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Managing insects and diseases in the garden
Photo credit: Powdery mildew disease on phlox.

A bit of prevention goes a long way in minimizing insect and disease problems in the garden. Enlist a holistic approach known as Plant Health Care to manage your ornamental and edible gardens. It starts with proper plant selection and care and ends with using the most eco-friendly controls when problems do occur.  

Start by selecting plants suited to the growing conditions. Match your plants to the light, soil, and other growing conditions in your yard. You’ll have healthier plants that require less ongoing care and are less prone to pests, helping to increase your gardening success. 

Look for and purchase the most pest-resistant plants available. Garden phlox and bee balm are frequently attacked by powdery mildew. Purchase mildew-resistant varieties like Backlight with white flowers, Glamour Girl with hot coral pink blossoms, and the Ka-Pow series that comes in a variety of colors. Look for mildew-resistant bee balm varieties like the Sugar Buzz series in shades of lavender, pink and red, and the compact Balmy series to reduce the risk of this disease. 

Provide proper care throughout the growing season. Water thoroughly and only as needed to encourage a deep robust root system better able to absorb needed nutrients and water. Apply water directly to the soil and early in the morning to reduce the risk of disease and water loss to evaporation.  Mulch the soil surface with shredded leaves and evergreen needles to conserve moisture, suppress weeds, and improve the soil. This one task provides many benefits to you and your plants. 

Avoid over-fertilization. Excess nitrogen promotes lush succulent growth that is more susceptible to insects and disease and may interfere with flowering and fruiting. 

Check plants regularly and throughout the season for any signs of insects and disease. Look on the upper and lower surface of the leaves and along the stems. It is much easier to treat a small population of insects or pluck off a few diseased leaves than trying to control large pest populations.

Properly identify the pest. Most insects, over 97%, are good guys that pollinate our plants, eat insect pests, and help compost plant waste. Knowing the good from the bad and the harmful from those that are just annoying can save you time, money, and frustration. Consult your University Extension’s website, local botanic gardens, and other horticulture professionals for help with diagnosing and treating problems. 

And if control is needed, look for eco-friendly options. A thorough cleanup is often enough to reduce insect and disease problems to a tolerable level. Spraying plants with a strong blast of water to dislodge aphids and mites, knocking problem insects into a can of soapy water, or removing spotted leaves may be all that’s needed. 

Use barriers like floating row covers to prevent damage from cabbage worms and bean beetles. University research has found that with proper timing these products can also help reduce the risk of squash vine borer, squash bugs, and cucumber bacterial wilt.  

If you opt for chemical control, look for an organic or the most eco-friendly product labeled for managing disease or insect pests. As always, read and follow label directions for the best and safest results.   

Enlisting a holistic approach allows you to work with nature to grow a beautiful and productive garden.

Melinda Myers is the author of numerous books, including Small Space Gardening. Myers web site is