In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
August, 2010
Regional Report

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ID insects before taking action. Although the caterpillar is chewing foliage, it will transform into a beautiful Monarch butterfly.

Insect Pests in the Garden

What exactly is an insect pest? Perhaps like beauty, a pest is in the eye of the beholder, so for the purposes of this discussion, let's define a pest as an insect that is creating more havoc to plants than you can tolerate. This is a key point to consider because less than five percent of all insect species are "true pests" in the garden! Rather than trying to destroy all insect populations, think of them as an essential part of a healthy ecosystem.

When insects appear, take time to observe the situation before automatically intervening. What, if any, problems occur? Nature's intricate web of life seeks balance, and in many circumstances, nothing is required of the gardener.

Most insects and diseases thrive in specific seasons or temperature and moisture levels. Changes in environmental conditions often knock out insect populations. For example, whiteflies are warm-season opportunists, rapidly reproducing during hot weather and dying off as weather cools. Aphids prefer cooler weather and their populations diminish when the thermometer rises.

As an added bonus for the gardener, beneficial insects arrive on the scene to manage pests. If aphids are sucking plant sap on tender new growth, watch carefully for a week or so. It is likely that green lacewings or lady beetles will soon appear. Their larvae are voracious consumers of aphids. Most of us recognize the pretty adults, but not their larvae that are doing all the heavy lifting. They look "creepy" so they must be bad, and deserving of destruction, right? This is where identification of an insect's different life stages (egg, larvae or adult, or egg, larvae, pupae, adult) comes into play. Learn who is who so you don't inadvertently kill off the beneficials in your garden.

The best thing a gardener can do to prevent pests from gaining the upper hand is to grow healthy plants. Research shows that strong plants have strong immune systems. They react to pest incursions by releasing various chemicals that help withstand the attack. In turn, pests target stressed, weaker plants that are less able to respond. In addition to growing healthy plants, garden problems can be prevented or controlled using techniques called Integrated Pest Management (IPM). It's much easier than it sounds and I'll cover the basics of IPM in my next report.


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