Identifying & Controlling Garden Pests

No More Free Lunches

Rid your garden of pesky insects that beat you to your produce  

Ever walked through your vegetable garden and noticed little bite marks or discoloration on the leaves of your plants? Chances are, you’ve seen these, and that means it’s likely you have some pesky insects feeding on your plants. It’s helpful to know what you’re dealing with so you can figure out the best way to rid yourself of these uninvited dinner guests and get the most out of your fresh produce or your ornamental foliage. 

Before you plant your garden, it might be helpful to research the insect pests common to each plant on your list. Learn about the life cycle of each of those pests and learn about methods of controlling them before your plants. This may seem a bit daunting at first, but if you start in the winter, you’ll have a grasp of what to expect as you begin spring planting. 

If you don’t know much about insects, how can you identify who’s crashing your garden party? Tips include:

  • Note their physical description, including its size, shape, coloration, leg count, wing count, and any other attributes it might have. A good insect identification guide will help you figure it out. 
  • Note the type of damage it’s doing. Sometimes, insects have a distinct feeding pattern, and they leave a clear sign of damage. 
  • Note the host plant. Some insects only select a few species upon which to dine. You might be able to match the plant species with the insects that commonly feed on it. 

Here are five common garden pests that are looking for a free lunch among your vegetables, ornamental plants, or both:

  • Aphids: These sap-sucking, winged pests can be green, black, yellow, or red and they like to eat edible and ornamental plants, including roses. They cause stunted growth, yellowed leaves, and leave a black, sooty-looking honeydew buildup that attracts ants. They can reproduce without mating, so their population rises very quickly. There are multiple effective aphid-control products on the market. Pro tip: Treat problem ants along with aphids to keep both pests in check. 

  • Bagworms: Evidence of these little pests can be found by the protective bags they produce that hang down from the trees they like to munch on. They can defoliate an entire tree if there’s a heavy infestation. The best treatment is to catch them in the larval stage before the protective bags develop, which pesticides don’t always penetrate. They like evergreens best, and because they easily blend with the tree, they often go unnoticed until it’s too late. The black or tan larvae can grow up to two inches long as they feed heavily through the growing season. You can see the spindly-shaped bags that hang down from the leaves and branches of trees. Trees become sickly and pale; leaves turn brown and drop as though water deprived. Effective control is reaching the larvae. Use a pump-style sprayer and drench the entire plant thoroughly. If you can manually remove the bags, destroy them because each bag contains hundreds of eggs. 

  • Cabbageworms: These unpleasant green, hairy bugs have a velvety appearance and a row of light spots on their backs. They feed on the leaves of vegetables in the cabbage family—cabbage, cauliflower, kale, broccoli—and leave big, irregular holes. They leave greenish-brown excrement pellets, which are easy to spot, and they feed voraciously. Their wormy larvae pupate and attach themselves to stems by a silky-looking thread. Once the eggs hatch, they can do serious damage to your crop. The adult cabbageworm butterfly is white with black spots on its wings. Spray with pesticide and allow at least one day between treatment and harvesting edible crops. At the end of the season, the remaining cabbageworms enter a pupal stage. Destroy all leftover plant debris after you’ve harvested whatever you can. 

  • Cicadas: You can’t miss cicadas—they’re loud pests with an even louder buzz, and they’re often mistaken for locusts. They emerge from the ground, climb trees, molt, and their outer skins remain hanging from the trees, or drop to the ground. You can tell if you’ve got an infestation by splits in twigs where insects have laid their eggs. Effective control starts as soon as you see the emerging new insects or hear that buzzing sound. There are multiple pesticides available to kill them, including sprays and dusts. Large trees can withstand cicada damage but cover young trees with netting to protect them from egg-laying adults. 

  • Japanese beetles: These gray-brown little bugs may look harmless enough, but they’re quite capable of skeletonizing a wide variety of edible and ornamental plants. They have iridescent copper wings and a green thorax and head, and they will easily destroy a lawn and in addition to attacking your vegetables, they’ll make a mess of your roses, vines, shrubs, and trees. In larval form, Japanese beetles will feed on the root system of your lawn. To rid yourself of these insidious insects, you must treat the immature larvae and the adult beetles. Pro tip: Japanese beetles are sluggish until the temperatures go up. You can collect and dispose of them in the morning. Shake affected plants over a plastic sheet, then dump the fallen beetles into a bucket of hot, soapy water. That will be the end of them. 

Remember, one bug doesn’t mean you have an infestation. It’s natural for garden pests to be around chomping on your plants. Not all pest damage is significant enough to need action. Consider the level of pest activity you as the gardener as willing to tolerate and take the time to inspect your garden regularly and educate yourself and learn to identify common “bad bugs.”

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