I want to talk about why plants get diseases and pests. Before doing so though, let’s talk about your mentality in the garden. There is this mentality in gardening, even organic gardening, that we are “fighting” insects and disease. This creates a state of garden warfare, where ways to get rid of things consume our thoughts versus enjoying the garden. A mentality that is humbling and empowering is one of observation.
The key is to ask WHY things are happening. A lot of times the answer is us, either something we are or aren’t doing and Nature is responding to try to balance the system.
By looking at the role of each member in Nature, we can see deeper how to play our own supportive role. It is not about fighting, it is about ENCOURAGING.
What we put our attention on grows, so it is wise to be aware of what we focus on.
So why DO plants get diseases and pests?
They are very similar reasons as to why we get sick, such as:
- When we are under a lot of stress at work or school.
- If we aren’t eating nutritious diets.
- When are under environmental stress and don’t drink enough water.
- When our microbiome is out of balance.
Basically, this stress affects our immune system. When our immune system is strong, we can be in the same room as someone who is sick and not get sick ourselves.
In plants, when they have the right amount of sun, water, nutrients, and symbionts, they are able to efficiently photosynthesize. When a plant is healthy, it helps create a healthy microbial population in the soil. This further supports the nutrient availability to the plant creating a positive feedback loop.
When one of these foundations is lacking, or there are external stressors, plants can become imbalanced and stressed. Insects and diseases can only affect sick and vulnerable plants. They are essentially Nature’s cleanup crew. If you want to avoid them, prioritize growing healthy plants. Some ways to do this are as follows.
One way to reduce stress early on in a plant’s life is to inoculate the seeds and the roots of transplants. These beneficial bacteria, fungi, and other microbes ensure your plants start out with symbionts to improve accessibility to nutrients. This is like colostrum for newborn babies to inoculate their gut and establish the microbiome so they can absorb nutrients from mother’s milk. When you are about to transplant into your garden, preparing the holes first and then minimizing the exposure and handling of the roots also helps reduce stress.
Continuing with the focus on reducing stress on plants, there are many stages of a plant’s life where stress can be especially damaging. These are called critical points of influence and occur early in life and also include when a plant is building its frame and filling fruit, as with growing children and pregnant women. Ways to reduce stress throughout a plant’s life include:
- Making sure you water the whole garden in the right amounts at the right times.
- Keeping the soil covered to hold in moisture and regulate temperature.
- Foliar feeding which chelated nutrients and biostimulants.
- Supporting soil biology.
You can also be aware of environmental stressors such as prolonged overcast and rain, intense heat and sun, or cold and frost. Adding a foliar feed or a liquid seaweed spray in response to these events can help boost a plant’s system to cope with the stress.
As I mentioned, focusing on supporting soil biology also helps reduce the stress on the plant nutritionally. Some ways to support soil biology are to reduce physical disturbance of the soil, keep the soil covered, avoid chemicals, diversify organic matter inputs, and adding minerals. By reducing disturbance, the soil food web can build a healthy soil structure and robust microbial populations, which attracts worms and other soil engineers. Some benefits of environmental regulation were mentioned in regards to keeping the soil covered. The microbes need adequate and consistent moisture to remain mobile and do their important work. They are also sensitive to UV light, so protecting them with mulch is beneficial.
Mulch and compost are also great ways to introduce organic matter diversity to your soil. This acts as a food source and increases microbial diversity, which increases nutrient diversity to the plants. Other ways to keep soil covered and introduce diversity to soil biology is with living roots. Cover crops are a good way to accomplish this. To boost the microbes to digest minerals you have added as well as other important nutrients from the soil to the plants, you can apply biostimulants. Some examples are seaweed, molasses, and fish products. You can learn more about buying or making your own foliar sprays HERE.
Without an abundant soil food web supporting it, a plant has to work harder and has fewer reserves. Imagine trying to absorb nutrients from your food without a functional microbiome. This contributes to why plants get diseases and pests. We want fat and happy plants, with highly resilient and functional innate immune systems. In order to do that, plants need to have their food predigested into a plant-available form and fed to them by microbes. Supporting the whole system, above and below ground, in your garden is a more pleasant way to spend your time. You will also get insect and disease-free harvests. This means more balanced nutrition to all those sitting at your dinner table. 🙂