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.
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.
They creep up underground when you least expect them.
The best way to avoid gopher damage is to set in wire hardware cloth or other protection beneath the soil at planting time.
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