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Tips for Dealing with Garden Trouble

By Amber Pollei, May 23, 2012  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Amber Pollei

Amber Pollei writes, cooks, and gardens in Austin, Texas, with her husband Ryan and their dog Fin. Read more about her backyard-farm-to-table adventures at sustainable-diet.com

One day last summer, I jumped for joy at the sight of a perfectly bulbous, albeit small, butternut squash hanging on the vines: the harbinger of a bountiful harvest.

But suddenly, garden tragedy struck.

Squash vine borers decimated my crop almost overnight. Before I knew what happened, the vines were gnawed through from the inside out, and a sawdust-like “frass” sat in hills around the base of each plant. They were gone, completely lost. Oh yes, a few tears were shed.

Detection Like any resolute gardener would do, I set out to find ways to keep garden trouble at bay.

Determining a pest problem early on is the key to saving your garden from peril. Be on the lookout, daily if possible, for signs of insects or critters. Harmful insects may eat holes in leaves, and wildlife might peck at fruits on the vine. If you don’t know what pest is attacking, take a photo or, if possible, bring the affected plant itself in to your local nursery and ask. Then quickly spring into action.

Distraction Birds, squirrels, and other neighborhood creatures are as attracted to your successful tomato vines as you are. Beat ‘em to the punch with distractions: employ faux fauna like owls or snakes (be careful not to scare yourself!) to deter them.

Try shiny pinwheels to throw off birds. And of course, you can always make a scarecrow on the cheap, with recycled materials to boot! Another mode of distraction: feed the offending species with wildlife-specific foods in the opposite corner of your yard.

Protection Pine straw used as mulch has proved an almost entirely successful way to keep neighborhood cats out of our raised beds. Another friend found success with sprinkling cinnamon around her plants. Still others recommend homemade pepper sprays applied to foliage, which deter hungry wildlife from eating plants due to its spicy taste.Bird netting and row covers are a readily available solution, too. While bird netting makes harvesting a bit trickier — I’ve been caught in my own net before — it does keep the birds at bay.

Be careful to secure all sides of the net, though; otherwise you might catch a scared bird inside the net, dramatic for both the bird and the gardener. Row covers are beneficial for small plants that need protection from flying insects, but must be removed once the plants begin flowering, or you’ll have to pollinate by hand.

Deletion Earth-, human-, and pet-friendly insecticides are widely available for organic gardening. Most often, I turn to DE and BT— diatomaceous earth, which is a powder made of fossilized hard-shelled algae that breaks down insect exoskeletons, and bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium that can be sprinkled as a powder or sprayed onto stems and leaves while allowing beneficial insects to thrive. If the bad bugs arrive, rid your garden of them by other means. My mother suggests snipping vegetable-eating caterpillars in half with a pair of garden scissors.

(I’m more of a fling-the-bug-off-with-a-stick kinda gal, but we’ll see.) Slugs can be easily coerced into a shallow vat of beer. Aphids are tamed with ladybugs — or a powerful spray from the water hose.

Cohabitation If you can’t beat them … plant a few extras in a decoy garden, away from your main haul, and let them go to town. A little more research might lead you to plant one area with very susceptible varieties, and plant more resistant varieties in your main garden. At the end of the day, give yourself a pat on the back for your organic gardening efforts and realize that, regardless of preparation, Mother Nature just might have it out for your butternut squash this year.

Please be sure to share your garden pest tips, too! I’d love to hear them.

Category: Gardening




Rick Berkowitz says ...
Deer have been a problem in my garden lately, eating the tops of the raspberry and tomato plants. I have had success with fishing line. I placed a few stakes around the perimeter and wrapped the line around several times. It is barely visible and so far it has kept the deer out.
05/30/2012 2:57:15 PM CDT
Barb Brouse says ...
Have you ever tried dried blood? Keeps away those voracious nibblers, rabbits, squirrels and deer and most other nibbling 4 legged pests. Also the best source for how to control pests and any problems you have growing things is a source few people use or know about Your state Extension agency associated with your state university Barb B
05/30/2012 3:06:29 PM CDT
Stacy says ...
Fin is adorable! He looks like my baby Lab/Border collie mix. Thank you so much for these great tips. I've been using neem oil for the first time on my tomato plants and herbs - I'd love to hear from anyone else who has tried this to make sure it doesn't affect the taste of my veggies and herbs.
05/30/2012 3:29:25 PM CDT
Julie says ...
For slugs, I tried eggs shells and corn meal. I sprinkled the corn meal around the plants and also put some in a lid (so the slugs could eat to their hearts content). The corn meal seemed to work best to keep the slugs at bay - but didn't comletely wipe them out.
05/30/2012 3:35:36 PM CDT
CRF says ...
Does anyone have a deterrent for chipmunks?
05/30/2012 3:45:28 PM CDT
Tony says ...
I am a big fan of the natural predators, especially spiders. I have about 6 or 7 different kinds in my raised garden, they do a great job at eating anything that wants to eat my crops. Including my wife!. LOL (she hates them)
05/30/2012 3:46:19 PM CDT
Jackie says ...
Does anyone have a deterrent for small caterpillars. They are eating up my collard greens, collard greens, and broccoli.
05/30/2012 4:09:02 PM CDT
parkerj says ...
Great post- lots of wonderful suggestions. Good timing too as i am just about to plant my summer garden. I have a suggestion for garden caterpillars- if you have young children get them a insect collection kit (mine cleared my garden of every bug in a single day)
05/30/2012 4:19:52 PM CDT
Mollie says ...
Spray your plants and beds with cooled brewed coffee at dusk to kill the snails and slugs. Coffee grounds will repel the snails, but the brewed coffee really works.
05/30/2012 4:34:08 PM CDT
Jay says ...
Re: Chipmunks (and squirrels and birds and moles and mice). An outdoor cat does the trick. There WILL be some critter-kill; mostly though, just the visual presence will nudge the critters over to your neighbor's place. The cat need not be outdoors all the time.
05/30/2012 4:57:47 PM CDT
Jocelyn says ...
To keep squirrels, rabbits, deer and other larger garden eaters away, try a motion activated sprinkler. It shoots out a fast arcing spray over a pretty large area. Between the sudden movement and the water they'll learn to stay away. Plus it's a humane solution. Just remember not to walk in front of it yourself! You can find them on-line. As for the post about the chipmunks, the only solution that worked for us was the hav-a-hart live trap. We trap them and then let them out in a wooded area a few miles away.
05/30/2012 5:10:45 PM CDT
SchnauzerMom says ...
I live in Raleigh, and near a nature park. The locally produced I Must Garden line has natural repellents that work. Sluggo is a natural product to get rid of slugs. It's safe around pets and kids.
05/30/2012 6:46:23 PM CDT
Madera Roja de la Secoya says ...
Many sucking type bugs cannot swim. A sharp spray of water from a hose will remove them from the plant and knock them to the ground where they can be eaten by other predatory insects.
05/30/2012 7:24:52 PM CDT
Madera Roja de la Secoya says ...
Tobacco is a natural insecticide. Made into a tea and sprayed on plants, it is harmless to you or your pets.
05/30/2012 7:26:13 PM CDT
Gerry says ...
For my garden I use the motion activated sprinkler (Scarecrow). Never have an issue with deer unless i forget to turn it on. I usually forget to shut if off in the morning so I am constantly getting wet myself.
05/30/2012 7:41:20 PM CDT
Jennifer says ...
Putting pennies on top of the soil around flowers that are being eaten by slugs works great. For whatever reason copper deters them, and you can feel good about not killing them!
05/30/2012 8:18:59 PM CDT
mamolah says ...
Does anyone knows how to handle mice problem?
05/30/2012 11:45:20 PM CDT
Lisa says ...
Chipmunks: I put out wild birdseed in several places near their travel route and they love it: they pick out what they like, fill up their little cheeks, go home to empty them out and come back for more. The birds and squirrels get to enjoy as well. Also, shavings of Irish Spring soap tied in little squares of bags oranges come in tied around your veggie vines will keep away the deer. We tried this last year and it worked great.
05/31/2012 7:54:26 AM CDT
cynthia says ...
Does anyone know what to do about white flies?
05/31/2012 9:05:22 AM CDT
Christin says ...
I used moth balls around my tomato plants to keep the deer and neighborhood skunk away. It worked well, but you have to replenish about every other day. They melt when it rains. I have never tried it but I have also heard that you can purchase coyote urine at garden supply stores. This supposedly keeps many animals and rodents away. Also if you google/search for green gardening tips, there are certain herbs that deter bugs and animals. By planting these within and around your garden it will keep pests away. I know that bugs like ants, fleas and ticks hate mint. So you get a double bonus. Not only do you keep pests away, you also have fresh herbs to use with all those great veggies you've worked so hard to grow.
05/31/2012 11:08:48 AM CDT
Wendy says ...
How about earwigs--got any good remedies?
05/31/2012 12:31:34 PM CDT
ginica says ...
Another inexpensive distraction technique is to hang cd/dvd disks from plants & trees. I find them for free/cheap at yard sales and save the ones that arrive in my junk mail.
05/31/2012 2:07:46 PM CDT
Emily says ...
OMG! I love the idea about the CD's! I have a bag of them I've been trying to find a crafter to take off my hands, and we are running low on tin plates to hang outside. Never thought of it. Thanks "ginica"! But "Christin", I'd be weary of putting out moth balls around food plants. They do disintegrate, into the soil, I'd be afraid their nasty chemicals would leach into the plant taking nutrition from that same soil to grow it's food that you eat. I've got CD's to go hang up in our garden . . .
06/05/2012 7:17:09 AM CDT
Sandy says ...
To keep Chipmunks from digging up your flowers and mulch use Moth Balls. I've never put them in my vegetable garden, just the flower beds.
06/19/2012 11:14:19 AM CDT
chris says ...
do you carry diatomaceous earth at whole foods ? thanks
10/08/2012 10:01:23 PM CDT