Gardening is a combination of art, science, and the love of having your hands in the earth. We gardeners are an eager bunch, pushing forward to get starts planted, trees pruned, and gardens fed before a deadline that’s often elusive and self-imposed. We believe we can beat nature at her game: this is usually where mistakes happen and why we encounter pests in the garden.

Through the rush of getting things done or by overlooking a potential hazard, we open the door for aphids, cutworms, and other nasties lying in wait for the right opportunity. Getting to know your landscape’s unique challenges takes years of trial and error. Thankfully there are some common mistakes you can avoid if you consider them when planting and tending.

1. Neglecting Your Babies

The early stages of a plant’s growth will determine the success of your crop. Whether you are starting seeds or working with starts, you must provide enough sunshine, water, food, and protection. The lack of any of these will cause stress to your plant, making it more susceptible to pests and diseases.

During the early stages of growth, seedlings are particularly at risk from overwatering and light deficiency. Overwatering invites fungus gnats, whose juveniles will feed off the developing rootlets. This causes stunted growth and transfer of disease. Another culprit is the shore fly, who feeds on the algae that develops in plant troughs or trays. Though shore flies rarely cause damage to plant tissue, the adults can transfer pathogens as they visit from plant to plant. Pathogens like damping off thrive in overly moist conditions. We can contribute to this problem by not using sterile soil during the seeding stage.

Once your seedlings go into the garden soil, the tender roots and shoots will be exposed to a new environment and a whole new threat of pests. Providing protection with the use of a cloche, cold frame, or row cover will help prevent pests from moving into the new susceptible crop.

2. Overloving

When we see plants failing, it’s a common reaction to hit them with a dose of fertilizer, particularly nitrogen, since this addresses what we can see—the leaves. A hit of nitrogen will usually cause new leaf shoots to pop out at twice the speed than the natural cycle. These leaves are often thinner and less resistant to the feeding habits of aphids and whitefly.

Instead, a balanced diet of slow release, complex organic fertilizers is the easiest, most nutritional way to feed your plants. On a maintenance level this should be done at transplant and about 3- 6 weeks later, depending on plant size and length of crop. If you do encounter discoloration or stunting, don’t immediately reach for the fertilizer. Go to your gardening books to investigate the symptoms you’re observing. Correctly identify what it is that’s causing you grief so you can address the problem correctly and with success.

3. Killing the Good Guys

Too often a beneficial insect predator is mistaken for the pest doing the damage. In reality, most pests do their work under stealth, hiding beneath leaves, soil, and debris. When we are out surveying our gardens, we usually see various predators that are more active in the daytime. As in the animal kingdom, insect predators can be fierce looking or display warning colours that can make it seem as if they might be a foe.

A prime example of this is the juvenile stage of the ladybug, which looks nothing like the adult counterpart—and more like a tiny alligator with six legs. Predators such as hoverflies are often mistaken for wasps (and swatted), and ground beetles are often stepped on for their large size. I have counseled far too many gardeners after they have eliminated these good guys through the use of pesticides.

Thanks to the internet, it’s now very simple to determine which bug is at work. Before reaching for any control, please identify with certainty what it is you are managing.

4. Moving Pests

Have you ever wondered how introduced pests like European chafer or the Japanese beetle have made it thousands of miles across the ocean to reach North America? Moving plants from one garden to another or from one country to another risks introducing a species that could threaten your garden. In the case of international transport, these risks extend to entire forests or high value crops.

Of course, it’s hard to resist a good find at a plant sale in the neighbouring county, or a cutting from a good friend, but these seemingly innocent plants could harbour a detrimental insect—the most common being scale. As juveniles, scale insects are almost invisible to the naked eye. Take a new houseplant home and before you know it, all your tropicals are suffering. A wise practice is to quarantine any new addition for a few weeks and maintain a watchful eye. In the case of potted plants, removing all the soil and washing the roots prior to planting in your own garden could make all the difference.

5. Limiting Diversity

Segregating your garden so that similar varieties are planted together is an invitation to pests for an unprotected buffet. This is not only true in vegetable plantings, but in all landscapes. Choosing just a few varieties to beautify your yard does not allow for a diverse ecosystem that makes room for a wide spectrum of insects, beneficial microorganisms, and animals. Diversity is what keeps pests in check.

If you look to nature for the guidelines, you’ll note that there’s an abundance of flora and fauna existing in the same place. Mimic this in your own environment by including annual and perennial flowers in your landscape. By including pollen and nectar bearing plants, you’ll encourage beneficial insect predators that require these as part of a complete diet.

Works in Progress

Our gardens will always be works in progress. We make mistakes, learn from them, and then make more mistakes the following season. Thankfully during this process, we also learn about our plants and the complexities of local ecosystems and our relationship with our garden. Remember, this is a process and there really isn’t a finishing point. This is ultimately one of the joys of gardening.

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