Finding a pest in the garden can be quite a cuticle-gnawing dilemma. What creature is it? Should I leave it alone or send it to insect heaven?
What method should I use against it? Organic, biological or chemical? And what about my kids, my dog, my lungs? Will my war against pests pose a threat to them, too? Will I lose my butterflies?
No need to let your blood pressure rise over this. Here's a quick reference guide to help you through these pestering questions.
Letting Nature Have Its Way
Let a Few Bugs Eat
The sight of one bug eating doesn't mean pestilence is on its way. Generally, pests eventually come into contact with their natural enemy and things balance themselves out. Of course, when plants become really threatened, it's time to take some action. But don't reach for that spray gun just yet. There may still be other options open for you.
At war with aphids? Few people are really sure what they look like. Aphids are tiny and hard to see and may be green, yellow, brown, red, or black. One tell-tale sign you've got them? Ants! Aphids secrete a sweet nectar that they use to 'bribe' the ants into protecting them from predators.
To get rid of aphids, why not give them what they want: the color yellow! Fill a bright yellow dish halfway with water to attract and trap them (similar to how we catch gamu-gamo beneath light sources). The aphids will fly in and drown. Or hang a small piece of bright yellow cardboard coated with non-setting glue or anything really sticky. These will attract a variety of flying and jumping pests and work like fly paper.
Or you can shoo them away with some unwanted light! Aphids feel safe and comfy in the cool, dark undersides of leaves. So try spreading a piece of aluminum foil under affected plants. The idea is to confuse them with the unexpected light that gets reflected by the foil.
Got mealybugs? Dip a cotton bud in regular rubbing alcohol and swab those little pests off the afflicted plant. Or if you want to save some time, spray the alcohol directly on the little buggers.
Soil crawling with nematodes or uod? Plant lots of French Marigolds. Their roots release a natural repellent against these creatures. Marigolds also attract beneficial insects which will then attack other pests like aphids.
Problems with snails? Bring out the beer! Submerge some shallow dishes in the ground with the rim just above the surface. Pour about an inch or so of beer into it and let the slug party happen overnight. The snails will generally crawl in, drink –– and drown.
Sick of stray cats? You can try sprinkling some black pepper all over the areas the cat frequents. It may irritate their nostrils enough for them to dislike your garden. Cats are also said to dislike the smell of lantana. These flowering plants love the sun, so you can plant them out in the garden. Aside from discouraging cats, they'll also reward you with non-stop color that brings in the butterflies! Cats also dislike the reflections from clear plastic bottles (like the ones used for mineral water). Fill them halfway with water and lay them among the plants.
Worried about weeds? Give it a well-aimed spray of pure vinegar or rubbing alcohol. Or douse it with boiling water. Remember, these measures can kill neighboring plants as well. So they must be applied directly and accurately. It's best to use these methods on isolated weeds -- such as those that grow in cracks in the pavement.
The Good, The Bad
and They-Almost-All-Look Ugly
If it's small and it flies, walks or crawls in the garden, our instant reaction is to call it the enemy. And we either shoo it away, hose it off, toss it out or squash it underfoot. But many of these insects –– either as adults or as larvae –– are actually beneficial to the garden. Many serve as important pollinating insects for flowers, fruits and vegetables.
Our advice? Make it Halloween in
your garden the whole year through! Keep it open to bats, toads,
frogs, garden snakes, spiders, praying mantises, lizards and birds.
These are all beneficial creatures that can help rid your garden of
pesky bugs. Let them party on pests like aphids, mealy bugs,
mosquitoes, caterpillars and other unwelcome critters. Even the good
guys may be ugly –– but they're not bad at all.
Garden spiders trap a lot of pests in their webs. Ants and wasps, whose activities may sometimes harm a few plants, also serve us well by preying on other pests. The centipede feeds on many pests found in the soil. (Read more about centipedes here.) Ladybugs (a.k.a. ladybird beetle) are probably the prettiest and the most recognizable of these allies. They particularly love to feed on aphids.
Pros: The deliberate introduction of these and other beneficial creatures is a form of biological control. In controlled conditions such as a greenhouse, these are effective in helping limit the pest population. With enough beneficial organisms, the need for pesticides may even be eliminated. For certain pests that have developed immunity to commonly used pesticides, these biological controls may be the only effective method available.
Cons: In the open garden, biological solutions may not be as effective. But nevertheless, they are helpful. This is also not very effective for severe infestations. The introduction of biological measures should be done at the first sign of a problem.
All About Worms
This section is not for the squeamish. It’s about those critters that slither, squiggle and squirm in the garden. Ewww! But one must never judge a critter by its cover. So let’s get to know them a little better.
Before we talk about another
important ally in the garden -- the earthworm -- let's tackle a
question about millipedes and centipedes. Are they harmful?
Millipedes (a.k.a. 1,000-legged worms) and centipedes (a.k.a.
100-legged worms) do not carry diseases to humans or to our pets and
plants. Occasionally, they may damage seedlings by feeding on stems
Most millipedes [left] are scavengers and feed primarily on decaying vegetation. They do not bite and are harmless to us if you leave them alone. Although they are not poisonous, millipedes do produce an irritating fluid which can be dangerous to your eyes. And some people may have allergic reactions to the fluid so avoid handling millipedes with your bare hands. If you come in contact with a millipede, wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
Centipedes [right] generally feed on insects which they kill by injecting them with venom. Except for the largest species, centipedes cannot bite through skin, so hazard to humans is remote. Occasionally, humans may be bitten by centipedes, but the poison usually produces only a moderate reaction similar to a bee sting. Bites are also extremely rare because they usually avoid being exposed to light and bite only when picked up or crushed. For both millipedes and centipedes, control is rarely necessary.
Now let’s talk about some slimy creatures that can give your garden the best plant food you can get from nature: Earthworms! These friends of the garden burrow and feed on the soil, swallow and digest it, extract its food value and expel the residue as worm castings or – as organic gardeners have come to call it – Vermicast.
Vermicast is a pure organic plant food rich in nutrients that are almost water soluble making them immediately available to plants. It contains five times the available nitrogen, seven times the available potash and one and a half times more calcium than that found in 15 cm of good top soil. Also, vermicast holds two to three times its weight in water. That means you can water your potted plants less often.
Even fresh vermicast will not burn your plants and that’s something you can’t say about other uncomposted raw manure (e.g. horse, chicken) which can burn root systems when not used properly.
Thyme Square is a firm believer in the value of vermicast, and our herb garden shop topdresses its mother plants every one to two months and gets quick rewards of verdant, healthy new growth.
Organic Solutions to Pest Problems
Organic pest controls are usually derived from other plants. Pyrethrum, for instance, is derived from dried daisy chrysanthemums (Pyrethrum cinerariifolium). It is used against whiteflies, aphids, caterpillars, ants and thrips. It is a quick-acting pesticide that is considered harmless to mammals (but the label does warn against spraying directly on humans and on food). Although it could kill even beneficial insects, it is said to leave ladybugs and butterflies unharmed.
Neem extract is also very effective against a wide range of pests, including mosquitoes. It's been judged safe for use on fruits and vegetables. It smells good, too, so it's perfect for use even indoors and acts as both repellent and deodorizer. It has an extremely low toxicity rating for mammals and it does not accumulate in soil or water. When used as a soil drench, its effects are said to last much longer as the neem extract is taken up by the roots and is stored in the plant.
Seaweed extract also displays some
pest repellent properties. When plants are fertilized with seaweed
on the leaves, insect infestation is also observed to diminish quite
Pros: Organic measures are effective and are much safer to use. Aside from being safer for the actual user, they are also environment-friendly alternatives to chemical methods.
Cons: Most organic controls remain active for very short periods, usually for just a day, and act only on contact with the pest, thus requiring frequent and thorough applications. The range of problems they can control is also limited when compared to chemical solutions. Some are also unselective and therefore could eliminate beneficial creatures as well. That's why it's best to avoid spraying them on open blossoms so as not to harm visiting butterflies or bees.
Chemicals to the
The Safe Use of Chemical Controls
Used with care and never indiscriminately, chemical solutions can be a boon to plant lovers who have tried all earth-friendly measures and are still losing the battle against pests. Before resorting to chemical solutions, however, determine if it is absolutely necessary and that no other measures will do.
Ideally, all pesticides should carry detailed instructions. But until stricter laws are passed in our country, we may still find ourselves with pesticides bearing only partial or unreadable instructions on the label.
Always apply pesticides at the rate and frequency recommended and only on suitable plants. If you are uncertain, test it first on a small portion of the plant to check if it will cause any adverse reaction.
Do not spray on windy days, otherwise, you risk exposing yourself to the chemicals. Always wear protective clothing and equipment, such as a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, rubber gloves and non-porous shoes. You may choose to wear goggles and a mask as an extra measure to protect your eyes and lungs from irritation.
After applying the pesticide, make
sure to wash your hands thoroughly. Wash your clothes separately
from the rest of the laundry. And don't forget to wash your sprayer
and other equipment thoroughly with soap and water twice over.
Pros: You can choose a chemical to address a very particular problem so you don't end up killing organisms indiscriminately. They are fast-acting and highly effective, and if applied in mild weather, the effect can last much longer. (High temperatures speed up the breakdown process.) There are also systemic kinds which are absorbed through the roots and by the entire plant making application much more convenient.
Cons: Incorrect use of chemical controls can damage both the plant and the environment. Not applying precautionary measures can also be hazardous to the user. Carelessness in storage can also endanger children and pets.