Don’t let garden pests get you down

Four-lined plant bugs feast on many different plants. Photo courtesy Mike Hoium

For whatever reason, it sure seems like it’s been a real heyday for garden pests this summer.

Everywhere I look I see plants that have been disfigured by something that gnawed them or sucked the juices from them or just ate them entirely. I figure a lot of you are experiencing the same thing, so I want to let you know that it’s going to be all right. Don’t freak out. These bugs that are using our gardens as a buffet have relatively short lifecycles, usually just a few weeks, and fortunately they don’t all like to feed on the same plants.

Once a particular pest is gone, and even before then, really, there are things you can do to minimize damage. I also find it helpful to remember that, hey, bugs gotta eat, too, especially hungry monarch caterpillars who, this season, managed to eat huge swaths of milkweed in my backyard while preparing to become butterflies. I only wish I’d planted even more milkweed for them to munch on.

Admittedly, I don’t feel that kindly toward all pests. For example, I squished about a zillion four-lined plant bugs this year, and I don’t feel a bit bad about it. Those buggers are gone now for this season, but, just so you know for next year, they are easy to spot because their bodies are bright yellow with four long black stripes.

Four-lined plant bug damage is easily recognizable too — little sunken pockmarks that can be easily mistaken for a fungal disease. But what you’re really seeing is what happens when the bugs insert their piercing mouthparts into leaves, inject digestive enzymes and drink up the juice. Yum!

Squishing and drowning them helps keep populations down a bit. But they move fast, so unless you use chemicals, you kind of have to endure them as best you can. Once they’re gone, or even while they’re at it, cut back damaged plant parts. New growth will emerge just fine.

Got aphids? You’ll know if you spot tiny round-ish creatures clustered together on a wide variety of plants. Ranging in color from green, red, brown, yellow, black or gray, aphids don’t seriously damage most plants, but they, and the damage they cause, are definitely unsightly. Even if you don’t see aphids, it’s possible they’re the culprit if you see yellowed foliage, curled or twisted leaves and sometimes stunted growth.

The easiest way to get rid of aphids is to blast them with the hose. You’ll probably have to do this a few days in a row, but they’ll get the message and move on. Also, if you see lady bugs around, thank them because they like to eat aphids.

Just like aphids, spider mites can be easily blasted off plants with a hose over the course of a few days. Unlike aphids, though, spider mites can really do some serious damage and even kill plants by sucking on leaves.

The best thing to do is try to spot them and hose them off before they really get going. Silky, thin webs usually give them away. Without the webs, it can be tricky to see them because they pretty much look like tiny moving dots.

Like many pests, spider mites prey on plants that are stressed, especially from heat and drought, so do your best to keep up your watering in hot weather. Damage starts small with just a few spots on leaves and progresses until the leaves turn yellow or red and often drop right off the plant.

While some people are starting to buy predatory mites to release into their gardens to get rid of the spider mites, I feel like that’s an awful lot of work to go to when the hose is a perfectly good option. After all, it’s summertime and we should all enjoy it while it lasts.


Meleah Maynard is a writer, editor and master gardener. For more gardening ideas and tips, visit her blog, which has been renamed Livin’ Thing: