From the comfort of seed catalog photos, our imaginary gardens look perfect, overwhelmed with flawless foliage, overflowing with pristine fruits. Real gardens, of course, are not like that at all: they are not controlled environments and any neighborhood flora or fauna wholeheartedly believes it has an open invitation to move into the beds you’ve diligently dug, and mess with the plants you’ve carefully nourished from seed. Weeds will take away valuable space and nutrients and animals will eat some of your plants. So it goes. As gardeners, we can only guide land toward our personal goals, and expect that some creatures won’t agree with our mission. So, to prepare for the confrontations, meet three common garden pests:
1. Aphids are very small, pear-shaped bugs that live in large groups on the underside of leaves. Some have wings, some don’t. Some are white, others grey, red, brown, yellow, or black. They greatly enjoy sucking sap out of the leaves of many vegetables, fruit, or trees, leaving them lifeless and the whole plant injured.
There almost always is a population of aphids in a garden. Some even overwinter in the egg stage and greet spring alongside gardeners. Trouble comes when the population booms. Lacewings feed on aphids, so planting flowers that attract them is a great natural way to keep their numbers at bay. If the aphid population does get away from you, there are organic, households mixtures (such as soapy water, or a stinging nettle solution) that can be applied to kill and deter them.
2. Flea Beetles are small, oval-shaped beetles, with color ranging from blue to green to black, sometimes with striped wings. They are great jumpers: oversized back legs allow them to hop (like fleas) around the garden and eat various crops, their favorites including cabbages, cucumbers, eggplants, grapes, potatoes, tomatoes, and spinach. Adult flea beetles chomp on leaves, making many tiny holes and leaving the leaf to resemble an exhausted shooting range target. Their larvae, meanwhile, feed on a plant’s roots and tubers.
Flea Beetles overwinter as adults, awakening in May or June. Putting up physical barriers, like row covers, in the spring makes it tough for the beetles to access young, vulnerable plants. Later in the season, if a small number of beetles attack your plants, brushing them off into a bucket with soapy water will help keep the population under control. Keeping weeds in check also reduces the beetle's preferable habitat.
3. Slugs look like snails without shells, ranging in color from pale yellow to black. Nocturnal hermaphrodites with a voracious appetite, slugs mostly feed after the sun goes down and although they prefer lettuce, will not hesitate to taste other greens, vegetables, and flowers. Oh, also, they can re-grow their heads and lay eggs that stay dormant in the ground for multiple years. Although they are very slow moving and toothless, slugs wreak memorable havoc on many gardens every year.
Slugs love moisture and shade, so reducing their habit around your plants is the first step: remove piles of old lumber or debris, cut down weedy areas. Picking them off individually and removing continues to be one of the most effective ways to reduce their garden population. Hand-harvest the slugs an hour or two after sunset, and (unless you are relocating them to a far-off slug sanctuary) throw them in a bucket of soapy water. Trapping slugs is an alternative to handpicking. Setting out shallow pans of beer or an empty citrus rind or large cabbage leaf, cut in half and placed upside down on the ground, are common slug collection vehicles. The third option is to create barriers between plants and slugs. Anything sharp that may damage their soft bodies, such as crushed eggshells, gravel, or wood ash, will make slugs think twice before crossing treacherous terrain.
4. Cucumber Beetles are small oval-shaped insects, yellow and black in color, striped or polka-doted in pattern, that can be found nearly anywhere in North America - their native land. The beetles love to feed on all cucurbits, including melons, watermelons, winter and summer squashes, and, of course, cucumbers. They will also, on occasion, attack other crops such as beans, corn, or potatoes.
Control measures for cucumber beetles are the same as for Flea Beetles (physical barriers, hand picking, soapy water solution, keeping weeds down), as they are for the majority of pests encountered in an organic garden. You can get to know Cucumber Beetles even better by reading our Bug Profile on them.