Local gardeners promote natural pest control

BY ANNA EGELAND | JUNE 26, 2012 6:30 AM

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When it comes to getting rid of bugs, local experts say going natural is the best choice.

Master gardener Joanne Leach shared her knowledge about natural pest control with a group of local gardeners Monday at Earth Source Gardens, an event hosted by New Pioneer Co-Op.

Leach, who has been a master gardener for 15 years, said insects can often benefit gardens through pollination, recycling, and eating harmful insects.

"Insects are an integral part of a complicated food chain … when it's out of balance, that's when you notice the pests in your garden," she said.

There are more than 1 million named insects worldwide, but only roughly 1 percent of those are considered pests, according to the North Carolina State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Leach suggested several techniques to help curb pests, including row covers, bird and deer netting, companion plants, and home-made sprays using natural ingredients such as garlic.

The annual revenue from insecticide sales to U.S. homeowners is more than $450 million, and 75 million pounds of insecticide are manufactured annually for American homes and gardens, according to the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

While pesticides are often used by farmers because they are more economically feasible, Leach said, the home gardener can easily avoid both pests and pesticides.

"For the home gardener, the natural way is better," she said.

Leach said she was inspired to learn about natural pest control while working at Earth Source Gardens, where, she said, people do not use chemicals. She also said she enjoyed learning about different ways to control pests using plants that attract beneficial insects.

"One of the benefits [of natural pest control] is you're not poisoning anything … there's a whole food chain that when you use pesticides you disrupt," she said.

Laura Jesse, who works at the Iowa State University Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic, said farmers often use preventative pest control, while home gardeners usually wait until there is a problem before taking action against pests. She warned local gardeners to identify pests before spraying them with chemicals.

"There are lots of ants and other things you're going to see out in your garden, but most of them are harmless," she said.

Jesse said cutworms have been a major pest for gardeners this season.

"[Cutworms] have been kind of a headache for gardeners," she said.

Donald Lewis, an Iowa State professor of entomology, said Japanese beetles have been a problem for local gardeners this year and in recent years. He said he expects squash bugs, caterpillars, and corn ear worms to become problematic bugs later this season.

"Everything is highly variable — that's the trend," he said.

Robin Pruisner, the chief of the Iowa Department of Agriculture Entomology and Plant Science Bureau, said the level of infestation of Japanese beetles has been a problem.

Jesse said many local gardeners have noticed the increase in aphids, gnats, and earwigs this year.

Although insect levels remain high this year, Leach said, she is beginning to believe that natural pest control is more effective than pesticides.

"The main thing is to be aware that [insects] are there. Check your garden often and identify the pest, and if you use a chemical, make sure it's the right one for that pest," she said. "Try to avoid chemicals; use them as a last resort."

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