From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on May 31, 2006

Heroes and Villains in the Vegetable Garden.

The average insect population in a square mile surpasses the entire peopled population of the planet. Of the nearly one million known species of insects, it is believed that this is only ten percent of the total number. And of this vast number, it is conjectured by those in the know, only one half of one percent are pests.

Just as the usual suspects arrive with the first expanding leaves of your trees and shrubs, so also will others of their ilk show up as you put in your flowers and vegetables. One remedy: Devote five to ten percent of your garden space to plants that attract the heroes of the garden world that will devour the villains that are out to get your plants.

lady bird beetleInterplanting the garden with herbs and flowers to attract beneficial predatory insects that feed on pest insects and beneficial parasitic insects that lay eggs on or inside insect pests is extremely helpful to the home vegetable grower. There are lengthy lists of plants that will bring in large numbers of lacewings, ladybird beetles, Syrphid flies and parasitic wasps and flies.

assassin bugSurround the garden and the landscape with members of the fennel and parsley families, the mint family, carrot and aster family members, sedums and alyssums and they will bring in bushels of beneficials. Get to know how to recognize other benefactors, such as big eyed bugs, ground beetles, minute pirate bugs, and assassin bugs. All of these provide invaluable service, as do all spiders and the (probably well recognized) praying mantis. These feed on insect pest eggs, soft-bodied insects, caterpillars, grubs, and a variety of other fly pests.

The number of pests of your flowers and vegetables will rarely outnumber forty, and more often than not, will stay near a dozen. Doesn't this sound approachable?

pirate bugTry to become acquainted with who the bad guys are and how to differentiate them from the good guys. If you see a beetle, please don't automatically squash it. It might be a ground beetle, black, shiny, and a slug eater. It looks a bit like a large darkling beetle, which is dull and a plant eater, but considerably smaller. If it's black and shiny, about an inch or more long, leave it alone.

There are lots of look-a-likes. The Mexican bean beetle adults look a lot like a Lady Bird Beetle adults. The villains will skeletonize the leaves of beans. They always have 16 dots on their backs (wing covers). They are plump and round, and have a coppery color. The heroic Ladybird beetles, while appearing in a variety of colors from black to white with every shade of red, yellow and orange in between, are more slender and faster moving, and have any number of spots on their backs and head or none at all.

bug barnAs you are setting about your garden objectives, if you come across an insect, try to capture it instead of eliminating it. A film canister, a jar, screened bug barn, anything that will allow you to keep it from getting lost or unrecognizable and available for study. I have small, screened "bug houses" to study them live. A mason jar with the top disc replaced by a piece of mesh or screen is the one I prefer.

Otherwise, a small amount of rubbing alcohol will preserve an insect long enough for you to examine it closely. This is a small sacrifice toward doing the right thing for the garden and the environment. So try to identify it and learn about its habits, life cycle and food preferences. You may not want it in your garden, but, until you know, it might also be a very welcome guest you wish to encourage to stay and have a family.

bug barnThere are a few species of stink bugs, generally about a half-inch or smaller, that are serious garden pests of beans, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes. They attack all parts of the plant. They are often found in weeds where they hibernate. Weed regularly to control these. They give off an unpleasant odor. You'll know when you've got one. The look alike "good guy", the 'spined' soldier bug, is three fourths of an inch long and is predator to many destructive pests in all stages.

There are many useful books out there. One of the best, with excellent line drawings, is Handbook of the Insect World. Hercules Incorporated originally published it for the National 4-H Council. This slender publication, less than 70 pages, includes: familiar insects, helpful insects, household and storage insects, human and animal pests, general plant feeders, crop pests, flower pests, and shade and forest tree and shrub pests. It is worth owning, and makes insect identification, within the above-mentioned categories, almost a snap. It is available over the Internet from many book dealers, or, call Cornell Cooperative Extension 4-H and see if they can have it for you. It has both the heroes and the villains.

  wasp aphid  soldier bug  aphids  squash bug  lady bird beetle

If you would like all the help you can get in the garden, just provide the habitat and natures co-workers will provide the protection, with, of course, some help from you. Remember to add a water feature to attract the birds and keep a toad or two comfortable.


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on May 31, 2006

© 2006 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.