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What's Bugging You?
by Marion Owen
November 8, 1999

A Phoenix, Arizona gardener friend of mine hates cotton. It's not the fabric or the cotton growers he dislikes, it's the way they manage their crops. The heavy use of pesticides (the generic term for herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and defolients) on conventionly-grown cotton in the Southwest, and the United States as a whole‹is staggering. Applied throughout the growing season, from pre-planting to post-harvest, in an effort to keep pests and diseases in check, throws the soil and the surrounding ecosystem off-balance.

When cotton is harvested, gardeners in the Phoenix bowl prepare for the worst. Clouds of whiteflies and other insects that, hours before, were associated with the white cotton bolls, take flight in search of new territory...

Believe me when I tell you, norhtern gardeners, have relatively few garden pests to contend with. Open any gardening magazine and when the subject of bugs comes up, you'll be amazed at the rogues' gallery of damaging pests and diseases. Fortunately for us, we have a short list of troublesome bugs: aphids, root maggots, and slugs. Indoor pests include aphids, thrips, spider mites, and fungus gnats.

Bugs, iccck!

This is a standard response to anything that creeps, slithers or crawls in the garden. Hole-y leaves and slug trails are our doing though, since the act of gardening is quite unnatural. Think of it. We're telling a lettuce plant to live near chives to live near potatoes and to get along with everybody. In the wild, I doubt the same plants would seek out each other's company the same way. Also, we clear the soil, weed it, till it, turn it , mulch it and till it some more. Nature doesn't work like this, either. In essence, we've set up an artificial environment, and thus we beomce the stewards, the managers, the caretakers of the piece of the earth.

Before I discuss a couple pests (I've devoted a separate article on slugs) and how to deal with them, here are a few basic steps to stay ahead of pest problems:

1) Maintain healthy, fertile soil. Healthy soil supports healthy plants that are stronger and can withstand diseases and pests. Remember, the goal of many "pests" is to ensure survival of the fittest, which means they initially attack weak plants.

2) Select plants that are suitable for your garden's climate.

3) Rotate your crops. Don't plant potatoes or broccoli in the same place two years in a row, or example.

4) Keep the garden clean of downed leaves.

5) Go for a walk. Take a daily stroll around your yard. It only takes a few minutes to check on how things are growing. This daily routine is also your best early warning system to stay ahead of pest problems.

Know thine enemy

You've got know what's bugging you before you can take action against insect pests. So get know your pest. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) has become a buzz phrase over the past 10 years. It means combining predators, plant selection, and other biological methods to make life hard for the bad guys.

It's very important to understand the life cycle of the pest in order to "apply" the best control method, and to learn whether you're dealing with a pest or beneficial bug. Many of the insects and other unlovely critters in the garden are on the gardener's side. For example, syrphid flies (also called "hover flies") look like small wasps. But did you know the syrphid's larval stage (maggots) voraciously feed on aphids? Or that root maggots lay eggs at the base of host plants in the spring, and that's the best time to prevent further harm to your turnips and broccoli?


Black, green, red or golden in color, aphids have small pear-shaped bodies that are no bigger than a BB. Defenseless against many predators, they are able to prosper because they are born with already developing young inside them. A scary thought. Fortunately, they aren't that destructive unless they go unchecked.

Apids target any soft-tissued plant growth: vegetable, herb, fruiting, and flowering plants as well as new growth of most woody plants. Tapping into a plants' vascular system, juices literally flow through the aphid, which gives them the appearance of being a sucking insect. Distorted or wilted leaves, buds, and flowers soon become coated with sticky, clear honeydew.

Control: Pinching or washing aphids from leaves with a strong spray of water from a hose. Use soap sprays such as Safer's, or make your own spray (recipe below).

Root maggots

A serious pest in many cool climate gardens, root or cabbage maggots tunnel into the stems and roots of turnips, radishes, Brussels sprouts and other members of the cabbage family. The first sign of root maggots are yellow and wilted leaves. If the damage is extensive, the entire plant wilts and falls over.

A root maggot overwinters as a pupa within the top few inches of soil. The adult fly emerges in the spring and lays tiny white eggs at the base of host plants. The eggs then hatch into white maggots, which then feed on underground parts of the plant.

Control: Understanding their life cycle gives you the key to their control, starting with preventing the root maggot fly from laying eggs on the host plant in the first place. If you anticipate a root maggot problem, apply floating row covers in the spring when you set out seedlings, or plant seedlings through slits in tar-paper squares which expand as the plants grow. Some gardeners plant a sacrificial crop of radishes, allow them to become infested with maggots and then destroy them. Wood ashes and diatomaceous earth can also be mounded around the base of plants as a deterrent.

Prevention is the best control against root maggots. Rotate your crops from year to year. At the end of each season be sure to pull out every plant that's a member of the cabbage family‹roots and all.

If your garden does get infested, don't abandon those crops, as they harbor thousands of larvae which, if allowed to mature, will be the source of next year's infestation. Remove the plants and destroy them, and do not put them in the compost pile.

How to make your own soap spray

Effective on soft-bodied insects such as thrips and aphids, soaps are strictly "contact insecticides" by directly effect their nervous systems or by penetrating the insect's protective waxy covering. To make your own soap spray, dissolve one of the following materials in 1 gallon of water: 2 tablespoons liquid Ivory soap, 2 tablespoons catille soap such as Dr. Bronners, OR 1 oz. Ivory flakes (about 3 tablespoons). Do not use detergents (which may not be effective) or laundry soaps (which may be too caustic for plants). Pour into a spray bottle and apply to affected areas until they are dripping wet.

"Over the Hedge":

"Wildlands will harbor an unending supply of pests that are neutral there but calamitous in a garden, especially in one full of edibles. Nonorganic gardeners unwittingly chase many of their pests onto what is, for the pest, a veritable game refuge." Bob Thompson, author, "An Illustrated Guide to Organic Gardening", Sunset Publishing.

If you're planting lots of annuals in your raised beds at one time, here's a way to pick up the pace: Remove all the transplants from their pots and lay the plants on their sides in a diamond pattern. With your trowel, make a hole alongside the plant.Without pulling the trowel out of the ground, slip in the plant, slide the soil back against the plant and pull out the trowel.

When was the last time you saw your plants smile? Learn why organic is the only way to grow, plus how-to gardening tips at Marion Stirrup of Kodiak, is recently featured in Organic Gardening magazine and Better Homes and Gardens.

Marion also developed PlanTea, the organic tea bag fertilizer. For more information, or to order, contact her at or PO Box 1980, Kodiak, AK 99615; 1-800-253-6331 (907-486-2552) or E-mail:

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