Fix That Plant Or Rip It Out

Stop landscape problems before they start.  Once your turfgrass, vegetable garden, shade tree or flowerbed becomes pest-ridden, you may have lost the upper hand in using the most environmentally friendly pest control methods.  Integrated pest management (IPM) is the name given to a holistic approach which begins with selecting the right plant for the right place and ends with plucking the hopeless thing out of the ground once all else fails.  Before we reach that frustrating conclusion, let’s look at six “do’s and don’ts” that may allow you to get on with the rest of your busy life a little sooner.

Do put the right plant in the right place.  Has anyone ever invited you to gaze at their lovely West Texas azaleas?  Probably not!  Azaleas prefer acidic soil.  They’ll decline quickly in the high pH soils of the Permian Basin.  Understanding the environmental needs of plants such as temperature tolerances, pH range, water requirements and so on may save you a lot of anguish.  Fortunately today, most plants sold in nurseries have a tag that provides basic growing conditions.  However, that’s just a starting point and shouldn’t be your sole source of information.  An excellent resource that provides detailed information about the plants we love is http://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/.

Do keep your plants healthy.  This sounds too simple to be true but once you’ve done your research and picked up the basics of caring for your new plant, stick to what you learned.  I love experimenting with recipes, putting my special twist on each dish.  The outcome is usually less than perfect.  That’s fine when it comes to food but plants are living things that thrive or decline under known conditions.  Thorough knowledge of these conditions is often gained only after years of extensive trials.  Stick to the recipe by applying the research-based advice of AgriLife Extension professionals.  Its the surest way to minimize plant stress and keep pests from ever getting a foothold.  Stressed plants are like people (sort of); they can develop a weak defense response.  Insects are able to see or smell sick turf, trees, vegetables and ornamentals.

Do get to the root of the problem.  OK!  So you’ve done everything right and you still spot hundreds of insects attached to a prized tree.  Don’t run for the bug spray too soon.  The next step is to identify the insect.  This is where you go back to the information you learned about your plant before you got it home.  Most information sources include a list of potential pests.  If you’re having trouble figuring out what it is, bring a sample of the infected plant by the AgriLife office.  It may turn out to be only a minor problem or no problem at all.

Do begin treatment options when necessary.  For the sake of discussion let’s say you discovered that your afghan pine is playing host to the pine tip moth.  This could be a problem.  Now what?  If the tree looks otherwise healthy, you may choose to do nothing at all.  Remember that many pests are only a problem for plants weakened  by things like drought, overwatering, weed killer, or excess fertilizer.  Healthy plants often tolerate small populations of unwanted residents without ever being worse for the wear.  But if your tree’s growth seems a little stunted, has fewer cones than usual and its needles are turning brown at an alarming rate, act fast.

Do avoid pesticides if possible.  If the tree is stressed by drought, increase the amount of water it receives.  Remove and destroy the infested buds and twigs several inches below the injured areas. Put three or four inches of mulch over the root zone to moderate soil temperatures and conserve moisture.  The goal is to increase vigor and reduce damage.  This is true for any plant but it doesn’t necessarily mean adding fertilizer.  Nitrogen fertilizer causes foliar growth which may signal a more nutritious feast for pests.  Stick to improving the tree’s growing conditions.  You may need to resort to the use of pesticides but don’t go for the nuclear option first.

Don’t bring a gun to a knife fight.  Contact your local AgriLife office or find an Extension publication that offers control options for the identified pest.  Start by considering the least impactful yet most effective pesticide.  You may discover that “organic” pesticides have a greater risk of negative impact on the environment than synthetic controls.  This is more likely to be true when repeat applications are necessary.  Sometimes it’s wise to remove heavily infested plants to protect others nearby.  Fortunately, you’ll learn that pine tip moth can be controlled with spinosad which is considered an “organic” product.  But better still, you’ll learn that there is no pressing need to treat pine tip moth late in the summer.  Your best option may be to wait until Spring and treat if necessary when the overwintering larvae emerge and begin their life cycle over again.

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