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 opens in a new tab.
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.