By Renate Tilson

Warming spring weather means two things: pests and diseases coming out in full force, ready to attack the tender new foliage and flowers that abound. Before you get angry and impatient and reach for that chemical arsenal to do away with the nuisances, consider the fact that healthy, vigorous plants are better able to resist pests and diseases.

The easiest way to prevent insect damage in your garden is to discourage invaders in the first place. A healthy garden is the best defense. I try to get to the root cause of a garden problem to correct it rather than turning to chemicals and sprays for the quick fix. This approach will give my problem a healthier resolution and spare my garden the long-term impact of chemicals lingering in the soil, and perhaps in the aquifer. 

One way to decrease pests, for example, is to increase the number of good garden visitors by planting a variety of small-flowered plants such as daisies, chamomile, fennel, yarrow, or cone flowers to attract beneficial insects to your garden.

Another important consideration for a healthy garden is to think about whether the plants are getting the amount of water and nutrients they need to be strong and successful. Water-stressed plants are weak and susceptible to attack. Thin plants out to reduce competition for moisture and nutrients. Sprinkle early in the morning when the temperature is lower so the water has a good chance to soak into the soil. Pull competing weeds to further conserve soil moisture.

Check to see if the affected plants have room to grow successfully, Plants need their

space to thrive. Does your chosen location have the correct amount of light, sun, or shade needed to grow strong and to resist pests? Remove weak plants, as they will provide hiding places and attract pests, then dispose of them away from the garden area.

Developing healthy soil is a critical part of growing naturally healthy plants. Use well-amended soil in your garden beds so flowers and vegetables can thrive. Especially here in the Willamette Valley with so much clay, we need to add lots of compost and humus, and then mulch, to develop strong and vigorous plants. Avoid growing the same types of vegetables in the same spot year after year. Crop rotation is important for providing nutrients and is also a common method to avoid pest infestation. Trees and shrubs will not need soil amendments, but covering soil around them with an organic mulch such as bark chips encourages beneficial organisms in the soil. 

While they may not be everyone’s favorite visitor, garden snakes do help control small rodents, slugs, grasshoppers, and more. Learn about beneficial snakes in your area and do what you can to increase their habitat in and around your garden.

The simple techniques of hand-picking pests or knocking them off their host plant with a stream of water from the garden hose are effective. If you decide to use a pesticide, always try to identify the pests first, and then use the correct product according to label directions. Remember, the least toxic insecticides include botanicals like neem oil. Non-toxic insecticidal soaps have been around for years and are successful in treating plants attacked by white flies and aphids. Products such as insecticidal soap or horticultural oil should be used to spot-treat an infestation. These compounds are able to take care of insects that feed on your plants without adding poison to your environment. Detailed recipes for earth-friendly organic approaches are available at the Lane County Extension Master Gardeners office, or at local garden supply stores.