Ladybugs are a gardener’s friend. Many of us, however, treat every other bug as the enemy. Learn to recognize common garden insects so you don’t zap or squash the good ones.
At least once a week in the growing season, go into your garden on a pest patrol. Take some prescription drug containers or small glass jars with tops. Systematically catch one of every type of insect you find. Kill the insects by putting the containers in the freezer overnight. Use a 10X magnifying glass and a good insect field guide to identify every one.
Then learn of each insect’s life cycle. Japanese beetles, for example, don’t appear out of thin air—adults burrow down into the soil at the base of your plants and lay eggs. The larvae live in the soil, chomping on the roots of your plants, until it’s time for them to pupate and emerge as adults. Then they eat the leaves of your plants, mate and burrow into the soil again.
Once you know something about insects’ life cycles, you can plant earlier or later to miss their predatory stage, or hide plants under a floating row cover until the cycle of predatory insects has passed. A spritz of kaolin clay solution (Surround Crop Protectant is one brand) or a garlic or hot-pepper spray may make plants less attractive to pests.
Inspect your plants regularly and handpick bad bugs. Of course, even the most diligent patrol may miss the more reclusive garden insects. Perhaps they’re nocturnal, or perhaps they saw you coming and ducked out of sight. Look for chewed leaves or small piles of droppings. These telltale signs will help you learn who’s responsible for the damage. Some wary insects drop to the ground if they’re disturbed; you can catch them on a piece of white cardboard, held under the plant’s leaves, painted with a sticky chemical-free pest management product (I prefer Tanglefoot).
The first step in controlling problem insects in your garden is learning to tell do-
gooders from criminals. Then you can wisely choose your battles. Three good
references are Rodale’s Vegetable Garden Problem Solver (Rodale Books, 2007),
The Gardener’s Bug Book (Storey Books, 1994) and, my favorite, Garden Insects
of North America (Princeton University Press, 2004).