July 24, 2011

Give them an inch, they'll take your yard

The best way to minimize backyard pests is to have the most naturally healthy lawn and garden you can.

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

There's a reason your backyard is full of pests. Lots of reasons, actually.

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If you know when beetles lay their eggs, you can avoid population explosions the next year.

Press Herald file

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Slugs are fond of soggy debris.


Additional Photos Below

And if you stop to consider those reasons -- standing water breeds mosquitoes, tall grass gives shelter to ticks, soggy wood attracts slugs -- you might find some long-range solutions.

Many bug and lawn experts say that instead of spending money on the newest mosquito zapper or insect killer, you might want to spend some time and energy making your backyard as unfriendly to pests as possible. Whether pests are flying or crawling, attacking you or attacking your plants, there are things you can do without using heavy artillery and heavy chemicals.

"The biggest thing you can do is have good sanitation, and by that I mean empty your birdbaths and clean your gutters, keep the grass mowed fairly short, and the hedges and trees trimmed," said Jim Dill, pest management specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Orono. "Make sure you don't have debris lying around; slugs love that. Try to use non-decaying mulch."

Paul Tukey, whose Falmouth-based Safe Lawns Foundation (safelawns.org) works to promote natural lawn care, says the best thing you can do to minimize pests is to have the most naturally healthy lawn and garden you can. If soil is healthy, and if roots and plants are strong, the pest problem should be kept to a minimum.

"When people are able to maintain a completely organic garden, we don't see a pest control problem," Tukey said. "If you've got an insect eating your lettuce, try to find out what's wrong with that lettuce. Pests seek out weakness. If you have very healthy soil, organisms in your soil will eat the grubs, and you won't have a grub problem in your lawn."

Here are some tips on how to attack the causes of your backyard pests -- without chemicals or gadgetry -- from Dill, Tukey and Gary Fish, manager of the Pesticide Programs for the Maine Board of Pesticides Control in Augusta. 


Deer ticks don't like mowed areas, Fish says, so cut the grass. It doesn't have to be too short -- maybe 3 or 4 inches -- which still allows the grass to be healthy. But if you have grass or weeds growing to 8 or 10 inches, you'll be giving ticks a place to hide, and a place they can use as a launching pad to attach to humans and animals.

If you border a wooded area, you can put down a 3-foot-wide strip of mulch or crushed stone as a tick barrier. Ticks are not likely to cross the stone or mulch to get to your yard.


Slugs eat lots of plants, especially hostas. They also love to take shelter on soggy wood or cardboard, so if you keep your yard debris-free, they'll have fewer places to hide.

Also, if you have containers or window boxes of plants sitting on the ground, slugs are likely to be attracted to those and will climb right up the side. So you should raise those containers up on a couple of bricks.

Dill recommends using non-decaying mulch instead of wood mulch, because the latter can attract slugs. There is a non-decaying mulch that is made of old tires, for instance.

And Fish says you might try laying boards and cardboard on your lawn and in your yard -- but away from the plants that slugs love -- before evening. The next morning, collect the debris and dispose of the slugs. He admits this is not a "pretty" method, but it works.


The kind of grass you grow can have an effect on grubs, which are basically larval-stage beetles. Fish says grubs love healthy Kentucky bluegrass. But if you have lower-maintenance fescue grass and don't keep it well watered, you are less likely to attract grubs.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Ticks can be kept at bay if you keep your grass cut and buffer your yard with mulch or crushed stone.


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To discourage mosquitoes, get rid of standing water.

Associated Press file

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Grubs can be resisted by planting certain organisms in the soil.

Press Herald file

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