Vegetable Pest Management
11 May 2005
Virginia Cooperative Extension, Charlottesville/Albemarle County Office
460 Stagecoach Road, Charlottesville, Virginia 22902
phone: 434.872.4580 fax: 434.872.4578
As your vegetable garden begins to grow so do the pests that eat your vegetables. The best way to control insect and disease problems is to prevent them before they get a foothold in your garden. Here are some things you can do and look out for as you tend your garden.
Maintain a slightly acid soil (around pH 6.5). If in doubt, have a soil analysis done through your local Extension office. Lime can be used to increase soil pH and sulfur can lower it.
Maintain adequate levels of soil fertility through additions of potassium and phosphorus releasing materials, such as commercial fertilizers or animal manures. Soil testing should be done every three years to determine levels of these important nutrients.
Build a biologically active, healthy soil through regular addition of organic matter, such as yard waste, compost, and manure.
For planting areas not being cropped, grow annual cover crops, such as clover or rye grass, to provide additional organic matter.
Till the soil in the fall to expose pests living near the surface to natural enemies and weather, and to destroy insects overwintering in crop residues.
- Plant crops and varieties that are well-suited to the soil and climate, and recommended by Virginia Cooperative Extension.
- When seeding directly, use disease-free, certified seed, if available.
- Select for maximum insect- and disease-resistance in vegetable varieties.
- Select healthy, sturdy transplants with well-developed root systems. Diseases and insects in young seedlings may start in greenhouses or plant beds and cause heavy losses in the garden.
- Buy plants from a reputable grower who can assure you that they are disease- and insect-free, or grow your own from seed.
The most effective and most important of all practices is careful observation in the garden. Many serious disease or insect problems can be halted or brought under control early by the gardener who knows what to look for and regularly visits the garden for trouble-shooting.
- Water in the morning so plants have time to dry before the cool evening. Drip irrigation systems prevent foliage from getting wet when watering.
- Use interplantings in the vegetable garden as opposed to solid plantings of a single crop. This can slow the spread of diseases and insects, giving you more time to deal with them if they occur.
- Space plants properly and thin young vegetables to a proper stand. Overcrowding causes weak growth and reduces air movement, resulting in increased insect and disease problems.
- Keep down weeds and grass. They often harbor pests and compete for nutrients and water. Leaf and other organic mulches are extremely effective for weed control, as are inorganic weed mats, plastic, and other fabrics.
- Use a mulch to reduce soil splash, which brings soil and soil-borne diseases into contact with lower leaves.
- Rotate your garden plot, if you can. Do not grow the same kind of produce in the same place each year. Use related crops in one site only once every three or four years. Avoid mixing soils in areas by forming permanent raised beds with distinct borders.
- Avoid injury to plants. Broken limbs, cuts, bruises, cracks, and insect damage are often the site for infection by disease-causing organisms.
- Stay out of the garden when the plants are wet with rain or dew to prevent spreading diseases.
- Do not use tobacco products, such as cigarettes or cigars, when working in the vegetable garden. Tomato, pepper, and eggplant are susceptible to a mosaic virus disease common in tobacco and may be spread by your hands.
- Remove and dispose of infected leaves from diseased plants as soon as you observe them. Remove severely diseased plants before they contaminate others.
- Clean up crop refuse as soon as you are finished for the day.
- Sanitize stakes and wire cages prior to use with a light bleach solution.
- Keep old sacks, baskets, wooden stakes, decaying vegetables, and other rubbish, which may harbor insects and diseases, out of the garden.
- Staking tall flower and vegetable plants or planting them in wire cages prevents the blossoms or fruit from coming in contact with the soil.
- Time plantings in such a way that the majority of your crop will avoid the peak of insect infestations. For example, plant squash as early as possible to avoid borers, which lay eggs in July. Keep a record of the dates insect problems occur.
- Plant warm-weather crops after the soil has warmed to avoid problems with seed and root rots and to promote vigorous growth.
- Inspect plants for egg clusters, beetles, caterpillars, and other insects as often as possible. Hand-pick as many pests as you can. Avoid sprays until the population of insects has reached a critical threshold level.
- Where slugs are a problem, use approved baits and traps and try to create drier conditions. Heavy mulches may encourage slugs. Diatomaceous earth, crushed eggshells, and hydrated lime near plants may help deter slug activity.
- Enlist the aid of birds in your garden. Overall, they do more good than harm. Consider planting shrubs and trees with fruits that attract them. Keep in mind, however, if you attract wild birds, you will have to protect ripening fruit (and even some vegetables) by using bird netting or scare devices (aluminum pans banging in the breeze are fairly effective) if damage is noted.
Photo credit: Scott Bauer
Encourage Beneficial Insects
Naturally occurring predators and parasites are found in gardens, orchards, and fields. Learn to properly identify these species as benefits of your environment. Avoid using pesticides around them. They are as susceptible to insecticides as the pests.
For more information about landscape topics contact your local Virginia Cooperative Extension office. Many county Extension offices have a help desk that is staffed by Master Gardener volunteers. These volunteers are trained to answer questions about home and landscape pest problems. The local Virginia Cooperative Extension office numbers are Albemarle 872-4580, Fluvanna 591-1950, Greene 985-5236, Louisa 540-967-3422, and Nelson 263-4035.
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