Plant Health Care (PHC) is a term often denoting a service offered by companies in the green industry indicating the company offers a comprehensive program to manage the health, structure and appearance of plants in the landscape. If they don’t offer an aspect of the program, they generally will be able to advise you on what is needed and offer referrals to a company that can supply that need or resources you can look into if the care can be managed by the homeowner.
A component of PHC is Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which is the diagnosis, monitoring and application of the least toxic choice in dealing with plant pests.
Natural and applied methods are considered in IPM. Natural methods are environmental events which will stop the progression of the problem, such as a change in the weather that was conducive for a specific disease. An example being a disease pathogen may thrive in moist, cool conditions; the weather gets hot and dry, the disease progression ceases. If this can be anticipated, it will affect the choice of whether to apply any other method or let nature handle the situation.
Applied methods are ones we have to implement. They include cultural, biological, mechanical controls with chemical control being used as a last resort.
We can’t eradicate all pathogens or pests from the environment. It isn’t practical nor is it desirable. IPM recognizes the need for a certain number of “prey” insects the “predatory” insects will feed on. Many diseases are endemic to an area and only become problematic given the suitable environment and the host species.
Whether the problem is insects or a disease, it is crucial to correct any cultural practice that may be contributing to the problem. Without doing so, it is pointless to apply any pesticides. Therefore, cultural controls are a first step in PHC/IPM programs.
If available, plant resistant species for diseases known to be prevalent in your area. A classic example is dealing with fireblight, a bacterial disease potentially devastating to members of Rosaceae. Numerous cultivars of Malus spp, apples and crabapples, have been developed for resistance to fireblight as well as apple scab, powdery mildew and rust diseases. Combining best management practices and planting resistant trees may significantly reduce or even eliminate the need for chemical application.
Landscape management practices may inadvertently contribute to establishing a suitable environment for diseases or creating a succulent smorgasbord for insects. An all-too-common example includes over-fertilization. Many articles, websites and well-meaning professionals advise the application of nitrogen as well as other plant nutrients in quantities exceeding plant need.
Excess nitrogen pushes vegetative growth at the expense of root development, storage and defense. This succulent vegetation is highly attractive to many destructive insects and nitrogen virtually feeds many pathogens causing diseases to be more virulent and prevalent. Examples include Armillaria root rot, fireblight, fusarium, phytophthora, powdery mildew, pseudomonas and rust diseases.
Weed and feed products commonly sold for lawn care maintenance have herbicides in them that are designed to manage broad leaf weeds. Trees, shrubs and many flowers are broad leaf species and are susceptible to these herbicides as well. If weed control is desired in turf grass, it is far better to discretely spot treat if populations are beyond controlling by hand.
Another cultural practice that influences the suitable environment is inappropriate watering. Too much and you will be suffocating roots creating a suitable environment for root rot diseases. Too little and you will weaken tree defenses making the plant more susceptible to opportunistic pathogens on weakened tissue as well as attracting some of the most damaging insects, the borers, who are drawn to drought-stressed trees.
Mowing and weed eating are often maintenance practices which cause physical damage to trees leaving wounds that become infection courts for both pathogens and insects. (See my blog Can A Weed Eater Really Kill A Tree?) Creating a protection zone (no-mow zone) around the trees, at least in a minimal mulched area if not a full tree island, will eliminate these man-caused injuries. (See my blog Benefits of a Tree Island)
These are a few examples of cultural practices which should be evaluated and altered as needed.
Nature has provided many organisms which combat diseases and insects. In a balanced, natural setting these may be sufficient to keep damaging agents at an acceptable level. However, in our built environment, they may not be able to keep up with the task. It may be desirable to release biological organisms when they are not in sufficient numbers. Examples of these would be some of the bacteria, e.g.., Bacillus subtilis, that combat diseases such as fusarium and phytophthora or bacteria, e.g., Bacillus thuringiensis, that control numerous insect species.
Biological control may also include the release of predatory insects to control pests, such as lady beetles and green lacewings which are both voracious eaters of aphids. A side note: if purchasing these beneficial insects, lady beetles will be more effective in a closed environment such as a greenhouse unless there is sufficient food and water immediately available. Green lacewings may be a better choice in an open-air landscape.
Mechanical or physical controls
Physical manipulation or creating an obstruction to protect plants can be very simple and effective. Examples would be fencing your tree to keep deer from browsing and rubbing or protecting the trunk of a tree to keep the neighborhood cat from using it as a scratching post.
Chemical pesticides are kept as a last resort rather than a first so we have a place to take a final stand. With that said, there are some pests that have been identified as requiring the hammer approach first and last, just not nearly as often as some think. There is also a vast array of chemical pesticides to use including low toxic, organic, inorganic and synthetic products. Wading through the plethora of products is daunting and confusing. Trying to make sense of the labels can be just as daunting and confusing. It is strongly urged to consult a professional applicator prior to applying any pesticide yourself.
Broad spectrum cover sprays, sprayed over the entire property (plant population), will inevitably harm or reduce the number of naturally occurring beneficial and predatory organisms. These are the ones that can keep injurious pests under control and should be protected as much as possible.
Many pests are not damaging to long term plant health. Many pests are a nuisance to us more than they are a problem to the plants. And some need an aggressive approach. A good PHC technician should be able to help you wade through the potentials and come up with a game plan that will address the issues, causing as little negative impact to as many beneficial organisms in the environment as possible.