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Integrated pest management makes good sense

  • Nanette Londeree
  • Weeds, ants, rats and gophers, snails and slugs — these are just a few of the pests that may take up residence in your home and garden. A fast and easy way of dealing with unwanted creatures is to spray or bait them with a poison. These methods may work in the short term, but aren’t good for your family, pets, home and garden, or other wildlife that may be indirectly impacted. How about trying an alternative approach? It’s called integrated pest management (IPM), a combination of good science and good sense that helps you solve pest problems while minimizing the impact to people, animals and the environment.

    Acorrding to the University of California Integrated Pest Management, pests are “organisms that damage or interfere with desirable plants in our fields and orchards, landscapes, or wildlands, or damage homes or other structures. Pests also include organisms that impact human or animal health. Pests may transmit disease or may be just a nuisance.” They vary season to season, and home to home; what might be a pest in one environment may be of negligible concern in another. Whatever they’re called, many insects and diseases, rodents and weeds are unwelcomed visitors in and around our homes and need to be managed.

    Some pest control programs use pesticides on a schedule while others use them on an as needed basis. These approaches can be more costly, financially and environmentally, and less effective in the long run. IPM helps you prevent pests entirely or reduce them to levels you can live with, by integrating holistic, ecologically based, low-risk tactics.

    The main components of IPM include deciding how much damage you can tolerate from any given pest and when it’s time to act (establishing your action threshold), routinely looking for signs or symptoms of the pest (monitoring), confirming the cause of the problem (identification of the pest), evaluating management options, using the least- toxic methods first, and implementing them (control) and finally, evaluating results (effectiveness).

    Your tolerance for specific pests is likely unique. You may establish action thresholds without really thinking about it: you don’t mind a couple of spiders in the garage but having an army of ants in your kitchen is not OK. A few tiny holes in your spinach is fine, but deer eating your roses? Unacceptable!

    Often the trickiest, and the most important aspect is identifying the pest. Before you treat anything, you want to be sure you know what you’re dealing with. There are lots of sources to help you — whether from books or on-line websites like the UC IPM website at ipm.ucanr.edu, your local nursery or the Master Gardener help desk (see below). Don’t act until you’re confident on the identification of the pest you want to manage.

    When you reach the stage of choosing prevention and/or control methods, opt for tactics that provide the best results while keeping environmental impact as low as possible and staying within your budget. These include:

    • Cultural methods — selecting plants with known disease resistance, maintaining healthy and vigorous plants through proper soil health and cultivation, and good garden sanitation.

    • Mechanical and physical methods — manually pulling weeds or handpicking insects, washing pests off foliage with water and pruning them out. Employing physical barriers like fencing to keep deer out and planting in wire baskets to exclude gophers.

    • Biological methods — encouraging natural enemies — birds, lizards and toads and predatory insects such as ladybugs. Utilizing pathogenic microbes like Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) for treating caterpillars.

    • Chemical methods — beginning with the least toxic chemicals like horticultural oils, insecticidal soaps, plant-derived products like Neem seed extracts, and pyrethrum.

    After taking implementing your control measures, continue monitoring to see if the method is effective.

    Once you get into the habit of it, IPM is really quite easy and makes lots of environmental and economic sense.