Another warm summer day is upon us, our flowers are in bloom, our fruits are fruiting, and the mosquitoes are biting as usual. This year like every other has more than just mosquitoes taking a bite out of my sweet treats. Pesky bugs, rodents, and people too are taking a bite or even an armful out of my hard dedication and work.
What can we do as gardeners to keep these influences out? Let us first consider the types of pests we often deal with and how to plan and respond once they are sighted.
Bugs and insects are what usually come to mind when thinking of common pests for gardeners and farmers alike. They fly, bite, and hide under the leaves of all our favorite green treats and are a bane to growers worldwide.
Aphids are the poster children for persistent garden pests. The size of a ground-cherry seed, aphids are small, light blue-green insects that eat leafy greens. They reproduce asexually with as many as five billion eggs in one hatching and can quickly destroy a garden if left unchecked. While they are often found in the light blue-green variety, they can also be found in red, white, and black and are usually seen underneath your favorite edible leaves.
These nasty little bugs just love to eat up all the soft new growth that your poor cabbages, kales, collards, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts worked so hard to produce. This year, the red variety took to my indoor potato plants, my poor babies. Every day I squished and smashed, until I finally tried the good ol’ fashioned soapy water spray, which just murdered the poor plant and let the aphids finish their work. Oh well, maybe next year.
Whiteflies are another pesky little pest, and just like aphids they ate up all my leafy greens this year. Due to some of the larger pests discussed below, some of the mustard I planted as a cover crop became weakened, and these suckers flew right in to enjoy the feast. Unfortunately, I let my maintenance slip, and so went all of my edibles, the kale, the cabbage, and the little collards too, swarmed underneath with the little whiteflies.
Spider mites are most common to indoor growers and are a special bane to cannabis growers as they like their medicine homegrown like the rest of us. Small, furry, and reddish brown, these little fiends are found on the underside of leaves of most plants. Look for small webs forming and holes poked in the leaves. The mites reproduce quickly and can adapt/evolve to pesticides in days, so you’ll want to vary the control methods described below to remove them without tossing your plants.
Caterpillars and worms can be devastating to crops. All is well, and in days your entire crop is eaten and left bare as they move on to the next. The varieties vary greatly, some caterpillars preferring to take over entire sections of trees in the summer while others will settle for the freshest leaves of your spinach or other leafy green. Some, like the hornworm, will murder your tomato and tobacco plants in days, while others such as the cabbage worm will stick to your, well, cabbages, kales, and other Brassica family leaves.
In general, the best remedy for all the varieties above is a thumb, a forefinger, and a keen eye. Smash every last one when you see them and smash again just in case. Not the smashing type? Most plants can handle a soap-water spray. Simply use dish soap, water, and a spray bottle and spray the leaves, top and bottom.
For some pests you’ll need something stronger, and if you’re keeping it natural, 100-percent neem oil is what you need. Dilute and spray from top to bottom and the undersides. The stronger the solution, the stronger the effect, but beware of putting in too much as it will block the light from entering the leaves.
Want a chemical but nothing crazy? Try pyrethrin, a simple and cheap solution. Just like neem oil, you dilute and spray and your problems will be solved. At least for the insect pests.
But wait, there’s more …
Ever seen a mole rat? At least that’s why my friend calls it. Mole is the more common name. It is a blind furry critter that burrows underneath the earth. While it won’t harm most garden plants, it will create nice little tunnels for other small animals. Rats, mice, and squirrels are all common rodents for us folk east of the river, and the signs are many but can be easy to miss.
Rats and mice will look for clutter to hide in, any space that is warm, covered, and close to food. Look for gaps under concrete and spaces that haven’t been touched in a while, and droppings too. Of course, they will eat fruit, but they seek rotting goods and opportunities for shelter first and foremost. If they follow behind a mole, they can eat away at your root crops without you knowing until harvest day. Cleaning up your space, keeping food scraps out of your area (check the compost bin), and setting traps will keep them at bay.
What’s the worst pest, you ask? Humans, of course!
Signs of human intervention vary. Someone like me may accidentally broadcast a seed in your growing space or take a cutting from one of your herbs. We gardeners tend to be easy to spot when it comes to pestilence. We take cuttings from herbs and grab seeds from flowers. We’ll take a fruit or two but only the ripe ones. Only a keen gardener will notice the traces of a gardener’s touch. I might prune and weed a little just to make amends.
The less plant-savvy human pests will take what they see, the opportunists we call them. I lost five of my large pumpkins this time last year, green as the leaves, hardly ready to be eaten. They took all the large ones they could see, bastards. Green tomatoes, yellow squash (it looked ripe but still had a way to go), and entire plants ripped up, all for a fleeting flower. The things these non-gardeners do!
Drunken humans will urinate in your plants, calling it fertilizer without knowing the horror we gardeners face when our crop mysteriously grows yellow and dies. Some think they are weeding for you when they rip up your mint. Others step in it, not noticing what they are destroying as they photograph your garden for their Instagram page. Other humans don’t care about all of your efforts and just steal for the sake of doing it. You may even find your fruit smashed in someone’s yard a few houses over.
Preventing human pests can be tricky. You have to identify how they are getting in, what kind of person is doing this, and if the motive is personal or not.
My space is behind my apartment building near our parking lot, away from general traffic but known to many who don’t live here. I don’t need to concern myself about just anyone coming by, and my neighbors know it’s my space and generally respect my hard work. It’s the thieves who park stolen cars out back, the drunkards who come out to party, and petty jealous fools who take because they can’t grow, and can’t grow because they can’t tell a ripe pumpkin from an under-ripe one, poor devils.
For most decent human beings, knowing they didn’t grow it is enough for them to keep a respectful distance, but we’re not talking about decent people here, we’re talking about thieves. Most true thieves will take what is of value. Some will come for your mower and other equipment, others will wait until the day most of your tomatoes are ripe to steal them. For some, a simple fence and lock will suffice, and for others lights, wires, and alarms will be needed. Don’t be afraid to defend your property rights, but sometimes poison ivy is punishment enough.
While spiders, cats, and owls often are mistaken for pests, they are your guardians and indicators of trouble. Usually when we see spider webs, we consider the area unclean and just not cared for. It may signify these things to some extent, but most likely it is an indication of the balance of nature. Spiders eat most of the nasty insects listed above and will only venture into your space if they can eat. Rest assured, if you see spiders in your garden you missed the pests and they got to them first.
Feral cats and wild owls will come to your space to pick off the birds, big bugs, rats, and mice that would make your life hell, if they didn’t get there first. Cats are a whiz at eating anything that moves, and bigger animals, such as racoons and deer, won’t mess with them due to those sharp little claws. Plant some catnip near (but not too close) to your garden to attract them to your space. If they already come by, consider a pan of cat food to make them feel at home. You’ll appreciate the difference. While the bees and butterflies buzz away, the birds will be kept at bay out of fear of the cat’s paw.
Owls too will come at night, eating the mice and rats that would steal your fruit. Animal pests will avoid your garden space once it becomes known as a home to owls.
As will all of these pests and other ailments, prevention is better than a cure. That means putting even more pressure on your preseason planting plan for pest control measures. Some pests can be warded off with simple design elements like a fence or screen, others by planting appropriately (see last month’s article on companion planting), and for still others you squish and pray for Passover, no ram’s blood needed.
Look to my articles later this year as I guide us all through garden planning and incorporating pest control into the mix. Enjoy your summer!
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