How to manage plant pests and diseases in your victory garden

Entomologist Brian Lovett examines flea beetle-infested potatoes in Morgantown, West Virginia. Matt Kasson, CC BY-ND

Home gardening is having a boom year throughout the U.S. Whether they’re growing their particular food in response to pandemic shortages or just buying diversion, numerous aspiring gardeners have constructed their first raised beds, and seeds are flying off suppliers’ shelves. Now that gardens are largely planted, a lot of the work for the next many months revolves around keeping them healthy.

Contrary to the Biblical adage, we do not of necessity reap what we sow. As researchers specializing in plant pathology and entomology, we have devoted our careers to understanding and managing plant pests and pathogens. We may also be gardeners with varying quantities of experience and have seen firsthand the damage these insects and disease-causing agents can inflict.

Plant health is essential for seeing your garden succeed all the way to harvest. The United Nations General Assembly has declared 2020 because the International Year of Plant Health to help bring needed attention to pests and diseases that threaten global food production.

Thousands of pests and pathogens are known to target commercial crops, but a few usual suspects are routinely in charge of havoc in gardens throughout the U.S. Although each organism’s preferences vary, a number of common tactics might help you detect them and protect your plants.

Start with prevention

Just as preventive steps like maintaining a balanced diet help keep humans healthy, home growers may take many actions to help their gardens thrive.

One key step is assessing soil fertility – the ability of soil to sustain plant growth – which can vary widely according to your location and soil type. Low soil fertility limits food production and predisposes plants to infection and pests. University extension soil testing labs might help evaluate the quality of garden soil and identify nutrient deficiencies and acidic soils, often at no cost.

Suppressing weeds, either through mulching or weeding by hand weekly, increases venting and reduces humidity around garden plants, making it harder for pests and pathogens to thrive. Weed get a grip on ensures that nutritional elements are available for the plants you would like to grow.

Proper spacing between plants can also be important. Crowding can contribute to infection and pest outbreaks, so check and follow tips about seed packs or on line as you add and move plants throughout the season. You can always cull plants when they come up to help with spacing. In small gardens, fewer plants that are precisely supported can produce a bigger harvest than many overcrowded plants.

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And then there’s the weather. Frost, hail, drought and flooding all pose unique risks to plants. Inconsistent rainfall can kill thirsty plants more quickly than infertile soils. Both not enough and a lot of water will stress plants and could make them more vulnerable to severe pest and pathogen outbreaks.

A general rule of thumb is to follow a consistent daily watering regime – preferably first thing in the morning – and to avoid over-watering, which could encourage root pathogens in soil.

Diagnosing problems

Common plant pathogens include viruses, bacteria, nematodes, oomycetes and fungi. All of those microorganisms, specially at an earlier stage of infection, are too small to see. But if they proliferate, they cause changes in plants that we can recognize.

Unlike insects, which maneuver around on six legs or on wings through the air, pathogens can move unseen and unchecked from leaf to leaf on the wind, through the soil or in droplets of water. Some microbes have even formed intimate relationships with insects and use them as vehicles to move from plant to plant, making these pathogens even more challenging to manage. Unfortunately, by the time some pathogens make their presence known, the damage has already been done.

We recently conducted a Twitter poll of gardeners nationwide to find out which culprits plagued their gardens. People named aphids, squash vine borers, squash bugs and flea beetles as the utmost problematic insect pests. Their most troublesome pathogens included powdery mildew, tomato bacterial wilt and cucurbit downy mildew.

To manage such perennial challenges, the initial step is to spend time closely looking at your plants. Do you notice any insects consistently hanging around, or molds colonizing leaves or other plant parts? How about symptoms such as blight, stunting, or leaves which can be yellowing, browning or wilting?

There are countless resources on line for keen-eyed and curious gardeners looking to identify and manage pests and diseases. Try uploading an image to the iNaturalist app or a Facebook gardeners group that can provide a community-sourced ID. Plant infection clinics in your state will also diagnose plant damage from diseases and pests for free or at low priced.

Once you’ve identified a problem serious enough to intervene, the land grant extension system can provide solutions. Extension programs at land grant schools like West Virginia University and Penn State University offer critical information on agriculture and management of pests and diseases in multiple languages for commercial and home growers.

Their resources include information on safe and proper use of pesticides as part of built-in pest management strategies. This approach employs pesticides in a targeted way alongside non-chemical get a grip on methods and cultural methods, such as choosing native plants. Our professional societies, such as the American Phytopathological Society, also offer a compendium series to help users diagnose and treat pests and diseases.

Those who are seriously interested in learning and sharing their experience with others might want to consider Master Gardener programs, which train and certify community members on the latest evidence-based gardening methods, tailored to their growing area. Master Gardeners pay it forward by training new Master Gardeners and answering questions for any gardener.

Plant pests certainly are a daily reminder that gardens do not exist in vacuum pressure, and gardeners shouldn’t struggle alone either. Joining the gardening community takes attentiveness and time, but we believe the investment required to become an active person in your local gardening community is worth it. With experience, the nervous tightrope act of keeping pests at bay and food up for grabs becomes a delicate dance that can help us appreciate where our food comes from – and fundamentally, our place in the global ecosystem.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing a few ideas from academic experts.

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Matt Kasson receives funding from USDA and The Ohrstrom Foundation.

Carolee Bull receives funding from the USDA and from the mushroom industry, and matching funds from seed businesses for her studies.

Brian Lovett doesn’t work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any organization or organization that would take advantage of this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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