Test your soil, then retest it every two years, or as much as twice a year if you’re trying to change its pH level or another feature. The University of Massachusetts Amherst offers various kinds of soil testing for $10, as well as compost testing for $25 to $45 and, for serious gardeners or those with problems, plant tissue testing ($12 to $25), which can help you fine-tune plant nutrition (go to soiltest.umass.edu). “Different plants take different conditions,” Sullivan says. “Knowing what you have to work with might help you make decisions about what to grow on your property.” She recommends adding nutrients to any soil type and advocates using pre-fertilized soils like Miracle-Gro for new plantings and pelletized or liquid fertilizers for older-growth gardens; many products sold in garden centers are completely organic and contain plant probiotics and other antifungals and antibacterials.
Giving plants the right amount of water also matters. “Over- or underwatering can get them stressed,” she says, “and that can attract insects that tune in to plant stress.”
Even healthy plants, though, can get infested with the area’s most common outdoor pests, which include woolly adelgids, winter moths, aphids, scale insects, and white grubs. All are treated in generally the same ways. One is to introduce their natural enemies into your landscape: Ladybugs love to eat scale insects, for example, and crickets, mantids, dragonflies, spiders, frogs, toads, and bats will eat pretty much anything. “I had one customer tell me he had a mosquito-free summer with just one bat house,” says Hickey, though Sullivan points out that “most neighbors won’t be super excited about a bat house in your yard.”
One challenge with releasing “beneficials” is that they might not stick around your property to solve immediate problems, but instead fly to neighboring yards — which still might benefit you in the long term, when later generations continue to populate the vicinity. Martha Wyant, a sales associate at Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland, says the beneficials are likelier to stay put if properly deployed. “If you release ladybugs in the early morning under a rose bush that has aphids,” she says, “they’ll go after the aphids. Like anything else you do in the garden, if you don’t do it correctly, it won’t be effective.”
Russell’s and other garden shops carry many biological controls and also natural pesticides, which are your next line of defense. Unless the yard is so large that the task is overwhelming, DIYers can do the spraying themselves, using fungicides, natural horticultural oils that coat nymphs and larvae to keep them from breathing, and bacterial treatments that go after certain species. “Typically, things have a natural enemy,” Sullivan says. Mosquitoes, for example, are vulnerable to bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring bacterium whose proteins attack the digestive systems of certain species of insect. “If you’re having a party,” she says, “spray a few days ahead and you shouldn’t have a problem.” Granular solutions are also available as a repellent, and some retailers, such as groworganic.com, also carry parasites that target flies and moths. Commercially made lures for honeybees and ladybugs and planting to attract beneficials can also help.
TREATING SPECIFIC PESTS
According to both Hickey and Williams, carpenter ants are the number one pest in the Boston area. They’re scavengers that eat other insects — or food left out — but they need moist wood in which to live, and that’s where prevention can come in. “If your house has damaged gutters that are leaking or flashing that needs to be caulked, fix it,” says Hickey. The same goes for rotted fencing, a shed that’s falling down, or even a dead or dying tree in the yard.
But “some things you can’t fix,” he concedes, so moisture can still get in. If that happens, be on the lookout, and call a professional service at the first sign of infestation, because you may see carpenter ants in your kitchen, for example, and not realize they’ve actually made their home in the garage. “If you let the colony go and keep treating the problem yourself,” says Williams, “the population will keep growing until you have five-, 10-plus colonies on your property.” The cost can be as low as $100 for a one-time spraying.
You can prevent bedbug infestation by carefully inspecting any hotel rooms you stay in and also any furniture you might take off the street; look for cast skins, popped eggs, and smatterings of black dots, which may be bedbug feces. If you do get bedbugs, they’re definitely one pest you don’t want to treat yourself. Professionals using vacuums to remove adults, and steam to pop the eggs before they hatch, can achieve 100 percent elimination, according to Hickey, at a cost starting around $400 per bedroom.Continued...