While nothing can guarantee you won’t have pest problems in your vegetable garden, there are some low effort ways to cut down on the pest population. Basically, you want to avoid the conditions that invite pests into your garden in the first place. These five tips will help keep your plants healthy and problem free.
Give Your Plants Room to Breathe
We’ve all been guilty of trying to squeeze in as many plants as will fit in any given space (and then some). This will give you a temporary sense of abundance, but can easily lead to trouble in the long run.
It’s crucial that your garden gets some air circulation from a good breeze on a regular basis. Tightly packed plants are very inviting to feeding insects that enjoy both the shelter from the heat and the cover from predators. They will raise their families in there and eat their way out. So if you must plant closely, you will need to monitor for pests more frequently.
Water in the Morning
This one is always easier said than done, but we have to give it our best shot. If possible, water in the morning. This offers two advantages. First, your plants will be well hydrated when the hottest part of the day comes around. They’ll be less apt to wilt and become stressed. This makes them less appealing to insect pests who prey on stressed plants.
Secondly, the leaves will have time to dry off before evening. Damp plants, especially if you also have the tendency to plant things close and densely, are ideal hangouts for many garden pests, like slugs, snails, and earwigs.
And it’s better to water deeply once or twice a week than to only wet the surface of the soil, and the leaves, on a regular basis. Annual plants may need even more water since they tend to have a more shallow root system.
As for unaccommodating rain, a little is always welcome. A lot can cause trouble. You’ll just have to keep an eye on things and wait until the garden dries out.
Attract Toads, Frogs, and Birds to Your Garden
Make your garden welcoming to animals that feast on insects. Frogs and toads top that list. Sometimes all it takes to invite them is a bowl of water. Put out a toad house and wait to see if anyone takes up residence. Often they simply carve out a depression in the soil where they wait quietly for insects to eat for dinner.
Birds get a bad rap in the garden. They do eat and nibble the fruits, but they also chow down on their share of insects, which are excellent sources of protein. You don’t usually have to go out of your way to attract birds to your vegetable garden, as long as they are already in your yard. If they aren’t you’ll need to plant more food sources for them and provide some trees and shrubs for shelter. They don’t like feeding in the open, without a nearby place to hide from predators. And just like their amphibian co-workers, they appreciate a source of fresh water.
Court the Beneficial Insects
Sometimes it’s hard to know who the good guys are. Not every insect comes to your vegetable garden to chow down on your harvest. Some are carnivores who will quickly reduce any population of pests the way no pesticide spray could. They don’t wear white hats, so you’ll have to educate yourself to what they look like. This includes all stages of their development. The ladybug nymph, shown here, is not a pretty sight, but it is a vacuum cleaner when it comes to aphids.
It doesn’t take much to attract beneficial insects. The trick is trying to keep them around when all the pests have been eaten. But beneficial insects need pollen and nectar, as much as the protein from other insects, so having the plants that they favor will keep them periodically checking in, if not permanently moving in. An easy way to accomplish this is to allow some herbs, lettuce, and cole plants to go to flower.
Stay on Top of Your Harvest
Generally falling behind on your harvest isn’t a problem, but fruits falling off the plants and plopping to the ground are an easy mark for insects. And any overripe fruit or vegetable still clinging to the plant tends to shift the whole plant into decline, and weak plants are the first ones that insects target.
Be sure to clean up any fruits that have fallen. If your zucchini or beans have grown to an embarrassing size, harvest the over-sized fruits and then give the plant some extra water, a light feeding, and then give it time to recoup. In the meantime, be on the alert for any opportunistic pest who might try to make their move.
How to protect your garden from birds
While not all birds are nuisances in the garden, some can be destructive, digging up seeds or feeding on seedlings and mature crops.
Some of the birds you don’t want in your garden are crows and varieties of blackbirds.
Birds to keep out of your garden
According to Rutgers Cooperative Extension, blackbirds can be nuisances to gardens. ‘Blackbirds’ include red-winged blackbirds, cowbirds, grackles, starlings and other blackbirds. These birds will eat insects and small animals, but they’ll also feast on seeds including sunflower seeds, sorghum and grains) as well as vegetables like lettuce, peppers, tomatoes and sweet corn.
Crows also may frequent your garden and eat fruits and vegetables. However, The Humane Society states that they can be beneficial since they clean up insects that are harmful to plants.
How to keep birds out of your garden
There are numerous strategies that can be employed to deter birds from feeding in your garden. Some strategies may not work for all birds, though, so it may take trial-and-error to find out what really works.
Aluminum screening. Michigan State University Extension explains how bending a roll of narrow aluminum screening into a U-shape and placing it over a row of seeds or seedlings to provide protection from birds. The screening can be held down by pushing slim sticks or heavy wire through the screening and into the dirt.
Hardware screening or cloth. Hardware screening can be cut and bent into hoops for your seeds or seedlings. Michigan State University Extension warns that the screening should have openings small enough to keep birds out, such as one-half inch.
Rutgers Cooperative Research & Extension offers the following ideas for keeping birds out of your fruits and vegetables:
Reusable plastic netting. Reusable plastic netting or even cheesecloth or wire mesh can be placed over plants or seed rows. The netting must be secured close to the crops so that birds don’t find a way through.
Paper bags. If you’re growing sweet corn, you can place paper bags over ears once pollen shed is complete, or after silks have turned brown.
Stakes and flags. Attaching pieces of cloth to the tops of stakes and placing them every 15 to 20 feet in your garden may work to ward off birds.
Stakes and string. Attaching string to stakes and running the string across your garden will help to keep birds out for a week or two. Attach streamers or cloth to the string every 5 feet or so, too.
Chemicals. Seed treatments and pre-treated seeds can protect seeds until they become seedlings. Naphthalene flakes or granules can be scattered across seed rows until seedlings begin to sprout.
The Humane Society offers a few more ideas, specifically for controlling crows:
Mylar streamers. Shiny Mylar streamers can work to scare off birds.
Fishing line. Fishing line, or even cord or fine wire, can be stretched across a garden in a grid pattern. Consider tying reflective tape or some other visible material to the fishing line so that you can avoid it.
Plastic owls and snakes usually don’t work to scare crows. However, effigies of dead crows, items like CDs or balloons with reflective surfaces and garden hoses with motion sensors typically work to frighten crows, especially if they’re used consistently and are moved around the garden area.
Have other birds that are causing problems for the fruits and vegetables you’re growing? Or have any tips for keeping birds out of your garden? Let us know in the comments below!
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Protecting the Garden From Frost: Temperature Lows for Vegetables
Planting seedlings of peppers in the soil in the spring with frost cover for protection.
Age-Old Wisdom meets Modern Tools
Here are tips on how to protect your garden from frost and design a garden to reduce frost damage—plus, a handy chart listing dangerous temperature lows for vegetables.
To know when your area gets frost, see our U.S. Frost Dates Calculator and the Canadian Frost Dates.
Whether you are waiting to plant in spring or those late fall days are getting frosty, it is important that frosts will not hamper your efforts.
When to Protect Your Plans
If temperatures below 32 degrees F are predicted, protect your plants! A moderate freeze with temperatures in the 25- to 28-degree Fahrenheit range can be widely destructive to vegetation.
Frost protection is especially important for tender plants such as geraniums, begonias, impatiens, peppers, and tomatoes.
In the spring, use row covers if you have tender vegetable seedlings and transplants in the spring. Row covers or garden fleece can also be used to help create a warmer environment beneath them. You’ll need to use posts or bamboo to create space for the plants to grow, then drape landscape fabric or plastic over the posts; weigh down the edges with rocks or bricks or pegs so the covers do not blow away.
Alternatively, you can recycle clear plastic drinks bottles as plant covers or “cloches.” Simply cut a bottle in half using sharp scissors, then place the top half over your plant. Keep the lid off on sunny days, or screw it on when cold weather is forecast. Keep your bottle cloches from blowing away by pushing them into the soil or by holding them in place with a cane.
Cover other established plants with frost cloths or other insulators including newspapers, straw, old sheets and bedspreads, or evergreen branches. Cover the whole plant; you’re trying to retain radiated heat.
It’s best to have all covers in place well before sunset. Drape loosely to allow for air circulation. Before you cover the plants in late afternoon or early evening, water your plants lightly.
The plants should be mulched, but pull the mulch back from the root of the plants.
Remove the covers by mid-morning.
In the fall, the first frost is often followed by a prolonged period of frost-free weather. Cover tender flowers and vegetables on frosty nights, and you may be able to enjoy extra weeks of gardening.
What Temperatures Cause Frost Damage?
Designing Your Garden to Reduce Frost
Here are different ways through which you can reduce the amount of cooling in and around your garden.
Your garden will warm up more during the day if it slopes toward the sun. Residual heat in plants and soil may determine whether your garden sustains frost damage during the night. Cold air, which is dense and heavy, will flow away from plants growing on a slope—what the experts call “drainage.”
A garden on a south-facing slope offers two advantages: more exposure to the Sun, and better drainage of cold air. In deep valleys, nighttime temperatures may be as much as 18°F lower than the temperature on the surrounding hills.
Trees surrounding your garden act like a blanket and reduce the amount of heat radiating from the soil, perhaps keeping the temperature high enough to protect your plants from early fall frosts. Plants themselves can modify cooling. Place plants close together to create a canopy that entraps heat from the soil (though the tops can still suffer frost damage).
A garden wall benefits the garden by acting as a heat sink, absorbing warmth from the Sun during the day and radiating it slowly at night.
Water in a nearby lake or pond (if it is one acre or larger) will also act as a heat sink. A cold frame can be heated with an improvised heat sink: a dozen 1-gallon jugs of water. They absorb heat during the day and radiate it at night.
Moisture also determines whether frost will nip your tomatoes. Condensation warms and evaporation cools. When moisture in the air condenses on plants and soil, heat is produced, sometimes raising the temperature enough to save the plants. On the other hand, if the air is dry, moisture in the soil will evaporate, removing some heat.
Good soil, full of organic matter, retains moisture, reducing the rate of evaporation. Mulch also helps to prevent evaporation.
In early spring, warm up your soil faster by covering it over with plastic, row covers or garden fleece. This technique is particularly useful for heavy or clay soils that retain a lot of moisture. Lay the plastic over the ground at least one week before sowing and soil temperatures will rise by a couple of degrees, making all the difference for early sowings.
Of course, raised beds will warm up more quickly thanks to the free-draining conditions within them, so if you have raised beds, start your first sowings here.
Design your garden with the Almanac Garden Planner which uses averaged frost data from nearly 5,000 weather stations across the U.S. and Canada. To benefit from this, consider a free 7-day trial to our Almanac Garden Planner!
When the sky seems very full of stars, expect frost. –Weather Lore
If it has been a glorious day, with a clear sky and low humidity, chances are that temperatures will drop enough at night to cause frost.
See our Autumnal Equinox page for more fall-themed advice, folklore, facts, and fun!
10 Ways to Protect Your Garden from Critters
Are critters chowing down on your vegetables before you get the chance to enjoy them? Here’s what you can do to minimize the nibbling.
Those fuzzy little bunnies are adorable hopping around your back yard—until they munch on your newly planted veggies and mow down your marigolds. Like it or not, your wild neighbors aren’t selective about what’s yours and what’s theirs. «Your yard and garden are part of a larger system,» says Matt Tarr, associate extension professor and wildlife specialist at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. «They’re a continuum of the habitat around your home.»
While it’s not possible to make your garden completely critter-proof, here are a few ways to minimize the nibbling and live peacefully with hungry animals, big and small:
Choosing the right kind of management methods, such as how tall a fence you might need, means you have to figure out who’s eating what. «Critters most likely to case the quickest damage are deer, rabbits and groundhogs,» says Tarr. Look for telltale signs: Deer may leave tracks in the soil and make clean snips on herbaceous plants or tear woody plants. Rabbits make sharp cuts on herbaceous and woody plants and may leave pellet droppings. Groundhogs leave large mounds of dirt 10″ to 12″ in diameter at entrance to their burrows, typically eating greens, not woody shrubs. Birds peck holes in fruit or steal it before you even know it’s ripe.
Fencing is the most effective (and sometimes only!) way to keep unwanted visitors out of your garden. «Put up a fence from day one to prevent them from finding the food source in the first place,» says David Drake, extension wildlife specialist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A fence that’s a few feet tall will work for most rabbits, though persistent bunnies and groundhogs may burrow under. To prevent that, bury it about 10″ deep. Chicken wire, hardware cloth, or rabbit fencing are the least expensive alternatives for small mammals. A fence that’s at least 4 feet tall will work for many deer situations. But if your neighborhood is overrun by deer, you may need one that’s 8 feet tall. Plastic bird netting can be placed over small edible bushes like berries the week or so before they ripen, to protect fruit.
When they’re hungry enough and competition for food is high, animals will eat anything. «Nothing is foolproof,» says Tarr. But there are certain kinds of plants that are less appealing than others, especially plants that are highly aromatic, fuzzy, or have prickles. Thus, while hostas, arborvitae, and azaleas are often favorites for deer, they’re generally not interested in many types of ornamental grasses, holly, and barberry. Look around your neighborhood to see what’s fared well, talk to nurseries, and consult your local coop extension service for lists of less tempting regional plants.
Those brand-new nursery plants, which have been pampered and fertilized before you bought them, offer delectable, tender new growth. «Whether a plant is tasty or a deterrent to animals has to do with the nutrient and chemicals a plant produces,» says Tarr. «Plants recently purchased from a nursery are nutritionally superior. The animals can sense those micronutrients, and they’re naturally attracted to them.» New plants also cannot withstand as much grazing damage as established plantings. Fence off or use trunk wraps or protectors for new plants and shrubs once you put them in the ground.
Sometimes you can eliminate nibbling opportunities by elevating pots or planting in raised beds. A raised bed two feet or taller will limit rabbit damage, especially if you add a short fence on top. Pots can be mounted on railings, or try planting greens in window boxes out of the reach of hungry bunnies.
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If you live in a less urban area, let the shrubs and grasses around the edges of your yard go a little wild. «If there are a lot of other opportunities for food around you, your garden will be less attractive,» says Tarr. «Animals will be less likely to come out into the middle of the yard to your garden to expose themselves to predators if there are other good food sources along the edges.»
Open compost piles attract all kinds of creatures that then discover the other delicacies in your backyard, says Drake. Use a self-contained compost bin with a lid to keep marauders away. And if you feed your pets outdoors, be sure to bring their bowls inside after meals so you won’t attract skunks, opossums, and raccoons.
Metallic streamers, or bird tape, or an old-fashioned scarecrow may keep birds away, though you’ll have to move it around daily. «You can’t let it just sit there. Otherwise, once they get used to it, that particular technique loses its effectiveness,» says Drake. Motion-activated sprinklers or lights are another possibility for mammals.
Odor repellants are granular and attempt to keep the animal away from an area in the first place with a bad smell. Taste repellents are sprayed on vulnerable plants. They repel by flavor or by causing the animal to feel sick when they ingest the treated plant. «It’s sort of like if you ate at a buffet and became ill,» says Drake. «You wouldn’t want to go back there anytime soon, and neither does the animal.» It’s important to note that while repellants may upset wildlife tummies, they are not designed to hurt the animals—just to train them to stay away from a specific area. But taste is personal, so some animals will eat treated plants anyway or will get used to the bad taste. Also, these products typically have to be used year-round and must be reapplied after rain. Of course, you’ll want to keep your pets away from repellants of any sort, too. Homemade repellents using human hair, bars of soap, garlic, or a host of other ingredients don’t work much better. «Try them until you get sick of trying them, then put up a fence,» Drake suggests.
«In any given year, a number of factors including the severity of the winter and the number of animals in the area affect how much damage you may incur,» says Drake. There are good years (when you’ll see little loss) and bad years (when you’ll feel like you opened up a free salad bar for the neighborhood critters). Keep your perspective though, and realize what you’re doing in your yard benefits the local wildlife, too, even if you didn’t get to enjoy that heirloom tomato you planted. As a gardener, there’s always next season!