Even the most accomplished and diligent organic gardeners face pest problems. The first step in managing a specific pest is identifying it.
Just because an insect shows up on a plant doesn't mean that it's a pest. Ants and spiders, for example, may take up residence on plants, but they're generally harmless. Always take the time to research pests and make a positive ID. Use a field guide to identify insects so that you don't inadvertently destroy beneficial ones.
If you think your plant is being attacked by a pest, give the entire plant a once-over. Where is the damage? Is it all over or confined to one area? Is discoloration all over the plant, or does the damage occur in distinct locations? What type of plant is it? Are nearby plants also affected? If so, what types?
Next, examine the plant up close. Check the tops and bottoms of leaves, looking for insects, caterpillars, and egg masses. Look carefully at the new growth — a common gathering place for insect pests. As you touch the leaves, watch for scurrying or flying insects. Examine the plants at different times of day, and try to catch the pests in action. Jot down notes, take photos, or collect samples so that you can research possible culprits.
Do you see lesions on the leaves? A disease may be the cause. Note the size, color, and shape of the spots. Look at the spots' margins. Are the edges of the spots distinct or fuzzy? Note whether the lesions are on the top or bottom of leaf surfaces, and whether they're all over the plant or confined to one area. Are the flowers and fruit also affected?
If only the lower leaves on a plant are chewed, you may be dealing with an animal pest. Different animals can reach different heights, so measure how high up the plant the damage occurs.
Chapters 8 through 11 identify common garden pests, so you may find your culprit in those chapters. If not, consult regional field guides and extension publications. After you identify the pest, learn as much as possible about when it appears and on which plants, what factors contribute to its abundance, what kind of damage it does, and at what life stage it is easiest to control. Controls are more effective if you catch the pest in the most vulnerable part of its life cycle.
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