Look out for pests 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.