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Some garden pests are squishy

All grown up: A monthly series

POSTED: May 22, 2009 1:00 a.m.
KRISTEN MORALES/The Times

Blue Lake bush beans show damage likely caused by slugs or snails.

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This is the most crucial time for a garden.

At this point your cold-weather crops are starting to wane, and the hot-weather crops - your tomatoes, beans, squash, etc. - are still trying to grow. And it's this combination of waning, leafy plants and new, sweet buds that are very enticing to pests.

So far, my tomato plants are happy. A couple of them are actually tall enough to require being tied up to their stakes in a few places. And I've got a couple squash plants I started from seed in the ground as well, and they seem to be pretty happy.

But then, there's the beans.

One end of a row has leaves that are starting to resemble cobwebs. And this worries me.

So, I started doing some research, and it seemed the first step was identifying what is eating my plants.

The next morning, other than spotting one iridescent flying bug, there was no other sign of pests. No eggs on the underside of the leaves and no fluttering moths. No little worms and no caterpillars.

So, my next step was to turn to an expert. I spoke with Bob Westerfield, horticulture specialist with the University of Georgia Extension office, and he said the important part of identification is following up with step two, eradication.

"As we start to get warmer you'll see more insects in the garden. Ninety percent are probably beneficial insects; some will be predatory, some will be pollinators - not only bees," he said. "And so we have to be careful about saying, ‘Hey, I got a hole in my leaf, I need to start spraying insecticide. We want to keep a balance."

If you can find a suspect insect you think is causing the damage, great. Take a picture of it and send it to the local cooperative extension office, and they'll help you identify it. If your plant isn't too far gone, you can even try sending in a picture of how the plant's been chewed, too, he said.

This not only helps you correctly identify the problem, but it can keep you from using pesticides that will get rid of the good insects, too.

"Most insects are more easily controlled when you can catch them at a young age," Westerfield added. "As insects - the bad ones - become older, the harder they are to control."

Once you figure out what the problem is, you start with the least invasive method of control. This means using products like an oily liquid soap to make a contact with the insect, essentially clogging it up. The benefit to this method is that it's still organic, but the downside is you have to apply it directly to the pest.

So, in my case, it doesn't help much.

The next level would be a more selective organic control, he said, such as a product called BT or Dipel, an organic insecticide that can be used on caterpillar-type insects.

"There are a few pests out there that are difficult to control, particularly with organic ingredients," Westerfield said. "Particularly the white fly. They can be a pest on greens, but definitely tomatoes and peppers. The main reason they're difficult to control is they've been around a long time and they're very resistant to a lot of the chemicals we have out there."

If you have white flies gathering like a storm over your glorious tomato plants, call your local extension office for a recommendation on the type of pesticide to use. I read about a method of controlling white flies by setting up plastic yellow plates around the garden covered in a mixture of petroleum jelly and laundry detergent - the idea is, the white flies are attracted to yellow, and so they flock to the plates and get stuck in the goop on them.

Except, Westerfield pointed out, this method might actually attract more white flies to your garden. A better bet is to simply plant brightly colored flowers near your vegetable garden, attracting pests to them before they even get to the veggies.

So, all this information was helpful, including the tidbit Westerfeld gave me about treating the soil with a specific insecticide that attacks squash vine bores, which did a number on my zucchini and summer squash last year. By treating the soil just as the plants go in, you treat the bugs early on, and they don't have a chance to mature in the plant.

But it still didn't solve what was eating my beans.

"Normally, if you see something happening overnight and it's not deer or rabbits, it's usually slugs or snails. They pop out late in the evening."

Ah-ha!

The chewing is definitely concentrated in one small area, and that area is the closest to my shed and the home of nooks and crannies housing lots of slugs. I've seen them come out when it rains.

"An organic control people use is put a jar lid in the soil and put some beer in it," Westerfield said. "They're attracted to the yeast in the beer. They probably have the time of their lives for a while and then drown in it."

Or, Westerfield added, laughing, I could park a chair by the beans once it gets dark, hang out with a beer and watch for slugs or snails. When I see them, squash them and save the beer for myself.

And, during the daytime, make sure my plants get good nutrition, are mulched well, have plenty of airflow around them and have beds that are free of weeds.

"Just be tenacious about keeping the plants healthy," he said. "That goes a long way to preventing end-disease problems."



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