Garden guests: the good, the bad, and the icky

By Stella Veraduccia

You look out at your garden with immense satisfaction:  your seedlings matured into full-grown plants and everything is thriving. In the spring, you followed all the rules for soil preparation and planting, and now you admire the fruits of your labor. You walk through the garden to enjoy a closer look and revel in its beauty when … wait … why are there holes in those leaves? What’s all the fuzzy stuff on that stem? And what is that hideous thing on the tomato plant?

The bugs have arrived.  It’s as if one of them posted your place on Facebug or Insectagram and they all showed up, ready to party.  Because last winter was so mild, this summer is likely to be prolific, bug-wise. While you may be tempted to deploy the mother-of-all-pesticides to wipe out the buggy flash mob, there are safer measures to rid your garden of pests.

Practice early prevention:  If you didn’t do this in the spring, you’ll remember for next year. Start with healthy soil that has been amended with natural compost. Consider plant rotation when deciding what to put where; don’t put the same plant in the same spot year after year. Thoroughly clean up the area because pests breed beneath fallen leaves, limbs, and debris; remove any bugs lurking under rocks, boards, or planters. Choose healthy nursery plants and pest-resistant cultivars, avoiding distressed or damaged specimens.    

Tomato Hookworm: an icky bad bug. Ladybugs (above) are adorable, good bugs.

Repel pests with companion plants:  Some herbs and flowers are natural pest-repellents:  marigolds, basil, thyme, rosemary, chives, and parsley, to name a few. Others both repel pests and attract beneficial insects: catnip, dill, mint, and nasturtium. Include these among your other plants when planning your garden.

Remove pests manually:  This requires fortitude, high tolerance for ickyness, and really good gardening gloves. That hideous thing on the tomato plant? It’s the hornworm, which can strip a giant plant down to bare stems. Pluck the squishy thing and drop it into soapy water to drown; ditto for other caterpillars, large beetles, and slugs. Smaller pests like aphids and spider mites can be blasted off plants with a strong spray from the garden hose. You can also gently shake a branch or stem over a sticky board to dislodge pests.

Invite beneficial insects:  Not all bugs are bad; some are so good they should have their own national holidays. Ladybugs devour aphids, mealybugs, scale and other small, soft-bodied pests and eggs. Lacewings look like emissaries from fairyland, but their larvae consume mass quantities of nasty leafhoppers, thrips, whiteflies, and other pests. Parasitic wasps lay eggs on hosts, which are devoured by the hatching larvae; if you see rows of tiny white bumps on the back of that hideous hornworm, its days are numbered.  And then there’s the heavy artillery — “predatory true bugs” with fabulous names like assassin bug, spined soldier bug, pirate bug, and mealybug destroyer.   You can order good bugs online, and should also install pollen- or nectar-producing plants to keep them around.

Use a natural, organic spray:  Spraying should be a last resort; it can destroy the beneficial insects and pollinators you want to keep in your garden. Certain pests require certain formulations: Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt) is a bacterium effective on caterpillars; a solution of neem oil and insecticidal soap works on small bugs like aphids, mites, scale, and gnats, among others.  An all-purpose agent can be made by grinding up a garlic bulb and an onion, adding a teaspoon of cayenne pepper and a quart of water, steeping the mixture for an hour, then straining it into a clean spray bottle and adding a tablespoon of liquid dish soap. To be effective, sprays must come in contact with bugs and should be applied late in the day so that the sun doesn’t cook your plants.    

Together, these practices form a system known as “integrated pest management” or IPM which, depending on your garden, could be a full-time job – after all, there are jillions of the little buggers out there. One helpful resource is the Master Gardener program of the local County Extension office, providing trained volunteers to diagnose plant problems and suggest solutions.  Online, there’s and, or you can download a nifty app called The IPM Toolkit. For the immense satisfaction you desire from your garden, you must be relentless in beating the bad bugs.

About the Author
Stella Veraduccia is the pen name of a popular writer based in Haymarket. In past lives she was an English teacher, writer and editor, nonprofit executive, and the founder of a fictitious organization called The International Sisterhood of Eccentric Aunties.

About Staff/Contributed 426 Articles
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