IPM: Smart pest management for the vegetable garden

A row cover for protection over kohlrabiWhat is IPM and why is it smart?

IPM stands for “Integrated Pest Management.” The principles of IPM can be applied to managing a lawn or landscape, pests in a home or producing food in a vegetable garden. IPM uses a series of common-sense steps to manage pests and optimize plant health. “Pest” includes insects, mites, diseases, weeds and animals. Using IPM to manage garden problems is smart because it incorporates a variety of methods that are economical and effective to keep plants healthy and achieve a bountiful harvest. While IPM takes advantage of all appropriate pest management options including judicious use of pesticides, by using a variety of pest management tactics it is possible to reduce or eliminate pesticide applications while still addressing garden problems. Smart gardeners use IPM to protect human health and the environment by making more environmentally-friendly pest management choices.

Are IPM and organic methods the same thing?

No. Although organic food production applies many of the same concepts as IPM, it is more restrictive, limiting use of pesticides and fertilizers to those produced from natural sources instead of allowing synthetic chemicals.

Steps to following IPM

Identify pests and understand their lifecycles. Know your plants and the common pests that affect them. Only a few insects are actually pests; many are beneficial or do no harm. Take time to identify beneficial insects and pollinators. For help in identifying insects and diseases, call the toll-free garden hotline at 1-888-678-3464, or send samples to MSU Diagnostic Services. For information on how to send samples and a list of available services and fees, visit the MSU Diagnostic Services website. 

Three different pictures showing the three different life stages of a beneficial lady beetle: larva, pupa, adult

Different life stages of a beneficial lady beetle: larva, pupa, adult. Photo credit: Bugwood.org: Larva - Frank Peairs, CO St U, pupa and adult - Russ Ottens, UofGA

Learn how to identify common pests and pest damage on vegetables. Understand that different life stages of pests do not look alike and that not all stages cause damage or can be managed. By understanding their lifecycles, you learn the best timing for successful management strategies.

Scout for pests. Check your garden regularly for insects and diseases and record what you find in a garden journal rather than rely on memory. Keep a magnifying glass or hand lens handy to see more detail for better identification. Use the information collected to help plan pest management the following year. Traps such as yellow sticky cards can be helpful in scouting. These can be placed just above the plant canopy and help detect some insects.

Be realistic with IPM – prevent or limit damage. Once you have identified a problem, determine what options you have for managing it. Some pests are more damaging than others. Establish tolerances for pests and pest damage. Don’t expect vegetables to look picture perfect. Some insect damage can be tolerated and will still allow a good quality vegetable harvest. In general, diseases are best managed by preventing them; many cannot be easily controlled once they are established.

Implement your IPM Program. Select effective and environmentally-friendly methods, such as the examples below. Record what worked and what didn’t, and make adjustments accordingly.

How to implement IPM in your vegetable garden

Right plant, right site. Vegetables grow best in well- drained soils and full sun – a minimum of six hours a day, ideally eight to 10 hours. Get a soil test at the MSU Soil Test website to find out about soil pH, needed nutrients, organic matter content, soil type and to receive recommendations to improve the soil. Michigan State University Extension provides an easy-to-use soil test kit that can be purchased at the MSU Extension Bookstore (search for E3154).

Start with healthy plants. Buy well-branched, stocky transplants with healthy leaves, sturdy stems and well- established root systems. Transplants need good root systems to quickly establish in the garden. Roots should be well formed, whitish and hold the soil mass together. Avoid older, overgrown transplants with flowers or fruit as this will limit yields. Reject plants with soft, brown or rotten roots. Select varieties with multiple disease and insect resistance or tolerance, if possible.

Employ environmentally-friendly pest management methods

Keep tools and equipment clean by using a solution of 10 percent chlorine bleach to disinfest tools after using them on diseased plants. Keep plantings clean by removing and destroying diseased plants or those that are severely infested with insects during the growing season.

Rotate the garden location and where you plant crops within the garden every few years if space is available to avoid the buildup of plant diseases and insects.

Manage weeds by hand-pulling or cultivating the soil with a hoe; or apply organic mulches after the soil warms. If using pre-emergent herbicides, always follow label instructions to avoid damaging your garden plants. Plant cover crops after harvest.

Straw covering weeds

Using straw as organic mulch will help manage weeds. Photo credit: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension

Manage insects and mites by using insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils on soft-bodied insects and mites. Hand-pick larger insects such as potato beetles and tomato hornworms. Manage diseases by prevention rather than treatment. Select disease-resistant vegetable varieties and use proper plant spacing in order to allow good air circulation and drying of the foliage.

For more information on a wide variety of smart gardening articles, or to find out about smart gardening classes and events, visit the Gardening in Michigan website.

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