Tips: Preventing Pests

Pests seek places to live that satisfy basic needs for air, moisture, food and shelter. The best way to control pests is to try to prevent them from entering your home or garden in the first place. You can do this by removing the elements that they need to survive. Take the following preventive actions:

Indoor Prevention

  • Remove water. All living things, including pests, need water for survival. Fix leaky plumbing, and do not let water accumulate anywhere in or around your home. For example, do not leave any water in trays under your houseplants, under your refrigerator, or in buckets overnight. Remove or dry out water-damaged and wet materials. Even dampness or high humidity can attract pests.
  • Remove food. Store your food in sealed glass or plastic containers, and keep your kitchen clean and free from cooking grease and oil. Do not leave food in pet bowls on the counter or floor for long periods of time. Put food scraps or refuse in tightly covered, animal-proof garbage cans, and empty your garbage frequently.
  • Remove or block off indoor pest hiding places. Caulk cracks and crevices to control pest access. Bathe pets regularly and wash any mats or surfaces they lie on to control fleas. Avoid storing newspapers, paper bags, and boxes for long periods of time. Also, check for pests in packages or boxes before carrying them into your home.
  • Block pest entryways. Install screens on all floor drains, windows and doors to discourage crawling and flying pests from entering your home. Make sure any passageways through the floor are blocked. Place weather-stripping on doors and windows. Caulk and seal openings in walls. Keep doors shut when not in use.

Outdoor Prevention

  • Remove or destroy outdoor pest hiding places. Remove piles of wood from under or around your home to avoid attracting termites and carpenter ants. Destroy diseased plants, tree prunings, and fallen fruit that may harbor pests. Rake fallen leaves. Keep vegetation, shrubs, and wood mulch at least 18 inches away from your house.
  • Remove breeding sites. Clean up pet droppings from your yard; they attract flies that can spread bacteria. Do not accumulate litter or garbage; it draws mice, rats and other rodents. Drain off or sweep away standing puddles of water; water is a breeding place for mosquitoes and other pests. Make sure drain pipes and other water sources drain away from your house.
  • Take proper care of all outdoor plants. These include flowers, fruit and shade trees, vegetable and other plants, and your lawn. Good plant health care reduces pest control needs -- healthy plants resist pests better than do weak plants. Plant at the best time of year to promote healthy growth. Use mulch to reduce weeds and maintain even soil temperature and moisture. Water adequately. Native flowers, shrubs and trees often are good choices because they adapt well to local conditions and require minimal care.

Gardening

  • Select healthy seeds and seedlings that are known to resist diseases and are suited to the climate where you live. Strong seeds are likely to produce mature plants with little need for pesticides.
  • If your garden is large, alternate rows of different kinds of plants. Pests that prefer one type of vegetable (carrots, for example) may not spread to every one of your carrot plants if other vegetables (not on the pests' diet) are planted in the neighboring rows.
  • Don't plant the same crop in the same spot year after year. That way your plants are not as vulnerable to pests that survive the winter.
  • Make sure your garden plot has good drainage. Raised beds will improve drainage, especially of clay soils. If a heavy clay soil becomes compacted, it does not allow air and water to get to the roots easily, and plants struggle to grow. To loosen compacted soil and create air spaces so that water and nutrients can reach the roots, buy or rent a tiller that breaks up the dirt and turns it over. Before planting, add sand and organic matter to enrich the soil mixture in your garden plot. Also, have the soil tested periodically to see whether you need to add more organic matter or adjust the pH (acidity/alkalinity) balance by adding lime or sulfur. Your County Cooperative Extension Service, listed in the telephone book, or local nursery should be able to tell you how to do this.
  • Mulch your garden with leaves, hay, grass clippings, shredded/chipped bark or seaweed. Do not use newspapers to keep down weeds or to fertilize plants. Newsprint may contain toxic metals such as lead and mercury.

Lawn Care

Tending a garden may not be your hobby; but if you rent or own a home, you might need to care for the lawn. You don't have to be an expert to grow a healthy lawn -- the key is to work with nature. You need to create the right conditions for your grass to grow strong and stay healthy. A healthy lawn can resist damage from weeds, disease and insect pests. Set realistic weed and pest control goals for your lawn. Think of lawn care as a preventive health care program, like one you would follow to stay healthy yourself. The goal is to prevent problems from ever occurring.

Pesticides can be effective, but should not be relied on as the quick-fix solution to any lawn problem. Serious, ongoing pest problems are often a sign that your lawn is not getting what it needs to stay healthy. Pests may be a symptom of an underlying problem. You need to correct the underlying problem to reduce the chances of pests reappearing.

Make these six steps part of a preventive health care program for your lawn:

  1. Develop healthy soil that has the right pH balance, key nutrients, and good texture. You can buy easy-to-use soil analysis kits at hardware stores or contact your local County Cooperative Extension Service for a soil analysis.
  2. Choose a type of grass that grows well in your climate. For instance, if your area gets very little rain, don't plant a type of grass that needs a lot of water. Your local County Cooperative Extension Service can advise you on which grasses grow best in your area.
  3. Mow high, mow often, and make sure the lawn mower blades are sharp. Grass that is slightly long makes a strong, healthy lawn with few pest problems. Weeds have a hard time taking root and growing when grass is fairly long (around 2½ to 3½ inches for most types of grass). A foot-high meadow isn't necessary; just adding an inch to the length of your grass will give most lawns a real boost.
  4. Water deeply but not too often. The best rule is to water only when the lawn begins to wilt from dryness -- when the color dulls and footprints stay in the grass for more than a few seconds. Avoid watering during the hottest part of the day because the water will evaporate too quickly.
  5. Correct thatch buildup. Thatch is a layer of dead plant material between the grass blades and the soil. When thatch gets too thick (deeper than ¾ of an inch), it prevents water and nutrients from getting into the soil and reaching the roots of the grass. Overusing synthetic fertilizer can create a heavy layer of thatch, and some kinds of grass are prone to thatch buildup. In a healthy lawn, earthworms, spiders, millipedes, and a variety of microorganisms help keep the thatch layer in balance by breaking it up and using it for food, which releases nutrients into the soil. You can get rid of excess thatch by raking the lawn using a dethatching rake or by using a machine that pulls plugs out of the grass and thatch layer to break it up. Sprinkle a thin layer of topsoil or compost over the lawn after dethatching or aerating it to speed up the process of decomposition.
  6. Set realistic weed and pest control goals. It is almost impossible to get rid of all weeds and pests. However, even a lawn that is 15 percent weeds can look almost weed-free to the casual observer. A healthy lawn will probably always have some weeds and some insect pests. But a healthy lawn will also have beneficial insects and other organisms like earthworms that keep pests under control. Improper use of pesticides can kill these beneficial organisms.

By following this preventive health care program for your lawn, you should be able to rely very little, if at all, on chemical pesticides for weed and insect pest control.

Tips from EPA

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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