Integrated Pest Management, the control of insects, weeds, and disease through a wide variety of complementary strategies, has been in use in landscape management for many years. During that time, it has proven itself as a successful approach to pest control that also benefits the environment by reducing overuse of chemical applications.
IPM doesn’t eliminate the use of chemical controls. Instead, chemicals are used as one tool among many in a multi-faceted, problemsolving approach to pest control. Chemicals are applied judiciously, after other options are considered. Reliance on many methods results in a significant reduction in chemical use and a focus on the overall health of the landscape.
Contractors who use IPM find that this approach gives clients the long-term results they’re looking for with methods they can feel good about.
“With IPM, customers get a better analysis and an overall perspective of the problem,” says John Hurst, president of John Hurst Outdoor Services, LLC, a twentyyear- old company based in Tallahassee, Florida.
“When you explain this approach to customers, they really like it.”
This means that IPM isn’t just good for the environment; it’s good for business, too. Contractors who practice IPM appropriately know they’re providing the best results for the best value. They are seen as educated professionals with specialized knowledge that their customers appreciate and respect. It keeps those customers coming back and makes them eager to spread the word to others.
Common sense roots
Like many successful landscaping practices, IPM got its start in agriculture. Early in the last century, scientists began to emphasize the importance of using ecology to control insects. “Early on, this had little to do with protecting the environment,” says Randall Prostak, extension specialist with the University of Massachusetts and provider of IPM courses to landscaping professionals. “It was a means for helping growers produce crops more economically.”
After the introduction of DDT and other new chemical pesticides in the mid 1940s, less emphasis was placed on ecological strategies. However, by the late ’50s and ’60s, a growing concern over dependence on pesticides, insect resistance, treatment costs, and potential harmful effects to humans and the environment provided incentives to seek alternative approaches.
Efforts focused on understanding the underlying ecology and life cycle of pests and monitoring both pest populations and the natural enemies of those pests. More emphasis was placed on selective treatment and on preserving existing biological controls. An “integration” of selective insecticides and natural controls were used to keep pest populations down to acceptable levels. These strategies later expanded to include other control practices and to focus not only on insects but on weeds and disease as well.
Multiple problems, multiple solutions
Today’s array of IPM strategies are designed to manage pests effectively with the least possible damage to people, property, and the environment. Because pest problems are multi-dimensional, IPM tackles them in a number of ways:
Prevention: This includes practices like choosing plants that are well adapted to their site, opting for pest-resistant varieties, and including appropriate site preparation. The goal is to create a landscape that is unappealing to pests.
Identification and monitoring: This involves learning to identify common pests and knowing the difference between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Understanding the life cycle and ecology of pests is critical. Regular, ongoing monitoring is a key component of IPM. Practitioners scout for signs of pests as well as for conditions that encourage pests, such as poor drainage, inappropriate watering, or over-fertilizing.
Determining and maintaining acceptable levels: For some pests, the tolerance might be zero; for others, complete eradication may not be practical or desirable. In many cases, the goal is to keep pest populations to a level where they don’t pose a problem and where they will be controlled by natural enemies.
Using multiple controls: Multiple, complementary controls are what the “integrated” in IPM is all about. Practitioners attack problems from several angles and choose methods that do the job with the least risk to humans and the environment. Controls include:
Cultural practices—for example, mowing lawns high to shade weeds, using proper irrigation, pruning, etc.
Physical controls—changing the environment around plants to improve light levels or air circulation, using weed barriers
Mechanical methods—using manual labor and/or mechanical or physical devices to eradicate pests
Biological controls—using beneficial organisms, encouraging or introducing the natural enemies of pests
Chemical treatments—applying either low-risk pesticides, such as microbial insecticides or, when necessary, using conventional chemical applications.
Prostak points out that monitoring is key. “There’s an old adage I like to use: ‘The eye of the master fattens his cattle.’ By looking around and observing, you can better make decisions about the landscape and provide a better result for your client.”
Hurst agrees. “One of the biggest benefits of IPM is that it gives you an understanding of the problem so you can fix it. Usually when you have a pest or disease problem it’s indicative of some other underlying cause. For example, you may be using the wrong plant in the wrong place or using too much water.”
These and other environmental stresses render plants more vulnerable to disease and insect infestation and less competitive against weeds. “When our guys find an infested plant, they look for the underlying problems and try to solve them. This gives better results in the long run. If you simply apply pesticides, the bugs may be gone, but the underlying cause still exists. The problem will come back and the customer won’t be happy.”
Andrew Mancini, project manager for Stano Landscaping, a full-service firm based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, says that IPM is a common sense approach.
In IPM, the identification of “beneficials,” the natural enemies of pests, is as important as identifying the pests themselves. These natural protections are preserved whenever possible.
“Sometimes applying chemicals can be detrimental,” says Mancini, “because you can impact beneficial insects, like lady bugs which eat aphids. With IPM, you treat only when insects reach a threshold where they need treatment. This reduces the chance of using pesticides when they are not entirely necessary. Proper identification eliminates the chance that you use the wrong pesticide. Anytime you can let nature take its course and interfere less with natural cycles, you are benefiting the environment.”
For Roger Sturgis of Roger B. Sturgis and Associates in Framingham, Massachusetts, IPM and other environmental practices are a top priority. “I got more involved in environmentally-conscious landscaping practices when I decided to live my personal life and my business life by the same philosophy,” he says. “I do very little advertising but customers often seek me out because of my environmental concern. It might be the right thing for business, but more importantly it’s the right thing to do. Like it or not, you have a responsibility to the planet,” explained Sturgis.
He likes IPM because he knows it reduces chemical use without compromising results. “You can still produce the same quality results with similar money using IPM, and you can be profitable at it. You do not have to lower customer expectations.”
Sturgis points out that going IPM does not mean going organic. “Some people confuse IPM with an entirely organic program, but that’s not true. I do use pesticides if I have to. But with this approach, we can dramatically lower the use of these chemicals.”
Using chemicals judiciously is the key. “A mistake people make is putting chemicals down before there’s even a problem,” says Sturgis. “An example would be using grub control when they don’t have to. If someone says they don’t have a grub problem because they put insecticide down, I can usually tell them they wouldn’t have had a problem even if they didn’t put it down.”
Sturgis does use chemical grub controls, just not as a standard for every property. “About 6% of my customers get grub control,” he says. “With some traditional companies, 100% do and most of them get it twice a year. That’s a big difference.”
He cites pre-emergent herbicide use as another example. He does rely on these chemicals, but applies them where they’ll do the most good. “For example, crabgrass doesn’t grow in shade. If you have a yard that’s sunny in front and shady in back, and you don’t put it down on the shady side, you’ve just saved 50%.”
“It’s still very profitable and I know I’m using the right amount,” says Sturgis. “I’m not the cheapest guy in town but I’m an example of how it can be done profitably. Remember, people are willing to pay a little more for a better, healthier service—not a lot more, but a little more.”
Knowing how to charge is part of the equation. With IPM, you are not charging money simply to apply chemicals but instead to provide a more complete service. “You don't need to charge based on the products you sell,” says Sturgis. “Instead, charge people to monitor and base your profits on that. I charge for monitoring, checking and catching the problems.” Prostak agrees that contractors shouldn’t be afraid to charge for monitoring, even if they don’t actually treat for pests. “I always tell landscapers, ‘You’re a professional, you have knowledge that is valuable. If you go to the doctor and he doesn’t find anything wrong, he still bills you. You should do the same thing.’”
IPM is a science-based approach, and research continues to provide new information on the pests themselves and on control practices that work. “Education is the key to being able to practice IPM effectively,” says Prostak. “We have new pests, new products, new strategies, and new pest-resistant varieties.” Contractors can use local extension agencies, other government agencies, and professional organizations to stay up-to-date.
Client education also plays a role. “Educating customers is just as important as educating employees,” says Hurst. “Some customers want instant results. I explain the IPM process and the alternatives. They can give it one spray and the pest may go away, but the problem will likely return in six months. Or they can use this approach and solve the problem.”