Integrated Pest Management

reducing pesticide use in your home garden


5 min read

green plants on black metal train rail during daytime
green plants on black metal train rail during daytime

You’ve probably heard of the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Rights’ Movement, and Vietnam War Protests, but have you heard of the Green Revolution?

The Green Revolution is another event that occurred during the 1960s, one that also indisputably changed the world and has had incredibly far-reaching consequences, the effects of which are still reverberating throughout our global food system to this day. But unlike the protest and human rights movements of the 1960s, the Green Revolution isn’t a topic that as many of us are familiar with, or even taught in school. So what exactly was the Green Revolution?

The Green Revolution refers to a period of significant, rapid development and deployment of agricultural technologies around the world that took place starting in the 1960s. It was a revolution in the global food system and a revolution in agricultural technologies. In addition to the invention of artificial fertilizers that are derived from petroleum, the Green Revolution also saw the the mass deployment of crops that have been genetically modified (genetically modified organisms, or GMOs). Crops can be genetically modified for various reasons, such as to increase the nutritional content of a specific crop variety or to make it resistant to pesticides. While the Green Revolution made a significant increase in global food production possible, it also facilitated the mass use of pesticides in our food system. Pesticides are chemicals that are toxic to pests (animals) in the garden. Insecticides are a type of pesticide that are specifically toxic to insects. Herbicides, fungicides, and rodenticides are also types of pesticides, which are toxic to plants, fungi, and rodents, respectively.

How did this mass adoption of pesticides happen? Many GMO crops were developed to be resistant to pesticides, so that pesticides could be applied to fields of those crops indiscriminately to kill off pests, which also helped increase crop yields. But using pesticides on pest-resistant crops can start a cycle where pests evolve to be increasingly resistant to pesticides, creating a need to use ever stronger pesticides. Given the health impacts of pesticides like glyphosate and others on farmworkers, as well as the health impacts of eating produce with pesticides on it, there are a lot of reasons to reduce pesticide use and look for alternative ways to manage pests in your home garden. Integrated Pest Management is a scientifically-based system to manage pests in your garden that can help you reduce pesticide use.

What is integrated pest management?

Integrated Pest Management, or IPM, refers to a science-based system of pest management that works with, rather than against, nature. Integrated Pest Management can include the use of pesticides, but pesticides are not the first step to addressing a pest problem if you’re using IPM techniques. Instead, growers evaluate, monitor, and work to prevent pest infestations from becoming a problem in the first place. If pests do become an issue, then managers may decide to use select pesticides to address it. But that’s usually not the first line of attack: Instead of using chemical and petroleum pesticides to deal with the bugs and other pests that also want to eat out of your garden and leave nothing for you, you can try bringing other plants and animals into your garden or larger growing space to help take care of the issue for you. IPM practices are often lower effort for the farmer or gardener, cost less since there are fewer ongoing input costs, and are better for the environment.

So how can IPM work in your garden?

As the saying goes in permaculture - there’s no such thing as a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency. But what does that mean?

Picture this: You’re a farmer with a fruit orchard that’s being overtaken by slugs. In this example, farmers or gardeners will often think that they have an excess amount of ducks on their plants that are eating their crops. They might try and try to keep as many slugs as possible out of the orchard and off of the fruit, but this is somewhat of a futile exercise, since slugs are naturally going to be attracted to the fruit trees. But instead of keeping the slugs out, what if the farmers brought in a species that is a natural predator of slugs?

Enter ducks. Ducks regularly eat slugs, and not only will introducing ducks into a slug infested orchard mitigate the slug problem, but it will also prevent future slug problems from occurring. This technique is a common method in permaculture, and relies on adding, rather than subtracting. Think of it this way: instead of removing slugs, try adding ducks, and the slug problem will fix itself.

Marigolds work much the same way. Aphids are a common predator that feed on tomato plants and can ruin a row’s worth of plants. Marigolds don’t deter aphids, but they do attract ladybugs, who feast on the aphids on the tomato plants next to the marigolds that they were initially drawn to. Planting marigolds in your garden can be a great way to help prevent aphids from destroying your tomato crop.

The case of the fruit orchard with a slug problem and vegetable garden with an aphid infestation, which can both benefit from the addition of another organism (ducks and marigolds) are two examples of how you can practice integrated pest management in your backyard garden.

But IPM has more applications than just dealing with slugs and aphids. There are four key steps and principles to consider when practicing Integrated Pest Management. They are:

1. Setting an action threshold

Action thresholds refer to the point where, if reached, action must be taken to control a pest problem. For example, one aphid in your tomato row might not be a problem. But once you get to a certain number of aphids, your entire crop might be damaged before you know it. Determining the action threshold means figuring out how many pests your garden can handle before you need to take action to control their populations. For commercial operations, the threshold where action is needed to control pest populations typically matches the threshold where pests start to create economic damage.

2. Identify and monitor pests

Not all pests are a problem in the garden. Some pests, like ladybugs that eat aphids, can actually be beneficial and help control unwanted pests in the garden. Identifying pests in your garden is important if practicing Integrated Pest Management techniques so that you can respond appropriately. Monitoring the pest population also means that you can reduce the use of pesticides, and only apply the kind that is needed if the pest population threshold is reached.

3. Prevention before a cure

Preventing pests from infesting your garden can be easier and cheaper in the long run than addressing a pest problem once you already have one. IPM programs include protocols for managing your growing space so that pests don’t become an issue in the first place. There are various ways to do this, such as by rotating crops, choosing pest resistant or locally-adopted varieties of crops, and ensuring that any rootstock that you transplant into your garden (for plants such as perennial fruit trees) are pest-free. If you have fruit trees and/or tomatoes, ducks and marigolds can be two great ways to help prevent slug and aphid infestations in your garden.

4. Control pest populations

Once you’ve set your action threshold, identified pests in your garden, monitored the pest population and determined that your preventative measures aren’t working as effectively as you’d like them to, then it might be time for control through the use of pesticides. If you are choosing to use pesticides, you can also opt for organic options, which are typically better for environmental and human health and are produced from natural, rather than synthetic, ingredients. Using targeted applications can help reduce pest populations, such as through the application of pheromones that disrupt pest reproduction and mating. Weeding and trapping rodents are other ways to control pest populations. Targeted applications of pesticides, followed by broad spraying, are options if all other pest control efforts have failed.