The Transition to Biocontrol and IPM Part 1.

The Tech Side

Note to new growers: If you’re starting a garden or new agricultural or horticultural business from scratch, a transition is not something you’ll have to concern yourself with. You may, therefore, think there is nothing in this section you’ll probably really need. And you’re probably right. However, I feel it is probably a good idea you read it anyway. There is knowledge and understanding to be offered herein that may increase your level of insight. I’m amazed, as an avid reader of all sorts of stuff, what benefit I’ve gleaned from material I never thought I’d have an interest in or need of, yet forced myself to push through it anyway. I’m glad I have.

You’ve got your heart and soul ready for change; you’ve got your head screwed on right; and you now know why you want to make this change to biocontrol and IPM — you’ve found your undying love and commitment for this thing. Great. Now comes the transition. Assuming, of course, you’ve been practicing some sort of conventional pest control up until this point. Before I get into the finer points of this transition, though, I’d like to make some things clear.

Pesticide License?

Often I’m asked by biocontrol/IPM practitioners, new and old, if they should consider letting their chemical applicators’ permits expire. An emphatic no is always my answer (though if you’re getting married you should get rid of your little black book). Pest control is a war of sorts. In my opinion you should keep your options open. Why practice disarmament if you don’t have to? Certification requires education, so that’s a good thing. Of course you’ll have to show restraint so you don’t make uncalculated midnight forays into the pesticide locker. As an example, many military groups in the world posses nuclear weapons technology (some even have these weapons at the ready but I won’t name names), but it doesn’t mean this technology or these weapons should ever be used. Restraint, too, is a good thing. To spot-treat problem areas is also a good reason to keep your options up to date — but this will discussed in greater detail later on this website. After all, and I share these feeling a lot, if a person, a grower, tries to stay as green as possible in their growing practices, they are doing some good. And some good adds up and is infinitely better than no good. Just because, for business survival reasons, an individual needs to use a little chemical technology to get through a low moment of localized high pest pressure, it doesn’t turn him or her into some sort of demon. This is especially true if the chemical used is as soft as possible given the circumstances, the applicator uses it responsibly, and it is used when, how and where, exactly, it needs to be used. No more, no less. (As I wrote before, one big problem with pesticide usage is not the usage itself but the abuse of such).

Organic Certification?

Another question I’m often asked is whether or not organic certification is a good idea. Sure, organic certification is great. But I do not recommend it unless the person who asks this has a really good reason for doing so-and, in my eyes, a marketing reason is the only good reason-and their commitment to these Green Methods is true. In other words you should really have a strong organic goods market at your disposal and be well versed in ways to cope without standby chemicals. If you don’t and aren’t, why bother? An uncertified grower can grow just as organically as their certified counterparts-without the hassle, expense and binding obligation. So unless you can sell premium goods which are “certified organic” to a customer base willing to pay for the power of that “O” word, again, why bother? Your options will be wide open, and you can still be as green as you want. Unless, of course, you cannot show restraint. Then, perhaps, maybe you’ll have to have a binding obligation to keep you on the straight and narrow. But then, again, if that’s who you are, you probably shouldn’t be doing this at all. You might want to turn around and go back to the section discussing mind-set as you’re obviously a reactive sort of grower who’s just not ready for this (it doesn’t make you a bad person, though).

The Finer Points

Back to the finer points of transition. You’ll need to have a clean operation before taking on the biocontrol part of the Green Methods. Meanwhile IPM might just be the ticket. This is because you’ll have to clean things up, and you’ll need to do this in a way which will allow you to seamlessly proceed to the next step: biocontrol. You’ll want to start the integrated part of IPM right away. To do this you’ll want to choose tactics which will allow a cleanup without closing the door on biocontrol agents for great periods of time. If pesticides are the way to do this for you, then choose those which are either compatible with the bugs you plan on introducing, or those which have a short residual period — this may include insecticidal soaps and horticultural oils as well as many other products. (The residual period is the amount of time the substance remains toxic to the biocontrol agents of choice. Other techniques may include emptying the structure and treating it to periods of extreme heating and freezing for as long as several weeks. Or, you may simply choose one or more of several manual options such as hand picking, trapping, etc. All these techniques will be discussed in greater detail in the next page. If it is an option, wait until the crop is cleared from the structure, thoroughly clean things up [steam- or heat-sterilize the structure, if possible], and incorporate biocontrols and other IPM methods upon the germination or introduction of a new crop. Beware: If you’re bringing in plant material from outside sources, be sure the material you’re bringing in has been treated in a way which is compatible with the critters you’re planning to use. If your operation consists of several independent structures, perhaps it is best to learn the Green Methods one structure at a time. Usually this will facilitate a smoother transition and the entire process can be less stressful.

You’re Not Alone

One thing to remember: you’re not alone. I can’t say for sure there are support groups hosting meetings every Tuesday night in your area. (“Hi my name is John P. and I spray pesticides?”) And transition probably has more than twelve steps, anyway. Nor can I say there are chat rooms on the internet devoted to transition, though the latter is very likely. But I can emphatically state you are not alone. If you attend any growers’ meetings, garden club teas, education-based meetings and seminars-including those offering pesticide applicators’ recertification credits — trade events, university cooperative extension get-togethers, etc., you’ll find people doing it just as you are. Some will be ahead of you in the learning curve-some will be behind. But talk to them all. Share notes and experiences. There’s a reason many chemical companies tout their sprays as “compatible with beneficials.” It is because biocontrol and IPM are real; a driving force in horticulture and agriculture. A force to be reckoned with. And many people are doing this.

Lastly, don’t forget one of your most important allies: your biocontrol distributor. The biocontrol distributor has a huge advantage over many other avenues of assistance. The distributor is directly involved with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of grower-individuals with different experiences and results. A good distributor will be asking a lot of questions, taking a lot of notes, and helping a lot of neophytes make the best of it. You may think your biocontrol distributor is in it only for the money (which is partly true because money helps businesses succeed and is fundamental to life on earth as we know it) and you will, therefore, be unable to get straight, unbiased help. But a good distributor will help with every ounce of integrity they can muster. You see, if you are successful in this challenging endeavor, they may keep you as a paying customer for life because you will be a successful grower in need of their products. If they don’t do a good enough job helping you out (or stupidly try to take advantage of your ignorance on the subject), you may fail and go back to chemical pesticides or worse suffer a business collapse. In either case, they’ve lost you and will have to begin anew with someone else. And that can be even more challenging to them than the Green Methods were to you initially.

And Moving Along

Now you’re ready to make a transition. You’re starting in a environment which will not hamper the effectiveness of your good bugs and you’re as clean as a whistle. You’ve read up and brushed up, found yourself a good distributor and are just itching to get started. Don’t for moment, though, get complacent, for the rough stuff follows. Don’t expect miracles and don’t expect the road to success with the Green Methods to be smooth. I’m not saying it’s going to be hell on earth, but there’s still a learning curve before you’ve got ninety-eight percent of it down pat. A hundred percent? Well, I don’t know if that’s possible with anything.

Now let’s get into more details about some of the information in this section. It’s where I’ll start to trim the meat from the bone, so to speak.

Part 2.

Techniques

Cleaning up a greenhouse or growing site or structure in an effort to start a biocontrol/IPM program of pest control is most easily done in a new or empty area. If the area’s not empty, though, the same techniques outlined in this page will need to be applied in a more directed and confined fashion so as not to disrupt the existing plant material. If it is possible, segregate or remove the plant material from the areas to be cleaned. A new indoor area, or one never having seen pesticides or pests, if the floor is dirt or gravel, should probably be treated in the same way an emptied one would be treated, though not as intensively, so a differentiation will not be made in that respect. I will discuss the differences regarding indoor and outdoor areas, though. I’ll start with indoors.

Indoors

A greenhouse or growth chamber is perhaps the easiest type of area to prep as the entire space can be treated. Since we’re dealing with the Green Methods, I won’t offer the easy way out: I won’t suggest you bomb the structure with some fumigant or total-release aerosol, though that is an option. If it’s your option, do try to choose something with a short residual period which allow immediate implementation biological controls, unless downtime is not a factor you’re concerned with. My suggestions for cleanup will be more manual in nature. After all, that’s part of biocontrol and IPM. I’m a hands-on, tactile person not afraid to get my hands dirty, get down in the trenches and to do things the old fashioned way. And why should I be afraid? After all, hands-on techniques tend to be very thorough.

Starting at one end of the structure, remove by hand or flame-away any and all living materials. This includes weeds and grasses and such. Then disconnect all electrical power to the structure and hose everything down (be careful not to actually get water into any motor housings, furnace components etc.). With plain water you can do a lot of good work. Wash away the old and nasty (chemicals, petroleum oils, even dirt and dust), and expose the new and fresh. Start with a clean slate, so to speak. Now go back to the starting point. With a scrub brush and soap thoroughly clean everything: benches, fan blades and housings, horizontal air flow fans, potting and work areas, even concrete floors. (If you have dirt or gravel floors soak them with the soapy water you’re using. If you have a weed barrier fabric over a dirt floor you may choose to remove it and clean it separately, or even replace it with a new fabric after the cleaning process is complete, or simply pour the soapy water through the fabric.) Rinse again with plain water when you’re through. All this rinsing and cleaning might bring up the question of toxic runoff. Well, contain it if you can — which will probably be impossible — and remember, after this, hopefully, you will no longer be adding toxic substances which can lead to a runoff problem. Now, again starting at the beginning, re-clean the area with an approved disinfecting cleaner. There are several on the market designed for this purpose. Even a solution of water and ten percent bleach will work. Rinse again.

Now that all this cleaning is done and your hands are shriveled up like prunes, let the structure air out and thoroughly dry. Don’t worry about leaving it open as pests won’t be very attracted to it now that there’s nothing in it for them to eat. If you still have plant material in the structure, you’ll have to dry it out using your fans and the cleaning process will have to stop there. If it’s possible, in other words you don’t have plant material in the structure and you don’t have to start new material right away, the next step would to seal the structure as tightly as humanly possible, leaving the power disconnected (unless heating is needed to bring up the temperature inside the structure), and let the structure bake in the sun — though be careful to avoid melting plastics, especially the poly covering, because it can get very hot. After a week or two, if you’re in an area experiencing freezing temperatures, open up the structure as much as possible to allow the areas inside to solidly freeze (do winterize the plumbing and shut off the water before doing this). When sufficiently frozen, seal it up and let it bake in the sun again. This process can be repeated as often your schedule allows. It is very beneficial. And if you close shop every year and don’t overwinter plants, it is a strongly recommended annual practice.

If your greenhouse is always in an operational state, clean things up the best you can while working around your plant material. Bomb if you have to, using a product with the shortest residual period possible. Where water, elbow grease, heating and freezing was the ticket in the situation described in the paragraph above, chemicals and, better yet, time, will be your path to transition in this case. In any scenario, try to plan all of this ahead of time. I’ve often heard frustration from growers who have gotten their hearts and minds in the right frame and their desire is very strong, only to find out upon further questioning they had just cleaned things up by using a powerful chemical with a three month residual period. If it’s possible start a biocontrol/IPM program at the beginning of a season: new year, new plants, and a new attitude.

Obviously the indoors recommendations listed previously herein are best suited to a greenhouse or similar structure. Let’s say you’re an interiorscaper, though. Then, of course, you’ll have to make some major modifications to this plan. You can, however, still clean things the best you can (probably cleaning some of the plant material directly), including pots and planters. You may even opt to switch out some of the potted plants with pest-free ones, and this can be cheaper. The removed plants can then go into an area better suited for cleaning and pest control — if an area is available, that is. Soils and planting media may also benefit from a change over or sterilization. To sterilize the media, you’ll have to bake it in an oven for about half an hour at 140 to 160°F — the warmer and longer, the better. Fortunately for interiorscapers, cleaning of plant material is often an integral part of the plant care regimen so chemical residues tend to be less of a problem. Interiorscapers then, logically speaking, should be less vulnerable to certain problems which commonly affect greenhouse growers. This allows an easier, less problematic transition. However, as it pertains to the cleaning of media, interiorscapers may not have the options mentioned above.

Outdoors

In the great outdoors things are a little easier as rains and winds do a lot of the cleaning for you. No more rinse, soap and rinse again; you can skip all that. You may, however, opt to give your soils a break by switching field or garden areas as part of a rotation plan. If that is not possible, due to limited space or your soils have serious problems, a summertime solarization break — not my favorite choice, rotation is — may be necessary (this is best suited to small gardens and raised beds, though). To do this simply cover the areas to be treated with a good quality four-mil clear poly, cover the edges so it doesn’t blow away or allow heat to escape by mounding surrounding soils or rocks, bricks, etc., on top of those edges, and let it stay exposed to the sun for about a month. This process will kill soil pathogens, insects, weeds, etc., at least to depth of about four inches. If pests and diseases reside below this point, turn the soil over and repeat the process. Bear in mind before going through all this trouble, garden and field plots are fairly natural and don’t necessarily benefit a great deal by sterilization as this will negatively affect beneficial microbes, bacteria and even some good insects. Like I said, rotation, in my opinion, is a far superior method of allowing the problem area a well-deserved and necessary rest. To do this plant your primary crops somewhere else for two to three seasons. In the areas slotted for a rest period it is best to plant something which will enhance to soil and allow the area to build itself back up to its full strength. You can let the area be fallow, but cover crops like buckwheat, rye, oats, alfalfa and clover may help build soils back up to their former state. The latter two crops are my favorite, they are legumes which fix airborne nitrogen and send it below, and can be perennial. The other crops mentioned should be replanted annually. Grasses and sod should be avoided as they give nothing back and deplete the soil’s available nutrients — though they do reduce compaction.

A transition to biocontrol/IPM in outdoor areas should inherently be much simpler due to the more favorable and natural conditions, weather’s positive effects and the natural occurrence of good bugs. As you may or may not realize, most of the problems encountered by growers are related to the growers’ excessive tinkering with things. In other words: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If things are not too far gone outdoors, it is best to wait a month then go directly into your new way of dealing with pests. If you haven’t been using chemicals with long residual periods and don’t have really terrible pest or disease problems, you don’t even have to wait before delving into the world of the Green Methods.

Part 3.

The Four “P”s

It’s sometimes helpful to have a mnemonic device to help you out, to present you with a direction. So here’s one for you, as noted, we have Planning, Prevention, Patience, and Perseverance — and they are in order. All have an equal share in importance; their order defines which is likely to be encountered or needed first.

Planning

The preceding pages in this section have hopefully done a fairly good job of illuminating the need for planning before you start. It would be no different if you were planning to start a horticultural or agricultural business and planned on using chemical pesticides as your sole means of pest control. Your best results will be had if you do a little research, identify beforehand problems which may be encountered and, well, have your proverbial ducks in a row. I know this often goes against the grain of human nature: we very often refer to the instruction book only when we discover pieces for the bicycle we got Billy for his birthday are left over; or when the computer just won’t work as it’s supposed to (and we often wait on hold for hours hoping 1-800 Tech Support will bail us out of our jam after only briefly leafing through the computer’s owner’s manual looking for a sometimes very obvious answer). Yet, we get by. We have for years, and will probably continue to do so for many generations. The point isn’t in the project’s doability, it’s in the concept of making the whole thing easier and cheaper — oops, I mean less expensive. I do have to emphasize cheaper, though. Many growers pride themselves on their quality — it can bring in more greenbacks in exchange for the greenery which is sold. And I also have to emphasize less expensive, they are two different things, I guess. If the project’s less expensive you’ll be more profitable. To business, profitability is key. It’s a matter of survival.

Prevention

When I wrote about mind-set previously on this website I used the example of a customer telling a grower his or her plants were infested with little green bugs. That was supposed to reveal the difference between a person who did not employ the powers of observation and a person who actually knew what was going on with his or her plants. The latter is more desirable if biocontrol and IPM is in your future (and even if it’s not). Prevention does need a person with the proper mind-set, but it actually goes a little further than that. A conventional grower can have the right mind-set for the Green Methods, yet not be practicing them. He or she can use their chemicals responsibly and rationally and in good form as a smart grower would. They will target-spray minor infestations as needed and as prescribed on the label of the product(s) they are using. They will also be knowledgeable about their crops and the pests they’re encountering. But most chemicals shouldn’t be used preventively. In fact, some conventional growers which use pesticides on a regular preventive program are actually being irresponsible in their efforts. Most pesticides don’t prevent pests, they kill them.

With biocontrol and IPM, prevention is your ticket to success — especially if you have a budget. Call your biocontrol/IPM supplier as soon as you plant, even beforehand. I know you probably won’t have pests at that time, but that’s the whole point. With biocontrols and the whole mentality of IPM and the Green Methods, you can’t wait until the last minute. In fact, it’s best to act in the first minute. Biocontrol agents, unlike chemical pesticides, will look for trouble. They’ll scour your crops. To them trouble is a good thing, at least when it’s our definition of trouble: pests. To the good bugs, your pests mean a future, one with food, security and general well-being for their offspring. And if they can’t find trouble right there in your plants, they’ll go outward and beyond hoping to score. If pests are not in your crop, but on its periphery, they’ll go to them. Systemic chemicals can move through a plant; biocontrol agents can move through a field — let them. If they can’t locate pests it means they’re not there to find. Good bugs will die trying to be good bugs, literally.

Patience

When pests are found by you, the grower, for whatever reason (maybe you couldn’t use a preventive agent or just didn’t know), you should act quickly. Order the right controls right now! But don’t, however, expect your biocontrols to act quickly. They usually don’t. They have to acclimate to their new surroundings, locate their food or their hosts and then act. Especially when dealing with parasitoids-versus predators, which eat the pests-as they often have to mate first, then lay eggs in the pests before results can be expected (which is why parasitoids are typically used preventively while predators are often used curatively-though not always). Patience is required. No more instant gratification of watching pests keeling over and dying as the poison touches them. Though sometimes some of the predatory insects will perform for you by eating some pests upon release. Sometimes.

Another area where patience has a role is in the general concept of learning the Green Methods. Remember the learning curve I told you about? Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get it all down pat in the first year. Especially if you’re not a neophyte to growing, where unlearning is also a necessary part of the process. Remember this: many, many growers have told me, after their initial struggles (of one or two years), that the Green Methods, employing the measures of biocontrol and integrated pest management, “have been some of the most rewarding experiences they’ve earned.” They tell how “the bugs work better than anything they’ve tried before,” and how they are “actually saving money.” I don’t believe the main thrust of biocontrol is perpetuating sustainability or saving money — though those things always looks good on paper — but it does pay. It pays, over time (after the struggles pass), monetarily, and in many other ways. Some ways may be intangible, while some ways are more tangible, more real, more today. Others may save lives. Just be patient. How’s that saying go? Good things come to those who wait. And please excuse me if I’m, again, beginning to wax philosophical.

Perseverance

Hand in hand with patience is perseverance. In other words: don’t get ticked off and frustrated if success doesn’t jump you in the street and cover you with kisses, just shrug off the lumps the best you can, believe and persevere. Keep going. Patience is a short-term thing; perseverance is more of a long-term thing.