November 13, 2019

Battle of the Bugs Rages On

Fabric row covers can be used for several years if handled with care.

Janine Pineo Photo | Fabric row covers can be used for several years if handled with care.

• By Janine Pineo •

The other day when the sun was shining I plopped into a lawn chair, kicked off my shoes and contemplated the blue sky. Cottony clouds puffed through the sunshine as a heron drifted north over the back yard.

Honeysuckle, poised to bloom, clung to one side of the arbor while wisteria, its vines stretching in every direction, threatened to invade the honeysuckle’s domain. I wondered if it would be prudent to trim the wisteria before a battle ensued. Not today, I decided.

The fresh scent of cut grass filled the air while the breeze rustled the leaves and set one tree creaking.

Letting out a big sigh, I wiggled my toes only to feel something crawling on my foot. The culprit, an ant, instantly was flying through the air.

Bugs are the scourge and blessing of every gardener. Without some of them, we’d never harvest a garden; with some, we’re lucky if we ever do.

My garden has a few enemies in the bug world. Topping my list this year are ants, flea beetles and slugs. The ants have been building mountains all across the back lawn while the flea beetles have had a heyday with my mustard greens, radishes and Chinese cabbages.

The slugs have claimed more than one plant — be it flower or vegetable — as the rains keep conditions perfect for slug proliferation. Most anything that’s been resting on the ground at my house is likely to have clinging to its underside a motley collection of baby slugs.

One of my gardening books has a lot of remedies for controlling wayward insects. This relic from 1966 doesn’t hesitate to recommend using chemical pesticides, especially DDT, on a variety of pests. Or how about this one: “Selenium is a very poisonous material and should always be handled with great care.”

“The Complete Book of the Garden” goes on to say “food crops should not be grown in soils treated with this material.”

No kidding.

Life certainly was different 30 years ago. Today, we see the adverse effects of chemical pesticides and know there is a safer route to take.

Organic gardening may not be easier, but it is the better way. Fortunately, there is an expanding selection of organic products to combat pesky insects.

What will kill annoying ants? I shamefully admit to using diazinon in past years simply because I didn’t know any better (we consumers seem to think it must be OK if it’s on the store shelves). I am pleased to say I have found a friend in diatomaceous earth, a dust made from the fossilized remains of prehistoric, single-celled aquatic plants. Granted, it took more than one application, but how could I object to wandering around the yard a couple of times each week with my little squeeze bottle filled with D.E. dust?

Quite a few pests are susceptible to D.E., including centipedes, cockroaches and earwigs. It also will do a number on slugs, although I usually resort to the step-on-it or cover-it-with-salt methods.

As for flea beetles, I tried D.E. but that didn’t seem to slow them down. I then resorted to my other favorite, Safer Insecticidal Soap, made of fatty acids from plants and animals. It does a better job, but there still seems to be a plethora of plants peppered with pinholes. It could be just the ever-falling rain is washing most of the residue off before it has a chance to work.

On last year’s potato crop, I tried Safer on the plants after the Colorado potato beetle larvae appeared. It worked well, killing off the bugs I didn’t pick off and drown (it is a cruel, cruel world). Safer also will control aphids, tent caterpillars, mites and earwigs; it also works well on houseplants (although the scent of the formula leaves something to be desired).

As a precaution this year, I also purchased rotenone, a dust made from tropical plant roots. I feared I would have a much larger infestation of potato bugs and would need to haul out the bigger guns, but so far, I’ve picked off a dozen adult beetles and have seen about the same number of larvae.

I doubt I’ll have to use rotenone on the potatoes, but I may give it a try on the broccoli and cabbage to reduce the damage done by imported cabbage worm. Cucumber beetles also may find my garden a less inviting meal, since rotenone repels them as well.

A catalog that sells only organic products recommends applying these types of insecticides late in the day, especially at dusk, because direct sunlight causes organic pesticides to break down rapidly. This way, pests that feed at night are more likely to chomp on the residue, while extending the period that other insects come in contact with the pesticide.

Many gardening centers now carry these products, and several seed catalogs offer some as well. One source for a complete line of organic products (fertilizers, turf builders, weed killers, beneficial insects and pesticides) is Gardens Alive!.

It does take a bit more work to rid your plot of pests the organic way, but in the long run it is worth it for all creatures great and small (with the exception of the bugs, of course).

I like to know I’ve done my part to protect not only myself and my family, but also the animals that call my yard home. I wouldn’t want the pair of phoebes nesting by the back door to feed their quadruplets (they’ve hatched their second set) any tainted insects that could kill them. That goes for the robin couple that just gently booted their four fledglings out of the nest by the end of the picket fence. It also goes for those bug-eating frogs and my always-nosy dogs and the roaming neighborhood cats.

Why take the risk?

First published in the Bangor Daily News in July 1996.

2012 update: I learned over time that buying pesticides, even organic ones, meant a lot money sprayed into the wind, so to speak. So I got smart and bought row covers as pictured above, specifically for the cucurbits, such as cucumbers, squash and melons. I use hot pepper wax spray for the rest of the plants that have minor problems. The row covers usually last for several years, staying on the plants until the pests have had their season. Works like a charm, every year, although the past couple of years I haven’t even seen a cucumber beetle or a squash bug. So there.