Start early to tame troublesome garden pests

posted June 4, 2018 8:15 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Bev Carney | Gardening Columnist

It may be early in the gardening season, but the pests are coming.

Conventional wisdom claims that healthy plants attract fewer pests, and that does make sense. Scientists have documented that stressed or injured plants send out signals which seem to attract harmful bugs. Your first line of defense should be healthy soil, rich in organic matter. Moisture — either too much or too little — also creates stress. Provide good fundamentals and you will have established a solid foundation against problem pests. Check your plot frequently, looking for the pests listed below.

Even with ideal growing conditions, some pests will find your plants. Early in the season, look for flea beetles — tiny little hopping bugs that can munch away at your seedlings overnight, leaving nothing but a stalk behind. These tiny critters seem to prefer brassica seedlings and are particularly fond of Chinese cabbage. You can hang a sticky trap to detract them from your plants, but your best defense is a lightweight row cover fabric.

Potato bugs lay clumps of eggs on the underside of the leaves of potato plants. These little golden nuggets hatch out to tiny red crawlers which rapidly grow fat on your potato foliage. Left untended, these larvae can denude your plants. You can treat your plants with Bacillus thuringiensis var. Tenebrionis, an organic powder that kills only the potato bug larvae. My favorite method is hand picking the little devils off of the plants and dropping them into a jar of soapy water or squishing them by hand.

Yet another voracious eater is the cabbage worm or cabbage looper. Developing from eggs laid by the white cabbage worm moth (https://​​ydcvxyll), the velvety light green larva are nonstop eaters. Their coloring blends in perfectly with the leaves of broccoli, cabbage and other brassica plants and they can be hard to see. Defensive moves include applying Bacillus thuringiensis kurstaki (Btk), a variety of natural pesticides that specifically targets cabbage worms/​loopers, or use a lightweight row cover to keep the moths away. Hand picking is also an option if you have only a few plants. Flush eggs from the center of the plant with a sharp spray of water.

The striped or spotted cucumber beetle can do a lot of damage to tender cuke seedlings. Row covers can be effective and a concoction made of kaolin clay sprayed on the leaves may damage the beetles enough to kill them off. They are difficult to control and spread disease, causing a previously healthy specimen to wilt and die. See https://​​y9nun5ct.

Also in the realm of hard-to-control pests are squash bugs and squash vine borers. Squash bugs lay their metallic-looking eggs on the underside of the leaves and their voracious silvery nymphs hatch quickly and eat heartily. While the best solution for them might be removing the eggs before they hatch, that can be a real problem given how many leaves a healthy squash plant produces. The only solution that I have found to be effective against these squash eaters is a dusting of Sevin at the base of the plant and on the leaves. For the safety of bees and other pollinators, apply at night when they aren’t crawling around.

The squash vine borer does its damage inside the plant. See ttps://​​ycnsht4z.

In the zucchini bed, I grow a type called Perfect Pick, available from Jung Seeds. Grown under the protection of an insect barrier fabric, the plants self-pollinate and thus the plant can be left covered until it is large enough to defend itself.

Beverly Carney can be reached at

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