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A Guide To Identifying Garden Pests And Keeping Them Away

Morgan McBride6 MINUTE READ
June 16, 2021

Growing a garden is a fun and productive hobby. However, nothing can be more discouraging than having your garden invaded by pests. Maintaining healthy plants is the best way to survive a pest infestation. Here is everything you need to know about garden pests, how to prevent them and how to treat pests that manage to make their way into your garden.

What Is A Garden Pest?

Garden pests are unwanted creatures that invade the plants in your garden. They might be insects, invertebrates or animals. Garden pests can harm your plants – and sometimes kill them. Usually, having one garden pest will not cause an issue, but a high volume of them can lead to a large problem.

How To Identify Garden Pests

When you first notice a garden pest, it might not be because you see the creature – you might just start noticing the damage they cause. It’s important for homeowners to identify which garden pests are in their yard so they can best treat them. Pests can be identified by their own physical characteristics, the damage they cause to your plants or sometimes even by the host plant they’re invading.

Physical Characteristics

Catching a glance – or even a photo – of the pest can really help to identify it. Look for things like color, size and wing count. There are many free phone apps that can take a picture of an insect or animal and identify what species it is. You can also tape a dead insect to a white note card and take it to a specialty store for identification.

Plant Damage

Examining the plant's damage can also help to identify the pests. A majority of garden pests have distinctive feeding patterns. Since most pests don’t actually want to kill your plants – killing plants ends their food source – they leave some of the plant’s leaves or stems behind. You can then search for this type of damage (especially when paired with the third option, the host plant) to help identify the pest.

Host Plant

Determining what plant the insect generally feeds on will help you identify the garden pest. Many pests are actually quite particular and picky about which plants they will eat. Running an internet search for the plant name + “pest” will likely result in a short list of possibilities. Combining the host plant with a visual description of the pest or the damage it caused is your best bet for pinning down your pest problem.

Common Garden Pests

Here are a few of the most common garden pests:

  • Aphids
  • Cutworms
  • Thrips
  • Spider mites
  • Maggots

Aphids

Aphids are extremely small and therefore hard to spot. They are often found in large groups and like to eat the fresh new growth on plants. You can treat aphids by spraying the host plant with a mixture of castile soap and water. You can also release ladybugs, who eat aphids. Or, consider planting zinnias or dahlias to attract and trap the aphids away from your other plants.

Cutworms

Cutworms are actually moth larvae. They feed on stems and tend to cut entire plants down, hence the name. Weed management is really important with cutworms because they will lay eggs on nearby weeds and plants. You can also make an aluminum foil or cardboard “collar” to put around the base of your plants to prevent cutworms from climbing up them.

Thrips

Thrips are slim, winged insects that eat the buds and new growth on plants. If you suspect that you have thrips, it’s important to prune away any damaged areas of the plant. Use neem oil or another mild insecticide to spray and eliminate them from the remaining plant. Continue to remove damaged plants until the thrips have totally been eliminated.

Spider Mites

Spider mites are actually arachnids – like a spider – and not an insect. They live in colonies on the underside of leaves and harm plants by puncturing the leaves and sucking out their moisture. If you see webbing on the underside of your leaves, prune the leaves immediately. You can also use a gentle insecticide, like neem oil or castile soap, to help kill spider mites. This is another pest where you can release ladybugs, who eat spider mites.

Maggots

Maggots are white or yellowish worms that live underground. If you have a plant die for no apparent reason, you might dig it up and find the roots destroyed by maggots. Maggots love cruciferous vegetables and legumes. They are attracted to dying plants, so it’s important to pull anything dying out of your garden bed. You can apply diatomaceous earth to the soil to help to prevent and treat maggots and their larvae.

How To Get Rid Of Garden Pests

There are a few different ways to get rid of garden pests. First, determine if you really need to get rid of them. If the pest has a short life span and is only esthetically damaging the plant, you might just let them be. However, if they are killing your plants or causing significant damage, you might want to consider taking measures to eliminate them.

Pest Proofing And Barriers

Barriers can stop garden pests from gaining access to a homeowner's garden or yard. For example, if birds are eating your blueberries, you can add a special net across the top to physically prevent the birds from being able to reach them. Garden netting can also help to keep deer and squirrels away. There is also super fine mesh that can keep larger bugs off. Cardboard cones or barriers can be placed on stems to prevent certain crawling insects from climbing up them to the new growth above.

Natural Repellents And Pesticides

Repellents and pesticides can stop garden pests from gaining access to a homeowner’s garden or yard. Effective repellents and pesticides differ based on the pest. Neem oil and diatomaceous earth are popular options for store-bought natural pesticides. For the do-it-yourselfer, it’s popular to mix castile soap with water and spray the mixture on your plants. Alternatively, you can mix chili powder, water and liquid soap in a spray bottle to encourage pests to leave your plants alone.

Traps

Insect traps can also get rid of garden pests from a homeowner’s yard and plants. Traps can capture the insects and kill them. Common trap types include sticky paper, pheromone traps and bucket traps. Each pest type has a specific trap that works best for it, so do some research for your exact situation.

Beneficial Insects

There are many beneficial insects that prey on pests which will help keep the garden pests away and kill them. There are ways to keep these insects around to help keep your garden free of harmful pests. Ladybugs, for example, eat massive amounts of aphids. Praying Mantises eat grasshoppers. Spiders will capture and eat almost any type of insect!

How To Prevent Garden Pests Naturally

It’s much easier to prevent pests from entering your garden than it is to remove them once they’re already there. There are several different ways to keep garden pests away from a homeowner's yard. This includes being sure to have healthy soil, focusing on growing pest-resistant plants, planting in the right location, rotating crops, growing interplants, pulling weeds and pruning properly.

Seed Healthy Soil

Healthy soil makes strong plants, and as a result, the plants can better survive and combat garden pests the way nature intended. You can take your soil to many garden centers or agricultural schools and have it tested to see if it needs any specific additions or amendments to be as healthy as possible.

Grow Resistant Plants

Growing resistant plants will help keep the insects away. Some common plants that are known for resistance to garden pests include lavender, basil, chrysanthemums and lemongrass. These plants will resist pests and can help to deter them from your garden.

Plant In The Right Place

Strong plants are most likely to be successful in resisting crops. So, pay special attention to the light and moisture needs for your plants. Only plant plants that can tolerate full sun in very sunny locations. Keep only plants that are OK staying soggy in areas with poor drainage. Give your plants a good shot at survival to make them as strong as possible.

Rotate Your Crops

Rotating crops is the process of moving the location of certain plants from season to season. This can help to decrease exposure to certain pests by physically moving the plant that a certain pest prefers away from where the pest is located.

Grow Interplants

Interplanting is the process of setting up your garden with a variety of plants next to each other. This is sometimes hard to do at large farms but easy in small backyard gardens. Take some time to research what pests are bothering your plants and add plants that naturally repel those pests nearby. For example, planting basil near your tomato plants will repel insects and is said to improve growth, too.

Pull Weeds

Weeds harbor these pests and parasites as well as their eggs and larvae. Frequently pulling weeds will eliminate a potential pest habitat and leave more room for your plants to grow and flourish.

Prune And Clean

Removing faded blooms, fallen leaves and overgrown areas will keep garden pests away by stopping them from contaminating the entire plant. Decomposing plant materials is a prime breeding ground for pests, so it’s important to clean up dead and decaying foliage, too.

The Bottom Line: Healthy Plants Will Help Prevent A Garden Pest Infestation

Preventing and treating pests is an important part of having a thriving garden. Maintain healthy plants to have the best shot at keeping garden pests away. Be sure to learn more about what goes into a healthy home.

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Morgan McBride

Morgan McBride is a DIY-lover and home decor enthusiast living in Charleston, South Carolina. She has been blogging at CharlestonCrafted.com alongside her husband since 2012, where they empower their readers to craft their current home into their dream home through the power of DIY.