With both indoor and outdoor gardening comes pests. These insects can cause significant damage to your crop in a short amount of time. It is important to stay on top of these pests before they have a chance to cause any problems. This generally involves spraying pesticides on the crop in an attempt to kill them. Many of these pesticides are made from toxic chemicals, while others are made by synthesizing natural chemicals in a lab.
Neem oil, on the other hand, is special, it needs very little modification in order for it to be used as a highly effective pesticide for your plants. And it even has added benefits that these other pesticides don’t have!
What Is Neem Oil?
Neem oil comes from an Indian tree known by the scientific community as Azadirachta indica. The oil is extracted from the seed by crushing the seeds under extreme pressures to force out all of the oil contained inside.
The oil itself has a strong scent that falls somewhere between garlic and sulfur. It is actually quite potent in its natural raw form and comes to no surprise that most insects despise it.
How is it Used as a Pesticide
Neem oil is a natural pesticide by nature, and nothing needs to be done to it to make it kill or repel insects. As the name implies, however, neem oil is an oil, which means that it is not soluble in water. If you were to mix raw neem oil into a spray bottle of water and sprayed it, all the oil would be floating on the top of the water and would be the last thing sprayed onto the plants. This would probably clog the spray bottle and would deliver much too strong of a dose. Neem oil needs to be diluted in water for it to be safe for your plants.
The solution is called an emulsifier.
This is a class of chemicals which can be either natural or synthetic, that allow oils to mix into water. Soap is an emulsifier, which allows water to wash off the oils found on your skin and hair. Without it, the water would simply run over the oil without removing it.
In the case of neem oil, an emulsifier allows it to mix into the water in order to dilute it and makes it easy to spray onto the leaves of your plants. In most cases, this is the only addition needed to make a high-quality neem oil spray.
How Does Neem Oil Work?
Neem oil works in a similar way to horticultural oil (mineral oil) by smothering the insects and suffocating them. The oily nature of the spray coats the exoskeletons of the insect's body and seals it up to prevent air from entering or exiting the insect. Unlike mineral oil, however, neem oil has an added benefit through its unique chemical makeup.
Neem oil contains a chemical known as azadirachtin which has been found to prevent insects from feeding. If this persists for long enough the insect will die from starvation. Other actions of this chemical include a hormonal interaction which alters their natural hormone balance. These hormones are what regulate when an insect grows or develops into the next life stage (for example from nymph to mature adult), and regulates when an insect reproduces. By interacting with this system, azadirachtin can prevent an insect from breeding and developing or growing properly. Insects seem to know that neem is not good for them as well because even before an infestation, an application of neem has a strong repellent effect on insects.
Fortunately, neem is a long lasting pesticide as well, which makes it useful for preventative treatments as well as corrective. Some growers choose to spray their crops every few weeks with this safe and natural pesticide simply to repel any pests that happen to wander into their garden.
Is Neem Toxic?
Not only is neem oil non-toxic, it is actually good for humans. Neem oil can be purchased in health food stores as a topical oil for the skin and hair. It is used to treat head lice, eczema, dandruff, and as a natural insect repellant. It is safe to use on food crops and is one of the preferred methods of pest control by many professional vegetable growers for this reason.
It is slightly toxic towards fish, though, so avoid using this pesticide if you are running an aquaponics system.
Will Neem Hurt Plants?
Diluted neem oil sprays will not harm your plants, but if the oil is too concentrated, or used too often it can plug the stoma (breathing holes) on your plant's leaves and lead to damage. If the oil is allowed to accumulate, it can cause burn marks as it intensifies the heat of your lights or the sun. Best practices with neem oil suggest spraying only once every 24 hours, and avoid letting any spots accumulate the neem spray such as at the base of leaves.
Life below the soil is rich and diverse. Millions of different organisms call home in the root zone of a regular plant, from bacteria to nematodes, to fungi. Many of these organisms aim to hurt the plant, while many others are neutral or aim to help it. Without a doubt, the most beneficial organism present, however, is the mycorrhizae fungi.
What Are they?
They are made up of tiny string like growths that are thin enough to grow inside the roots of plants. They connect together and form massive networks that can span entire forests. Pictured is the iconic Amanita muscarina which forms a powerful bond with many of the trees found in temperate forests. The presence of this mushroom is a clear indication of strong health in these forests and is a marker for environmentalists for areas of high drought and disease resistance. This is because of the many benefits that come along with mycorrhizal fungi.
When you find mushrooms in the forest, many of these are actually the fruiting bodies of this mycorrhizae fungi. They send these out simply as a way of sending its spores out to grow in new areas and find the roots of new plants to grow in.
Why are they helpful?
Mycorrhizae fungi are incredibly beneficial for plants because they break down organic matter in the soil, and deliver the nutrients directly to the plant's roots. The fungi use various specialized enzymes to break down organic matter into its raw elements, which it then transports up to the root system of its host plants to make them more readily available.
You may be wondering what the fungi gets out of the deal since nothing in nature is that giving. While the fungi deliver much of the nutrients they break down such as phosphorous, the plant trades water and sugar with the mushroom to continue growing. The relationship is symbiotic which means both the plant and the fungi benefit from the deal.
Both the fungi and the plant receive a buffer for drought or water shortages, by sharing the available water between them and the fungi are given a place to live and hibernate during the cold winter months (in the roots).
The presence of this mycorrhizae greatly increases the surface area of a plant's reach and significantly improves its resistance to poor soil, droughts, and other natural stresses. Old growth forests have been found to have massive networks of mycorrhizae connecting all of the trees and plants together. This makes the forest incredibly strong, and able to share the nutrients where it is needed most.
Introducing Mycorrhizae Into soil
It is incredibly easy to introduce mycorrhizae fungi into your grow. Most products containing mycorrhizae come as a powder that contains both the spores and live cells. All you need to do is powder the roots of your plants or the hole in the soil in which they will go, and let them do their thing naturally. They are incredibly fast growers, and no special steps are needed to keep them alive inside the roots of your plants. The only step that could be taken as a precaution, it to avoid watering for the first 6-12 hours after inoculation. This is simply just so that the fungus can settle, and find its way into the roots of your plants before they are washed away. This is only a precaution though and watering is not likely to cause all of the microscopic spores and fungal cells to wash completely away.
Inoculating Mycorrhizae Into Hydroponics
Yes, you can even use mycorrhizae with your hydroponically grown plants! Most high-quality mycorrhizae products contain a variety of species in a water soluble powder. To use them, all you need to do is sprinkle the powder over the rots, or mix into some water and pour over your root zone. Not all of the species will usually survive but their will be a few that find this environment perfect for them and will begin to grow into your roots.
Even in a hydroponic system mycorrhizae can have a significant impact on the overall health of your plants. They help buffer water levels in the plant to protect them longer during pump failures or from drying out, and they help to make essential nutrients more available to your roots. One of the most important and useful benefits mycorrhizae offer your plants is to protect them from other invading organisms such as the pythium which can decimate crops in a matter of days. The mycorrhizae inhabit the roots and offer their defenses when attacking organisms such as this try to take over.
Why you should choose mycorrhizae for your grow
Many professional and hobby growers alike are already reaping the benefits of mycorrhizae in with their grow. This natural inhabitant of forests and fields is lacking in the indoor and greenhouse environment despite its ability to be cultivated easily in these environments. The incredible benefits to be had from its incorporation should not be overlooked. In fact, many garden centers return policy of trees or outdoor crops only allow the exchange of these plants if a mycorrhizae was used during planting. This is because using mycorrhizae is incredibly easy and the chances of these plants surviving when it is used increases ten fold.
Whether growing with hydroponics or in soil, mycorrhizae fungi offer significant preventative benefits to your crop and can increase yield. Though there are many different kinds of mycorrhizae, and each thrives in a different situation, most products on the market will have a variety of strains to ensure your crop finds the one it needs.
Predatory insects are one of the best natural methods of pest control for the garden. They are the only things meticulous enough to seek out and destroy the pests that are living in your garden individually. The goal of using predatory insects is not to wipe out a pest invasion, rather they reach a balance between the pest and the predator. This keeps the damage to a minimum and avoids the use of nasty chemicals or pesticides.
Bug Balance in Nature
In nature, there is a balance between predator and prey which ensures the survival of both species. If the predator species outgrew the prey they feed on and ate them all, there would be no food left for them to eat and they would end up dying as well. If the prey grew out of control and was not kept in check by the predators that eat them, they too would grow into large colonies and likely destroy their own food source to the point of self-oblivion.
This is why a balance is always found in nature. When prey grows in number, predators have more food and begin to thrive. As they thrive and grow in number, they eat more prey and less food becomes available once again. With less food available, more die off. This is a constant cycle between predator and prey that keeps their numbers in check and ensures the survival of the species.
This is why using predatory insects in your garden will not result in a complete obliteration of the pest. Rather, it will keep them in balance, and prevent their numbers from growing out of balance.
With indoor growing, there is no natural balance between predator and prey. This is why a small spider mite or thrips infestation, can quickly grow out of control and destroy your entire crop. Many growers choose to use predatory insects to bring a natural balance to the grow room and keep pest species at bay.
What are the most common predatory insects?
1. Minute Pirate Bugs
Minute pirate bugs are one of the most common insects in the wild, and they can eat a huge variety of insects or insect eggs. They are also easy to cultivate in the garden.
Pirate bugs are a great option for those with multiple pests, as they have been found to eat all kinds of pest insects, whether it is the egg, larvae, or adult stages of development depends however.
Pirate bugs can bite people on occasion, which can be mildly painful. They do not feed on human blood and do not appear to get anything out of the deal so just be cautious of this.
2. Thrips predators
Thrips predator is actually a mite, which is very similar to spider mites. Although spider mites are in fact significant garden pests, predatory mites are the complete opposite. They are very fast moving, and do not feed on plants. Instead, they run around the surface of the leaves and attack the egg and larval stages of thrips. They are small enough to reach the thrip eggs that are safely hidden beneath the surface of the leaf tissue and are fast enough to catch these quick-moving insects.
These insects are very small, and only eat about 2-3 thrip insects or larvae per day, but also lay 2-3 eggs a day themselves. This means that they can develop large numbers very quickly, and since they do not have any predators (in your garden) they can quickly outgrow the thrip population and achieve a balance.
3. Trichogramma Wasps:
There are many species of parasitic wasp, and Trichogramma species are simply one that preys on some of the common garden pests we endure as gardeners. They are incredibly small, and unlike what you normally might think of as a wasp, they do not sting.
They live by laying their eggs inside the eggs of other species, which consume all of the energy from that egg and hatch from it instead of the original species very quickly. These wasps, in particular, are perfect for controlling over 200 varieties of caterpillars, and a wide variety of other insect eggs.
4. Beneficial nematodes
Nematodes are microscopic creatures that naturally live in the soil. By introducing them into your coco, or soil grow, you can protect your crop from the larval stage of insects like thrips that spend this stage of their life in the soil around the roots of the plants.
Nematodes are brutal parasites to larval or pupal stage insects. They enter the host insect's body and release a toxic dose of bacteria to kill it. They then feed on the decaying body of the insect.
Ladybugs or “ladybirds” are some of the most iconic insect species around. Their humble nature and attractive outfit make them one of the most popular insects to keep in the garden. Their benefits go much further than this, however. Ladybugs have an insatiable appetite for all kinds of garden pests, namely aphids, and spider mites. One ladybug can consume over 50 aphids a day.
Ladybugs are easy to cultivate, just ensure a water source is handy and avoid spraying any pesticides in your garden while they are present.
A note on using beneficial insects in your garden
Try to avoid using pesticides on a garden you have introduced predator insect into. Pesticides are nonspecific and will kill all insects, including your predatory insects. If you must use a spray pesticide, keep in mind that this WILL kill your beneficial insects as well.
For larger predators such as ladybugs or pirate bugs, it may be possible to go through your crop and collect as many as possible before spraying, to then reintroduce after the application has been finished.