Aphids are little delicate bugs that suck juices from plants. One won’t cause any harm, but aphids multiply at and awesome rate and can coat leaves, buds and even stems in record time. They come in reds, yellows, greens, whites, blacks and browns. Colorful though they might be, they are also messy and destructive.
Some aphids will produce winged members when colonies get too big or the host plant becomes to weak and these flyers wing away to establish new colonies. Because aphids pests exude a sticky sweet liquid, ants love them and are happy to transport members to ever widening locations in order to extend the colonies. Ants actually will ‘farm’ these insects, moving them from one plant to another. More aphids feast on your plants. More sweet good stuff for the ants. More ants everywhere. More ailing plants. Yuck.
Aphids have weak little legs and if knocked off a plant with a stream of water, they are unable to climb back up again. Score a point for the gardener this time. Unfortunately, by the time an infestation is noted, there are often too many aphids to wash off. If you find an infestation is getting too widespread to wash off with water alone, try using one of the insecticidal soaps. Usually blasting with water and using the soap is enough to keep these insects pests under control.
The best way to keep aphids from getting ahead of you in the garden is to keep inspecting your plants. Keep a watch on tender, new, green shoots and the hidden undersides of leaves. New growth is most susceptible. Another natural control is to allow ladybugs, lacewings and other predators to feast on your aphids. Usually, so long as the aphid populations don’t grow too widespread, Mother Nature sends some of these voracious little aphid-munchers along to balance out the population. Keeping these friendly predators safe to do their jobs in the garden is one good reason to avoid heavy poisons in the garden whenever possible.
In short, vigilance, a squirt of water, horticultural insecticidal soap, and some help from pest-eating insects is usually enough to keep aphid pests from getting out of control in your garden.
Living in the open chaparral has its high and low points. There is something timeless yet awe-inspiring to see how life adapts to this rather extreme environment. It’s a dry, stoic life in the scrub community, but there are also points of intricate delicacy and amazing moments of blazing beauty.
In all parts of the world it is important for human development to work in tandem with nature. Whenever we get too arrogant with our demands, nature seems to set us back into humility with earthquakes, floods, storms, disease or some other form of rebalancing. Personally, I think this is exactly how it should be as the human ego tends to become way too selfish if not kept in bounds. I don’t think people are the only valuable beings on this planet. All life and non-life are inextricably interconnected.
On the other hand, sometimes living with nature’s other denizens can be severely trying to a person. Rodent pests in the chaparral garden is one case in point.
Perhaps it’s because of the increase in human population or maybe it’s a result of the long term drought but the life that seems to be thriving best in my part of the chaparral are the rodents. These creatures have adapted well to human civilization becoming well fed and comfortably housed. Many of their predators, on the other hand, are being reduced in number by human expansion.
Have you ever tried keeping mice, rats and ground squirrels out of the vegetable garden? With their flexible skull structures, these critters can fit through anything their heads can penetrate and often that means the tiniest of holes.
There are a number of poisons on the market that will help control rodents, but they are very toxic to pets and other wildlife as well as humans. There was a product called ‘Rode-Trol’ out a few years ago that was safe and actually worked well, but for some reason — I was told the EPA wouldn’t approve it — the company was denied production. Banning easy, safe products really worries me if that’s what happened. But for the most part it seems to me the only way left, especially to use around edibles, is a physical barrier. And creating an open-air space with something like small gauge chicken wire or hardware cloth that will be impenetrable by these wily rodents is a very tall order.
I’d be willing to share, but most rodents will collect anything — plant, fruit or seed — that they don’t eat on the spot. Worse, I haven’t gotten a single thank you note after my garden has been raided and stripped bare.
I will continue the war with my local chaparral rodent pests. I will carefully ration out the last of my Rode-Trol, build enclosures and do my best to control these critters. And I’ve found if I start the most pest-attracting seeds indoors and allow the plants to reach a reasonable size before introducing them to my vegetable garden, at least some of them withstand the ravenous onslaught.
I’d love to let my accomplished hunter-cat, Nori, out to patrol the garden, but nighttime is when the rodents are most active and the little feline would be more likely to become prey to coyotes or owls rather than predator. So he’ll keep his job guarding the garage instead. Has anyone had any success with a pet bobcat? Maybe that’s what I should try next.
Scale is a little insect that damages warm climate plants and house plants. It’s a strange little pest since the adult form settles into immobility on stems and leaves and looks like anything but an insect. The waxy blobs that cover the adult scale harbor nasty little sucking critters that drink out the life fluids from the plant. Immature scale is mobile and very tiny. Males are also small and have wings, but they do not feed or harm plants. The adult females, like aphids, sometimes excrete a sweet, sticky honey-like liquid that can drip onto surfaces below. The liquid can also attract ants.
Soft scale and armored scale are common in warm environments. They are killed off by frosts of varying degrees, but then so are many of their host plants. The mealybug is a type of scale, too. There are hundreds of types of scale insects. They come in a wide variety of shapes, textures, favorite host plants and climate tolerances.
Scale can be a serious pest to edible crops like citrus and debilitating to houseplants. There are some varieties that are used commercially to make shellac finishes and cochineal dye is a red pigment that has been harvested from some species of scale insects. But the scale insect is far better known for its destructive effects on plants.
Scale is difficult to control and natural preditors are the most effective. For individual houseplants and in the home garden, horticultural oils can be effective by literally smothering the insect. Some insecticides can kill the mobile young and the males on contact, but rarely penetrate the adult female waxy shell.
There are many pests that hang out in the vegetable garden. Some sneak in at night, some fly in by air, some creep in under the soil and others find their way in riding piggyback on other wildlife. Pests will vary depending on where you live. Some are widespread and bother vegetable gardens in many climates.
There is nothing sweeter than a home-grown tomato. That’s why so many people find space to grow at least one tomato plant – even on a patio or balcony when there is no garden space. In warm, sunny summers tomatoes grow easily in all parts of the country. There are cultivars to fit into just about any space. You can even grow sun-dried tomatoes on the vine. But beware the ubiquitous tomato worm. It is green so it is hard to see and eats its way into growing very large (about three very fat inches long). Because these are the larval form of the hawk moth – a delightful creature often seen at sunset that looks like a tiny hummingbird – there are few places you can grow your tomatoes that will be inaccessible to the egg-laying adults. Hand pick the tomato worm or hornworm when you see it. These caterpillars are voracious and can reek a lot of destruction fast. On the positive side, the adults are important because they are prime pollinators of many plants — some can benefit from them more than from bees.
Even when summer ends, pests can be active in the vegetable garden. Insects can have a last rush at dining on your plants and even the animals that go dormant in the winter – like ground squirrels or gophers – are likely to want to party in your garden before taking a winter snooze. Racoons are perfectly happy to rummage through your landscape at any time of the year. In the eastern half of the country they can carry rabies, and even in the western half of the country in rural areas that had no raccoons they are becoming more and more common. I suspect it’s because of the increase in the human population. The recession may have slowed the influx of people in these areas, but the raccoons don’t seem much worried about the economy. The most useful deterrent I have found for these plucky critters (that can destroy ponds, vegetable gardens and trash can areas) are electrified fences for cattle or sheep. There is even a raccoon electric fence made specially for them.
Sometimes vegetables grow unmolested for the first few years until the wildlife discovers you’ve planted them a paradise. Those ridiculous old cartoons of people playing tug-of-war with a gopher on the other end of a vegetable plant lose their absurdity when you find yourself on the opposite end of your favorite plant as something greedy beneath the soil tries to wrest it from your grip. There are a hundred and one home remedies to use against gophers from chewing gum to kitty litter to tar-dipped corn cobs. Try them first if you want. Then try any of the noise vibrators, scent deterrents, smoking bombs, and, if necessary, poison baits. (Please use the last with caution so pets and other wildlife are not endangered.) If you don’t have success, go for the long-lasting solution of building physical barriers. Half-inch hardware cloth lining the vegetable garden underneath and up the sides, is usually a surefire, long term way to keep plants safe from gopher pests. Building a raised vegetable garden can help, too, especially if the bottom is lined with wire.
Physical barriers will keep out most of the other destructive rodents like mice, rats and rabbits. Mice and rats can be tricky, though, since they’ll find the smallest of spaces to sneak through. You’ll have to keep a careful watch on all gaps and seams. Rats and mice may find entryways before you do. I’m currently testing out the raccoon electrical wire to see if it will discourage the rats from entering the vegetable garden.
To keep out the rabbits, plan on making wire fences at least two feet high. And since rodents like mice and rats have skulls that can compress, these pests can fit into holes that look way to small for them to enter. You are safest using half inch hardware cloth rather than the chicken wire to keep them out.
For those of you who have better luck with exposed vegetable plants, sometimes cages wrapped with one-inch chicken wire are enough to protect sufficient crops for the table. When it comes to late season melons or winter squashes, try using plastic net bags (like the ones turkeys come in during the holidays, or sometimes onions and potatoes are sold in bulk with these nets). For some reason the gnawing pests seem to be put off their game by the bags, while air and sunshine are free to pass freely. Bag up young fruits and vegetables letting them grow to fill up the interior; the netting expands along with the growth. Maybe this trick will help you preserve more of your produce from those ravenous wild critters out there.
Insect pests are often controlled by hosing with water. If that doesn’t work, try an insecticidal soap or Neem®. If you still need to resort to poisons, make sure you read and follow the directions carefully for the most successful and safest applications. Personally, I prefer keeping poisonous insecticides out of edible gardens altogether if I can.
Speaking of insects, if you have celery plants, you might want to let some of them set seed. I find they often get aphids that then become magnets for ladybugs. Celery is best planted from seed and will be ready to crop in the late winter in warm climates. In the spring and early summer it will put out its flat-topped clusters of tiny yellow flowers that are likely to become loaded with ladybug families: eggs, pupae, nymphs and adults just in time to defend your garden from invading six-legged pests. All the members of the ladybug family (eggs excepted, of course) are voracious devourers of aphids all over the garden. You can even purchase live ladybugs. They will fly away over time, but only after their food supply of insect pests runs out.
Now if I could only figure out what plant I could cultivate that would intimidate the ground squirrel population. Maybe the electrified raccoon netting will work with them, too. (It shocks the intruders, but will not kill them.) I’ll let you know if this net fencing is successful as it is tested out in my garden during the coming year.
There are different kinds of squirrels; tree squirrels, flying squirrels and ground squirrels. The most common tree squirrels are gray, red, and pine. The gray squirrels are the most wide-spread and the most likely to be active pests in the garden. There are many different deterrents and repellents for sale like fox urine, sticky greases and noise makers, all of which claim to chase your squirrel problem away. However, most of these products offer sensory repellents that the squirrels will get used to and ignore. They may work for the short term though. And you may have even more success if you try using some of these deterrents together in combination.
One scent repellent that does work is the common, household moth ball. But moth balls can also be a deterrent to humans – bothering some sensitive people enough to make them ill. So it’s best to uses these repellents away from the house area. To keep squirrels from simply pushing them out of their path, put the moth balls in a little cage of wire mesh and attach it securely to the tree or area where squirrels are destructive. You will have to replace the moth balls regularly as the scent will fade quickly. There are no approved poisons acceptable for use with squirrels.
The best way to deal with squirrels is to prevent their access to the location where they cause the most damage. Where practical, build barriers like netting or cages. Use wire mesh to block entry to house areas or to cover pots where squirrels dig. Place bird feeders away from gardens and structures since the seed will attract squirrels. Place a two-foot band of thin sheet metal around tree trunks you want to protect. You should also trim back trees and large limbs so they are at least six feet from any building. Squirrels will use these as convenient runways for access.
The only remaining way to deal with a squirrel problem is to trap the critters and relocate them. Many states classify squirrels as game animals so you may need a permit to trap them.
You can maintain a program of repelling and trapping to keep the number of squirrels down in your garden. But it is unlikely you will get rid of them altogether. There are always more squirrels ready to move in as you escort the current pests out.
Whitefly is a tiny insect that infests indoor plants and feeds off of those growing outdoors in warm climates. These insects do not survive frosts, but then many of the plants they like best don’t tolerate cold either. Like aphids and mealybugs, whiteflies are sucking insects that can carry infections and will weaken the plant over time, potentially killing it.
If you spot tiny, flying, white moth-like creatures – the size of a pinhead — chances are you have an infestation of whiteflies. The eggs are even smaller than the adults and the immature forms are so tiny you won’t see them easily with the naked eye. Whiteflies will coat the underside of leaves where they quickly breed as they suck the life juices from your plant. Those tiny white moths are easy to identify as the adults fly off in clouds when disturbed.
Organic control can be done by hosing off all parts of the plant with a strong stream of water with particular attention to the underside the leaves, and/or spraying with an insecticidal soap or Neem solution. It is difficult to rid an infestation of whitefly with organic means only and you’ll have to treat frequently and regularly.
The most efficient way to kill off an attack of whitefly is to use a systemic insecticide that will be drawn up through the roots and into the sap. Insects drink the poison and die. Systemic poisons usually have a strong, unpleasant odor. They also make foliage and stems toxic so keep children and pets away from treated plants. Never use systemic insecticides on edible plants. Unfortunately, whiteflies have a tendency to quickly develop a resistance to pesticides, so it is best to continue with organic insect controls even after a chemical treatment.
Green Lacewings are garden friends
Like the Ladybug, the larva of the Lacewing is even more efficient at pest control than the adult. In fact, some species are predators only in the larval form, the adult lacewing feeding on nectar, honeydew and pollen. Predatorial lacewings in both stages of growth will consume many times their weight in aphids, mites, mealybugs, whiteflies and other insect pests. The Lacewing adult is a delicate green insect with smoothly rounded transparent wings outlined and veined green. The larva is usually a pale to medium brown color with tiny black or dark brown markings.
You’ll be more likely to notice the adult green lacewing at night when it is attracted to the light from electric bulbs. Sometimes I’ll find them taking a nap on a window screen. These delicate looking insects are definitely friends to your garden so treat them with respect. I must admit one larva proved its voracious habits by trying to take a bite out of my hand some time ago. I was surprised at the sting the little critter caused, but it left no damage. Since then, I’ve decided it is better to let these insects feed on my garden pests instead of me.
Although it is less well known than the popular Ladybug, the Green Lacewing is equally welcome in the garden. The larval form even looks a little like a light-colored form of the Ladybug larvae, both immature insect forms resembling little alligators.
So, if you see either the adult forms or the larvae of the Green Lacewing (Chrysopidae) in your garden, let it go to work. These insects can help keep your garden free of troublesome insect pests. Keeping a close eye on your good insects will help you make better choices when it comes to using a lot of insecticides in your garden — especially with edible plants.
Don’t confuse these garden pals with the destructive Lacebug (Tingidae). The Green Lacewing looks entirely different. The Lacebug has a triangular shape and textured, glass-like wings. The latter is a pest that will suck juices from woody plants and is decidedly not a friend!
Okay, this time I’m REALLY taking artistic license. Snails are not remotely related to insects. These guys are actually mollusks and are cousins to clams and shrimp. In fact, it was a major culinary mistake that introduced the brown garden snails to California many years ago when they were imported and introduced to grape vines in the hopes of providing tasty escargot dishes. Unfortunately, these snails turned out to have a greater affinity for our land than we did for their flavor. (They didn’t pass the taste test.) Instead, they spread into the waterways and reproduced at a prodigious rate becoming one of California’s biggest pests. They tend to love iceplant and oleander where they shade themselves from our hot desert sun. There aren’t many plants the brown garden snail won’t chomp into and these pests can decimate an entire planting of seedlings overnight.
Try collecting them under boards at night, or allowing them to drown themselves in shallow saucers of stale beer. (This latter technique may not work if you have a pet dog like I do who adores beer and slurps it up before the snails and slugs can find it.) There are also several products on the market now such as “Sluggo” which is safe to use around children, pets and wildlife. Decollate snails have been approved in this area as a natural predator. These snails have narrow spiraling shells and feed on the eggs and tiny young of the common garden snail. Look for them in garden shops in the spring and place them around your garden. It may take years before they will have a sizeable impact on a large population of snails, but you won’t have to use any other means of combat. (Do not use slug and snail bait with Decollate snails!)]
Natural enemies abound. Birds, especially Road Runners in the desert areas love to eat brown garden snails. Even coyotes have been known to include snails in their diets. Though they may be pests themselves, raccoons and opossums also will occasionally dine on snails as well. Even if you don’t have children or pets, using poisonous bait for the brown garden snail can hurt wildlife either by direct ingestion, or indirectly, by eating a poisoned bird. So I personally advise using any solution other than poison if at all possible.
How to Spray Fruit Trees in the Home Garden to reduce insect pests
Tips on dealing with gophers
Gophers tend to tunnel about six inches to twelve inches under the surface of the soil. So if you have gophers in your area, the best thing is to protect roots of vulnerable plants, bulbs and vegetables with chicken wire or metal hardware cloth. There are a number of controls and deterrents you can try like corn cobs dipped in tar or other pungent materials, chewing gum, smoke bombs and various stinky products like predator urine. Some people say they have had success with these deterrents and they are certainly worth a try since they are usually safe for the environment. But most controlled tests have shown them to be ineffective.
There are also traps and poisons that can be used for gophers. These are usually much more effective, though they can leave you with dead bodies to dispose of or introduce toxic substances in the ground that can sometimes be a danger to pets, children or other wildlife. Make sure you use these gopher-removers carefully and follow all instructions to avoid any dangers. To use them successfully you need to locate the main tunnel. The main tunnel is usually eight to twelve inches from the mound. The mound is only a side tunnel where the soil has been evacuated and these side tunnels are not used as a primary passageway. Use a pointed stick or a tool made for the purpose to push into the soil where you suspect the main tunnel will be. You will know you’ve found it when you feel your probe slip, unresisting, a couple of inches through the empty passageway. This is where tunnels should be baited with traps or poison. After baiting the tunnel, make sure you seal all holes or cracks from light. Traps will need regular checking. If baiting, be very careful not to drop any pellets on the ground where other wildlife, pets or children can accidentally become poisoned.
I have yet to find a way to definitively get rid of gophers. Even if I am successful at first, gophers are opportunistic critters and after a tunnel has been vacated, it is likely another family will move in. It is best to wage war on gophers before breeding season to help with population control.
But in the end, I’ve found that the gophers are resistant foes. I no longer hope to eliminate them from my property, but I do make the effort of lining garden beds with wire mesh and I plant bulbs in wire baskets. Most larger plants will grow strong enough roots after time to survive gnawing, but the smaller and more tender plants simply do best with physical protection.
Some plants that I’ve found particularly vulnerable in Southern California are roses — even old, established plants, fig trees, agaves, and almost anything in the vegetable garden. Some plants that seem to escape the gopher’s radar are onions and garlic, Daffodil and Montbretia (or Crocosmia) bulbs, many herbs like salvia, rosemary and lavender and most California natives.
If you live anywhere near open land, chances are you will be seeing plenty of your local wildlife. Although butterflies and colorful birds are always welcome guests in our gardens, some wildlife is a little less appreciated. With the bounty of lush green in our spring and summer gardens, rabbits are seeking out lawns and gardens to indulge in delectable treats. Gophers, moles and ground squirrels are burrowing pests that slow down in the winter, but become very destructive in spring when they have young to feed. Planting seeds directly into your vegetable or flower garden can attract raiding rodents that will be delighted to chomp them away after dark. Remember that just like rodents, ants will be attracted by household food and water sources. Once close to the house, these latter pests are pleasantly surprised with the cool comforts and myriad food possibilities offered by the ordinary household. Keep food sources out of your garden or sealed in metal cans. Site those bird feeders away from the house so dropped seeds don’t encourage undesirable nocturnal critters to come for a visit. Never leave pet food exposed out in the open. And keep garden refuse and dead foliage cleaned up to minimize hiding places that will house pests. Compost piles are an excellent way to recycle organic waste, but make sure they are not placed too close to the house even if it is convenient for you. The other diners might turn that convenience into a serious problem.
Smaller insect pests can also wreak havoc in your garden. Regularly check foliage of ornamentals and vegetables for aphids. Tender new growth is particularly attractive to sucking and munching insects. Warm climates harbor voracious, destructive sucking insects like mealy bugs, scale and spider mites. The spider mites may not become evident until foliage starts to look bleached. On close inspection, fine webbing and the tiny dots that are the actual mites can be seen. Hosing foliage regularly will help keep insect pests down, especially where your sprinkler or soaker systems are likely to keep foliage dry and safe for these pests. Spider mites are especially fond of edible members of the Solanum family – tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. Damaged foliage will not repair itself, but with the renewed strength of good health, your plants will readily grow fresh new foliage. Ordinary insecticides are not effective on spider mite as these are truly tiny spiders. They are in the arachnid (spider) family and they are not insects. They require poisons made with the appropriate chemicals. Some insecticidal soaps say they will kill spider mite. I haven’t had a lot of success with them personally. Of course, the washing of the leaves does help with or without soap.
To keep plants in your garden resistant to pests, give them the light, soil and water they need. Frequent light feedings (I usually recommend 1/2 of label directions) — or better, home-made manure teas, deep watering appropriate for each type of plant, well-washed foliage and the proper placement will help control insects. Mulching is wonderful to mitigate temperatures around roots and to hold in moisture. Strong plants are more resistant to pests. Keep vegetable gardens netted, fenced or surrounded by chicken wire or hardware cloth to discourage larger critters. For burrowers, line the bottom of your garden beds with metal mesh to bar entry from the bottom of the garden. Raised vegetable garden beds also help fend off larger pests.
Keep a constant lookout for insect and animal pests or disease infections. If you catch problems early, they are more easily treated. A little extra time and vigilance is the best way to avoid having to battle many pests during the growing season in your garden.
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