So let’s be real.  The chemicals pesticides typically used to kill insects in the garden are also toxic to people and pets – even when used as directed.  The good news is that they are unnecessary to keep garden pests under control.  By working with nature instead of trying to dominate it, you can grow great food that is nourishing and tastes great, and support the network of life in your soil.

According to entomologists (folks who study insects), there are between 650,000 and 1,500,000 kinds of insects, and they have lived on earth for over 250 million years.  Fortunately we only have to protect against a few in our gardens, and we have some very capable help from some ‘friends’ that actually patrol our gardens and attack and kill (and eat!) many pests that want to damage our crops.  Keep in mind that the use of pesticides will kill your garden’s friends as well as its enemies.  Using natural strategies will result in a safe and beautiful garden, where life and health abounds.

Here are 5 all-natural solutions to the pest problem in your garden:

1) Invite Your Friends!

Insect Friends –  Ladybug beetles, assassin beetles, ants, praying mantis, shield bugs, dragonflies, aphis-lions – to name a few – are all beneficial insects in the garden.  They patrol on the ground and in the air, capturing and eating other insects.  In addition to food and water, they need habitat – places to live and reproduce. .  Providing for their needs allows for their well-being, and increases their numbers. Ladybug beetles, for example, hatch out as larvae, and begin immediately to eat the eggs, and young of destructive, aphids, scales, and other soft-bodied plant-feeding insects.  In about 20 days, they become full-grown, pupate, and crawl forth in the easily recognizable form as adults, eating voraciously all the while.  If you don’t have ladybug beetles in your garden, you can purchase some from specialty garden stores to get them started.  Just remember to make them feel welcome in your garden if you want them to stay.

Feathered Friends – One of the cheapest and most effective ways to control insect pests in your garden is to encourage birds to do the job for you.  Most birds are happy to find and eat insects, and are very skillful in doing so.  In addition to insect control, birds bring color, aerial antics, and beautiful sounds to the garden, and watching them build nests and raise their young is, for many, a wonderful pastime.  Bluebirds, wrens, mocking birds, robins, starlings, and thrushes are just a few of the friends who will help patrol your garden for destructive insect pests.  You can encourage them to stay and call your garden home by supplying a bird bath and feeder where sunflower seeds, hulled millet, or readily available commercial bird-seed mixes can be offered, especially in winter.  If you have berry or fruit trees, however, you may have to protect them from birds by covering them with netting.  Another strategy is to plant enough to share with the birds as a reward for their contribution to your garden’s success.

Amphibian Friends–  These are true friends of the gardener, and practically all their food consists of insects and other small creatures. It is estimated that in 3 months, a toad will eat up to 10,000 insects.  Yellow jackets, wasps, spiders, ants, moths, caterpillars, flies and squash bugs are all on its menu. Lizards, though less common than toads, are also effective insect hunters and eaters of insects in the garden.  Adding some stones to your garden will invite them, as they appreciate a place to soak up sun on cool days. While lizards hunt during the day, toads work at night to capture moving insects – so you get 24-hour garden protection.  Both lizards and toads appreciate a water source close by, so set out a shallow pan, filled in the garden, that they can get in and out of easily.  Both toads and lizards hibernate during the winter, and re-emerge in spring when insects return.

It is now understood that stressed garden plants are more susceptible to attack from insects.  So keeping your plants strong and healthy is a very effective strategy to reduce the likelihood that harmful insects will damage your crops.

2. Develop Fertile Soil – Start with healthy soil that is fertile with lots of organic matter.  A high- quality organic fertilizer is a good choice to supplement soil fertility, and avoid over-stimulated growth that weakens crops.

3. Use Healthy Plants and Seeds – Avoid ‘bargain’ transplants and chemically-treated    seeds.  Getting your plants off to a strong, healthy start is vital to making them less attractive to insect pests.

4. Water Regularly – Tiny transplants and seedlings have very small root systems, and must be watered frequently to avoid stress.  Depending on local weather conditions, you may have to water daily.  Organic mulch, thinly applied around plants, will assist in holding moisture in the ground.

5.Space Adequately–  Crowding plants too closely together will  stress them, and promote disease by reducing air movement.  When making your garden plans, allow for the mature size of plants.  Giving them the space they require will help keep them happy, healthy, and pest – free.