Bacillus thuringiensis Israelensis). BTi is useful in controlling mosquitos.  The bacteria attack the larva of these airborne pests when it is added to ponds or fountains or anywhere else standing water is a problem

Going Stronger

There are other, more potent organic pesticides and herbicides available.  They do not pose as much of a risk as the man-made synthetic varieties, but they pose their own risks.  Some are toxic to humans and animals.  All of them will kill without discrimination.  They work on beneficial as well as pest insects.  They may also harm the below-ground organisms in your soil. We have information on the website about these products, but we do not recommend them. 

Vigilance and attention are your best tools in implementing your IPM system.  The more aware you are of what is happening in your garden, the more success you will have in controlling any problems that occur.   The earlier you spot a problem, the easier it is to mitigate.

Links and Resources

For more information about organic gardening, lifestyles, and living, visit our website at West Texas Organic Gardening.

If you found the information here helpful, you might also find these articles on our website of interest.

Organic Growing Myths

Toss Your Tiller

Mulch

If you have more specific questions or problems, you can contact us using the contact form on our website. You can also post your question to our community forum at this page; West Texas Organic Gardening Community Forum.

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If you want to get more in-depth information about Integrated Pest Management, consider these books available on Amazon!