In the Garden:
Southern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
June, 2009
Regional Report

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Earlier this spring, aphids loved the nitrogen-rich foliage, but ladybird beetles (especially the alligator-look-alike larvae) loved eating aphids even more!

Nasties In The Garden: The Little Guys

"Oh, yuck! Those crummy bugs are all over my beautiful veggies, and do those poor plants look sick!"

Has this wail and lament come to your garden yet? As long as there have been nasty critters and diseases that seem to appear spontaneously with a penchant for destroying vegetables that we've loved and labored over in our gardens, there have been solutions to be had.

The first consideration is to determine the acceptable level of infestation. Just how much damage to your plants can you stand before you feel that you must take action? Just how many chewed-on or dried-up leaves can the plants stand, and how much yield can you sacrifice, before you are driven to counterattack?

This level of tolerance is as personal as a taste preference. Some gardeners can't stand the sight of a single creepy-crawly or marred leaf or fruit, while other gardeners routinely plant extra to accommodate the anticipated loss.

Generally, concerns for the health and safety of our food, the soil, and ground water supplies require that we use the "small guns first." Start with the least disruptive action, such as blasting pests with jets of water. For many pests, this is all it takes, since once they're dislodged they'll infrequently return.

If the problem persists, apply increasingly destructive methods, such as narrow-spectrum pesticides for specific problems. Take these intermediate steps, rather than turning immediately to the "one spray kills all" approach -- because the latter does kill all, beneficial insects and soil organisms as well as the baddies.

All plants are determined to grow successfully to maturity -- to produce foliage, flowers, fruits, and seeds. This is their natural process, and they will strive to proceed, no matter what. They will be more successful, and you will benefit more, when growing conditions -- weather, fertilization, irrigation -- are ideal. To what degree plants achieve this goal depends on the quantity and timing of these elements -- whether provided by nature or by the gardener. How the conditions in your garden are altered for better or worse will affect whether your plants thrive, barely exist, or die. This, in turn, will determine their vulnerability to diseases and pests and the quality of the produce you harvest. In a word, healthy gardens make healthy plants, and healthy plants ward off diseases and pests more successfully than unhealthy ones.

The most important means of combating pests and diseases is by good cultural practices. Thorough preparation of the soil before planting or sowing is necessary. Incorporating well-rotted manure, a balanced fertilizer, and compost will ensure that plants are given a good start in nutrition and proper drainage that will last through harvest. Additional compost or other organic mulches applied to the soil surface will help to retain soil moisture, provide further nutrients, moderate soil temperature, and suppress weeds.

Growing the same or closely related plants in the same place year after year should be avoided, as this encourages a build-up of soil-borne pests and diseases.

Maintaining a clean garden means removing and destroying all infected plants and debris. Plants that have been badly attacked by pests or diseases should not be left in the garden to infect other plants or offer a steady diet for pests. Even the heat of a properly constructed compost pile cannot completely dispose of the pests or diseases. Organic mulches must not include diseased material, particularly in the fall and winter, because they may overwinter to infect the next year's garden. Weeds should be kept under control since many are the hosts of pests and diseases, and they compete with cultivated plants for water and nutrients.

Next month, we'll get down to the specific pests, and what's to be done about them -- organically.


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