Controlling Pests and Disease Organically

Protect the Birds and Bees in Your Garden

There has been considerable press recently about the dangers of common pesticides, and at various times, I have written about the problems that the birds and bees—our pollinators—are experiencing, possibly due to the use of some insecticides. Many people have also experienced health issues resulting from insecticide use, and some parents are concerned that pesticides used on lawns and gardens may be harmful to their children.

Organic controls are often safer than commercial pesticides. But not always! Some organic products can irritate skin, cause stomach issues and harm beneficial insects.

The best controls are often cultural. This means siting plants where they will thrive, using proper planting techniques, watering appropriately, pruning and providing care to ensure the health of your plants. Healthy plants are much more resilient to insect and disease issues.

Let’s start with the soil. This is where most diseases originate and where many insects over-winter. Before planting or even purchasing plants, it’s a good idea to prepare the soil. In existing garden areas this may be as simple as removing the weeds, roots and all. Taking the time to dig out the roots will mean less work in the long run. Tilling or stirring up the soil will often expose insect eggs and larvae to the weather and allow birds and other predators easy access to them.

To maintain soil nutrients, a high-quality compost should be added to gardens at least once a year.

If you have had disease issues in the past you may want to solarize or flame the soil. Solarizing is accomplished by spreading plastic over the garden for at least four or five months. The plastic will concentrate the sun, causing the soil to heat up and kill many diseases. Since this is often effective only during the warm summer months, it usually means resting the garden for one season.

Flaming speeds up the process because it involves using a propane torch on the soil. The soil is heated up until it turns black. Then it is tilled and flamed again so that the top eight to twelve inches is affected.  These methods are not something routinely needed or desired, but they do help with stubborn diseases.

Properly siting plants means looking at the site conditions, especially the amount of direct sun an area receives. Plants such as zinnias, tomatoes, squash and basil are full-sun lovers. Full sun means a minimum of six hours of sunlight actually touching the plants. Less than this, or indirect sun, will mean a yield of fewer flowers, leaves and fruit.

If you have pest problems, sometimes giving the plants a shower (with your hose) will help to control the insects. Organic oils and soaps may be effective but be careful when applying. It is best to apply these on a cloudy day or in the early evening because the oils and soaps will concentrate the sun’s rays. They can cause tissue damage to your plants.

An easy home remedy is to fill a spray bottle with water and add a few drops of oil and dishwashing soap; shake it up and then spray.

These sprays are only effective if they actually touch the insects you want to eradicate, so you must take the time to turn over leaves and hit the areas where the pests are.

Here’s to wishing you a healthy, and organic, crop of fruits, vegetables and flowers!

Author Lynn Dwyer, co-owner of Dwyer Greens & Flowers, teaches classes and workshops and mentors gardeners. Learn more at