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Garden Help Desk: Don’t let pesticides deter good guys in the garden

By USU Extension - | Aug 13, 2022
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Praying mantises are one of the larger good guys in the landscape, making them easier to notice.
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Wherever there are aphids, lady beetles or lady beetle larvae are likely to be nearby.
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A lady beetle wants prey for her young when she looks for a place to lay her eggs. Aphids are a common food source for lady beetle larvae.
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Lady beetle adults are also beneficial predators. You'll sometimes find them close by when you find aphids.
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Syrphid fly larvae don't look very ferocious, but they are efficient predators.
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Lacewing eggs are laid on slender stalks that help to protect them from other predators. You'll often find them where you find aphids.
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Good care in the right location keeps container gardens looking good throughout the season.
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Hanging baskets like this geranium basket need regular deadheading to keep their good looks.

I’ve sprayed my garden three times so far this year, but I keep finding bugs anyway. What is the best spray to use?

Frequent or routine use of broad-spectrum insecticides can make pest problems worse instead of better. Many of the beneficial insects that we should welcome into our yards and gardens include the predators and parasitoids that help to keep pest populations under control. The same insecticides that kill unwanted pests can also kill the good guys in the garden. The bad guys always return before the good guys, and you can find yourself in a repeating cycle of spraying and pest problems.

Two of the best sprays to use in your yard or garden are insecticidal soap and horticultural oil. These two products target some of the most common insects that cause problems in our yards and gardens: aphids, spider mites, thrips and white flies, but are less harmful to adult beneficial insects.

Two of the beneficial predators you’ve probably notice in your landscape are lady beetles (ladybugs), hard to miss because of their bright color, and praying mantises, which are easy to see because of their size.

Two garden good guys that you might not notice but are almost certainly a part of a healthy landscape are lacewings and syrphid flies.

Lacewing larvae are aggressive and voracious predators of soft-bodied insects like aphids. It’s not unusual to find lady beetle eggs where there are aphid problems, but if you’ll do a little scouting, you’ll probably find lacewing eggs, too.

Female syrphid flies, also called hover flies, lay their eggs on slender stalks wherever they find enough prey for their young. Aphids are a favorite food, but any soft bodied insect could be part of their diet.

There are many other pest management helpers that may be active in your garden or yard: predaceous midges; bugs, including the damsel, minute pirate and big-eyed bugs; and parasitic wasps are all part of the good guy group. Avoiding broad-spectrum insecticides and using control methods that target specific pests will make it more likely that these beneficial insects are hard at work in your garden.

My hanging baskets and container gardens looked great in May and June, and not too bad in most of July, but now they just look worn out. Is there something I should do for them, like extra fertilizer or water, or is it just time to toss them out?

The weather this summer has been a challenge for just about every plant in our landscapes, but with good care, you can help them through the rest of the season.

If your plants were getting enough water, and you were seeing at least some water come out the drainage holes each time you watered, and they weren’t showing drought stress between waterings, then more water isn’t the way to go. Extra fertilizer isn’t the solution for this problem either. Enough is good, but extra isn’t better. You do need to make sure that fertilizer in the soil hasn’t been depleted.

Consistent watering and fertilizer are important, but all hanging baskets and container gardens need at least some regular maintenance beyond that to keep their good looks.

For hanging baskets with plants like petunias, million bells and lobelia, a nice trim every few weeks will keep them looking nice. Blossoms are borne on the ends of the trailing branches, and eventually baskets can look mostly green with a fringe of color at the very bottom. You can remove one or two of the longest branches every week by cutting them back to the middle or top of the baskets. They’ll branch out and regrow within a few weeks.

If you have time to wait while your basket recovers, you can simply trim the entire basket back. It will take a few weeks for the basket to look good again.

If you have mixed baskets and containers, you’ll want to make sure you’ve done the deadheading they need. Spent blooms definitely reduce the beauty of a flowering plant. Trimming back gangly, trailing stems will also improve the appearance. Take time while you’re deadheading to trim away damaged or fading leaves, too. Doing these things will keep your containers looking their best.

You can also reduce stress for your containers and hanging baskets by making sure you place them in the right location. Sun lovers won’t do well in the shade and shade lovers won’t last long in a sunny spot. The right plant for the right place plus consistent care will keep any plant attractive and healthy.


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