Integrated Pest Management

By: Sandy Feather 2012
Penn State Extension

Q. I keep reading about "IPM" or integrated pest management and am looking for a succinct definition of that term. I read about it in different contexts, but I am still a little confused about it and how it works with plant pests.

A: Integrated pest management (IPM) is a method of pest control that uses a variety of techniques to keep pest populations at tolerable levels. IPM is not organic gardening, but using IPM principles reduces pesticide use because it gives you tools other than pesticides to manage pest problems. I like to think of IPM as common sense pest control. A more technical definition is that it is a way to manage pests in an environmentally and economically sound manner.

Stink bug
Stinkbugs can be trapped instead of sprayed

Sometimes I think IPM is a little easier for farmers and commercial producers to understand than it is for home gardeners. If a farmer knows that a given pest will reduce the value of his crop by $500, and it will cost him $300 to spray to control the pest, then the farmer will likely choose to spray.

It is trickier for home gardeners, because they are rarely totally dependent on their vegetable garden or fruit plantings. And when we are talking about ornamental plants - trees, shrubs and flowers - it gets even harder. Again, a nurseryman or greenhouse grower will make spray applications when damage from pests will reduce the value of his crop. Once that tree, shrub or flower is growing in your yard, it is more a matter of how much aesthetic damage you are willing tolerate before you choose to spray.


IPM includes pest control tools such as:

  • Cultural controls such as making sure ornamental plants are suited to the place in your yard where you intend to plant them. All plants have certain preferences for sun or shade, amount of soil moisture, soil pH and fertility levels, and tolerance for wind or deicing salts. Whenever those requirements are not met, plants can be stressed and become more susceptible to insect and disease problems. Once chosen, plants should be planted and maintained properly.
  • For vegetable gardeners, cultural controls include routine crop management practices such as tilling (to expose overwintering insects); crop rotation and thinning overcrowded seedlings (to allow good air circulation).

Unblemished tomatoes
Ripe tomatoes!

  • Mechanical controls such as excluding pests with floating row covers (Garden Blanket, Reemay) or picking insects off plants by hand.
  • Genetic controls available to home gardeners are mainly plants that are resistant to common insect and disease problems. This is especially important for trees and shrubs because they will be part of your landscape for a long time, but it is also helpful to grow vegetables that are resistant to common diseases.
  • Biological controls include preserving populations of predatory or parasitic insects that are present in your landscape. These beneficial insects feed on or parasitize (and kill) insects we consider pests. They are active in your garden unless you regularly use broad-spectrum insecticides such as Sevin (carbaryl), whether you notice them or not. Most people know lady beetles and praying mantids, but there are a host of beetles, true bugs and tiny wasps (they do not sting people!) that are beneficial. Introducing purchased beneficial insects to your yard is not always successful they often fly away. Encourage beneficial insects in your yard by providing a variety of blooming plants so that something is in bloom from early spring until fall and by avoiding broad-spectrum insecticides.
  • Chemical controls pesticides are applied when other steps are not controlling the problem or on those occasions when the pest is life threatening to a tree or shrub you prefer not to lose. Emerald ash borer is a good example of the latter.

Gardeners have many options when it comes to pesticides. Pesticides run the gamut from very safe products such as insecticidal soap and horticultural oil to conventional pesticides.

Pump sprayer
Always spray the least toxic
product available

In between are those derived from plants or naturally occurring organisms such as neem oil and spinosad. They are soft in that they break down quickly often within hours of exposure to sun - and do not harm beneficials coming into an area once they have broken down. However, they should be treated with the same respect you would afford conventional pesticides. Some pest problems, such as emerald ash borer, are only controlled by applications of specific conventional insecticides.


Bees in your garden

Lawns without pesticides

Hibiscus problems


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