A Japanese beetle on a leaf with many areas that have been chewed.
Scouting plants for signs of pest problems, like chewed leaves, frass, and damaging insects, is a continuous activity in IPM. Japanese beetles (top) and leafhoppers (bottom) are common summer plant pests. Photo by H.N. Kolich

By Shannon Kennedy, ANR Educator, UGA Extension Forsyth County

Spring has sprung, and those warming temperatures have many of us outside planting – and fighting weeds.

Unfortunately, spring heralds the arrival of pests of all kinds. The gut reaction of many gardeners is to grab a spray bottle from the shelf and dose the offender with a generous coating of pesticide. But there are many more tools and tactics for pest control. Integrated pest management (IPM) is a system of pest control that encourages utilizing all of the tools in our toolbox to prevent and manage pest problems while minimizing risk to people, wildlife, and the environment.

Knowledge is the first tool in our IPM toolbox. To gain knowledge, scout your garden often so you know when a new pest appears in your landscape. Then you can identify the pest and keep tabs on how many of them are present in your landscape. Once you discover what the pest is then you can research its lifecycle, learn what treatments work against them, and when in the lifecycle to apply a treatment. Some pests are only vulnerable during certain stages of their life, so knowledge about the pest is imperative to finding successful control methods.

Prevention is a power tool. Good pest control always starts with prevention, and there are many, simple actions we can take to prevent pest outbreaks.

  • Choose plants to match the conditions of the planting site. This reduces environmental stress and helps the plant stay healthy. Thriving, healthy plants are more able to resist pests and diseases on their own.
  • Rotate crops in your garden. Moving annual plants to different locations each year moves them away from host-specific pests that persist in the soil. Without a host plant, those pathogens populations decline over time.
  • Clean up. Simple sanitation, such as removing and destroying infected plants from your landscape, is incredibly important for preventing the spread of disease.
  • Apply mulch. Mulch creates a barrier between plants and soil-borne diseases. It also has stress-reducing benefits, such as weed prevention, soil moisture retention, and soil temperature moderation.
  • Shut out pests. Fencing can be effective for excluding larger pests, like deer, from garden areas. Low hoop houses or row covers create barriers to insect pests. Select resistant varieties of plants to reduce losses to known pests in the environment.

Goals are another tool in pest management. As many gardeners are aware, our gardens and landscapes will never be perfectly pest-free; for this reason, it’s important to decide how much damage you can tolerate and still meet your gardening goal. In a home flower garden, this tolerance may be higher than in a farmer’s soybean field since losing the flowers won’t mean losing your income. Determining this tolerance threshold – along with regular pest scouting – will inform you of when it’s time to take pest control action. When pest pressure reaches the predetermined threshold, control options include physical controls, biological controls, and chemical controls. Physical controls should be your first course of action; this includes actions such as weeding and hand-removal of caterpillars. Biological control uses living things like predators to combat pest species. Chemical control should be the last resort in an integrated pest management plan because without the other management tools, it is often a temporary fix. Integrated pest management uses all three of these control methods to create a comprehensive program that is more effective than any of the individual parts.

A pyramid graphic showing the integrated pest management triangle. Starting at the base of prevention--the least impactful method, i.e. no chemicals, if that doesn't work then as the pests become worse you implement more severe strategies, i.e. chemical controls.
Pest prevention is the foundation of integrated pest management. Chemical control is the tool of last resort.

Because pests are seasonal, integrated pest management is a continuous process. After putting a plan into action, keep records on how it is working. Make notes of the action taken and observe your plants to see if the pest population decreases. If so, continue the action and record it for repetition next season. Make notes of when the damage levels on your plants fall below the acceptable damage threshold. This last step feeds back into the first step of integrated pest management: monitoring. If you need help with any step of developing an integrated pest management plan, reach out to Forsyth County Extension, we would be happy to help!

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