7 Mistakes to Avoid When Fighting Garden Pests

Pest infestations can get out of hand quickly, but harsh sprays and reactive techniques aren’t always the answer. Some pest management mistakes can even make the bug pressure worse! In this article, former organic farmer Logan Hailey explains how to avoid the most common mistakes when fighting garden pests.

Close-up of a gardener's hand in a gray glove showing a slug eating arugula leaves in the garden due to mistakes made in pest control.


Aphids, beetles, cutworms, whiteflies, hornworms—pests are one of the most overwhelming parts of gardening. There are billions of insects flying and crawling around in nature, but some of them seem determined to destroy all of our hard work. While pests are a natural part of the ecosystem, there are many ways to fight them without harming your plants, soil, pollinators, or family’s health.

Many of us got into gardening so we could grow our own organic, flavorful food. Obviously, spraying chemical pesticides compromises the most foundational ethics of organic growing. Moreover, pesticides are actually very ineffective over the long haul. If you’re looking for sustainable, long-term pest management that doesn’t hurt your health or your wallet, this is the article for you.

Let’s dig into 7 major mistakes to avoid when fighting pests and what to do instead.

What are the Biggest Pest Management Mistakes?

Close-up of a hands spraying ripe apples on a tree using a large orange bottle of insecticide.
Healthy gardens thrive on preventive, ecological pest management strategies.

Sustainable pest management is rooted in prevention. The biggest mistake beginner growers make is using a war-like, reactionary approach to pest control. Gardening is not a war on bugs! It’s actually about creating balance to mimic nature, ultimately yielding higher quality food with less outbreaks. 

If you wait until your plants are infested with bugs, then you spray harsh broad-spectrum pesticides, the entire ecology of the garden is disrupted. These mistakes harm pollinators, beneficial predatory insects, and human health. An industrialized approach to pest control actually can create a negative loop of more pest outbreaks and chemical dependency.

Your landscape is not a sterile, closed-loop system. It is an ecosystem! Nature has its own “checks and balances” to control insect populations. We must put ecological controls and clever management techniques in place to keep pests under control for the long haul. 

7 Pest Management Mistakes to Avoid

Some mistakes, like poor soil or seed germination issues, are fairly quick and easy to remedy. In contrast, pest management mistakes can harm your garden for the entire season or longer. 

Pests reproduce rapidly. A single aphid can produce up to 80 babies per week and each female is born already pregnant! Infestations can expand practically overnight, but broad-spectrum sprays can make things even worse when they knock out natural predators! 

The good news is less than 1% of all insects are considered pests. Most bugs you’ll encounter are beneficial or neutrally harmless. The challenge is to properly identify, manage, and balance the populations of insects to prevent harm to your crops and ornamentals. 

Avoid these mistakes to create a sustainable pest management plan!

Mistake: Being Reactive (Rather Than Proactive)

Close-up of cabbage butterfly larvae eating the leaves of the white cabbage, leaving behind large holes.
Proactive planning prevents pest problems and promotes ecosystem health.

It’s better to proactively plan than to react. Reactionary pest management means waiting until pest infestations get out of hand, then trying to control them with harsh sprays and chemicals. This knee-jerk reaction only considers short-term results, like killing tomato hornworms, without taking into account the long-term repercussions. Reactive pest control assumes that the garden is a closed-loop system like a machine factory. But nature does not work that way.

In contrast, proactive pest management involves creating a plan to prevent pest problems. Your yard is an intricate ecosystem much like a rainforest. Aggressively attacking a problem in the rainforest may appear to solve problems in the short-term, but it ultimately does more harm than good.

Many gardeners think that pests appear out of nowhere. Sometimes this is the case. But more often than not, we accidentally create circumstances for pests to thrive. 

For example, broad-spectrum pesticides kill off all insects, including pests and their predators. The pests are quicker to return and proliferate because predatory insects take longer to recover from chemical eradication. This is similar to killing off all the coyotes and mountain lions in an area, leaving the rabbits to run rampant without any predators to keep them under control.

What To Do Instead

View of a vibrant planting with dill, carrots, marigolds, cosmos, calendula, and other thriving plants.
Preventing pests is easier and more effective than reacting to outbreaks.

Like most things in life, pest outbreaks are preventable. Planning and prevention are much better than emergency responses! We cannot control everything that happens, but we have an abundance of tools at our disposal to increase the overall resilience of the garden ecosystem. 

Collectively, these tools are called Integrated Pest Management. They include:

  • Regular monitoring for pests
  • Using pest traps
  • Attracting beneficial predatory insects
  • Enhancing biocontrol (biological control) methods
  • Planting insectaries
  • Diversifying crops
  • Creating ecological “checks and balances”
  • Installing physical barriers (like row cover or netting)

Reactive (emergency) management usually includes just one tool—SPRAY EVERYTHING! Proactive management is like a whole toolbox of prevention. It is more peaceful, non-toxic, ecological, and sustainable. It can also help you build up garden resilience so pest problems become less intense and less frequent. 

Ultimately, avoiding the reactionary mistake is all about a mindset shift. Instead of thinking, How can I destroy these bugs right now? It helps to think, How can I prevent pests from the very beginning of the season and build long-lasting controls into my gardening strategy? 

Pro Tip: Start your preventative strategy by interplanting flowering plants to attract “good guy” insects. Some of our favorite species for pest control include:

  • White alyssum
  • Yarrow
  • Flowering dill
  • Queen Anne’s lace
  • Flowering thyme
  • Marigolds
  • Mint
  • Chrysanthemums

Mistake: Leaving Infested Plants

Close-up of a potato plant infested with Colorado potato beetles feeding on its leaves and stems.
Regular monitoring and quick action are key to garden success.

Those who spend the most time in their garden generally have the most success. Why? Because they are paying close attention to their plants! If you only visit your garden once per week, you may not notice when pests are starting to get out of control. If you wait too long, infested plants can become breeding meccas for bugs to multiply and spread.

It is a huge mistake to leave pest-covered plants in your garden. Once a plant is infested to the point of no return (ie. you cannot harvest its leaves or fruits), you should pull it ASAP. Leaving bug-laden crops in your beds for long periods of time only makes pest control more difficult.

What To Do Instead

Close-up of a gardener using a yellow hose to direct a powerful stream of water onto pest-infested plants in a sunny garden.
Knowing your pest damage threshold helps maintain a healthy garden.

All integrated pest management (IPM) strategies used by professional growers include certain thresholds for pest damage. For example, an organic farmer who grows vegetables for high-end farmer’s markets probably has a very low threshold for damage. Customers are unlikely to purchase hole-filled kale or tomatoes with chunks bitten out of them.

In contrast, a home gardener might be willing to tolerate more damage, depending on the crop. For example, you don’t need picture-perfect sauce tomatoes if you plan to can them. You may also be OK with a few holes in your potato or radish leaves. However, you probably don’t want to eat Brussels sprouts filled with aphids or strawberries covered in slug slime.

Setting a mental threshold for pest damage can help create realistic expectations. More importantly, it lets you know when it’s time to fold! Once a plant becomes too infested to be salvaged, you need to take quick action to remove it! Cut down the infested plant and put it in the trash or landscape waste bin to stop the spread of bugs to the rest of your crops.

Do not leave pest-filled plants in the landscape. In the early stages of an infestation, you can spray the plants with an organic spray or a heavy blast of water to try to kill the pests. But if the plant is no longer salvageable, remove it ASAP!

Mistake: Spraying Broad-Spectrum Pesticides

Close-up of a gardener wearing blue gloves spraying Broad-Spectrum Pesticides from a white plastic bottle onto carrot plants in a garden bed.
Using broad-spectrum pesticides disrupts natural pest control cycles in gardens.

Broad-spectrum pesticides are designed to kill everything. The label “broad-spectrum” literally means “effective against a large variety of organisms.” These products are incredibly harmful. Contrary to popular belief, broad-spectrum pesticides actually create more pest problems! You definitely need to avoid this mistake if you want to stop fighting so many pests.

Every pest in your garden has natural predators. Insect pests are usually at the bottom of the food chain—they eat our plants, and something else eats them. Predators like ladybugs, hoverflies, lacewings, spiders, and parasitic wasps are absolutely essential for sustainable pest control. Unfortunately, every time you spray a broad-spectrum insecticide, you are also killing your predator allies! 

Insect Resistance

Close-up of pesticide being sprayed with a garden sprayer to control Colorado potato beetles infesting potato plants in the garden.
Repeated pesticide use leads pests to develop resistance, making chemicals ineffective.

Once the predators are gone, the pests come back with even more vengeance. Like rabbits in suburbia, there aren’t any predators left to eat them! If you spray again, you may temporarily knock back the pest population once more, only to find that it becomes stronger. 

Regular pesticide applications actually create stronger pests. This phenomenon is called “insect resistance.” Because pests reproduce so rapidly, they can quickly become resistant to certain chemicals. There are pesticide-resistant mosquitoes, aphids, potato beetles, moths, and even house flies. 

Repeated applications of chemicals trigger the pests to avoid the toxin or evolve mechanisms to metabolize the chemical, ultimately making the pesticide ineffective. In other words, you can keep spraying, but they become immune. Insecticide resistance is a major global agricultural issue that leads to the use of increasingly harsh chemicals. You can avoid it altogether by simply ditching synthetic insecticides.

Other Major Mistakes

Close-up of a bee on a flowering Helenium plant in a sunny garden.
Overusing pesticides can worsen pest problems and harm ecosystems.

Research shows that pesticides are more likely to be overused or misused by homeowners. Improper application, storage, and safety measures (which we’ll explore below) are major risks to your family. It is common knowledge that insecticides are bad, but most gardeners don’t realize how these chemicals can actually make pest issues worse.

Other problems with pesticides are far too numerous to explain in this article, but you are probably already aware of many of them. In addition to killing insect predators, the major issues with pesticides include:

  • Killing pollinators like bees and butterflies
  • Contaminating soil and water
  • Harming aquatic organisms
  • Toxic to non-target plants
  • Pesticide resistance
  • Harmful to domesticated animals and wildlife
  • Significant scientifically-proven harm to human health, including short-term exposure and long-term adverse effects like cancer and neurological diseases

What To Do Instead

Close-up of spraying a rhubarb plant affected by black aphids in a sunny garden.
Switch to neem oil for effective, eco-friendly pest control.

If you want to stop using chemical sprays, what alternatives can you use to knock out a big pest infestation? Fortunately, there are many organic and non-toxic options that won’t harm you or beneficial critters. As you are establishing a preventative routine, you may still need to apply certain sprays to cut back on pest populations. 

The most popular organic spray is neem oil. This organic-approved pesticide is actually made from the seeds and fruit of a tropical tree called the neem tree. Neem trees naturally create pest-deterrent compounds (namely, azadirachtin). These compounds become concentrated when pressed into an oil.

Neem oil is the most effective for controlling:

  • Aphids
  • Whiteflies
  • Spider mites
  • Fleas
  • Japanese beetles
  • Leafhoppers
  • Thrips

As a bonus, neem oil helps prevent and kill fungal pathogens to slow the spread of diseases. Moreover, neem is biodegradable and does not harm the soil. It can even help earthworms! When used correctly, neem does not harm beneficial insects once it dries. As always, be sure to carefully read package instructions and dilute the oil before applying.

Horticultural oil is another compound that can knock out aphids, flea beetles, whiteflies, spider mites, and the larvae of many pests. Oils work by smothering the bugs and preventing them from breathing or metabolizing. This means that they must directly touch the pest to be effective. 

A fogger or spray bottle are great options to ensure even distribution of the product. Spray these natural compounds directly over a pest-infested leaf, taking care to follow specific package instructions. 

Mistake: Growing a Monoculture

The soybean field stretches with rows of vibrant green plants bearing trifoliate leaves.
Monoculture encourages pest outbreaks.

Monoculture means planting a ton of the exact same crop in one concentrated area. This is most common on industrial farms where thousands of acres of corn or soy cover the landscape. The lack of biodiversity makes it extra easy for pests to find their host plants. It also makes it easier for specialist pests to spread

Specialist insects are those with a main target plant or plant family. For example, tomato hornworms primarily attack tomatoes, but they can also attack nightshade family cousins like peppers and tobacco. If you grow a huge clump of tomatoes and their relatives in a concentrated area, it is easier for the five-spotted hawk moth (the adult stage of the tomato hornworm) to find plants to lay its eggs.

Monoculture also happens with specific varieties of plants. For example, if you only grow one type of kale, there is less diversity in the plot. This allows pests to spread faster. Aphids rapidly jump between plants and hide in the curly leaves of curly kale varieties. A mixed kale bed of ‘Red Russian,’ ‘Siberian,’ and ‘Nero Toscana Lacinato’ is less likely to be infested because there is a diversity of genetics and plant defenses.

What To Do Instead

Close-up of a garden bed with young tomato, green onion and lettuce plants with green and burgundy leaves.
Diversify with companion planting for better pest resistance.

Diversified plantings are proven to be more resilient against pests and diseases. Imagine that you are a Colorado potato beetle flying over a garden. If there is a giant area of dozens of potato plants, it will be very easy to smell them, land on them, and start eating. In contrast, the beetles may have more difficulty finding their host in a diversified garden interspersed with a variety of vegetables and flowers.

To diversify, start practicing companion planting or interplanting. This practice involves strategically planting many different types of plants in the same beds. Beyond pest control, it also has many benefits, like saving space, enhancing pollination, and improving overall yields.

Don’t worry; you can still keep plants together to make harvesting easy. For example, you may grow a row of lettuce next to a row of tomatoes. The dappled shade of the tomatoes can protect the lettuce from bolting, and the lettuce won’t compete with the tomatoes. Both crops will still be easy to efficiently harvest, but they will be less prone to pest infestations because the diversity of smells and genetics deters bugs. 

Better yet, add in some marigolds or white alyssum to boost natural predatory pest control! 

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Mistake: Relying Only on Sprays

Spraying a Columnar European Beech plant with beautiful ornamental purple foliage using a garden sprayer.
Use a diverse toolbox to manage pests effectively and sustainably.

Pesticides—even organic sprays—are not the only answer to your pest woes. It is a big mistake to rely solely on these products to knock out bugs. As we discussed above, insects can easily become resistant to sprays that are applied over and over. This even includes organic sprays! 

A diverse toolbox is key to staying on top of pest populations! This is the only real way for humans to outsmart pests. The bugs will find any way they can to eat their favorite foods. But gardeners can use clever methods to suppress, deter, and exclude the insects from their host plants.

What To Do Instead

Close-up of a garden with wooden raised beds growing strawberries, mint, chives, lemongrass, some covered with white row fabric to protect from insects.
Provide additional protection with effective physical barriers like row cover.

Physical barriers are highly effective non-chemical means of pest control. Row fabric (aka row cover) is an agricultural textile that keeps pests out while enhancing crop growth. Water and sunlight can still penetrate through the woven textile. Better yet, the row cover helps keep young seedlings cozy and warm through spring nights. This is a crucial tool used by organic farmers yet underutilized in home gardens.

Row cover is my favorite means of pest prevention for young brassicas like turnips, arugula, and radishes. After directly seeding these crops, immediately put a row cover over them. The seeds will germinate quickly and benefit from more even moisture under the fabric.

You can “float” row fabric directly over a crop. This means it rests on top of the leaves. Alternatively, you can build low tunnel hoops with wire, metal, or PVC. The fabric needs to be secured with smooth (not sharp) objects like sandbags, rocks, or clamps. You may need to remove row fabric after certain crops like zucchini or tomatoes get larger and start flowering. Pollinators cannot access the blossoms underneath row cover.

Insect netting is another reliable option. Some fine nets keep even the smallest thrips and flying bugs out of your beds.

Keep in mind that physical barriers only work on flying pests. Deterrents for soil-dwelling pests include:

Diatomaceous earth

Dry powder sprinkled around plants to dehydrate slugs and snails.

Slug bait

Organic brands use pellets to bait and kill slugs.

Beer traps

Another popular slug baiting method uses a tupperware filled with cheap beer and buried at ground level so the slugs fall in and drown.


Interplanting with marigolds suppresses root-knot nematodes in their second season.

Seedling collars

Plant protectors made of cardboard or plastic can protect the base of young plants from cutworms.

Mistake: Applying Sprays Midday

Close-up of a gardener spraying a pea plant at midday in a sunny garden using a yellow spray bottle.
Apply pesticides early morning or late evening for optimal effectiveness.

If you are going to use pesticides or organic sprays, it is vital that you apply them at the right time. Many gardeners mistakenly spray chemicals in the middle of the day. This can scorch plant leaves and expose important beneficial insects to the compounds

Bees, butterflies, and other pollinators are most active when the sun is out. If you apply a pesticide in the afternoon, it is more likely to harm the “good guy” bugs that you’re trying to protect. Many chemicals also become less effective in hot, sunny weather. 

What To Do Instead

Close-up of a gardener in blue gloves spraying flowering rose bushes with large pink flowers and lush green foliage using a white spray bottle.
Apply pesticides during cooler times to protect pollinators and maximize effectiveness.

Always follow package application instructions. Many products should be applied in the cooler parts of the day, such as early morning or late in the evening. This will be helpful for targeting nocturnal pests while avoiding harm to the precious pollinators. 

Mistake: Applying Pest Control Without Protective Equipment

Close-up of a hand holding a sieve filled with Diatomaceous earth and spreading it onto the soil around young lettuce and carrot seedlings.
Protect yourself by following safe pesticide-handling practices at all times.

Anything that can kill bugs can obviously have an effect on human health. We are all part of nature! Not all pesticides are as carcinogenic and toxic as infamous chemicals like DDT or Agent Orange. But it is very important to protect yourself and your family if you decide to apply any type of pest control product to your garden.

Homeowners are the most prone to pesticide poisoning because they don’t receive the training of professional applicators and farmers. Moreover, research shows that many homeowners do not thoroughly read labels and tend to use products in more concentrated forms without dilution. We always want our Epic family to be cautious when applying anything to the garden

Even all-natural products pose minor health risks. For example, diatomaceous earth is a benign, non-toxic material made of ancient fossilized algae. However, the powdered form of diatomaceous earth can still be harmful to inhale. You don’t want to dump a bunch of this powder on your plants and accidentally inhale the microscopically sharp particles. 

What To Do Instead

Garden tools including glove, mask, eyeglasses protector, earmuff, farm trident, compost fork, power pivot cut, and lopper are placed on a metal surface.
Ensure safety by using proper protective gear and precautions.

Always have PPE (personal protective equipment) on hand. A standard N95 face mask and gloves are helpful, and goggles or long sleeves are necessary for some products. Try to avoid applying chemicals whenever possible. Be sure to keep children and pets out of the area for 24-48+ hours after applying anything with risky ingredients.

It is also extremely important to wash your crops before eating. If you apply Bt or neem oil to your kale leaves, you will want to wash them before consuming. These products are not considered toxic to humans in small quantities, but you still don’t want to eat them. Neem oil also smells pretty funky.

I will reiterate: Organic products are not nearly as harmful as synthetic chemical pesticides. However, they can still pose risks when used or applied improperly. Always read the label and take precautions. If you don’t want to use scary products, opt for biological controls and manual techniques! Gardening should be fun, not dangerous!

Final Thoughts

Even the most experienced gardeners sometimes make pest control mistakes. The aim of organic growing is to maximize ecological pest control so we don’t have to use synthetic chemicals. This starts with preventative measures like crop planning, diversification, pest monitoring, plant removal, and physical barriers. You can also plant flowers like white alyssum and marigolds to attract beneficial predatory insects and deter “bad guy” pests. 

It is essential to avoid broad-spectrum pesticides and chemicals that upset the natural ecology of your garden. These sprays can cause more harm than good.

Most importantly, always protect your family’s health when using any form of pest control. Remember that even natural products have risks. Follow product instructions, dilute when necessary, and use protective equipment when applying pesticides.

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A ladybug with red wings rests on a green leaf, basking in the warm glow of sunlight, its delicate spots and tiny legs visible up close against the leaf's surface.

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