6 Simple Secrets for a Pest-Free Garden

Pests: They’re arguably the most common challenge for new and seasoned gardeners alike. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

With a little planning and natural pest control sprays, you can easily keep bad bugs at bay.

In this post, you’ll find six steps that I (and many professional growers) follow to keep plants healthy, productive, and pest-free.

Note: Here for natural pest control sprays? Jump straight to the formulas »

1. Grow in a good location.

Successful pest prevention begins before you even plant a seed. It begins with selecting a suitable place to grow. An ideal growing space has at least two traits:

Lots of Light

Most food crops require six or more hours of direct sunlight. (Though, there are a few exceptions.) If you give them less, they tend to produce paltry yields. But, more importantly, plants become thin and weak when deprived of light. And unhealthy plants are ideal targets for garden pests.

Distance from Other Plants

Odds are, you’ve already got bad bugs crawling around your azaleas, rose bushes, and those weeds you’ve been meaning to uproot for the last few weeks. If you place your garden too close to your ornamental landscaping or lots of weeds, you’ll make it easier for pests to spread.

2. Choose the right crops.

Once you’ve got the perfect spot picked out, it’s time to determine the best plants to grow. For this step, there are a couple of important details to consider:

Your Food Preferences

To state the obvious, you’re more likely to eat what you grow when you actually like to eat what you grow. In other words, your personal food preferences should help dictate what you plant.

Why? Well, because you’ll enjoy gardening more. But also, you’ll harvest more often, thereby making your garden less hospitable to pests. (We’ll cover why that is in a moment.) It also helps to grow plants that have a short seed-to-harvest cycle, such as leafy greens and herbs.

Season and Climate

You wouldn’t think it based on the year-round availability of tomatoes and cucumbers at the grocery store, but not all crops are well suited for all seasons and climates. In fact, most require specific temperature ranges and daylight hours to be productive. If you try to cultivate a crop outside of its preferred conditions, the plant will struggle. And stressed plants are more susceptible to pests.

To learn which plants grow best based on your location and season, check with your county extension office. (You can find yours here.) But keep in mind that if you’re growing with Tower Garden, you actually get to enjoy longer seasons than your soil-gardener neighbors.

In my hometown of Orlando, for example, growing temperate vegetables, lettuces, and herbs in the soil during the summer months is virtually impossible. Many of these crops, however, will grow in my Tower Gardens all summer long.

3. Start with strong seedlings.

As I mentioned before, unhealthy plants practically lay out a welcome mat for pests. This is especially true in the case of seedlings. So, whether you sprout your own or buy from a reputable grower, look for these key characteristics:

Compact, Sturdy Stature and Deep Color

Avoid seedlings that are lanky, pale, or show any signs of disease, as these won’t have the resources to naturally fight off pests. (They’ll also grow slowly and produce lackluster yields.)

Absence of Pests

It probably goes without saying, but you should choose only pest-free seedlings. If you introduce an infested plant into your garden, it’s only a matter of time before the problem spreads to other crops.

4. Harvest from your garden frequently.

I like to think of a Tower Garden as a vertical condominium for crops. You wouldn’t appreciate your neighbor busting through your wall and staking a claim to your living room. Similarly, plants don’t do well when they invade each other’s space.

Put another way, a garden overflowing with foliage may look epic. But it’s actually a magnet for pests because it gives them many places to hide and reproduce. (Plus, it makes meandering from one plant to another all too easy.)

That’s why it’s best to harvest frequently with the aim of keeping your plants at a small-to-medium size. Besides controlling pest populations, this will help:

  • Balance light distribution – When crops aren’t shading each other out, they grow heartier and healthier.
  • Improve air circulation – A thick plant canopy with poor airflow is a recipe for many a foliar plant disease.

5. Scout for signs of trouble often.

At least twice a week, use a magnifying glass to look for pests among your plants. Most vegetable pests eat and live on the new growth and undersides of leaves. So, be sure to inspect these areas closely. If you find something and aren’t sure what it is, check this quick reference guide.

Keep in mind that many pests go through multiple life stages, which may look quite different from one another. Generally speaking, if you see a bunch of small stuff you don’t recognize, it may be the early stages of a common pest, such as aphids.

If you notice insects on only one or two plants, spraying all surfaces of just those infested plants with a soap and neem oil formula — which you can find below —will likely do the trick. (I recommend spraying once when you first see the pests and again in four days to catch anything you may have missed.) If you notice insects on many plants, however, it’s best to spray your entire garden.

6. Spray plants when necessary.

If you follow the steps above, you’ll lower the chance of pest infestations dramatically. But if you do find a problem, applying an organic pest spray may help.

A word of caution: Spraying your plants with chemicals should be your last resort because most pesticides — regardless of whether they’re natural or synthetic — can also harm beneficial insects, including bees and ladybugs.

So, consider first rinsing down your plants with a high-volume, fine-mist hose sprayer each morning or evening. I’ve learned through experience that during a heavy pest period — when the outdoor environment is exploding with migrating insects — many bugs may be on your plants, but they often take several days to start reproducing. I think you’ll find that regularly rinsing plants with just water will eliminate the vast majority of migrating pests during this period.

With that out of the way, here are my top five natural pest control formulas. (Keep in mind that you can find organic spray ingredients in most gardening supply stores and online.)

Organic Sprays to Control Insect Pests

For APHIDS, Mites, Thrips, Whiteflies, and Other Small Insects

This is one of my favorite sprays because it provides different ways to kill the various stages of insect development (and even serves as a mild fungicide). Neem oil contains a natural chemical from the neem tree called azadirachtin — it’s a natural insect growth regulator that prevents further life stages of an insect pest.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon horticultural grade neem oil
  • 1 tablespoon horticultural grade insecticidal soap (or liquid dish soap, such as pure castile liquid soap — not dishwashing detergent)
  • 1 gallon water

Instructions:

  • Mix ingredients well and shake periodically during use.
  • Apply once a week during light pest season, or twice a week during heavy pest season.
  • Always spray in morning (before sunrise) or in late evening. Never spray in sunlight, or you’ll risk scorching your plants.
  • Spray plants liberally, and be sure to get the undersides of leaves, where many pests feed.
  • After the application, discard any remaining spray. It will not store well.
  • Clean your sprayer thoroughly after each use.

For All WORMS and CATERPILLARS

For small infestations of worms and caterpillars, handpicking is usually the most efficient method of control. But if your plants are really under attack, apply this solution.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon (or label rate) Bacillus thuringiensis (BT, brand name Thuricide)
  • 1 gallon water

Instructions:

  • Mix ingredients well and shake periodically during use.
  • Apply at first sign of worms or caterpillars.
  • Always spray in morning (before sunrise) or in late evening. Never spray in sunlight, or you’ll risk scorching your plants.
  • Spray plants liberally, and be sure to get the undersides of leaves, where many pests feed.
  • After the application, discard any remaining spray. It will not store well.
  • Clean your sprayer thoroughly after each use.

For THRIPS, Beetles, Stinkbugs, and Many Other Large Insects

Pyrethrin concentrate, which is derived from the chrysanthemum flower, has been used to control beetles, stinkbugs, and many other large insects — as well as thrips — for decades. For this one, I recommend using less than the label rates, as Pyrethrin concentrate can easily burn many vegetable crops.

Ingredients:

  • 1 teaspoon Pyrethrin concentrate (residential grade)
  • 1 gallon water

Instructions:

  • Mix ingredients well and shake periodically during use.
  • Apply at the first sign of pests. For thrips, spray twice a week.
  • Always spray in morning (before sunrise) or in late evening. Never spray in sunlight, or you’ll risk scorching your plants.
  • Spray plants liberally, and be sure to get the undersides of leaves, where many pests feed.
  • After the application, discard any remaining spray. It will not store well.
  • Clean your sprayer thoroughly after each use.

Organic Sprays to Control Plant Diseases

For Leaf Fungus (e.g., Dampening Off, Leaf Spot, Powdery Mildew)

Liquid copper fungicide is a good way to protect all kinds of seedlings and plants from problems caused by bacteria and fungi pests. But keep in mind, copper can build up in a closed system (like Tower Garden) and become toxic to plants after extended periods of use. Copper also stains white plastic. So, use with caution.

Ingredients:

  • 1 teaspoon liquid copper fungicide
  • 1 gallon water

Instructions:

  • Mix ingredients well and shake periodically during use.
  • Apply once a week.
  • Always spray in morning (before sunrise) or in late evening. Never spray in sunlight, or you’ll risk scorching your plants.
  • After the application, discard any remaining spray. It will not store well.
  • Clean your sprayer thoroughly after each use.

For Leaf Fungus (e.g., Powdery Mildew)

Another great solution for fungal pathogens is potassium bicarbonate (brand name Mil-Stop).

Instructions:

  • Follow instructions on label.
  • Mix ingredients well and shake periodically during use.
  • Apply once a week during light fungus season, or twice a week during heavy fungus season.
  • Always spray in morning (before sunrise) or in late evening. Never spray in sunlight, or you’ll risk scorching your plants.
  • After the application, discard any remaining spray. It will not store well.
  • Clean your sprayer thoroughly after each use.

Happy (Pest-Free) Gardening!

So, there you have it. My six steps for simple, successful pest control:

  1. Grow in a good location
  2. Choose the right crops
  3. Start with strong seedlings
  4. Harvest from your garden frequently
  5. Scout for signs of trouble often
  6. Spray plants when necessary

Do you have any garden pest control tips or questions? Leave a comment below!

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