The mere mentioning of bugs or slugs will make most gardeners grimace. Indeed, bugs have such a bad reputation that the word is often used as a verb, as in “what’s bugging you?”
This article is concerned primarily with “bad bugs” – actually bad insects, as the scientific definition of bug technically applies only to some insects as was mentioned in a previous article, true bugs are those that have specific mouth parts that are designed to penetrate the tissue of plants or other insects and suck out the juices for the bug’s nutrition.
Not All Insects are Bad Guys
While our immediate reaction to insects in the garden is often negative, most of us also realize that many insects are very beneficial some are even essential. So, our emphasis is on insect control, not total elimination.
Controlling Harmful Insects
There are three good approaches to controlling harmful insects in the garden: deterrence, attracting beneficial insects, and careful spraying.
There are at least three ways to deter harmful insects from your valuable vegetables and precious flowers.
1. Plant cultivars that the bad guys seem to avoid. As we mentioned in an earlier article, African marigolds are excellent in repelling root nematodes, and may also repel some harmful insects and even rabbits. Strong smelling herbs are also thought to repel harmful insects, and can be a wonderful addition to any vegetable garden for their culinary utility, as well.
2. Plant “trap crops” that will attract harmful insects from more important crops. Radishes are especially useful as a trap crop since they can be planted in small spaces near other vegetables, they’re easy to grow, and you can easily sacrifice some of your radish yield in favor of other vegetables.
3. Keep your garden neat and tidy. Garden debris, especially decaying organic matter on the garden’s surface, is an inviting environment for insect habitation. A clean garden is not only more visually appealing, it’s also more productive. Remove decaying organic matter from your garden and compost it; you’ll be rewarded both immediately with a better garden and later with the best fertilizer your garden can get.
Attract Beneficial Insects
Controlling insects is a matter of balance. You need some insects for pollination, but you don’t want harmful insects devouring or ruining your plants. By attracting beneficial insects, you can keep your garden in balance, and avoid using chemicals and controls that upset the balance of nature.
Parsley, dill, coriander, and many composite flowers (like zinnias and sunflowers) will not only add a delightful look to your vegetable garden, they’ll also attract many beneficial insects that will help to control the population of harmful insects. (See Attracting Beneficial Insects for a more thorough explanation of the good insects in your garden, and how to attract more of them.)
Spray if You Must, but Spray Responsibly
When you have a severe infestation of harmful insects, you may want to carefully spray infested plants to bring the situation under control. Thankfully, there are several very good sprays that can control some harmful insects without harming your beneficial insects, the environment, or your health.
Insecticidal Soap is very effective on aphids, mealybugs, whiteflies, and even on some caterpillars. It must be applied so that it has direct contact with the harmful insect. And, it is relatively harmless to lady beetles and bumblebees. (Of course, you can avoid spraying these beneficial insects, so using Insecticidal Soap responsibly is quite easy.)
Bull’s-Eye Bioinsecticide is a very effective, and relatively safe, spray that we’ve noted in other articles. It can control caterpillars, Colorado potato beetles, fruitworms, cabbage loopers, and many other pests without having a severe impact on most beneficial insects.
Bt is a popular organic caterpillar killer. There are several strains of Bt, some of which are very specific to one or several insects. The “original” Bt is sold under several brand names, including Dipel and Green Step; any caterpillar that eats leaves that have been sprayed with Bt will be quickly controlled. But will not harm lady beetles, lacewings, or bees.
Snails and slugs (which are snails without the hard shell) can be extremely harmful to a host of garden plants. Additionally, slugs are just plain nasty. Even the most organic gardener doesn’t want to hand pick the slugs from his or her garden.
There are lots of methods of controlling slugs but our two favorites are:
1) Trap them
2) Bait and kill them
You can easily trap slugs by placing shallow bowls or saucers filled with beer near the areas where slugs are doing damage to your plants. You can also purchase inexpensive plastic slug traps, complete with nice little dome tops, from most garden centers and garden supply catalogs and web sites. Check the saucers or traps each morning, and dispose of the drowned slugs. It’s messy, but it’s effective. And, you’ll be able to see your progress. When you cease to collect slugs, your problem is solved at least, temporarily. If you see slugs or signs of their damage later in the season, bring out the traps again.
Bait and Kill Slugs
Our friends at Gardens Alive! have a wonderful natural product that is extremely effective at baiting and killing slugs. Cleverly named Escar-Go!, the product is a natural blend of copper and bait that can eradicate your slug population in a few days, without harming any other insects or wildlife. You simply sprinkle the little pellets on the ground in areas where you have slug damage or where you’ve observed slugs after sundown. The slugs take the bait, disappear, and die. It’s the neatest, cleanest, and most effective way to rid your garden of slugs.