How to Prevent Tree Diseases and Insect Pest Problems

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”

– Benjamin Franklin

If you want to keep trees and shrubs healthy and looking their best, it pays to know how to prevent tree diseases and insect pest problems before they arise. Most homeowners simply react to problems after they occur, which is much more difficult, often requires the use of toxic chemicals, and tends to cost more.

Smart homeowners, on the other hand, take preventive measures to keep pests and diseases away from their trees and shrubs. By focusing on prevention, you save money that may otherwise have been spent on unnecessary pesticides and get to enjoy your yard without worrying about possible tree hazards.

Effective tree pest and disease prevention often follows an approach called Integrated Pest Management (IPM). It’s a streamlined approach to tree and shrub care that yields more efficient results in the safest and most environmentally friendly way, limiting the need for harmful chemicals.

If you’re wondering how to prevent tree diseases, avoid insect problems, and keep your trees and shrubs healthy, strong, and beautiful, keep reading to learn how to use the IPM approach.

How to Prevent Tree Diseases With IPM

Integrated Pest Management is a holistic approach to managing pests and diseases in your landscape. It’s the process of understanding the greater ecosystem around your landscape or garden and developing a long-term management plan to make your yard less inviting to pests. This includes harmful bugs as well critters, weeds, and pathogens that can cause tree and shrub diseases.

IPM is all about causing the least amount of harm to people, property, and the environment at large. It does so by using a combination of methods that work together to create an environment that you, your family, and your pets can enjoy, while also making your yard uninviting or even repulsive to pests.

Rather than reaching directly for a bottle of pesticide, IPM suggests using other measures first.

4 Ways to Prevent Tree Pests & Diseases

The pest and disease prevention techniques used in IPM can be classified into four main categories:

  1. Cultural management
  2. Mechanical management
  3. Biological management
  4. Chemical management

By combining these four management practices, you’ll be best able to prevent fungal and bacterial infections and insect infestations from overtaking your trees and shrubs.

Homeowner in Conifer, CO planting a young tree in an appropriate location to ensure health and prevent disease.

Cultural Practices to Deter Insect Pests

Cultural management involves making changes to your property that make it unappealing to pests or difficult for them to thrive. By taking preventive measures from the very beginning, you can avoid many of the problems homeowners face on a regular basis. Here are the core cultural pest control measures to keep in mind when planting.

1. Choose the Right Plants

One of the most important things you can do in the long run is to select the right trees and plants for your Colorado Front Range yard.

Choose plants that thrive in our local climate and avoid or limit the use of exotic species that require constant care. And if there’s a popular tree or shrub that’s prone to specific pest problems, you’ll likely find a resistant variety has been bred for it.

Choosing varieties that are generally more vigorous and robust can also help with pest resistance. Healthy plants are less prone to pest and disease problems than those that are stressed by not having proper growing conditions.

2. Plant the Right Tree in the Right Place

Each tree and shrub has a preference for soil type, moisture, sunlight, temperature, space, and more. Planting the wrong tree in the wrong location or conditions will only stress it to the point that it becomes a target for insect pests and diseases. Research the soil, water, and light requirements for each tree and shrub you add to your landscape before you buy them (if in doubt, read the plant tag!).

3. Encourage Plant Diversity

When pests like Mountain Pine Beetle become prevalent, they can wipe out entire areas of trees. It’s important to have several different kinds of trees, plants, and shrubs. That way, you’ll have something left if one of those pests attacks, while also improving the overall look and health of your landscape.

Monoculture, or the use of only one type of plant, is unnatural. Healthy landscapes are those with a variety of plants and shrubs, which limits the damage that specific diseases can cause.

PRO TIP – For some good options that grow well in our part of Colorado, see our articles on the best spring-blooming trees, great conifers, and trees for small spaces.

4. Water Properly

Water trees well throughout the year (yes, even in winter) as drought-stressed plants are more susceptible to damage. This is especially important for recently planted trees, as well as during the dry season when plants are under additional stress. If you’re not sure how much water your trees need, try our handy watering calculator.

It also helps to avoid overhead watering. Overhead watering, which soaks the entire plant, can encourage fungal diseases and damage trees and plants.

Providing your plants with the right amount of water and fertilizer is one of the best lines of defense against diseases and pests.

5. Use the Right Tools

When pruning branches on trees, or trimming your shrubs, you can prevent diseases or pest problems simply by using the right tools.

When cutting, ensure your blades are sharp enough to cut cleanly. Clean cuts keep the wound as small as possible, allowing them to heal before pests can enter.

When trimming diseased branches or leaves, sterilize your tools in between each cut. Use alcohol or a bleach solution to prevent spreading the disease to other parts of the plant.

6. Practice Effective Mulching

Mulch isn’t just for aesthetic appeal, it’s important for plant health too. Use organic mulch around the base of trees and shrubs to help prevent weeds, manage moisture, and protect roots. Just don’t create mulch volcanoes at the base of your trees, where you pile mulch right up against the trunk.

Layer mulch 2-3 inches deep and keep it about 2-3 feet away from the trunk of larger trees. Organic mulch breaks down over time. Examine your mulch throughout the year and add more when necessary.

Lady bug on a leaf.

Biological Controls: Let Nature Help

Before applying chemical treatments (such as insecticides), consider whether there are already “biological controls” in place. The most popular biological controls for homeowners are beneficial insects.

These are garden-friendly insects, such as ladybugs, lacewings, praying mantids, and parasitic wasps, which can consume insect pests in huge numbers. If you’re seeing large numbers of these, hold off on using pesticides to give the beneficial insects a chance to do their job.

IPM is all about working with nature to ensure pest and disease management. That often means encouraging beneficial species of bugs to thrive in the landscape. Have enough of the good guys around and you may never need to reach for the chemicals.

A homeowner spreading mulch around the base of a tree.

Spreading mulch around the base of trees and shrubs helps to support healthy growth, maintain soil moisture, and prevent weeds.

Mechanical and Physical Management

There are many actions you can take in your garden to help prevent pests and diseases. This includes placing traps around your garden to capture critters like gophers that can damage plants.

If you notice insect pests on your trees or plants, it’s best to try to remove them by hand before spraying. If large enough (and if you’re comfortable with it), you can pick pests off one at a time and drop them into a bucket of soapy water. Don’t just knock them to the ground where they’ll simply crawl or fly away to infest another plant.

If you would prefer not to touch them, hold your container of soapy water below the affected area and lightly shake the branch to knock pests loose.

Pruning your trees and shrubs can also help prevent problems. With proper pruning techniques, you can increase airflow and light penetration within a tree’s canopy. This can prevent fungal infections on the tree and boost photosynthesis, making the tree healthier and more capable of fighting off diseases.

If branches grow too close together and rub against one another, they will eventually cause a wound where pests or diseases can take hold. Prune one of these branches to prevent unnecessary wounds.

If you notice any dead or diseased wood or stems, prune them, making sure to sterilize your tools after each cut to avoid spreading the disease to other plants.

An arborist from LAM Tree Service in Evergreen, CO applying a treatment to prevent tree diseases.

When necessary, chemical treatments may be used to help manage diseases and pests.

Use Chemical Treatments as a Last Resort

Chemical management is part of an effective IPM plan, however, it’s always the last resort. Use insecticides for insect pests and herbicides to kill weeds. You can also use other substances like fungicides and antibiotics that can help manage various diseases.

While chemical management can be especially effective for managing pests and diseases, care should be taken during application. Always wear protective equipment, such as safety goggles and gloves. And follow all directions closely to avoid harming your plants or people.

Better yet, work with local tree experts who specialize in IPM here in Colorado. The team here at LAM Tree Service is made up of ISA Certified Arborists and Colorado Department of Agriculture licensed pesticide applicators. We know how to safely and effectively apply the right products at the right time, in the right amount, to keep your yard healthy and safe for plants and people.

Monitor Plants Regularly

Regular monitoring of plants for pests allows for early detection when populations are low and easy to eradicate. The key is stopping them before their numbers get out of control.

Take, for example, monitoring for mountain pine beetle. The best time to check for these pests is in winter. Check for “pitch tubes” on the trunks of your trees. If you see pitch tubes, cut a piece of bark off and see if the wood under the bark is discolored bluish-gray. If so, the tree is infested and needs to be removed.

If you regularly check your pine trees in winter and remove infested trees, the beetles won’t have a chance to spread and damage other trees. It’s all a matter of well-timed monitoring and action.

an arborist doing a tree inspection for a home property.

Work with the Tree Health Experts at LAM Tree Service

Still wondering how to prevent tree diseases and pests without spending all your free time working in the yard? Then it’s best to work with local arborists and plant health care experts to craft and execute an IPM plan suited to your yard.

If things get out of balance and more drastic measures are needed, call LAM Tree Service at 303-674-8733 or fill out our online form to schedule a diagnosis with our arborist. We’ll inspect your property to diagnose the problem and recommend the most effective and least toxic treatment options. But keep in mind that close monitoring and treatment before problems emerge will be most effective.

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