Integrated Pest Management for Your Permaculture System
Even the smallest garden will have insects that live in and interact with it. This can be a blessing, or a curse, depending how you’ve designed the space, and how well you have integrated considerations for the massive and diverse communities of creepy-crawlies in your area.
Artwork by Kt Shepherd
IPM means using observation and creativity, instead of chemicals.
IPM can be understood (and achieved) through this handy acronym, which has the same 3 letters
Inquiry: ask questions about the pests. What are they? In which habitat do they thrive? What are the known organic controls? What do they eat? What eats them? Also, ask questions of other local gardeners. Chances are, they’ve met those bugs too, and they’ll have lots of tips for you.
Prevention: design your site so that pests cannot thrive. This means making sure there is enough air circulation between plants, keeping soil fertility high, and avoiding standing water, piles of stagnant debris, and other areas that create cesspools of harmful insects and disease. Prevention also means creating closed-loop ecosystems that create habitat for the “good” bugs, so they can eat the “bad” bugs!
Monitoring: tune into your plants, check them often for signs of infestation, keep track of how well your IPM strategies are working, and adjust/add new strategies as needed.
“Permaculture is about creating homes.”
Here are some strategies to help create homes for a healthy balance of creatures:
Consider how you can offer habitat for the wildlife in the landscape around you. Water sources like bird baths or ponds are strong invites. Changing aesthetics to let old plants linger through the winter provides homes for spiders, who are very important predators that keep your garden insects in check. Places in a landscape where plants can be thick and undisturbed are often the pathways and wildlife corridors by which animals come and go.
These are often scary-looking bugs like wasps, assassin bugs, praying mantis, ladybugs (don’t laugh, many a gardener has hated and killed their larvae mistakenly), lacewing, etc. They’re great news because they’ll scare and eat your garden pests, which often look fat, grubby, or have lovely disguises like cabbage moths. We want the ones that look like dragons to balance it out.
Encourage (Some) Parasites.
Yes, really! Certain adult insects won’t eat your garden pests, but their children will! These are predators but more gnarly. If you see something like the following image (tomato hornworm pest being parasitized by wasp cocoons), you might want to say a prayer for the hornworm, but be happy for your tomatoes.
This goes way beyond honeybees to native bees, flies, bats, beetles, hummingbirds, and more. Pollinators perform essential services in all terrestrial ecologies, and the protection of habitat that allows them to thrive is essential to life on this planet. Yes, read that sentence twice and take a moment to contemplate it. In the bibliography below there are resources from Xerces Society, a premier conservation non-profit working on invertebrates. They outline four simple steps to protect pollinators, that subsequently protect a lot of different kinds of critters too.
These steps are:
This will be a mix of attracting an animal or activity to a different place, and scaring them slightly into going. It could mean making a varmint’s food prize just too annoying to access (think polycultures, thorny plants, scarecrows). It could be the smell of humans, or the barking of dogs, that make them uncomfortable. Plan your wildlife corridor to direct animals away from precious gardens and plants, and have it full of its own fecundity. Animals do not intentionally set out to damage something you love. They might just need some direction.
Here are some examples:
- Assign a toddler the chore of chasing garden pests out of gardens. Give them a hose with a sprayer nozzle to make the point clear. Animals can be trained in this way. Plus it occupies the toddler, and waters the garden a little bit.
- Don’t totally clear or mow a site before planting. The brushy, tangly nature of scrub or pasture makes any fencing more effective. Deer will jump over fences clear on both sides, but they generally won’t want to walk through tangly bits to jump over a fence onto other tangly bits of an unknown nature.
- Know your pest’s daily schedules. If rabbits are feeling entitled to the garden early in the morning, by all means make them feel uncomfortable and start your day there. Likewise with slug hunting after dusk.
- Some treats that deter varmints elsewhere: Flowering buckwheat for deer, dry soil for pooping cats, compost piles for chickens, beer for slugs (although, anecdotally, it does seem to attract neighbor’s slugs onto your site, too), etc.
- Here's an article focused on the organic control of slugs and snails!