Weathering a summer of pests and drought

It’s a weird feeling to aim a squirt bottle filled with poison at a creature and pull the trigger. But I did it this morning. Can you tell I still feel kind of bad about it? Yes, today I murdered some fourlined plant bugs right after I’d finished my oatmeal. If you’re wondering what a fourlined plant bug is, you can look them up on the University of Minnesota’s extension website: Just go to the insect section and type in their name.

These critters aren’t much bigger than, say, two and a half ladybugs. They’re yellow and are said to have four black stripes on their bodies. (It looks like more than four to me but, hey, I’m no entomologist.) They’re fairly common garden pests and when you have them you’ll know it. While some pests chew holes here and there, these guys feed on plants until there’s nothing left but the stem and maybe a vein or two of a leaf.

Generally, my bug philosophy is live and let live. I don’t really care if they snack on my plants as long as they leave some for me to enjoy. (OK, I know I killed some slugs with beer last year, too. They were way out of line.) Anyway, these fourlined plant bugs have skeletonized every last Chinese lantern in my garden, probably about 50. I love Chinese lanterns. They’re old-lady plants, really, something from our grandma’s gardens, so you don’t see them very often for sale. Their leaves are nothing special. But the flowers are bright orange and they’re shaped like little lanterns. Once they’ve dried in the fall, I cut some of them and keep them in a vase in the kitchen. Not this year.

Turns out, fourlined plant bugs love certain plants: Chinese lanterns, chrysanthemums, basil, liatris, shasta daisy and mint. Sometimes they’ll even feed on woody plants like dogwoods, azalea, viburnum, forsythia and sumac. If you notice these plants being eaten down to the nub in your garden, look around for fourlined plant bugs. Being yellow and all, they won’t be hard to spot.

If there are only a few, you can let them be. But if you’ve got a whole heard like I do, you may want to consider bug murder because the ongoing destruction is just going to get worse. Fourlined plant bugs spend the winter as eggs in the crevices of woody plants. When those eggs hatch in late May or early June, the nymphs are bright red for a while before they turn yellow. So the best time to kill them is when they’re babies.

The good news is, eggs only hatch once each year and the mature bugs are only supposed to be around for a month before starting their little life cycle all over again. I’m here to tell you, though, that the fourlined plant bugs in my garden this year have been around all through June and July and they’re still here. Maybe it’s because it’s been a cool summer. I don’t know. Now that they’re through with the Chinese lanterns, they’ve moved on to my perennial garden. Did I mention they can fly? Yeah.

So, today, I reached for the poison. I used a product called Eight, a water-based product that contains permethrin and kills on contact. Other Master Gardeners tell me that another product, Sevin — the weird spelling is right — also works well. For something less toxic, you could go with insecticidal soap. I’ve used that in the past on other pests and had mixed results, so I went with Eight, instead. We’ll see how it works.

Bug damage aside, the most devastating thing plants are dealing with this year is dryness. I read this weekend that, technically, the metro area is in a moderate drought. This is the third year in a row that it’s hardly rained all summer. I don’t know about you, but I find it sad to see all the brown grass and dried-up flowers everywhere. But I also understand the choice not to water those things whether that be an eco-friendly decision to conserve water or the plain fact that watering all the time isn’t cheap.

Trees, though, are a different story. It costs some money to regularly water trees. But the price we all pay for letting our trees die is far higher. All over our neighborhoods young boulevard trees (some planted just this spring) have literally turned to kindling for lack of water. Even older, established trees are suffering and showing signs of stress — shriveled leaves, browned areas and lots of dead branches. If you’re reading this and there’s any way you can water a tree in your yard, on the boulevard in front of your house or even on your street, I implore you to do so before it’s too late.

Trees are one of the greatest amenities we have in Southwest. They’re beautiful. They provide shade, cool urban heat islands, remove air pollutants, help obscure ugly power and cable lines and improve property values. I used to live in Northeast where entire streets had just a handful of trees on them, including the boulevards. Very few ever made it to a mature age and I can’t tell you how much more stark and bleak the neighborhoods felt.

Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer, living in Linden Hills. If you’ve got a gardening question you’d like her to address in her column, you can e-mail it to