No matter what’s bugging you in the garden, you’ve got a lot of choices when it comes to waging war on insect pests. While I rarely resort to chemical warfare, I’m glad I’ve got some pesticides in my arsenal to fall back on – I just don’t use them first. Instead, I take a more diplomatic approach called integrated pest management (IPM). This step-by-step strategy is a measured response that lets me pick my pest battles carefully.

Bee on sunflower

Remember, beneficial insects are our friends. If you must use insecticides, always follow label guidelines, spray at night when pollinators aren’t active, and use chemicals that are less toxic to bees.

Photo Credit: Jodi Torpey

Leaf cutter bee damage

While these circular snippets made by native leaf cutter bees don’t look too great, they don’t harm the plant (and the bees put the leaf cuttings to good use to line the cells for their young).

Photo Credit: Jodi Torpey

Cosmetic damage to plant

As unsightly as cosmetic insect damage can be, there’s no need to apply insecticides for it.

Photo Credit: Jodi Torpey

What I like about IPM is its commonsense attitude that lets me choose the most environmentally-friendly weapons first. The goal is to make smarter biological, cultural and chemical choices to reduce pesky garden problems. Here’s a checklist of the seven IPM practices to get you started:

  1. Know your pest threshold. Not every insect is a pest. In fact, out of the thousands of species of insects, only a few – about 10 percent – are real pests to gardeners. Many of the remaining 90 percent are either beneficial or harmless. So if insects are simply gnawing at your broccoli’s leaves but leaving the vegetable alone, you might not need to take any action. One gardener I know grows beautiful roses, and she doesn’t bother to spray for aphids – but she will take immediate action against pests like the rose midge, whose damage will keep her plants from blooming. She knows her pest limits.
  2. Grow healthy plants. The best defense is a good offense in the garden. The healthier the plants, the fewer the pests. If you want to grow vigorous plants, use good cultural practices like selecting disease-resistant varieties, giving plants plenty of room to breathe and watering only when plants are thirsty. In the veggie garden, be sure to rotate crops annually and get rid of diseased plant materials quickly.
  3. Conduct regular inspections. Careful observation is one of the key IPM practices. Keeping an eye out on what’s going on in your garden will help you gauge whether the insects are causing damage or helping you out. Regular inspections also mean you can catch a pest problem early and decide on an appropriate control before it gets out of hand.
  4. Choose the safest action first. When the number of pests outweighs your patience, start with physical and mechanical controls first. Only go after plants that are affected. Handpick insects off of plants, use sticky insect barriers and traps, or spray with a forceful stream of water.
  5. Plant for predators. Beneficial insects can target specific insect pests and should be encouraged in the garden. Lady beetles (ladybugs), lacewing larvae and spiders help control pest populations. Planting a layered landscape (using low-lying plants on up to flowering shrubs) helps attract insects. The more bugs in your landscape, the more insect predators you’ll have – including birds.
  6. Use biological controls. Biological insecticides (like viruses, bacteria, fungi and nematodes) are living organisms that target certain pests. Beneficial nematodes are effective against grubs and cutworms. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil bacterium that helps control hungry caterpillars. Learn which works best for your pest problems.
  7. Select the safest chemicals first. Before reaching for the synthetic chemical controls, try the least-toxic method first. For example, diatomaceous earth (DE) is a substance made from the remains of fossilized microorganisms. The powdery substance is usually dusted around the base of plants to control slugs, snails, grubs and other insects. Other safe chemical controls include insecticidal soaps, horticultural oils and repellents, like Neem oil. Just make sure the control won’t harm beneficial insects, too.

When all other controls have failed to be effective, you can reach for the synthetic chemical pesticides that kill on contact. But if you follow these IPM steps first, you may find you never have to use them.