SPRING IS IN THE AIR. But that also means bugs are in the air — and on your prized rhododendrons, and quite possibly in your kitchen cabinets or bedroom closets. And many of them are not the kind you want sharing your house or garden. Whether you live in a detached single-family in the suburbs or a high-rise city loft, there are many ways to combat them, and even if you do have to call in a professional, the latest treatment options are better than ever at keeping your family and pets safe. (For more on specific pests, see Page 55.)
The “greenest” way to manage pests, of course, is to make sure you don’t get them in the first place. “If you make your home a fortress and keep it sealed up,” says George Williams, the staff entomologist at removal service EHS Pest in Norwood, “and keep your yard protected and clean, you shouldn’t have any pest problems.” Inside the house, he recommends removing clutter, lessening moisture, covering trash, and sealing gaps around molding and small holes in the foundation, where rodents can find easy access. Outside, use no-spill bird feeders and keep them well away from the house, remove leaf litter, and trim trees and shrubs — “a highway for insects to get in,” he says — so they don’t touch exterior walls. Finally, “fences make good neighbors, but they also make good wildlife control.” A house with tight fencing won’t have skunks, and a physical barrier can discourage deer from approaching, too.
When prevention doesn’t work, home remedies might. The Environmental Protection Agency lists 31 “minimum risk pesticides” that are exempt from federal regulation. They include things like cinnamon oil, peppermint, common salt, and citronella, which can be used for anything from mosquitoes to garden slugs. But they fade quickly, says Colin Hickey, technical director of Green Planet Pest Control in Boston, “so you have to use them repeatedly.” For small outbreaks of certain pests such as mosquitoes, flies, or ants, he adds, “I’d say try it.”
In severe cases, though, experts argue that professional eradication is really the best option. “It’s 110 percent safer to have a professional do it than to spray Raid,” says Williams, “because the homeowner doesn’t understand the biology and behavior of the pest. Their strategy is to spray all over, instead of where the pests are. They always overapply.” He cites a homeowner he met who spent $500 on flea bombs. He never did solve the problem, “but had copious amounts of pesticide in the house.” Had the man spent $350 on professional pest control instead, Williams says, his house would have been flea-free much sooner and with less toxicity.
Hickey agrees, adding that though the pesticides used by professionals aren’t green, the techniques used to apply them often make them the safest, most effective option. “We get the job done with the least amount of harm to non-targeted organisms,” he says, maintaining that today’s chemicals are specific to certain insects, have low mammalian toxicity, and are not very long-lasting in the environment, usually persisting only a few months, at most.
Pest control is like medicine in two ways, he asserts. First, you want to treat the disease, not just the symptoms; and second, you want a professional evaluation, in part because many insects leave telltale signs of their visits that a homeowner might not recognize. Termites, for example, are “secretive,” according to Williams. “Homeowners usually see them only when they swarm — but that’s a short period, maybe only a couple hours. And they could swarm in the crawl space or outside where you never see them; then five years later they’ve caused a couple thousand dollars in damage.” Carpenter ants, too, can fool you: Most people know to worry when they see the big black ones, but in fact some species are no bigger than common picnic ants.
“If you get an ethical, honest company,” Williams says, “they’ll let you know when you don’t need pest control,” as in the case of harmless citronella ants, for example, which you can simply remove with a vacuum cleaner. “[Companies] want a relationship with you so when you do have a problem, you trust them and ask them back.”
MAINTAINING A HEALTHY GARDEN
Mary Sullivan, an account manager at Walpole’s NatureWorks Landscape who has a doctorate in plant medicine, advises that the best way to avoid garden pests is to maintain healthy plants. That may sound like a chicken-and-egg concept, but Sullivan says a healthy garden starts with selecting plants that are resistant to problems that may come along. “If you know you have a fungus in your soil,” she says, “you can get plants that aren’t susceptible to that particular fungus.”Continued...