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Damage from pests in your garden can often be significantly minimized simply by taking a few minutes a day to look for damaged leaves and flipping leaves over to look for insects and their eggs. The photo above is an example of a day without observation in my garden last year. These bell pepper plants (and the cucumber plants behind them) were covered with lush, healthy foliage the morning before. I was preparing for an out-of-town trip so when I ran out to water my garden the day before we left, I skipped the observation stage. The next morning, my son went out to quickly water everything before we left, and this was what he found. The only thing left on the plants were the fruits and the striped blister beetles that were finishing off the leaves.
Every spring, this is something I observe. These are aphids feasting on my tomato plants. I've been gardening for around 20 years, but an aphid infestation like this is fairly new to me. When I met my husband, I had no experience with gardening. He comes from a family of farmers who spent the entire summer each year gardening and canning the food they would eat for the next year. Gardening was a necessity, not a hobby. They couldn't take the risk of losing any of their crops so the use of chemicals to combat disease and pests in their gardens was easily accepted as a necessity. So it was that when I began gardening, proactively treating our plants with chemicals was what I learned. It wasn't until about 10 years ago when I began to research garden practices on my own, I began to understand that the chemicals I was using were not selective in what they killed. They didn't just kill the bad bugs. I decided to learn to avoid using chemicals whenever possible, and part of that was learning to allow what's going on in this photo to continue.
I've learned that instead of immediately running for my bag of chemical pesticide, I need to observe more. I need to step back and look at the bigger picture. This time I saw lady bugs and praying mantids. Both are predators of the aphid. I normally see lacewings, also predators of the aphid. Although I didn't see any, I will be looking for them the next few days.
As I continued to observe, I saw more evidence that made me feel chemicals were not necessary for this problem. I saw ladybug eggs and ladybug larvae. While I planned to allow natural predators to continue to work on the problem, I didn't just walk away from it. I sprayed my plants with water to knock as many of the aphids off the plants as possible.
Observing and waiting will most often work with my aphid problem, but I know from other experiences (such as the striped blister beetle incident) that sometimes waiting is the wrong thing to do.
Waiting is also the wrong thing to do with another problem pest I have every year, the tobacco hornworm, but observation is still key. I've learned that I need to be especially attentive to my tomato plants in the evening hours and on cloudy days as these things do not like the sun. I start looking for them early in the season and hand picking them from my plants before they have a chance to grow this big. They are hard to see when they are small, but finding them early prevents them from stripping plants of all their leaves.
There are other non-chemical ways to battle garden pests including using floating row covers, pheromone traps, stick traps, the use of products like diatomaceous earth or insecticidal soap, and fall garden clean up. There are pros and cons with most of options, but all are worth being informed about because they might be the best answer for you one day.