So, you’re planting a garden. You’ll happily water it watching the fruits of your labor grow, surrounded by singing birds, gentle dear and furry rabbits, just like Cinderella. Until the deer ambush your tomato plants, the rabbits multiply and attack your peppers, and a bird shits on your head. Not how we pictured it, heh? This doesn’t mean you go on garden lock-down, getting rid of anything that moves or breathes near your plants. Some garden creatures are your friends and some are your enemies, and we can identify them to find out which are helpful and which need to be kept at bay. Here’s the list of my top 7 garden pests and garden friends, (plus a few frenemies to keep your eye on…)
The Good Guys:
Ladybugs. Don’t be alarmed if you see several ladybugs in your garden. In fact, do what you can to make them comfortable and want to stay. Adult ladybugs can eat 100 aphids a day – aphids are very bad for you garden, as you’ll see below. Ladybugs also love to eat garden mites, small insects, and the eggs of pests like mealybugs, thrips, boll worms, scale, and leafhoppers. Basically all the bad crap you don’t want. But don’t just sit around and wait for them – build yourself a habitat for them to let them know they are welcome. Let Martha teach you how (it’s super easy.) See her directions here: build a ladybug habitat.
Spiders. The first time you wake up and find that a garden spider has set up shop on your tomato plants, your reaction might be to freak the f#$% out and grab a can of Raid. After all, they look scary: big, black-and-yellow striped, and sitting on a mean looking web. It’s as if a 300-lb biker covered in tattoos showed up in the middle of the night and built a fort on your lawn. Don’t panic – these guys are harmless and want nothing to do with you. They want to eat large insects that prey on your plants. So let them be and help them help you. And don’t worry if you are especially freaked-out by these guys – they are gone before you know it, sometimes eating their web by the end of the day and moving on to bigger and better things.
Cats. I learned by chance last year that they can be hugely beneficial to your garden. I had a few scuffles with the local rabbits (let’s just say I caught them sitting in the middle of my garden feasting on my peppers and telling their friends all about it.) I planted catnip because I read that it deters mosquitos, not realizing that it would attract the neighborhood felines looking for a drug fix. Many times last year I looked out my window to see a cat passed out near the catnip; they were harmless, rolling around in it and getting high a few times a week. But their scents in turn kept the rabbits away, as well as any mice. Win-win for me – they can get high on my supply any day.
Dragonfly or Damselfly. Damselflies are cool looking dudes. They resemble giant dragonflies, and have long slender bodies which can be green, blue, red, yellow, or any other bright color. They are carnivorous insects that especially go after large quantities of flies, mosquitoes, mosquito larvae, moths, and sometimes even beetles and caterpillars. When they are breeding you might see them flying together two at a time. Leave them be – they are your friends.
Snakes. Please, please, put down the shovel. Snakes in the garden, called “Garter Snakes” – oftentimes mistakenly labeled “Gardener Snakes” – are your best friend. Yes I know they look gross and move fast, and can freak you out. But they will not harm you. They may in fact be the best garden guest you have: they mainly eat insects and rodents, they don’t dig holes, damage your plants or landscape, they leave very little droppings (and even if they do it is excellent fertilizer,) they are very clean and don’t carry rabies, fleas, or funguses, and they are not aggressive. Seriously, people, don’t we all know some house guests who have a far worse track record? In fact, snakes are completely anti-social and want nothing to do with you. Let them help you, and “live and let live.” Of course, if you see a cobra or any other poisonous snake, run for your life. But most snakes in your garden are your friends. For more info on snakes in the garden, visit: www.davesgarden.com.
Bumblebees. Just like your friend with the annoying voice, these guys sound terrible but are harmless. In fact, you want them in your garden. They don’t sting, they aren’t interested much in you, and they just want to pollinate your plants. Without them I wouldn’t get all my peppers, figs, tomatoes, eggplant, and those delicious squash flowers that I am already mentally salivating over. (Big fat disclaimer: these guys can actually bite, but must be severely provoked to do so. And even if one got you, their teeth can’t pierce human skin.)
Worms. These guys literally shit garden gold. When we do work in other areas of the lawn and uncover worms, I immediately pick them up and transport them to the garden. Their burrowing loosens soil, allowing air and water to filter through and help roots grow. They are working for you and you aren’t even paying them. A single acre of cultivated land may be home to as many as 500,000 earthworms, each helping your soil be a better home for your plants. Just be careful how you fertilize – nitrogen rich fertilizer is excellent for worms, but the synthetic form of nitrogen fertilizer actually deters them. Here is the natural fertilizer I use: Espoma GT4 4-Pound Garden-Tone 3-4-4 Plant Food
Okay, enough about the good guys. Now, onto the bad guys…
The Bad Guys:
Aphids. If you come across weird-looking, pear-shaped insects congregating together on the undersides of leaves on your plants, or in a cluster on one of your tomatoes, know that they are not planning to throw you a garden surprise party or talking about how great your cucumber plants are doing. They are freeloading off of your plants and ruining them. You may see two or three tiny ones at first, but before you know it they will turn into an entire village sucking the life out of your plants and veggies. YOU MUST CONTROL THEM. They come in a wide variety of colors and sizes but you’ll know them by how they cluster together. They don’t discriminate against plants so they’ll likely go for anything. And if you see ants joining the party? You’ve got yourself an even bigger problem. Because aphids extract the sugars from your plants and veggies, ants actually farm these guys. You read that right – they farm them, like farmers to cattle. They literally protect aphids like bodyguards and massage them, sucking the sugars from them, getting drunk. So, what do you do if you see aphids in your garden? For starters, coerce ladybugs into the area (see above under ‘good guys.’) They love to eat aphids. You can also knock aphids off with a forceful stream of water (they may or may not come back the next day.) Another method is to prune the leaves/fruit that the aphids are on. Lastly, mix good ol’ soap and water in a spray bottle and spritz those suckers off of there.
Vine Borers. If you’ve been following me, you’ve seen my battle with these guys in past years here and here. They get inside the stem at the base of squash and zucchini plants and suck all the nutrients from the plant, blocking the good stuff from getting in. (Translation: they are fat effing garden slobs.) Once they emerge from the stem, they burrow into the soil until next year when they sprout wings and fly, lay eggs at the base of your plants, and start the process all over again. You can’t really throw a row cover over your zucchini plants because then you prevent bees from pollinating your plant, so you have to take these suckers out one at a time. If you see them, pick them off. If you know they are in your plant stem, make an incision and extract the culprit. And if you see any adults flying around, take them out one by one. I am peace, love, and kindness, but I also have to eat. Defend yourself where necessary or you’ll get an infestation. This year I put plastic tubes around the stems to (hopefully) prevent any unwanted guests. Fingers crossed…
Snails. They are slow-moving, small, and don’t bite – no problem, right? WRONG! Don’t underestimate these guys. One seemingly innocent snail can wipe out a whole row of plants, leaving you baffled and staring at leaves that look like Swiss cheese. As if that’s not twisted enough, these guys are hermaphrodites and can reproduce all on their own. I don’t even know where to go with this one. They can and will create entire families in days who can literally destroy an entire garden. Get rid of them! If you’re anything like me, however, you don’t want to kill them – you just want to make it so that they don’t go near your garden. There are a couple of ways to do this. If you’re an espresso drinker, line coffee grounds around the perimeter of your garden – they hate the stuff. If you don’t have any ask your local coffee shop. Crushed egg shells work in the same manner.
Caterpillars. Caterpillars damage plants in the same manner that snails do – and you’ll want to get them out of your garden, asap. “But they’re so cute!” you say. “They turn into beautiful butterflies!” Remember the scenario we talked about in the beginning. Your garden was not planted by Disney, so get your head out of the dirt and get rid of these guys. Sticking to organic methods and avoiding the pesticides helps you maintain a healthy garden, so if you see caterpillars on your plants, your best bet is to pick them off and move them to another area of the lawn away from your garden.
Rabbits. Ohhh, you know all about my battles with them by now. They eat everything, breed like crazy, and have balls of steel. I have literally run full-force at them while they stare at me and continue to eat my peppers, running only at the last possible moment. I don’t want to hurt them, I just want them out of my garden. I’ve tried sprinkling garlic powder around my garden, which has seemed to help, but my best form of defense is planting the catnip to attract the local cats. Just the scent of cats around alone kept them out of my garden all year last year.
Beetles. With the exclusion of ladybugs, which are on our “good guy” list above, most other beetles you’ll find in your garden are not beneficial and will eat your plants. Last year one of my eggplants was attacked by beetles, leaving the leaves looking like doilies. The plant produced pretty much nothing and I had to pull it out. Some people swear by using Neem Oil on the plant leaves, which is a natural way to deter beetles from wanting to eat the plants. I have never tried this myself, but may this year if I have a problem again. You can also plant your seedlings a bit later than normal, this way when the beetles come out early in the season they will move along quickly thinking there is nothing for them in your garden.
Mice. Ick. Hopefully you don’t have this problem, but sometimes mice can get in your garden. You probably don’t need me to tell you that they can carry diseases and will eat your stuff – even more frustrating, they will leave you with half-eaten fruits and veggies, throwing salt in the wound as you carry off the remains of an otherwise healthy piece of food that you can no longer eat. I’ll say it again: it’s helpful to have cats around. Plant catnip as I mentioned above and the cats will keep the mice at bay. Looking for another option? Fill a spray bottle with 2 quarts of water and 1 ounce of 100 percent oil of peppermint. Use the spray in and around the garden with no fear of poisons or pesticides. Shake well before each use.
Ants. I list ants here because they can be good or bad – one day they help you, the next day they plot against you. They are very efficient, busy little creatures that are never wandering around aimlessly – they always have an agenda. Your basic, normal-looking ants can be beneficial because they can act as pollinators as they move from plant to plant. They can kill off caterpillars, and their movements and tunneling aerate the soil. But if you see them hanging out near aphids (see above,) you’ve got yourself a problem. You also want to watch out for carpenter ants or fire ants – if you see those guys in your garden, you may need to call an exterminator.
Wasps. Ugh. I shudder as I type this. Just like the ants, they can be both good and bad. Chances are you don’t need me to tell you what a wasp looks like so I’ll spare you the picture. The good news is, if you stay out of their way and don’t see a nest directly near your garden, they will come and go randomly and will feast on caterpillars. The bad news is that they will sting your ass if you get in their way and, unlike yellow jackets, their stingers don’t fall off so they can keep going until they prove their point.
Hopefully you’ve learned from this article that you need living creatures in your garden to help your plants grow, and that you don’t need to launch an attack and douse your garden in a chemical bath to get rid of the pests. Knowing how to identify them and understand their role allows nature to take its course while helping you maintain your plants. The blog “Turning Earth” says it best: “It’s all about restoring a balance. You don’t need chemicals.”