Bug Problems in My Vegetable Garden

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The local climate seems to have produced a banner crop of aphids this year! For us gardeners, a good year for aphids can be a bit of a problem. You can purchase commercial non-toxic products like insecticidal soap that will kill the aphids. Because these products are fairly expensive, I recommend saving them for the hardier pests like squash bugs and mounting a cheaper attack on the aphids. This article from last year details some of those less expensive methods.

By closely observing the aphids over the years, I have learned that in most instances you need to do nothing. Often, soon after you notice the aphids, ladybugs and other insects will show up. It seems that both the adults and their larvae eat the aphids. Most years, other than a quick attack on an aphid covered rose bud or kohlrabi plant, I don’t have to worry about the aphid population. But, when it does get so bad that I need to take action, my weapon of choice is the garden hose. By hitting the population of aphids with a strong, fine spray of water, I knock them off the plants to the ground. Surprisingly, even with the help of the local ant population, they do not seem to be able to find their way back up to continue dining.

For hardier insect pests than aphids, I have found that using 2 tablespoons of a biodegradable, phosphate free, soap in a gallon of water kills pests like earwigs and squash bugs. This soap tends to be cheaper that the commercial gardening products sold for the same purpose. The trick is that you actually need to get each insect with the soap. Because there is no residual effect, (a good thing), any bug you miss will live on to eat another day. This is not really a problem because even if you can’t kill every squash bug, you usually can reduce the population to a level that will still leave you with an abundant harvest.

Squash bugs are fairly easy to spot when the plants are young, but if you have a large garden of sprawling pumpkins it can be very time consuming trying to hit every bug with the soap. Still, don’t consider for a moment succumbing to the alternative of using a broad-spectrum insecticide and killing all the bugs, good and bad and poisoning your garden. I usually plant more pumpkins and squash than we need so when the occasional vine is killed by the bugs, it is not a problem for the overall harvest. I reproduced a short article I wrote a while ago specifically discussing squash bugs.

Earwigs seem to do their dirty work at night, on young plants, so I attack them in the dark with the soap spray and a flashlight. Once the plants get to a larger size, I forget about the earwigs and they don’t seem to do any further damage. Earwigs, along with many other pests like slugs and snails, can also be effectively controlled by spreading diatomaceous earth around the base of plants.

Spotted, (and some striped), cucumber beetles are another pest that enjoys residing in my organic vegetable garden. Although they do make small holes in the leaves of my plants, they seem to do their real damage by spreading a disease that can cause certain plants to die. In my garden, in addition to living on squash and pumpkins, they seem particularly attracted to bean plants. I have found that because they have such large populations, and can fly so well, they are hard to control.

I notice the cucumber beetle creating problems in two ways. When the beans are just emerging from the ground the larvae can eat the top bud of the bean plant, killing it. To help with this problem, I plant two or three times the seeds I need around each pole. If the emerging plants are attacked, I still will usually be left with several vines that survive. If a particular pole bean escapes attack, I then just thin the seedlings to the number I want around each pole. Interestingly, this year I had a couple hills of beans that had 100% mortality on one side of the pole, and 100% survival on the other. Strange! They don’t seem to cause a problem for my bush beans. This is probably because I plant bush beans very thickly and their growth pattern does not provide a long enough time for the beetles to kill the plants. My bush beans mature rapidly in the summer heat, produce a heavy crop of beans and then are done. The second problem caused by these bugs is on the mature pole bean plant. As the plant gets older, it seems less able to resist the disease the beetles transmit. By this time, however, I have usually harvested 80 or 90% of the beans that the plant is going to produce. So, I live with the beetles and still seem to get a decent harvest of beans.

I have heard of some organic gardeners using rotenone to control cucumber beetles. I do not agree with this practice. Just because Rotenone is a "natural" rather than synthetic insecticide does not, in my opinion, make it safe.

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Will Sig
1 Chemmer

The idea of planting extra for the bugs is a good one IF you have the space!

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2 Will

Yes, that is a good point. If space is at a premium you have a harder time planting extra. The other side of that is in a small garden it is much easier to closely monitor and control bugs organically.

If some varieties just won’t grow well in my garden with out chemicals, I don’t plant them. For example, I can not get melons to do well without completely controlling the cucumber beetles. They skeletonize the leaves of the young plants and they wither and die. So I buy melons.

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3 KimS

I thank you for the note about diatomaceous earth (de) around young plants. I’ve lost many this year and was trying to figure out what to do (I think it might be slugs).

I know about it for poultry raising but didn’t think of it for the garden. Sometimes the obvious truly escapes our notice!

Kind regards,
KimS

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4 Will

Hi Kim! thanks for the comment. Yes the d.e. is a lifesaver for the baby plants. This year I used it on all the pole beans, but one and that one had all but a single plant eaten off at ground level. The others withstood the attacks and we are eating the beans now!

One note on beans in particular… You should spread the d.e. a few days after planting so that it is in place as the seedlings try to sprout. Without it. I have had earwigs eat the cotyledons off right as they sprout. Also, d.e. becomes ineffective after rain or watering, so re-apply if needed.

-Will

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5 Hand Tools Guy

I love the idea of planting more just for the bugs. I have started companion planting and have had some great results this year. I will be doing more of it next year.

Happy Gardening 🙂

Paul

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6 Gee

Great idea to plant more for the bugs. The companion planting sounds brilliant, Iam new to gardening but will give it a go!
Thank you

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7 Growing Vegetables

Yuck, earwigs! Very good pest advice. I haven’t had the misfortune to encounter any plant diseases or pests yet, but earwigs are the worst in my opinion!

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8 Michael

Great tips for greener gardening, I’ve never tried using soap as a way to kill the earwigs. I do like most bugs even but I hate these along with mosquitoes.

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9 Keith

Will, We had a real problem with ants this year, not in the garden, but infesting the cat food after it has been served;)
I put some de out around the cats’ dishes (more than was needed actually) and the ants have not been back. If only I could convince the missus to let me use it inside, instead of paying HER exterminator to spray.
In the garden, I put the de in a salt shaker and just shake it onto the leaves and fruit. That way the bugs only get one taste before they kick the bucket.

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10 Barbara Barker

One thing we’re learning from University of Florida research is to avoid planting in rows. Pests generally travel straight down a row. If you plant, for example, small square plots of squash in different areas with other plants between them, some of your squash will be spared from pest damage.
Also, remember to companion plant. Interplant basil to ward off pests from your tomatoes. It works! I tried it last year and was so amazed! Louise Riotte has a good book out on the topic called “Carrots Love Tomatoes”.
Barbara Barker
Author, Container Gardening for Health

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11 Jan

I grew tomatoes and basil together this year and the tomatoes have really thrived but the crickets sure got stuck into the basil! I might have a look at the Barbara Barker book – it is just coming on winter here so insects aren’t a huge problem, it’s so warm in Brisbane we all turn our toes up when the temperature drops a few degrees.

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12 Will

Hi Barbara! Yes companion planting is a great help with bugs. I wish it was helpful for diseases like late blight on tomatoes! Interesting about the rows. I wonder why a bug pest would travel down a row any more that just hopping over to the next plant? to the left or the right

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13 Barbara Barker

I think they are planting trapping crops between the plots, Will.

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14 Bill Brikiatis

I’d like to suggest that encouraging native plants that attract beneficial insects might sometimes help prevent insect pest problems before they start. Reserving an area for native plants that is near your vegetables can sometimes help restore balance between good bugs and bad bugs. It takes very little effort to let an area go native. Plus, there’s the added benefit that some of these native plants are also very enjoyable to look at.
Bill Brikiatis recently posted..Do You Really Need to Buy Beneficial InsectsMy Profile

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15 Will

That really does work, Bill. We are surrounded by 100’s of acres of open fields and overgrown land. A lot of the pests are kept under control by other insects. The squash bugs and earwigs seem to have no natural enemies though.

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16 Bill Brikiatis

I have the same challenge with squash vine borer. There seems to be no natural control for this insect. I’ve tried a number of controls, but nothing seems to work. It’s a shame, but I think I’m going to have to stop growing pumpkin and zucchini this year to eliminate the host plants. Let me know if you are aware of another organic control.
Bill Brikiatis recently posted..Book Review- Eliot Coleman’s Four-Season HarvestMy Profile

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17 Barbara Barker

We’re big cucumber, pumpkin and watermelon eaters so we fight squash borer on all fronts.
I’ve read squash borer can be controlled by plowing in Fall and Spring when the larvae are in the soil. Also, mulch with newspaper and hay to prevent larvae from boring into base of the plants. (Other types of mulch can actually encourage s.b. populations.) Use row covers in summer to keep moths from laying eggs on the leaves. Crop rotation with non-cucurbits is probably the most important factor.

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18 Bill Brikiatis

Barbara — Thanks for the info. I’ve mulched with newspaper and straw in the past. I was planning to mulch with newspaper and leaves this year. Do you think this would work as well as hay? Also, do you pile the mulch up around the stems? I do practice crop rotation, but my raised beds are mostly close to each other, so it doesn’t seem to help.
Bill Brikiatis recently posted..Top Five Vegetable Gardening Books for NorthernersMy Profile

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19 Will

Thanks for that Barbara. I understand Bill’s problem with crop rotation well. Years ago when I worked on a market garden farm we practiced crop rotation. But that was real rotation. When the farmer decided it was time to plant the tomatoes in a new field, that field was often 1/4 to 1 mile away from the first. Even where I live now on 2 acres, I can’t do that. I may move a variety from one side of the garden to the other, (a distance of probably 30 feet at most. Or I may be able to move them to the 2nd garden which is at least 100 yards away. But for flying insects and wind borne disease it does not seem to matter.

We have squash bug here, but I don’t think it is quite the same, or as bad as your squash borer. With those I am able to maintain enough control to get squash by spraying the individual bugs with soap. But once the plants are huge and sprawling, it becomes impossible to keep up. I usually lose some vines to the virus they spread. But fortunately I have the space to plant extra.

I do that with tomatoes also. We have a terrible problem with late blight here so I always plant twice the tomato plants we need. With both the squash bugs and blight, some years are worse than others. Last year was easy. The year before was horrible.

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20 Jan

Hi Will
This year on the Internet I found a recipe using soap and salt as a natural bug deterrent, unfortunately it didn’t give amounts and I obviously used way too much of something. By the time I realised that my beautiful healthy plants were drooping drastically, I sprayed them down with water but after that they never thrived ( I was growing broccoli and cauliflower). Do you spray the whole plant or just aim for the individual insects? My biggest problem has been caterpillars – demolished the spinach faster than Popeye – and then some grasshoppers eating up the basil for some reason! So after the last debacle I just left the insects to eat their fill rather than destroy my veges!

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