In the Garden:
Western Mountains and High Plains
April, 2013
Regional Report

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A monarch butterfly stops by to sip nectar from coneflowers, helping with pollination at the same time.

Be a Caretaker of the Life in your Yard and Garden

We are all caretakers of the earth. But as gardeners, we are most intimately caretakers of the life in our yards and gardens, of the many creatures that come by to visit and perhaps to stay, including the abundance of crawling, creeping, flying insects. Many of these are beneficial to us and help to keep pest insects in check.

While we might take for granted the many insects in the garden, their presence is necessary to keep a balanced ecosystem. Some -- such as praying mantis and ladybug beetles -- are predators of the bugs we think of as pests, while others -- such as butterflies -- are taking time to sip nectar from the flowers as they complete their life cycles. Even the damaging bugs are interesting to watch, until they reach a threshold and start to devour our desirable plants. How you decide to control pests is a choice that may impact the garden's ecosystem. A pesticide may kill more than the harmful bugs; it may also eliminate the beneficial insects, birds, and bats that help keep pest insect populations under control.

It's also important to remember that in eliminating a pest insect may have unintended consequences, and that the insects we label as pests still have a place within a balanced ecosystem.. There will be no lovely adult butterflies without their earlier stage as leaf munching caterpillars. And "good" predators won't stick around if all the "bad" insects -- their source of food -- have been eliminated.

Prevention is one of my favorite ways to reduce pest invasions. Keep your garden and landscape plants healthy and vigorous. A healthy plant can tolerate some insect activity, but most important, pests prefer to feed on weakened plants. They tend to leave the healthy plants alone, until the pickings get slim. Don't forget to keep weeds from invading the garden. Weeds often provide a place for pests to hide and multiply.

Cultural methods are also very effective but can take a little more time on your part. Take the time to monitor your plants, and when you spot a damaging bug, get out there and get the critter. Handpicking or squashing bugs is a simple way to get the pests while they are on your plants.

My recommendation for controlling harmful pests is to use the least toxic and least ecologically disruptive methods available, such as insecticidal soap sprays. Most soft-bodied insect pests, such as aphids, are easily and quickly controlled by soaps. Just be sure to spray in the coolest part of the day; my preference is very early morning or late evening.

Biological controls can also be very effective. This is particularly true with the caterpillars that turn into butterflies and moths. A bacterium known as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) will only target the caterpillars of butterflies and moths and not pose any harm to other type insect. It's very useful against tomato hornworms and cabbage loopers. Bt can be found in liquid and powder formulations that are easy to apply to the infested plants. Always read and follow the label directions.

Celebrate Earth Day by resolving to keep your garden and landscape clean and your plants healthy with environmentally friendly methods. It makes gardening a whole lot more fun and helps protect Mother Earth.

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