A Pest you Can’t Help but Love

by Sandy Swegel

Yesterday was a bright sunny day and pollinators were out gorging on the nectar of asters. It’s been a good year for asters, those vigorous re-seeders.  Besides honey bees and some native bees, there were at least seven hummingbird sphinx moths in a small garden area. Their very long proboscis lets them eat from many kinds of flowers and carry pollen about.  I was watching them while scooping up ten inches of topsoil that flood waters had moved about 15 feet away from the raised tomato bed.  So I was scooping the soil up and putting it back.  Easy enough.  In one shovel there was an enormous mud-covered caterpillar squirming.  Slowly I realized that underneath all that mud there was a bright green tomato hornworm and my gut reaction was to kill it right away so I could save my tomatoes.

Fortunately I also immediately thought about the hummingbird moths I had just been admiring. My brain cells reminded me the hummingbird moth and the tomato hornworm are one and the same creature.  How can I both love and hate one creature?  I also found myself filled with compassion for the hornworm because we had earlier pulled and thrown away all tomato plants. Between the ecoli the flood waters carried, the fungus growing on the leaves from too much water, and the forecast of 34 degrees tonight, there was no good reason to keep tomato plants.  So no more food for the hornworm.  Poor hornworm….flood and famine.  He was really big and fat so I hoped he had enough calories to pupate and I threw him on the pile of mud and dead tomato debris that was going to the landfill and wished him well.

Next year I just have to remind myself to plant enough tomatoes so one or two hornworms can grow up into the beautiful hummingbird sphinx moths that pollinate my flowers.

Photo Credit http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-08-07/lifestyle/41153436_1_light-tomato-darkhttp://naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com/2010/07/24/

Help! I’ve been Invaded by Japanese Beetles!

by Sandy Swegel

I was so late writing my blog post this morning because I foolishly strolled out into the rose garden, where everything was delightfully dewy and fresh from rains last night.  I thought I would deadhead a few late season roses that looked spent.  As I got close, I was puzzled about how beat up the rose blossoms were and wondered if the rains had been excessive.  Then I saw the glint of iridescent green and saw my first ever Japanese beetle. Now I know what gardeners in the East have known for a long time.  This is a terrible pest.  The destruction on flowers and foliage was dramatic since I was last in the garden three days ago. I spent the next solid hour hand picking the beetles and dropping them in a bucket of soapy water.  There were as many as six eating a single blossom.  I could look at a plant two feet away and see one on every top leaf. And I swear they were mating and eating at the same time.

Colorado has generally not had a Japanese beetle problem.  It wasn’t till about 2009 that the state ag department reported some in pockets of south Denver.  I was living in ignorant bliss.  I don’t understand how we went from no beetles in my area to hundreds in my rose garden alone.  Handpicking will clearly not be enough, but most of the pesticides I’ve read about would also kill bees and beneficial insects.

Do any of you know of successful controls?  I’ve googled treatments but haven’t found much info on what might really work in eradicating them.  We’ve actually been kinda happy around here about warming trends.  A slightly shorter winter didn’t seem like such a bad thing when you’re in the foothills of Colorado. But now the pests that we’re getting that also appreciate the warming trend is not worth warmer days in April.  How do I have a pretty organic garden with Japanese beetles?


My Squash is Wilting

by Sandy Swegel

Eww…Yet another bug thriving this year and ruining my food.  Most of us have experienced our squashes suffering from powdery mildew that coats the leaves white, but knowledgeable gardeners are perplexed here in Colorado by squash that suddenly completely wilts and die (Asana wilt).

Turns out it’s often a very small bug, the squash bug, that injects a nasty venom into the stems wilting and killing the entire vine.

“Can’t we just all get along?” I holler at them.  There’s an entire large squash plant and I’m willing to share with bugs….but the squash bug wants it all.

This is a pest you need to be aggressive with if you see it because it doesn’t share but will kill your whole plant given a chance. Look for the adult bug (looks a bit like a stink bug) or nymph (distinctive antenna and small head) and kill it (take a small bucket of soapy water into the garden with you and throw the bugs in, to drown them, if you don’t want to ‘squash’ them). More importantly, look for the eggs on the underside of leaves and crush them.  Handpicking works well in a small garden if you’re vigilant.

We have to stand our ground against creatures like the squash bug. I explain it to them as I dunk them in the soapy water or throw them to my chickens….if you don’t share and play well with others, you lose your privileges in my garden!

For more info http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05609.html


Soapy Water: The Answer to Most Problems

We’ve been grateful all week for pollinators of all shapes and sizes and how crucial they are for feeding us and for making a beautiful world of flowers and trees.  We know you understand our first priority to help pollinators by which is to create a habitat with the plants they like.

The next most important thing you can do for pollinators is to not kill them accidentally when you are trying to control other pests in the yard.

That’s where soapy water comes in. A simple squirt of castile soap – Dr. Bronner’s is most people’s favorite – in a spray bottle will take care of most small garden pests.  (It doesn’t help much with the bunnies and raccoons.) Add in a tablespoon of baking soda and you can take care of most fungus too.   Soapy water works on what it’s sprayed on but doesn’t hurt most pollinators who come later to the plant. So many commercial products get into a plant “system” and kill good bugs who visit the plant later.  Or they get into the soil and kill soil microbes.

The simple recipe for insect control is:

1 teaspoon Dr. Bronner’s soap, any variety. 2 cups water. Spray bottle.

Turns out using soapy water to save pollinators is a lot cheaper too.  One key to using soapy water or any pest control is you have to repeat the process in another week or so to get the next life cycle of the insect.

Another use for soapy water in the garden is to have a bucket of soapy water for putting the big pests like squash bugs and cutworms that you collect by hand.

So thanks for loving our pollinators and creating beautiful, safe habitats for them!

Links: Entomologist Whitney Cranshaw on soap:http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05547.html

Why you don’t add vinegar to soapy spray: http://lisa.drbronner.com/?p=292 

Natural Recipes for killing pests and fungus: http://faq.gardenweb.com/faq/lists/organic/2002081329023823.html

Armies of Cutworms are on the March!

In Colorado and the high plains, pest specialists say it’s going to be a banner year for cutworms and their adult form, miller moths.  Most nongardeners think miller moths are a nuisance because they fly in every open door and window on summer evenings, hovering around all your lights.  Gardeners, however, know cutworms as the horrid creatures that spend their late Spring nights decapitating your young garden plants. They especially like broccolis and cauliflowers but are happy to eat through the stem of your young tomato plants and peas too.

The easiest way to control cutworms is to pick them up and throw them out to birds to eat or dispose of them in some way.  These larvae are quite large and light colored so they are easy to see if you happen to be crawling through your garden.  They are most fond of overwintering under broadleaf weeds in your garden….so weeding your garden thoroughly in Fall is a good deterrent.

If you’ve had problems with cutworms in the past, you may want to grow broccoli and cauliflowers indoors to transplant rather than direct seed in the garden.  When it’s time to plant out into the garden, a  small collar around the stem of the plant is all it takes.  Saving all those empty toilet rolls is the most common collar, although plastic collars cut from water bottles or yogurt containers are also popular. Simple Dixie cups with the bottom cut out works well. Why do collars work? The cutworm doesn’t just start eating at one end of the stem and eat through…it wraps itself around the stem and then chews.  All you have to do is keep it from wrapping around the stem and your plant is safe.

If, alas, you go out and find some plants decapitated, take a moment to look through the top inch or so of soil around the plant.  You should find a nice fat cutworm resting from its big meal.  Pick it out so that at least that cutworm won’t be a threat to the neighboring plants.

A video from Oklahoma on controlling cutworms: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v1T3wUp1AwE

Extension Slide Series http://tealeafgardens.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/a-toilet-roll-in-the-garden/

Bring the Outdoors In

 by Sandy Swegel

If early freezes haven’t killed all your plants, there’s still time to think about bringing some of your favorite plants indoors. You can bring in plants that thrive indoors to live on a sunny windowsill or you can bring in plants that will otherwise die and that you don’t want to lose, to overwinter in your cold garage.

First things First. The first thing before any plant comes indoors is to make sure it doesn’t have bugs or diseases.  Fall often brings outbreaks of aphids so if your plant is full of aphids, treat the pests first:  hose off the bugs, or soak the entire plant, roots and soil and all in some soapy water. Once cleaned up, you can cut it to size if needed and bring it to a sunny spot.

Watering is Different Inside My rosemary plant needs almost no supplemental water when it’s growing outside in the ground.  I’ve killed more than a couple of rosemary by assuming that’s the same conditions indoors.  The stress of heat and dry air of being indoors in a pot demands that I coddle the rosemary indoors a little and never ever let the soil dry out.

Saving plants in the dark in the garage. 

Dahlias can be lifted. Pots of bulbs for spring can be planted and stored.  Even geraniums can be kept in moist peat and overwintered to bloom again next year. That’s what the Swiss do…they aren’t about to repurchase all those geraniums than hang from balconies every year.  If you live in a very dry climate, you may have to water the dormant plants every month so the soil doesn’t desiccate. 

Plants that thrive indoors for me.

Geraniums Continual color, almost no bugs, and forgiving if I forget to water. Great in sunny windows.

Angel wing begonia I keep these in an indirect sun situation and water weekly.  They bloom and bloom all winter.

Coleus All the wild colored coleus and other foliage plants will do well in bright conditions if you keep snipping off the seed heads.  They can handle lower light but might get buggy.

Bougainvillea is my favorite. Its natural bloom time is winter and it is a stellar performer. Messy though since it drops a zillion dead blossoms.

Hibiscus. So pretty, so ever blooming in a sunny spot.  So likely to get hundreds of aphids. Keep washing the aphids off and hibiscus will make you smile all year.  Some dogs love to eat the spent flowers….they’re edible so it doesn’t hurt them unless you’re using chemicals to treat the aphids.

An Herb Pot Nothing beats fresh herbs for winter roasted vegetables and savory dishes. Rosemary, oregano, thyme all thrive with light.

Winter doesn’t have to be cold and gray….bring some outdoor color and pizazz in.

Get Your Diseased & Gnarly Tomatoes OUT!

It’s August and hot, not the most fun time in the garden, but you’ve got to go out and EVICT all the diseased and dying stuff out of your garden.  You’re not doing for this year’s produce…you’re doing to save your garden next year.

In Colorado with our warm winter and early hot Spring, we are inundated with pest problems.  Most on our minds today is the spotted wilt virus on tomatoes which makes pretty concentric circles on the tomatoes, but leaves the fruit tasteless and mealy…and kills the plant long before frost.  As depressing as it is to toss plants you’ve nurtured since they were just baby seeds, they’ve got to go. They aren’t going to get better and the virus will just get spread around your garden.

So get out there with your wheelbarrow and do some decluttering.

Tomato plants with spotted wilt virus or mosaic virus or even some nasty blight:  OUT! And not into your compost pile…they go right in the garbage.

Other plants with serious disease problems:  OUT!  You’re never going to eat those gone to flower broccoli covered with powdery mildew.

Weeds that have grown four feet tall when you weren’t looking are now going to seed.  Somehow huge prickly lettuce and thistles keep appearing out of nowhere with big seed heads.  OUT!

It won’t take long to clean up the big stuff….this is one of those 15-minute projects.  15 minutes now will make a huge difference later. 15 minutes now gives the good healthy tomatoes more light and space and water to make lots of fruit before frost.  15 minutes now means you pull all the diseased fruit and leaves out easily now instead of trying to retrieve dead rotting fruit and diseased leaves after frost has caused leaf drop.

And while you’re at it:  those big huge zucchini bats:  OUT.  Pull ’em off the plant so that nice tender young zucchinis can grow.  You’re just not likely to eat as much giant zucchini as you’re growing.  Let go of the guilt and send them to enrich the compost.


by Sandy Swegel

If I were making a low-budget movie about alien invaders, I’d definitely use close-ups of earwigs to make the scariest monsters with their pincers coming at you.  And no fan of Star Trek can help but shudder and remember the image of the earwiggy centipedy thing Khan puts into Mr. Chekov’s ear.  Earwigs actually get their name from going into ears of corn, not human ears, but there’s a primitive cringe factor that rises in us anyway.

Most people never notice earwigs, but if you do get an infestation, you’ll quickly find they can wipe out new seedlings by chewing the stems and leaves.  And in large numbers, they have no problem climbing corn stalks or fruit trees to get at yummy food.

It’s usually easy to catch earwigs…they gather under anything dark and damp such as mulch or an old board. Rolled up wet newspaper is pretty good because it’s a disposable container….just toss the whole thing in the trash.  I personally let a couple of chickens loose and they find the apparently delicious earwigs in minutes and eat them as fast as they can scratch them out.  If you have a serious infestation of earwigs, UC Davis has the best scientific integrated pest management protocol.http://www.ipm.ucdavis.edu/PMG/PESTNOTES/pn74102.html

This week  I went to a bug talk by our local extension entomologist Carol O’Meara and learned a new tip about trapping earwigs. Trapping is usually the best way to deal with earwigs.  O’Meara’s twist to catch the critters is to put out little bowls of vegetable oil and soy sauce.  The soy sauce is an attractant and the earwigs are suffocated in the vegetable oil.  An old tuna can and a couple tablespoons each of soy sauce and oil (some people add a little molasses), and you have a great trap.  The folks at Deep Green Permaculture designed this little trap to give you an idea of the concept.


Happy Earwig Hunting!