Controlling Vegetable Garden Pests

By: C. Colston Burrell

For many people, anything in the garden that crawls or flies and is smaller than a chipmunk or a sparrow can be classified as an insect. In fact, many of the creatures that may damage your vegetable plants -- mites, slugs, snails, nematodes, and sowbugs among them -- are not insects at all. Another popular misconception is that insects and similar creatures are harmful or unnecessary and have no place in a garden. This just isn't true. While some insects are destructive, many are perfectly harmless. These insects are actually important to the healthy development of your garden crop. Some beneficial creatures perform a specific service by keeping down pests that do harm your crop; others pollinate the plants. When you set out to control harmful pests, it's important to realize that indiscriminate controls may destroy useful creatures as well as the harmful ones.

The method you choose for controlling garden pests could be a cause for controversy. Many gardeners rely on chemical insecticides to eliminate the harmful insects competing for their crops. Some, however, object to the use of chemicals. These gardeners prefer to rely on organic, or nonchemical, means of control.


The surest way to control most insects and similar creatures that threaten your vegetable crop is by using a chemical insecticide. A word here about terminology: The terms "pesticide" and "insecticide" are not interchangeable. A pesticide is any form of chemical control used in the garden. An insecticide is a pesticide used specifically to control insects. A herbicide is a pesticide used to control weeds. If you mistakenly use a herbicide to control insects, you'll lose your entire crop for the season because it will kill your vegetable plants.

Insecticides are chemical products that are sprayed or dusted on affected crops. The spray type is bought in concentrated form, diluted with water, and diffused with a hand sprayer or a spray attachment fitted to the end of your garden hose. Dust-on insecticides are powders that you pump onto the plants. Spraying is preferable because it gives more thorough coverage. It's also easier to treat the undersides as well as the tops of leaves and plants with a spray. Another technique is to apply insecticides directly to the soil to kill insects under the surface. This is known as applying a "soil drench."

Used correctly and responsibly, insecticides are not harmful to humans or other animals. However, they are toxic if used incorrectly. It is important to study the label of each pesticide and follow the directions exactly.

Because research is constantly being done to determine the safety of insecticides and improve their effectiveness, it's difficult to give long-term recommendations about their use. Certain basic rules, however, always apply. Read and reread the label and follow all precautions meticulously. Most important, never make the solution stronger than the label says because you think it will work better that way.

If you decide to use a pesticide to control insects in your garden, here are some important points to remember:

  • Read the whole label and follow directions exactly.
  • Wear rubber gloves, long sleeves and pants, and goggles while handling pesticides.
  • Take care not to breathe the spray or dust.
  • When the job is completed, wash your clothes separately from the family laundry and wash all exposed parts of your body with soap and water.
  • Use equipment that you keep specifically for use with insecticides. Don't use equipment that has been used for herbicides.
  • Use insecticides only when the air is still. Wind will carry the chemical away, creating a possible hazard somewhere else. The insecticide must dry on the plants to be effective; rain will wash it off.
  • Treat only the affected portions of the plant. Use a light but thorough dose. Don't drench plants unnecessarily.
  • Store unused, undiluted material in its original container in a locked area out of the reach of children.
  • Dispose of the empty container carefully, according to the label's instructions.
  • Wash all treated vegetables carefully before eating them.


Want more information about vegetable gardens? Visit these links:

  • Caring for a Vegetable Garden: Read our guide to nurturing your vegetable plants for the best harvest.
  • Vegetable Gardens: Find out everything you wanted to know about vegetable gardening.
  • Vegetables: Pick out your favorite vegetables to plant in next year's garden.
  • Gardening: We answer all of your general gardening questions in this section.
  • Garden Care: Whether you're growing cucumbers or columbines, we have all the information you need to nurture a thriving garden.