Garden Pests

You aren't the only one who wants to eat those veggies!

There are many insects and wild creatures out there, but what do you want to leave in the garden, and what should you get rid of or take measures to prevent?

Insect Pests

Predatory insects and animals will help keep the population of "bag bugs" to a minumum, but I will discuss them in depth in another section. Helpful creatures include ladybugs, praying mantis, ground beetles, wasps, spiders, birds, lizards, snakes, frogs, and toads.

Many insects, especially larger ones can be picked off by hand and crushed, placed into a jar with an alcohol swab, or in the case of most large caterpillars...set on a tray for the birds to feast upon. If you have kids, you can employ them to pick bugs, I give them each an empty parmesan cheese can with an alcohol swab inside, and pay them 10 cents per bug. Grasshoppers, caterpillars, and squash bugs are our most common pests, and the easiest for them to collect; once Ozric made $8 in one morning, with squash bugs from his Roma tomato plants!

For more persistent or difficult to control insects, a poison may be required. Sevin dust is typically safe to use in small doses, I do not recommend using on delicate or quick-growing leafy vegetables. A mixture of Sevin and Diatomaceous Earth (Sevin/DE) is good, and can be applied with a recycled parmesan cheese can, or other jar with holes in the lid. Diatomaceous earth is a natural substance, made of the fossilized shells of diatoms - a microscopic marine animal. It is harmless to humans and animals, aside from a mild irritation perhaps, but its sharp edges cuts into the soft bodies and joints of insects and causes them to dry out. The downside of using agents like this, is it will also affect your beneficial insects.

Wheatbran can be used to dust some plant-eating beetles. They will eat the bran, drink dew to satisfy their thirst, and then burst from the expanded bran in their guts. Cornmeal can be used to control cutworms in a similar way.

Natural sprays can be made to deter or kill many insects.
Bug juice made from crushed insects may also have some effect, but it will mostly deter them from eating the sprayed plant with the "smell of death". To make bug juice, collect half a cup of the specific problem insect. Place the pests in a blender with 2 cups of lukewarm water, and liquefy them. Strain the liquid through a cheesecloth or a fine sieve to prevent particles from clogging your sprayer. Dilute about 1/4 cup of the strianed liquid with 1 or 2 cups of water in a small hand sprayer. The leftover liquid can be frozen for a year or more. Spray both sides of your vegetables' leaves, along with the stems. If it rains, spray again. For obvious reasons, don't use your regular household blender to make this juice!

Garlic spray can be made by finely chopping peeled garlic cloves, onions, or chives. Mix with 1/2 cup of water and strain out the particles.

Hot pepper spray can be an effective insect control. Chop or grind hot peppers into fine pieces, or use a hot pepper powder, like cayenne. Mix 1/2 cup of fresh peppers with 1 pint of water, and strain. Avoid getting this solution near your eyes, nose, or mouth, and use rubber gloves for both preparation and application. "Pepper juice" (hot peppers in vinegar) can also be used, but be sure to dilute this, as vinegar will damage your plants.

I have used a combination of pepper and garlic juice, and a little dish soap with quite a bit of success. Mix about 1 teaspoon of soap to the recommended amounts of pepper and garlic. This spray will often kill existing insects, and deter future pests from returning. Insecticidal soap can also be used, but I have not tried it.

The Bugs!

Aphids are small white, green, or red and black insects that puncture leaves and suck out juices, leaving wounds for viruses and often drying plants. Small populations of aphids can be crushed with the fingers against the plant, but you may want to use a poison for serious infestations. Sevin/DE can be used well before harvest, and Bug Salsa also provides good results. Ants "farm" aphids like cows, for the sweet substance they produce, called honeydew. You will often see ants in association with aphids on your plants, and the ants will also protect their "livestock" from other predatory insects. Ladybugs and their larva are voracious predators of aphids, so introduce some if you can.

Harmful beetles include Asparagus beetle, weevils, potato beetles, cucumber beetle, flea beetles, japanese beetle, mexican bean beetle, and click beetles (their larvae, or wireworms, are more destructive than the adult form). Many can be removed by hand, but you can check for specific controls.

Beetle Battle Paddles!
...If you have read Fox In Socks, you will get it. Flea beetles are extremely hard to control because of their tiny size, habit of rapidly jumping and flying out of harms' way, and their sheer numbers. Take a long stick and staple or nail a roughly 10x12 inch piece of cardboard to one end. Make a second paddle just like it. Put Tangle-Trap or some other sticky substance on both pieces of cardboard so they're really gooey. Then walk along your plants, holding a paddle on each side and jostle the plants with your foot. As the beetles hop off, they get stuck to the paddles.

There are many types of caterpillars, all are voracious eaters. But you may wish to keep some caterpillars around, as they become beautiful butterflies, and pollinate flowers. The more destructive kinds are tomato hornworms, cabbage loopers, cutworms, and armyworms. Most of these are easily spotted in the early morning hours, and picked off by hand, or squashed if they are still very small, in the case of cabbage worms. Cabbage worms are very easily spotted by their damage, they chew holes in cabbage and broccoli leaves, making it look like a piece of swiss cheese, usually from the underneath. Cutworms and armyworms typically hide in the soil and are hard to see, but placing a collar of foil, or a slice of a plastic cup around seedlings will prevent them from lopping off delicate plants at their stems. Sevin/DE sprinkled on the ground will also devestate these pests. Toads will do quite a bit of damage to the population of ground caterpillars, as well. Most of us know and hate the Tomato hornworm, or tobacco hornworm. These huge, green, fearsome-looking caterpillars pupate in the soil and turn into the Sphinx moth, also called Tobacco Bird, or Hummingbird moth for it's unusual appearance. They are good for pollinating night-blooming flowers, but there are many species...and considering the damage they cause to tomato plants, do not hesitate in removing every last one. Hornworms do not sting, but larger ones can bite and put up quite a fuss with their clicking, flailing, and spitting of green juice, so you may want to use gloves to remove them. Crush, asphyxiate with alcohol, or set out for the birds. There are types of small wasps that prey specifically on tomato worms. They will inject their eggs into the body of the caterpillar, the larvae eat it alive, and then form white coccoons on the surface of its' skin and hatch out to seek more caterpillars, leaving their host to die. If you come across a hornworm with these white coccoons, leave it be.

Grasshoppers and locusts (not to be confused with cicadas) can be some of the most destructive pests. They have voracious appetites, breed in high numbers and produce multiple generations a year, and are highly mobile. Birds and lizards prove to be the most effective natural predators, as well as spiders. Hand-picking is easiest for young hoppers, and during the late evening, night, and very early morning when the insects are at rest.

Stink bugs, squash bugs, leaf-footed bugs, harlequin bugs
These unwelcome pests can cause quite a bit of damage, and may be intimidating to remove. They can be quite large, in the case of some leaf-footed bugs, and can administer a painful bite if handled without gloves. Not to mention the unpleasant smell the produce when disturbed. "True bugs", they have long, pointed mouthparts with which they pierce plant stems and fruits, and suck out juices. Many inject an enzyme into the plant, which causes decay in stems, and prevents ripening and seed production in fruit. I have cut open ripe tomatoes that had been affected by squash bugs, only to find the seed gel was black and mouldy, and no seeds were present. These insects are most alert during the daytime hours, and will run, fly, or drop off plants when disturbed. I have found the cool, damp early-morning hours best for picking stink and squash bugs. They are still sleepy, cold, and sluggish. You can bring a can up underneath them and shake or flick them off if they are small, or numerous. Young bugs tend to flee or drop more readily than adults. If a stalk is severely infested you can simply clip this off. Adults are able to fly, and they can crawl up out of a container, so have something with a cap and alcohol swab handy as a kill-jar. Kerosene in a can or bucket also works. If you are planning to water that morning, you can use this to your advantage. Any bugs that have hidden or dropped off, will climb to the top of the plant when given a cold shower, so that they might dry off and warm up.

Slugs, Snails
Slugs and snails are not a problem in our area, since it is typically too dry and hot. Any slugs or snails that are around are small, and stay hidden in dark, moist places. Dusts and sprays can be used on them, as well as handpicking. Make a beer or yeast trap by sinking a small dish or tray in the soil and filling with a few ounces of stale beer, or baking yeast and water. A grapefruit or canteloupe rind, or anything that provides a cool, shady hiding spot for them can be used as a trap.

Other animal pests:

Insects are not the only unwelcome guests in the garden. Mice, rats, rabbits, gophers, moles, possums, raccoons, skunks, and deer can all wreck havok on your vegetables.

Live traps may seem humane, but you must take into consideration that if you release an animal far from his home territory, you are putting it at risk to attack or be attacked by others in the area, or spread diseases. How would you like it if someone came by and dumped off some strange vagrant in your back yard? If you do use live traps, you should be willing to release the animal fairly close by and hope it learned from it's traumatic experience and never return, or kill it humanely.

Fences and other barriers will prevent many animal pests from entering your garden. This works well for deer, gophers and other burrowing mammals, rabbits, and raccoons.

Fencing to Outsmart Hungry Animals
Animal Height Depth Mesh
Deer 7-8 ft. On surface of soil Woven mesh wire, 12 1/2 ga. or larger, with 6- by 6-inch mesh
Gopher 2 ft. 2 ft. 1/2 inch mesh
Groundhog 2 ft. 3 ft., wit bottom 2ft. turned outward 1/2 inch mesh
Rabbit 2 1/2 - 3 ft. 1 ft., with bottom 6 in. turned outward. 1-inch mesh, no larger
Raccoon 3 ft. with top 2 ft. unattached, making "floppy" fence 6 inch 1-inch mesh
(table compliments of Rodale's Garden Problem Solver: Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs, by Jeff Ball)

Barriers such as netting and screening material can be used to deter fruit-eating birds, and, if small enough guage, prevent egg-laying moths and large hungry grasshoppers from reaching your plants as well. You will still want to allow time or space for air or pollinaters to reach your blooms. Birds are typically a welcome visitor to gardens, but some enjoy nibbling on fruits or young seedlings.

"Stinks like humans over here!"
Deer can be deterred by hanging up bars of soap in their wrappers. Bars with their wrappers intact tend to be more effective than the soap or the wrappers alone, and last longer. Those little hotel bars are perfect. Drill a hole centered about 1/2 inch down from the top of a bar of soap. Slip a piece of wire through the hole, wrap around itself, and make a hook with the other end to hang with. Put them within a deer's reach, about 6 feet from the ground. You can also make soap packets by placing those little slivers of old soap into a piece of pantyhose or cheesecloth.

Human hair can also be put into cheesecloth bags and hung around the garden, or things like old shoes set around the garden, to provide a human scent.

Some animals find light and vibrations frightening or annoying. Try tieing empty pie-pans or old cds to trees, bushes, or trellises where they can be moved by the wind. Windmills or children's toy pinwheels can be used for the same effect, and will also deter burrowing animals if they are stuck in the ground. A sort of windmill can be made by cutting verticle fins in an empty plastic soda bottle and putting it upside-down on a stick.

Glass bottles filled with water can also be used to reflect light and scare away animals like rabbits.

Be a Predator!
If you are not a vegan, and not opposed to killing Thumper, or Bambi, or Whatever cute little name you can think of for a squirrel...why not eat them? Wild game provides a much leaner, healthier, and more flavorful meat than domestic livestock. Squirrels and rabbits can be easily "harvested" by use of a .22 rifle or pistol, a pellet or BB gun can even be used on a squirrel if you are a good shot and have a powerful enough air rifle. You can also trap and kill them humanely. I recommend using only appropriate centerfire caliber rifles beginning with .222 Remmington for deer to bring them down, and only during proper hunting seasons. See my section on wild game for more details and legalities. You would not want to bring down a mother doe while she has a fawn to care for. While you can get away with harvesting rabbits and squirrels in most areas, shooting a deer in a semi-urban neighborhood would not be permissable; use barrier or scent deterrants for them.