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It all starts in the planning. Here are some starting steps to keep your fruit and plants pest - and disease - free

A diseased apple hangs from a tree.
Iowa State University Integrated Pest Management team
Fungal diseases can present themselves in various ways, some clearer than others.

Fungal disease and pests will never stop. Whether you're a first time gardener or a seasoned grower, experts have steps you can take to limit damage in your garden.

Nothing is worse than stepping into your garden only to find little critters gnawing away at your blossoming fruits. Home gardeners and horticulturists alike work year after year to keep pests and diseases away from fruits. Though it can seem like these garden destroyers are inevitable, experts have timely tips on how you can keep your fruit plants healthy this harvest season.

Selecting the best fruits to grow in Iowa

It can be difficult to know which fruits will thrive in Iowa - both when considering the state's growing zone and offering additional resistance to disease and pests. Randall Vos, a commercial fruit crop specialist at Iowa State University, suggests apple trees as a safe bet. Iowa's colder spring climate is ideal for apples. Vos also notes that researching and finding apple varieties with the most disease resistance is key. Direct sunlight and proper pruning also help prevent disease, and UV rays from the sun keep powdery mildew off of plants. Not a fan of apples? Experts also recommend pears, tart cherries, plums and apricots.

Preventing fungal disease in your plants

Fungal diseases broadly refer to a group of diseases caused by various types of fungi. Examples include powdery mildew, rust and black spot. They can spread to plants through the soil in the ground, or even a quick brush with a watering can. They're tough to spot, and by the time an infection is noticeable, it may already be too late. Most fungal diseases spread in moisture. In a wet year or after frequent rain showers, look for concentric circles and pimply black dots on leaves. Buying cultivars (plants that have been bred) with the most disease resistance possible is the best way to stay ahead of fungal infections.

And it doesn’t go away after a year - fungal disease one year creates a heightened risk for spores to reappear the next year. If you’ve had disease, in the future, applying plant protectants will be a good preventive measure against recurrence. Mulching over berry plants in the winter can also help regulate soil temperature and keep plants healthy for next year.

Commercial fruit crop specialist Randall Vos offers advice on protecting fruit from frost damage and disease.

Vos also warns to keep hanging fruits like strawberries away from the ground as much as possible. Fruit near or on the ground is more prone to rotting and causing problems for the rest of the plant. Remove any rotting fruit you see on the ground… however gross it might be to touch (you can always use gloves!).

"It's not fun to pick up a mushy strawberry that may be full of sap beetles, but if you want to reduce the risk of having more diseases and insects in the crop that's still to come, it's best to get those out of there."

There are a few other steps you can take to identify a fungal infection in your garden sooner than later. Powdery mildew can be spotted by looking at the leaf while holding it in the sun. A shininess on the surface of the leaf may indicate the beginning of infection.

Preventing garden pests

What about pests? Vos says we can stop freaking out about Japanese beetles. Though their damage can be cosmetically displeasing, plants can handle more damage than we often think. Instead, he says, we should be focused on insects attacking the fruit itself - It's no fun to find a maggot in the cherry you just picked.

Here are two steps you can take to limit pests in your garden:

Identifying disease and bugs in your garden

Picking disease resistant fruits and being on alert to spot infections and pests when they arise is critical. Taking proactive steps instead of waiting around to see if damage occurs is a must. Take your magnifying glass outside and look closely - once you see damage, it might be too late.

Phineas Pope is a digital production assistant at Iowa Public Radio