Intro to Integrated Insect Management: the Four T’s [2019]

By Dr. Aldous Benson

The brain is naturally inclined to make decisions, be befuddled by them, or sometimes to be ambivalent about making decisions. If your brain even cares. Which it sometimes doesn’t.

The “4T” approach to insects in the vegetable garden and fruit orchard is a four-step decision-making tool that bypasses your brain’s natural tendency toward chaos.

I have boldfaced the following four steps, which all start with the letter T, for your convenience:

  • Know your target
  • Figure out your timing
  • Use the right tool
  • Adjust your technique to the given situation so you are optimizing the chance that your tool will work.

Target. Timing. Tool. Technique. There should be only four of them. The secret hand signal for the 4T approach does not exist….and it does not exist because the hand signal is widely known and published as holding up four fingers like you are about to swear a solemn oath.

fingers giving an oath
The 4T approach to decision making does not have a secret hand signal. The four-and-sometimes-five fingered signal has been widely circulated.

The 4T approach is not as simple as going to your store and asking what spray works for what insect. As a general rule, we do not support going to your local store and asking for spray chemicals that kill using toxins that target the nervous systems of small animals that have done nothing to you or your nation.

After all, if you think about it…assuming that thinking is allowed in your area…the contact insecticide spray you buy to fight squash vine borer will not work as effectively if the squash vine borer eggs hatched seven days ago…and your target (e.g., young squash vine borer caterpillars) burrowed into the vine four days ago!

Very simply, the 4T approach is a way of organizing the decisions you make in terms of the products you choose to use so you also have a plan in place to use them properly. Planning and preparation are key to responding effectively to the insects in your garden.

The 4T approach asks the grower to think in advance of the growing season about the insects that will likely become an issue in the garden area. By thinking ahead, say in late April instead of late May or early June…and tracking the development of insects using insect degree days…the grower will be more aware of what insect and life stage to look for and when to look for it…and more  prepared to respond effectively using the right tools in the right way.

The Four T approach goes like this:

  • Target. Before you do anything, you need to know the species and life cycle of your target. We insist on this.
  • Timing. Find out approximately when your insect will be emerging, and which stage of its life cycle you are going to target. Timing has a lot to do with insect degree days…which are units of heat and time bundled together.
  • Tools. Know your target and timing? Then you select the appropriate tool. This basically means if you are an organic grower, you will find out which pesticides or other tools are allowed for organic food production. If you are not a fancy certified organic grower, but want to use low-risk pesticides that have short residual times and are compatible with human food consumption, you still need to find out which tools meet your needs and reflect your values and/or the expectations of your customers.
  • Technique. Finally, each tool will be more or less effective depending on how you use it. Insecticidal soap, for example, can be sprayed on the underside of leaves for better control of aphids, scales, and plant-feeding mites. Insecticidal soap with neem oil might be even more effective because of its repellent and antifeedant properties. Using insecticidal soap with neem tree oil on a windless day will be more effective than using it during the leadup to a tornado.

The 4Ts are covered in more detail during the IPM Workshops for the Permaculture Research Institute Cold Climate and other workshops for gardening groups.

Dr. Aldous Benson                                                                                                                         
February 2020

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