Critters in the Garden Part 1: Insects Eating Plants

It’s been a while since I wrote a gardening post.  My excuse? Aside from being busy writing other posts,  the truth is: I’ve been doing battle with critters, both animals and insects.

deer at the door w maskI knew I’d had enough when the deer was standing on my front porch eating a pot of tulips.  I thought I was safe only treating the plants in the gardens.  Now I’m starting to get concerned about the flowers on my kitchen table.  Next thing you know, the deer will be wearing ski masks, ringing the front doorbell, and telling me,

Hand over the good stuff and no one will get hurt!”

Good gardens attract many critters.  Some we’re happy to see.  Some are unwanted vandals and decimators of plant material.  Here are a few critters from the yard and solutions to them.  In Part 1, we’ll look at Insects, not that we want to see them.


Treatment of insects will largely depend on how “organic” you want to be and what type of plant material you’re protecting.  Taking more organic approaches will be wise with foods you’re growing.

Organic Approaches
  • You can use pieces of flat moist wood, lay them on the garden soil and daily scrape or stomp the earwigs, pill bugs, and other insects that hide in such places.  Slugs (while not an insect) can also be eliminated in this way.  Earwigs will also hide under pots on your deck.  Lifting the pots and crushing the runaway earwigs is a good daily practice because it reduces their numbers.   I feel guilty removing caterpillars from leaves and flowers, knowing that some are from butterflies, but I can try to relocate them to other plants I don’t care about instead of killing them if I know that they are from butterflies.  Tomato horn caterpillars are no friend and they meet their Maker.
  • You can reuse plastic-lidded trays like you sometimes get with Chinese food or deeper ones like you get in the lunchmeat section, cutting small holes to make openings for insects (and slugs) to crawl into a layer of beer.  The scent of beer actually attracts them.  Bury it slightly in the ground to keep it from blowing away and to make it easier for the insects to get in.  You’ll need to empty it quite often.
  • A cup of soapy water works well for Japanese beetle scouts and earwigs and other leaf/flower-eating insects.  Hand removal of pests is a tedious but good choice for organic gardeners.
  • Yellow sticky traps are great for flying insects like whitefly that love tomatoes.
  • Japanese beetle traps work really well, but it’s IMPORTANT to locate them far away from the gardens you wish to protect.  Otherwise you’re just inviting more to come devour your ornamentals.
  • Diatomaceous earth (crushed shell product) is great for killing a variety of crawling insects and slugs, however, the white powder is not attractive for curb appeal.
  • There are also natural alternatives like parasitic wasps (that kill caterpillars), insects that love to eat aphids (such as lady bugs and praying mantises), and Bacillus thuringiensis also known as Bt which is a bacteria that is completely harmless to non-target insects (like honeybees), birds and other wildlife, but is quite toxic to caterpillars, webworms, and leaf rollers, etc.

While I’m not a chemical person by nature, there are times chemicals are the better alternative.  I use chemicals on my roses and other prized ornamentals that will be decimated by insects.  Generally speaking, I prefer ones I incorporate into the soil immediately around the plant than ones sprayed, particularly when I’m dealing with small areas of flat terrain.  The reason is this: A systemic insecticide will kill only insects that eat the plants.  Sprays are—as a rule—more indiscriminate than systemics.  Sprays kill friendly insects like honey bees, praying mantises, and lady bugs every bit as easily as they kill dreaded pests.  I personally avoid sprays if I can help it.

Bayer makes a nice selection of soil-incorporated products that are systemic.  I use them on my roses and my gardenia and some non-flowering ornamentals.

The jury is still out regarding whether the chemicals enter the nectar that is eaten by honey bees and hummingbirds.  The company says it’s safe and I know that chemical companies need to go through many levels of testing to get approval for production and marketing of garden chemicals.  However, I will say that I have a special place in my heart for honey bees and am greatly concerned about their decline in numbers.  I do what I can to make sure they are protected.  Therefore, flowers that I know honey bees like (coleus and snapdragon flowers, for example) won’t get treated with a systemic or a spray.  I will try to find other alternatives among the organic group, particularly until I find that honey bees don’t like the plant.

One way that I am content to do sprays is as a barrier treatment.  So, for example, I have been known to spray a band around the pot with a contact insecticide.  As the earwigs try to get to the plant, they will cross the barrier and die.  By carefully doing the spraying on windless mornings or evenings, I can give the spray a chance to dry and avoid drift all at the same time, all of which are done to minimize damage done to insects that are not problems.

Physical Barriers

I have been known to use physical barriers as well although I have had less cause to use them in recent years.  For a few years, I participated in the County Fair through our garden club and wanted to have “show quality” blossoms and fruit.  Physical barriers can include netting, collars, plastic mulches, raised platforms, trellises, and sticky traps.

Overall, using an Integrated Pest Management Approach is probably the most environmentally conscious approach, reflecting the kind of wise stewardship that God gave to mankind as we “rule over” Creation.

Categories In the Garden | Tags: | Posted on June 25, 2013

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