Gardening Tips: Managing Pest Problems

— Written By and last updated by Chrissy Poole

Many gardeners think the word pest simply means insect. In fact there are many different types of pests in our gardens, from insects to diseases, to weeds, to animals. A pest, in gardening terms, is simply any living thing that makes a desirable plant grow less that ideally.
For a pest problem to develop, three things need to be present. The first is the pest, whether it is the insect or animal itself, the pathogen that causes a disease, or weed seeds waiting to germinate. The second thing is a suitable host; in other words a plant that the pest likes. Most insects and diseases like a particular plant or perhaps a group of plants and will only bother those plants. Animals are usually not quite as selective but will still favor certain plants, and while weeds don’t favor plants necessarily, they can be less of a problem around certain plants, such as those that grow fast or have a spreading growth habit. The third and final thing that must be present for a pest problem to develop is a suitable environment. Pests will thrive or struggle depending on their surrounding environmental conditions; some diseases and insects prefer cool, moist conditions while others prefer hot and dry, while weeds, like any plant, will only grow in soil or light conditions that they desire. Take a look at the weeds growing along a shady pond or riverbank sometime. You’ll find all sorts of things that you would never see growing in the aisles of your hot sunny vegetable garden.
Why is this important? There are two reasons. One is by recognizing the role the environment plays in influencing pest problems, we can predict and thus be prepared for some disease problems based on the weather. For example periods of wet weather, such as we’ve had for several months now, there tend to be a lot of leaf spot diseases and fungal rot diseases.
The second reason this is important is that knowing there are three separate factors which contribute to pest problems gives us at least three potential solutions to each problem. You can apply a pesticide to limit the amount of pests present, which is often our first thought, but that should not be the only choice. You can often use crop rotation in a vegetable garden for example; if you repeatedly have problems with one of the tomato wilt disesases. Often home gardeners don’t like the idea of not growing a favorite vegetable for a year or two to help control a recurring disease problem, but if the problem is so bad it ruins your crop than why not give it a try? Many of us have friends who garden, perhaps you can work out a deal with a friend who is having problems with a different vegetable. You could plant enough squash for both of you and let them grow enough tomatoe for two. Finally, while we can’t control the weather, there are numerous things we can do in the garden that make the environment more suitable for plants and less suitable for pests. Using mulch, watering the proper amount, watering at the right time of day, and planting a wide diversity of plants are just a few of these things.
Matthew Stevens is the horticulture extension agent for Halifax County Cooperative Extension. If you have any questions about this article or other aspects of your home gardening, please contact Matthew at 583-5161 or