The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Bad bugs

Cabbage White caterpillarIn the last couple of weeks, "bad bugs" have started to show up in the garden.  This guy is a "cabbage worm" (aka Cabbage White caterpillar) and it enjoys gobbling big bites out of our broccoli and cabbage plants.

My approach to cabbage worm control is pretty lackluster, but it seems to work --- I handpick the caterpillars whenever I happen to notice them, then feed them to the chickens.  If you're going to head out to check your plants, look for the dark pellets of frass (poop) on leaves, then lean in closer and hunt down the caterpillar who left the traces behind.  Cabbage worms like to orient their bodies parallel to veins, making them difficult to find without the tell-tale frass.

Potato plantsI spend even less time worrying about flea beetles.  Tiny black specks hopping around on the potatoes alerted me to their presence last week and a close look showed that the potato leaves are now perforated with hundreds of tiny holes.  But the plants don't seem to mind, so I'm ignoring the flea beetles.

I don't mean to suggest that all "bad bugs" are harmless or easy to deal with.  I'm still picking asparagus beetles every week, hoping to put a dent in their population and save our fronds, and I know that we'll be battling squash vine borers all summer.  But I hope that you'll consider a more laissez-faire approach to bad bugs, at least until they prove themselves a major hindrance to your garden.

Our homemade chicken waterer never spills or fills with poop.

Learn to keep bugs at bay

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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One idea to control non-flying bugs is to put a border made out of planks around your vegetable beds. Make sure that the planks connect at the edges, and are firmly embedded in the ground, so it isn't easy to crawl under them.

Now for the crucial bit; line the outside and top of the planks with teflon foil. Tack it to the planks low down (in or near the soil) and over the top on the other side. This stuff is so slippery that even a gecko won't stick to it. Bugs won't be able to climb over it.

Of course this is only a partial solution; it won't deter flying bugs, nor bugs that drop down from overhanging other plants.

Comment by Roland_Smith Sun May 16 07:56:12 2010
I'll bet that would work with slugs, which we luckily don't have a problem with. All of our bad bugs seem to be either fliers (cabbage worms are the larvae of butterflies) or come from the soil at the base of the plants. People often put floating row covers over their plants to prevent the fliers from getting in, but I think it's too much trouble when their depredations are so minimal.
Comment by anna Sun May 16 11:41:55 2010
I saw on Small Farming Permaculture blog ( a few weeks ago about getting rid of some pests on various animals, that using FOOD GRADE diatomaceous earth interrupts pest digestive systems and remedies things fairly fast. I was thinking if it works on animals why not plants? It doesn't take more than a dusting on damp leaves and should work on these bugs as well as the ticks and lice that infest various farm animals. It even contains minerals the plants like.
Comment by vester Sun May 16 19:40:11 2010
Define "major hindrance." We haven't gotten more than a squash or two from any of our plants for the past 5 years. Are there any non-toxic ways to deal with these nasty creatures? We are pretty cool with searching out and pulling off the green caterpillars that eat part of our tomato plants every year but the squash vine borers are just heinous. I love squash and zucchini and I want to eat them from my own garden!!
Comment by Lindsey in AL Sun May 16 21:04:32 2010

Vester, I've read various things about diatomaceous earth, but only in passing. I think some people may use it for flea beetles, but I'm not sure what else.

Lindsey --- yup, squash vine borerers are devastating!!! We're still working out how to deal with them, but this is what we've come up with so far:

  • Spray with Bt once a week and after every rain. This is a lot of work with even a few large squash plants, and I don't know how much good it actually does, and Bt is organic and supposedly non-harmful to anything except caterpillars but I still don't like it. We do it anyway, because it's the best we've come up with.

  • Plant resistant varieties. Butternut seems to plug along pretty well even with a mild vine borer infestation since it has tough, semi-solid stems. I just read that Yellow Crookneck squash may be somewhat resistant --- next year, we'll be trying some of that!

  • Last year, we had good luck giving up on our main crop of summer squash and planting new ones at the beginning of August. This gave us one big flush of squash before the frost, which was much appreciated. Possibly we could have planted a bit earlier, but I don't know how early. Some places say you're safe to plant after the fourth of July, but that would, of course, depend on what part of the country you live in.

If you come up with any other control techniques, please let us know! Squash vine borers and asparagus beetles are currently my archnemesis!

Comment by anna Mon May 17 07:49:53 2010

According to the wikipedia article on squash vine borers, wrapping the stem with nylon stockings or aluminum foil helps.

Comment by Roland_Smith Mon May 17 13:09:44 2010
I should try those --- I'd heard about them, but it seemed like a lot of work! On the other hand, never getting good squash is a pain.
Comment by anna Mon May 17 17:12:23 2010

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