We have an inch or so of snow on the ground this morning and wind chills in the teens. A hat tip to all of you north of us who are laughing at me right now, but in Texas, we call it a snow day and stay home. Seriously. The roads are an ice rink and almost no-one  knows how to skate. That makes this a great day for blogging!

My favorite gardening activity in January includes daydreaming my way through the new seed catalogs and planning for the awesome harvest I know is coming. As long as we are in planning mode, why not make plans to let the garden control its own bugs this year?

I remember the first year we planted a few veggies on our sandy hillside. We bought a few starts of zucchini at a local store and proudly set them in place. It was only a couple of days before the first squash bugs found them! And what’s a girl to do? I was so squeamish about hand-picking bugs (yeah, got over that one pretty fast!) and when I researched the chemicals for bug control, I knew I didn’t want to put any of it on our food. We tried a couple of the ‘organic’ approved sprays and powders in those early years – until we learned that even OMRI listed (Organic Materials Review Institute) pesticides may not be desireable – and most are not healthy for the bees.

Thankfully, some research – and a few years of experience – have brought us to a place that we no longer need to resort to that kind of control. The garden now mostly controls the bad bugs on its own – with just a little assist from us with a water hose or hand vac. Here’s what we do as we make plans for the garden each year:

1. Rotate the crops. Basically, this means don’t plant vegetables from the same botanical family in the same place more than once every 3 or 4 years (ideally.) There are several other great reasons for rotating crops, including better control of plant diseases and building more fertile soil. But for pest control purposes, you need to know that many garden pests (like potato bugs and squash bugs) leave larvae to overwinter in the soil where they are planted. If you put the same crop back into that place in the spring, those bugs wake up to find breakfast ready and waiting. Moving the crops makes the trip to find that first meal harder and sometimes impossible. In addition, the new crop may actually introduce new plant pheromones that bring new varieties of mycorrhiza (microscopic fungi) and good bacteria that help to control pests and build healthier soil. You can find some excellent advice about this HERE and HERE.

2. Hire some six-legged helpers. Releasing beneficial insects like trichogramma wasps, lacewings, lady bugs or others can give you a head start. We release trichogramma wasps every spring – two or three times, in fact, to help control cabbage loopers, bag worms, army worms and others.  This tiny (1/50th of an inch) wasp doesn’t sting.  Instead, it lays its eggs on the eggs of various moths and as they hatch, they kill the caterpillar before it can hurt your veggies.    Explore some of the beneficial insects you might release HERE (Note:  I’m not involved in any programs that pay me to provide links to their products.  I simply try to find links that will give you a start at doing your own research.)

3. Diversity is a good thing, even in the plant world!  Finding appropriate friends for your crops is truly helpful. Look for which beneficial insects will help with the specific pests you want to address, find herbs and flowers that will attract those to your garden, and plant them close to crops that are good companions. For example, a USDA study found that Sweet Alyssum planted about every 20 feet in lettuce fields in California, would draw in hoverflies which are known to control aphids.  A great list of beneficial insects and the herbs they love was published by The Permaculture Research Institute.  They also have a nice companion planting chart HERE.

4. Keep plants healthy with the right soil amendments.  Healthy plants are more able to tolerate some bug damage.   We have our soil tested every year through the soil lab at Texas A&M as we work to convert our very depleted East Texas sand hill to soil with a more balanced mineral composition. Doing that without any data to guide the process would be just a shot in the dark. It isn’t an exact science, but it does help us to see the effect of our efforts from one year to another and our garden health and yield has really been helped by the process. If you are gardening in raised beds, simply using a good quality balanced soil to fill the beds, incorporating a good amount of finished compost and topping each year with mulch will go a long way!

5. Build a healthy soil microbiome. If your garden is small enough, simply spreading good quality compost each spring will go a long way toward building a healthy microbiome in your soil. Additions of worm castings are particularly advantageous in this regard. We add worm castings to our potting soil for starting seeds as well as adding them to soil as we set out transplants. You can buy worm castings – but the fresher they are the more helpful they will be. Do some local research to find local sources or consider setting up your own wormery. It’s much easier than you might think.  Texas Worm Ranch in Garland, TX is an excellent source of information.

6. Fertilize carefully. Again, if you are growing in small raised beds, you may not need to add any fertilizer more than good cured compost, some worm castings and a good mulch on top. But if you do use other fertilizers, be aware that too much nitrogen may actually encourage bugs like aphids. Different crops require a different balance and timing of nitrogen or potassium especially, and it should be applied at the right time in the right manner.  Other times, an imbalance of soil minerals fostered by improper technique can kill needed soil organisms and leach into ground water to create other problems. There’s some good science to learn and experiment with here. We use only organic fertilizers when we need them and we use a spreadsheet we built to help us stay on track with this.

7. Use cover crops or amendments that provide ‘bio-fumigation’ as they break down. One of the pests in our sandy soil are root-knot nematodes. These little microscopic critters infest the roots of plants – especially okra, tomatoes and melons – and prevent the plant from taking in nutrients from the soil. We plant cover crops of elbon rye in the fall and let it grow all winter. When it is tilled in the spring, the breakdown of the rye kills many of the nematodes.  We also use “Mighty Mustard” pelletized mustard seed fertilizer for additional organic control.  Various clovers, buckwheat, mustard and other cover crops help to control other pests.

8.  Control weeds and dead leaves around your plants and around your garden area.   Weeds provide cover and breeding areas for bugs, so keeping the weeds controlled by mowing, cultivating, weed-eating or with weed-barrier materials in some situations is paramount.   Plan your weed control carefully.

9.  Plant trap crops.   Use specific plants to attract the pests so they will gather there and allow you to use a simple soap spray or vacuum (see below) to remove them.  Sunflowers, for example, attract leaf-footed bugs – the ones that pierce the skin of tomatoes and peppers to suck the juice.   If they are on the sunflowers, they aren’t on your tomatoes.  I plant the giant sunflowers not too far from the end of my tomato patch.   Hubbard squash will draw off some of the squash bugs.

11.  Don’t plant the same variety every year.  Every squash bug in your area knows how to find your zucchini and yellow squash.   They won’t necessarily recognize a unique heirloom variety.  When you find a particular variety you like – don’t plant that one every year, either.  Keep planting new varieties until you find several you like and rotate through them each year.   Keep the bugs guessing.

12.  Hide the veggies.   Use a light floating row cover to cover your susceptible plants immediately after you plant them.   Seal the edges of the row cover by pushing a little dirt over the edge.  Bugs and birds won’t eat what they can’t find.   And the row cover will protect your early crops from a little low temperature or frost, too.   Different row covers serve different purposes.  Here’s one link, but if you can’t find it locally,  I recommend you shop the internet carefully for best pricing and shipping.

10.  Choose your tools.   When we do need to intervene physically, I seldom resort to hand-picking the bugs anymore. In a big garden, it just isn’t feasible.  Instead, we use a little rechargeable wet-vac (hand sized) and simply walk down a row sucking up any bad bugs we see.   A quick dip in soapy water when we’re done and the bugs are gone.   Aphids sometimes require a quick blast of water from a hose.  Oddly, they seldom seem to come back when the other measures here have been taken.

May your plans reward you with your best-ever garden this spring!

No bees (or people) were harmed in the making of this blog.