PASTORAL PEST MANAGEMENT
There is an overarching theme in much of my writing about the inevitability of death fraught throughout the act of nurturing life. This can often make the unseasoned gardener cringe in a multitude of ways, swiftly razing cottagecore fantasies of perfect pastoral harmony to the ground. However, there is one occasion in which even the most doe-eyed, faerie-winged, sundress-prancing plant person welcomes the reaper without hesitation. It is when the pests come along, shamelessly railing the fruits of your labor, bringing ruin to the perfect beauty of a bell pepper’s tender leaves, tormenting a tomato’s delicate facade, grinding your greens into grenade-shaped excrement overnight while you sleep soundly to the dulcet tones of cricket and owl.
Despite our best intentions, biodiversity often takes a backseat to pest destruction in the world of plants, whether we are growing our first flower in the front yard or hundreds of acres to feed humanity. Never mind best intentions, many home gardeners and most industrial agriculturalists have no intention of worrying about anything but the beauty of their beds or the yield of their harvest. But you can be better than that. You are thoughtful, and recognize that all life deserves respect and is inextricably interwoven with your own; and to respect yourself is to respect the world around you.
So, how best to deal with bugs you don’t want? Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a broad spectrum philosophy-practice that is sort of the industry standard for organic growers, that is simply what it sounds like. It is the act of using a multitude of practices to mediate, keep at bay, or straight-up kill pests. It includes crop rotation, mulching, healthy feeding, intercropping plants that detract pests, and much more. It makes sense and I believe in it; it is also a buzzword that is misused in a frustratingly fundamentalist way. Anyway, I suggest you dig deeper. I couldn’t go on about killing pests without mentioning IPM, but we are here today to kill.
The best way to deal with pests organically and without disrupting your ecosystem is by killing them with your bare hands. I know this makes some squirm, and you just want an easy solution wherein you don’t have to face death firsthand. First of all, congrats: This means you are not a sociopath. I have been squishing snails and caterpillars between my fingers for almost two decades now and I still twitch and get a little weird in the stomach every single time I do it. It is hard, but it is actually the kindest way to deal with bugs, both for the bugs themselves and for your plants and other creatures who may share the space you inhabit. It also keeps you connected to your garden and this whole inevitable death thing I keep bringing up. Facing the world at face value can be hard, but it can also help us grow. If squishing is too psychically difficult, consider picking pests and drowning them in a bucket of soapy water as a delicate and less visceral alternative.
Maybe all of that is too much for you, or the pests have already overrun your garden, and you just need a more blanket effect sort of solution. This exists! To my mind, the four main pests of the garden are caterpillars, snails/slugs, beetles/beetle-like bugs, and aphids. And I have a favored solution for dealing with each of these critters.
Caterpillars: Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT)
Bacillus thuringiensis is a bacterium that exists naturally in soil and effectively shuts down caterpillar digestive systems when ingested by them. It is not a fun death, but it’s one you don’t have to face directly. BT literally has no effect on almost any other creature, mosquito larva being one huge exception (whomst I can’t imagine you are eager to see thrive either). In my opinion, powdered BT is far more effective than the liquid products. To use, simply sprinkle anywhere on plants that you have noticed caterpillars or damage from them. With all pesticides, no matter how harmless or organic or whatever, it is still important to localize your use as much as possible. In the case of caterpillars, consider, for example, the monarch and swallowtail caterpillars who we as a society love to nurture. Bomb your gardens responsibly. Re-apply whenever it rains and the powder disappears, until your problem isn’t a problem anymore.
Snails/Slugs: Iron Phosphate
There are a lot of neat and functional non-consumery ways to keep snails and slugs away from your plants, like beer, coffee grounds, copper strips, and plenty more; but today I am here to offer easy solutions pre-packaged, dependable, and ready to party. And for these creatures, that is iron phosphate, most notably sold under the brand Sluggo. Iron phosphate is harmless to literally every other creature in the universe as far as science knows (for now), though there are some vague studies showing maybe earthworms don’t love it. Also, as much as you don’t want them eating your plants, it’s important to recognize mollusks play a very important role in your gardening ecosystem, decomposing rotting materials back into rich garden soil and such. So, use iron phosphate only as needed and only where needed. Usually, one healthy application in affected areas will take care of your problem for a very long time. Honestly. Also, I would not recommend buying iron phosphate with spinosad included. Spinosad is a broad spectrum organic insecticide that kills a lot more stuff than you probably want to kill. Be careful.
Beetles/Beetle-like Bugs: Diatomaceous Earth (DE)
Diatomaceous earth basically dries out exoskeletal creatures from the outside-in. Again, it is not a super cute death, but it is organic and harmless to the planet, though many beneficial creatures you want around (like ladybugs) are exoskeletal types and thus susceptible. If used in concentrated spaces where things are already messy, DE is your best bet for dealing with cucumber beetles, leaf footed bugs, stink bugs, and other villainous beings that would terrify you if y’all were the same size.
Buying bags of ladybugs is really fun. Technically, buying ladybugs comes with its own set of problems, including introducing disease and decimating native populations, but I still believe in it. On a small to moderate scale, this is a wonderful organic solution to dealing with tiny creatures invading your plants. Ladybugs are voracious aphid eaters, and by introducing them to your garden you are also introducing them to the ecosystem around you, probably for many generations to come, creating a long-term solution to a short-term problem. Alternately, you can use insecticidal soap to drown out aphids and this totally works; but again, it affects everyone around them as well and as aphids are so camouflaged and tiny, you might miss them where ladybugs do not.
These are just singular solutions to complex problems that can be dealt with in myriad ways. Some degree of pests amongst your plants will always be inevitable unless you are using harsh chemicals that are terrible for the world your plants are living in and probably the one you are living in as well. But keeping your plants happy and healthy gives them a huge upper hand in managing pests without your assistance. Give them a proper home at the proper time with the proper tools for success and you may never need to squish a snail between your thumb and forefinger or doom a caterpillar to death by digestive failure. Just know that when death enters your garden it is not your fault, but simply life finding a way. You have the power to facilitate what that life looks like, but you don’t have the power to make death disappear from it.
illustrations by Rachel Speck