Step One: What triggers you into action? You'll need to decide when you absolutely must swing into action. Every one of your plants has an aesthetic and economic value. The lower the value the less damage to you if it is lost. If slugs wiped out a petunia, you can replace it for little money or effort. On the other hand, your choice Spirea x bumalda 'Goldflame' that has be growing nicely for several years is in danger, you most likely will want to act. So you need to identify the plants you really want to protect. You are not abandoning the others. You just recognize that saving them is a lower priority.
Step Two: Here's where a little scholarship comes into play. You need to learn what insects attack your plants. What does the damage look like? When is the best time to act (pests have different levels of vulnerability during their complex life cycles)? You can get this information at your county extension office (funding cuts have made this harder) or from any school offering horticulture classes in your area. You might even buy an illustrated book with enough information about any given insect to help you plan an attack.
Step Three: Plan a specific time, once or twice a week, to do a battlefield inspection. On this tour you need to look past your beautiful plants and brilliant garden design. You are looking specifically for the beginnings of a problem. While you may want to look more carefully at the plants you made higher priority (see Step One). By the way, don't forget to look at the bark of the trees for any abnormality. You're looking for scale and other problems.
Unpleasant surprises can happen when you aren't looking. Mites, for example, have short lifespans, but can cause tremendous damage if you don't catch them early. Here is where your skills as an investigator come into play. Identify the culprits, if you can, or take the evidence to damage to someone who can.
You may even want to equip yourself for the fight. Buy a 10x or 20x power magnifying glass. If find as I age, it is harder to see the little things without some help. It is a lot easier to identify a bug when you can see it "up close and personal." Use a white piece of paper and tap suspect leaves over it. Look for mites, thrips or other tiny pests as they scramble to get off the paper. If you are having serious problems or your garden is particularly dense, consider buying a sweep or net to skim around your plants. You might be surprised by the harvest. Of course, not all the bugs you'll find are bad guys. You need to be able to tell them apart.
Step Four: Now you've identified the problem, what is the action plan or solution? While you were researching about bugs, you've probably come across several recommended solutions. Different pests mean different solution. There is no one universal answer, organic or otherwise.
One solution might be a change in the overall culture. Lots of problems happen because of high humidity from watering. Maybe you can change to drip irrigation, a method that will change the humidity at plant level. Or, change your watering schedule to early in the day so foliage will be dry before dark. Mites like it hot and thrive on water-stressed plants so water these infected or prone plants more often. We create lots of problems ourselves by under- or over-fertilizing. Plants react to that situation with stress and stress attracts many pests.
Next week, we'll cover some specific solutions and look at introducing friendly insects into your garden.
Good luck and great gardening.
David Soper, The Garden Guy, writes and lectures on gardening topics. Read more on his website, Adventures in Gardening, www.gardenguy.com
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