June 15 2009 12:00 AM

THE RESIDENTS OF CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA, typically take pride in what their town has to of fer—gorgeous mountain scenery, numerous swimming and fishing spots, a rich and vibrant array of wildlife—but when fall cankerworms began devouring the town’s local trees in record numbers several years ago, that pride began to wane. City arborists were calling it the worst cankerworm epidemic the town had ever seen.

Things got so bad that the city decided to crop-dust the pest-infested areas. The problems with crop-dusting, though, are the environmental concerns behind it. Because chemicals are involved, there are dangers to over-spraying.

“It had gotten to the point where the city was cropdusting an unreal amount of acreage,” says Robbie Gibson, maintenance and treatment supervisor at Corrective Landscape Services in Charlotte. “We decided to explore other options.”

Gibson’s company decided not to treat the dying trees with a pesticide, but with glue instead. Implementing a process called banding, Gibson’s crews would wrap the trees in Tanglefoot, a sticky substance that traps the female cankerworms as they climb up the trees to lay eggs. “The females don’t have wings, so they’re forced to climb the trees,” says Gibson. “Using Tanglefoot, we’d trap them there and prevent them from mating with the males.”

This method was extremely effective in controlling the cankerworm epidemic, and it worked without the use of chemical pesticides. As contractors, residents and city officials continue to look for greener ways to deal with pests, such preventative measures are being used more and more frequently.

This kind of approach has a name in the landscape industry: integrated pest management, or IPM. Tackling pervasive weeds, insects and turf diseases through a wide variety of methods, integrated pest management takes a more prudent, “pick-and-choose” approach to pest control. “It’s a system in which we incorporate all the different strategies we have to control pests,” says Randall Prostak, extension specialist and IPM expert at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. “It starts with identifying the pest, determining its life cycle and what plants it affects, and then looking at different cultural practices to manage those pests, such as fertilization and irrigation.”

IPM not only takes a greener approach to pest control, it’s also a great way to bring in a little extra revenue. Chemical sprays aren’t cheap, and they can really add up after a while. But if you find an approach, you can carve an indelible impression into your clients’ minds—especially when they see just how effective your IPM methods are.

There are many different strategies one can take that can be considered IPM. Sometimes the problem starts with the soil itself. Perhaps it’s not providing the plants with the nutrients they need. In these circumstances, you might try experimenting with different kinds of organic fertilizer, such as worm casting. Or you might try preparing a brand new landscape altogether—one that is conducive to the plant life your clients want.

Other times, IPM can be as simple as spraying the bugs out of a bush with a water hose. It all depends on the site, and since each site is different, there’s no one sound IPM strategy. But with a little bit of know-how, you’ll have the ability to perform effective integrated pest management in any given situation, wowing your clients along the way.

Sizing it up

When implementing IPM, there are several key points you should address. Each of these points is designed to manage pests effectively while causing the least possible damage to people, property and the environment:

•Scout and monitor the site: Inspecting the property is one of the most important things you can do. Before you do anything else—soil tests, fertilization, spraying—you should always take a look around the site. Keep an eye out for pests such as invasive bugs or weeds, and try to determine why they’re there in the first place.

You might want to consider developing profiles for each pest you encounter. These profiles would include everything you know about the pest—its name, life cycle, the areas in which you spotted the pest, etc. By creating pest profiles, you can consult them in the future for easy reference.

•Soil testing: You can perform soil tests to determine what nutrients are in the soil. This is important because it tells you what’s feeding the turf. Perhaps the soil is lacking in certain nutrients or beneficial microbial organisms. Having this knowledge is a great way to help establish a well balanced diet for your client’s turf.

•Determine water thresholds: Depending on what type of grass you have growing and the soil you’re using, there are different levels of water you are recommended to use. Once you know what kind of grass you’re working with, find out how much water it needs in order to look vibrant and healthy (aka pest-free). Always water the turf proportionately, making sure there are no dry spots or areas that receive too much water. 07.jpg

•Know when to use herbicides: Just because over-applying herbicides can be harmful to the environment doesn’t mean you should avoid using them altogether. When you decide that you’ve exhausted all other options, herbicides can be a great tool. They can be quite effective on perennial weeds, especially when you risk spreading their seeds by physically removing them. Should you decide to go with herbicides, always read the label carefully to make sure that you’re using the right product on the right plant.

If you’re following a strict IPM regimen, you’ll only be using herbicides after the pests become a problem and you’ve no other options. Otherwise, it’s best to look into controlling pests as early on in the game as possible, before they’re even present.

Upon inspection, if you see any pests, selective spraying is another option. Here, instead of spraying the entire area with chemicals, only spray the infested areas. Selective spraying is IPM at its finest. “Pests are not the problem,” claims Steve Zien, president of Living Resources Company in Sacramento, California. “They’re a symptom of the problem. Those pests are there because there’s something going on that allowed them to move in. Our job is to find what that something is and correct it.”

Once you’ve taken a look at the site and taken the facts into consideration, you will want to think about how to address any problems you might have encountered. Consult the pest profiles you’ve cataloged, the results of your soil tests and the site’s water thresholds, and from there, develop a plan.

All organic

Some words of advice on what should go into your plan: Make everything as all-organic as possible. Beneficial fungi or bacteria can act as an all-natural slow release fertilizer.

Take worm casting as an example. This is essentially worm manure which contains a high amount of organic matter. It releases nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium (NPK) into the soil to help strengthen the roots, color and lifespan of the plants.

 Another popular organic fertilizer is mycorrhizae fungi, which helps expand the part of the roots that absorb nutrients and water. By enhancing this part of the roots, they will be able to absorb a wide range of beneficial nutrients from a very large area, allowing the plant to stay well-fed.

Fish fertilizer and seaweed fertilizer can be mixed with compost and made into a liquid. This liquid fertilizer can then be sprayed onto the leaves of the plants to provide them with foliar feeding, creating a nice balance of nutrients within the plants.

What many fail to realize is that these beneficial organisms are as effective a pesticide as you’ll ever need. By providing plants with the proper diet to make them stronger and healthier, these microbial organisms help them compete with weeds and other pests. Turf-grass tends to prefer an even balance of fungi and bacteria, while shrubs and trees prefer a more fungal diet.

Learning to manage water

Pests usually develop because of watering issues. In places where the soil is being over-watered, there won’t be enough air in the soil. This will cause any beneficial organisms to get choked out and replaced by pests. “These microbial organisms need oxygen,” says Prostak. “And when you’re watering every day, they won’t get enough oxygen and you won’t have those organisms. But you will have all sorts of pesky little critters.”

Rather than watering the soil gradually over a stretch of several hours, many sites will irrigate their turf for very short periods of time. Consequently, the water doesn’t permeate very far down into the soil. This will create a very shallow root system and result in the plant’s roots having an extremely difficult time coming into contact with beneficial nutrients that can help build their resistance to pests. In other words, if you don’t water the soil properly, you’re more likely to have pests.

One IPM strategy you can take is to increase the depth of the plant’s root system by water cycl ing. Water cycling is a method in which you get more water further down in the soil by running your stations in cycles, one at a time. Start by watering one station until you start to notice the formation of water runoff. Then, turn it off, move onto the next station and do the same thing. Once you’ve run through all of your stations, start over again. Repeat this cycle until you’re confident you’ve gotten the water depth you want.

“Most landscapers expect water to go down maybe three or four inches,” explains Zien. “With the water cycling program that we use, we expect our root systems to go down eight or more inches.”

Practice prevention: Try taking a good, hard look at the soil at each site you go to and ask yourself if there’s any way you can improve it to prevent weeds and insects from invading. More than likely, you’ll find that there’s something you can do. If your company practices a lot of tilling, particularly on sites that contain perennial weeds, you might want to try cleaning your equipment more often. Perennial weeds, when torn out of the ground, have a tendency to spread their seed beds all around and cause more weeds to grow.

I f you don’ t clean them between jobs, tillers will carry these seed beds to other sites and cause weeds to grow there as well. Thoroughly cleaning your equipment after every use is a good way to prevent these weeds from being transferred to other sites.

Know the life cycles of the pests you encounter. For example, if the site is being overrun by winter weeds but you don’t notice them until March, that’s probably a bad time to begin treating them. “If the weeds have already flowered and they’re going to die in a few weeks, it’s pointless to try to control them,” says Gibson. “It makes more sense to know that they’re a problem and then plan accordingly.” The best strategy is to treat those pest hotspots early, before they become a problem. In the case of pests such as winter weeds, you can try simply laying down a mulch to block them from breaking through the soil’s surface. You can take a similar approach to insects.

 If you see that there’s damage to the site’s vegetation, and you can attribute that damage to insects, then you know that that insect is going to be back the same time next season. Try to create a healthy food web within the soil to prevent those insects from coming back. Or, if that doesn’t work, you can try using residual chemicals.

These chemicals will stay in effect for about 45 days after they’ve been applied, destroying all harmful insects during that time. “We use a product called Forbid to take care of spider mites, which can be quite a pesky little bug,” says Gibson. “It’s really great because it will kill all of them without harming any beneficial organisms.”

 Establishing a sound IPM system can do wonders for sites with a long history of pest problems. It will also impress your customers and keep them coming back for more, as it’s a great way to separate your company from your competitors and prove to them that you know the best ways to deal with pests.

As the landscape industry continues to go green, practices such as IPM only build in popularity. It’s a strategy that’s profitable and practical, and if you do it right, your clients will feel good about going organic while maintaining their landscapes.