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Your Home: The Guide

Greener pest control

How to stop bugs and other bothers in your garden and home while keeping your family safe.

Vidhya Nagarajan

SPRING IS IN THE AIR. But that also means bugs are in the air — and on your prized rhododendrons, and quite possibly in your kitchen cabinets or bedroom closets. And many of them are not the kind you want sharing your house or garden. Whether you live in a detached single-family in the suburbs or a high-rise city loft, there are many ways to combat them, and even if you do have to call in a professional, the latest treatment options are better than ever at keeping your family and pets safe. (For more on specific pests, see Page 55.)

The “greenest” way to manage pests, of course, is to make sure you don’t get them in the first place. “If you make your home a fortress and keep it sealed up,” says George Williams, the staff entomologist at removal service EHS Pest in Norwood, “and keep your yard protected and clean, you shouldn’t have any pest problems.” Inside the house, he recommends removing clutter, lessening moisture, covering trash, and sealing gaps around molding and small holes in the foundation, where rodents can find easy access. Outside, use no-spill bird feeders and keep them well away from the house, remove leaf litter, and trim trees and shrubs — “a highway for insects to get in,” he says — so they don’t touch exterior walls. Finally, “fences make good neighbors, but they also make good wildlife control.” A house with tight fencing won’t have skunks, and a physical barrier can discourage deer from approaching, too.

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When prevention doesn’t work, home remedies might. The Environmental Protection Agency lists 31 “minimum risk pesticides” that are exempt from federal regulation. They include things like cinnamon oil, peppermint, common salt, and citronella, which can be used for anything from mosquitoes to garden slugs. But they fade quickly, says Colin Hickey, technical director of Green Planet Pest Control in Boston, “so you have to use them repeatedly.” For small outbreaks of certain pests such as mosquitoes, flies, or ants, he adds, “I’d say try it.”

In severe cases, though, experts argue that professional eradication is really the best option. “It’s 110 percent safer to have a professional do it than to spray Raid,” says Williams, “because the homeowner doesn’t understand the biology and behavior of the pest. Their strategy is to spray all over, instead of where the pests are. They always overapply.” He cites a homeowner he met who spent $500 on flea bombs. He never did solve the problem, “but had copious amounts of pesticide in the house.” Had the man spent $350 on professional pest control instead, Williams says, his house would have been flea-free much sooner and with less toxicity.

Hickey agrees, adding that though the pesticides used by professionals aren’t green, the techniques used to apply them often make them the safest, most effective option. “We get the job done with the least amount of harm to non-targeted organisms,” he says, maintaining that today’s chemicals are specific to certain insects, have low mammalian toxicity, and are not very long-lasting in the environment, usually persisting only a few months, at most.

Pest control is like medicine in two ways, he asserts. First, you want to treat the disease, not just the symptoms; and second, you want a professional evaluation, in part because many insects leave telltale signs of their visits that a homeowner might not recognize. Termites, for example, are “secretive,” according to Williams. “Homeowners usually see them only when they swarm — but that’s a short period, maybe only a couple hours. And they could swarm in the crawl space or outside where you never see them; then five years later they’ve caused a couple thousand dollars in damage.” Carpenter ants, too, can fool you: Most people know to worry when they see the big black ones, but in fact some species are no bigger than common picnic ants.

“If you get an ethical, honest company,” Williams says, “they’ll let you know when you don’t need pest control,” as in the case of harmless citronella ants, for example, which you can simply remove with a vacuum cleaner. “[Companies] want a relationship with you so when you do have a problem, you trust them and ask them back.”

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Trim trees and shrubs — a highway for insects — so they don’t touch exterior walls.

MAINTAINING A HEALTHY GARDEN

Mary Sullivan, an account manager at Walpole’s NatureWorks Landscape who has a doctorate in plant medicine, advises that the best way to avoid garden pests is to maintain healthy plants. That may sound like a chicken-and-egg concept, but Sullivan says a healthy garden starts with selecting plants that are resistant to problems that may come along. “If you know you have a fungus in your soil,” she says, “you can get plants that aren’t susceptible to that particular fungus.”

Test your soil, then retest it every two years, or as much as twice a year if you’re trying to change its pH level or another feature. The University of Massachusetts Amherst offers various kinds of soil testing for $10, as well as compost testing for $25 to $45 and, for serious gardeners or those with problems, plant tissue testing ($12 to $25), which can help you fine-tune plant nutrition (go to soiltest.umass.edu). “Different plants take different conditions,” Sullivan says. “Knowing what you have to work with might help you make decisions about what to grow on your property.” She recommends adding nutrients to any soil type and advocates using pre-fertilized soils like Miracle-Gro for new plantings and pelletized or liquid fertilizers for older-growth gardens; many products sold in garden centers are completely organic and contain plant probiotics and other antifungals and antibacterials.

Giving plants the right amount of water also matters. “Over- or underwatering can get them stressed,” she says, “and that can attract insects that tune in to plant stress.”

Even healthy plants, though, can get infested with the area’s most common outdoor pests, which include woolly adelgids, winter moths, aphids, scale insects, and white grubs. All are treated in generally the same ways. One is to introduce their natural enemies into your landscape: Ladybugs love to eat scale insects, for example, and crickets, mantids, dragonflies, spiders, frogs, toads, and bats will eat pretty much anything. “I had one customer tell me he had a mosquito-free summer with just one bat house,” says Hickey, though Sullivan points out that “most neighbors won’t be super excited about a bat house in your yard.”

One challenge with releasing “beneficials” is that they might not stick around your property to solve immediate problems, but instead fly to neighboring yards — which still might benefit you in the long term, when later generations continue to populate the vicinity. Martha Wyant, a sales associate at Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland, says the beneficials are likelier to stay put if properly deployed. “If you release ladybugs in the early morning under a rose bush that has aphids,” she says, “they’ll go after the aphids. Like anything else you do in the garden, if you don’t do it correctly, it won’t be effective.”

Russell’s and other garden shops carry many biological controls and also natural pesticides, which are your next line of defense. Unless the yard is so large that the task is overwhelming, DIYers can do the spraying themselves, using fungicides, natural horticultural oils that coat nymphs and larvae to keep them from breathing, and bacterial treatments that go after certain species. “Typically, things have a natural enemy,” Sullivan says. Mosquitoes, for example, are vulnerable to bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring bacterium whose proteins attack the digestive systems of certain species of insect. “If you’re having a party,” she says, “spray a few days ahead and you shouldn’t have a problem.” Granular solutions are also available as a repellent, and some retailers, such as groworganic.com, also carry parasites that target flies and moths. Commercially made lures for honeybees and ladybugs and planting to attract beneficials can also help.

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TREATING SPECIFIC PESTS

Ants

According to both Hickey and Williams, carpenter ants are the number one pest in the Boston area. They’re scavengers that eat other insects — or food left out — but they need moist wood in which to live, and that’s where prevention can come in. “If your house has damaged gutters that are leaking or flashing that needs to be caulked, fix it,” says Hickey. The same goes for rotted fencing, a shed that’s falling down, or even a dead or dying tree in the yard.

But “some things you can’t fix,” he concedes, so moisture can still get in. If that happens, be on the lookout, and call a professional service at the first sign of infestation, because you may see carpenter ants in your kitchen, for example, and not realize they’ve actually made their home in the garage. “If you let the colony go and keep treating the problem yourself,” says Williams, “the population will keep growing until you have five-, 10-plus colonies on your property.” The cost can be as low as $100 for a one-time spraying.

Bedbugs

You can prevent bedbug infestation by carefully inspecting any hotel rooms you stay in and also any furniture you might take off the street; look for cast skins, popped eggs, and smatterings of black dots, which may be bedbug feces. If you do get bedbugs, they’re definitely one pest you don’t want to treat yourself. Professionals using vacuums to remove adults, and steam to pop the eggs before they hatch, can achieve 100 percent elimination, according to Hickey, at a cost starting around $400 per bedroom.

Clothes Moths

Inexpensive glue traps available online and at some hardware stores can catch male clothes moths through pheromones, chemicals that attract bugs to the opposite sex; check sites like eBay, bugspraycart.com, and Saferbrand.com, where you’ll find them for $10 to $20. Moths can also be killed by putting all of your natural-fiber items in the dryer for 10 or 15 minutes. To prevent them from becoming a problem in the first place, cedar and dried lemon peels can help, and eartheasy.com recommends a sachet of bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, cloves, eucalyptus, lavender, peppercorns, and wormwood — which, if nothing else, will keep your clothes smelling good. Refresh any natural remedies when their scents start to wear out.

Cockroaches

Cockroaches are a sanitation issue, according to Hickey; keep your space as clean as possible and they won’t be attracted to it. Of course, this may not completely eliminate them if you live in an apartment building where you can’t control your neighbors’ living habits. In that case, don’t spray. “Repellent products can spread them,” Hickey says; roaches may leave the area you spray, but they’ll only move on to another. He recommends, instead, using bait traps; roaches that take the poison bait will carry it back to the nest to share, and soon enough you’ll be seeing fewer of them.

Cupboard Pests

In the kitchen, proper storage and food rotation can make a big difference. “If you have a box of Flutie Flakes from 1999 or a bag of flour from the Reagan administration,” says Williams, “you shouldn’t be wondering why you have Indian meal moths.”

Dog and cat food and birdseed are among the biggest culprits for letting in what are known in the industry as stored-product pests, including rice weevils, grain moths, and drugstore and cigarette beetles. Williams recommends storing pet food in hard plastic containers and bird seed outdoors in metal ones, since determined rodents can chew away at plastic bags. That way, if you have an outbreak, it will be contained. It also helps to place naturally repellent bay leaves in various pantry items like sugar and flour. If you do have a problem that gets out of control, try glue traps with pheromones; since you’d be using them inside the house, you wouldn’t have to worry that they would attract more insects, as might happen with outdoor traps.

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You can make a simple trap to catch fruit flies indoors.

Flies

There are basically two types of flies: trash flies and small fruit flies. You can trap both with simple, cheap homemade devices. For trash flies, cut a 2-liter soda bottle in half and put some bait — raw meat soaked in stale beer works, so does an old banana peel — in the bottom, then invert the top half of the bottle and put it neck down in the bottom half. For fruit flies, pour a little cider vinegar mixed with a drop of dish soap in the bottom of a jar. Cover the jar with plastic wrap with a few holes poked in the top. With both traps, flies fly in but they don’t fly out.

Any such folk method, cautions Sullivan, is “really useful for some people, but others find they don’t work that well.” If you’re one of the unlucky ones, the least toxic way to rid yourself of flies is not to spray but to buy some flypaper for two or three dollars at your local hardware store. It won’t look pretty, but it’ll get the job done.

Mice

As Williams mentions, the best way to keep mice and other rodents away is to seal up any access holes. As with cockroaches, though, this works only if you live in a detached house; if your apartment building has rodents, you might find it more difficult, and even in a freestanding house, mice can still find their way in through drains and electrical lines. “They’re little athletes,” says Hickey. “They can climb any surface.” If you don’t mind killing rodents, the safest method is with traps; if you poison them, they, in turn, can poison cats and predatory birds like owls and hawks that eat them. Folk remedies to repel rodents include leaving out ammonia, Bounce fabric softener sheets, cayenne pepper, or cotton balls soaked in peppermint or clove oil; commercial repellents like Bonide’s Mouse Magic, around $10 at your hardware store, can also help, as can catch-and-release traps such as the Smart Mouse Trap from Seabright Laboratories ($11).

Slugs

Garden slugs aren’t insects, but they can be a nuisance. There are loads of methods for controlling them, starting with mechanical removal. You can also keep them away by surrounding plants with a substance they won’t want to move over, like crushed eggshells or sandpaper, or using copper, which gives them a slight electrical shock when they touch it. Copper barrier tape, which costs $6 to $15 at the hardware store or online, or strips of copper can be useful on tree trunks and in raised beds and container gardens, but make sure to make the barrier wide enough; 6 to 8 inches should do it, according to weekendgardener.net. Lures can also be effective, and include dry pet food, beer, cornmeal, citrus rinds, and a package of yeast mixed with a little honey. Put whatever substance you choose in the bottom of a cup and bury it so that the slugs can get over the rim; keep the bait safe from rain by placing a tin pie plate over it with a few holes cut out as slug doors. Salt kills slugs, too, but can soak into your soil and be detrimental to plants.

Termites

Like bedbugs, termites are another pest that requires calling in the pros. Hickey recommends having an inspection done every year or so and to consider using Sentricon, a prevention and removal system that must be put in place by a qualified company. Sentricon, which won a Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the EPA in 2000, is much more environmentally friendly than the traditional method of drilling holes around the house and injecting a chemical into the ground; it’s a bait system that can kill the whole colony because, like cockroaches, termites take food back to their mates to share. The minimum you’ll pay for any kind of termite control is around $1,200 — a pittance, say pros, compared with the damage bugs can do, Williams says. “If they had to replace the roof, that would cost $15,000. Termites can destroy your home.”

Elizabeth Gehrman is the author of the bookRare Birds. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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