Gardening Tips for Seedy Characters: Week 29

What to do this week

I don’t know about you, but this time of year I think a lot about garden pests. I do like to put science in this column once in a while, so maybe it is time for a little biology lesson.

This is prime breeding season for all insects. They are trying to bulk up their numbers before winter comes. This may have you feeling overwhelmed and tempted to reach for a can of Raid or something else really horrible. Here is why this isn’t a good idea.

By Sanjay Acharya (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Aphid by Sanjay Acharya, own work, GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

Aphids, for example, are eaten by ladybugs. But aphids reproduce much more rapidly. They reproduce two ways, sexually and by parthenogenesis. In other words, they are born pregnant in some generations, I kid you not. I know, it’s unfair. Ladybugs, on the other hand, don’t have nearly as many offspring.

So, if you use a broad spectrum insecticide, like one you pick up at your local hardware store, you kill everything except those few resistant individuals. If you knock back both aphids and ladybugs really hard, guess which one has a better strategy for coming back quickly? Aphids. They have more generations per year and more offspring per generation. They will come back from the most resistant samples, so you are actually breeding resistance to the pesticide you used.

What to do? The best long-term approach is to have healthy soil and healthy plants, of course, and a diverse habitat to encourage a natural balance in your garden. Almost everything in the garden has a predator, and a balanced and healthy garden will have everything needed to encourage healthy relationships between insects.

But if you have a situation now, your short-term option is to use mechanical means to go after particular pests. I’m not saying there is no place for insecticides, but they really should be used sparingly. They kill things you don’t want to kill, like the beneficial predators, but also things like bees. Mechanical means are a better bet.

For example, at the moment I have a problem with a particular area of my rather large potato patch. It has way too many potato beetles. There are a few solutions to this sort of situation, and most of them involve a bucket of soapy water and someone who is not too squeamish to pick the pests off and toss them into it. Pick them in the late afternoon. The little larvae go to the ground at night and are easier to find after they’ve spent the morning climbing back up and are munching on the top of the plants. If you pick them in the morning, you will be missing most of the problem. If you have a very large potato patch (like I do), you can adapt a cordless shop vac (like I did), and suck them right off the plants. Just clean it out immediately as it gets even more icky if you leave it.

Slug traps are another good approach. We had been having a dry summer but the rain has picked up, so the slugs will too. After the rain they seem to breed as fast as the weeds do. Some people use saucers with a bit of beer. They will crawl in and die happy. I don’t keep beer around so I use molasses and water with a little bit of yeast — it works just as well if you don’t have beer, or don’t want to waste it.

I use short glass bottles; salsa or jam bottles are great. I tip them on their sides so the rain doesn’t wash away the bait. A friend of mine partially embeds the bottle in the soil, upright, and covers each one with a used plastic container. Cut a few little doors in the rim of the container, invert it over the bottle, and top it off with a rock to get protection from both the wind and the rain. You will just have to check the beer level once in a while, and not worry about replacing the liquid after every rain.

You can also use diatomaceous earth, which is just ground up exoskeletons of sea creatures. It is quite benign, but not good stuff to breath in, so be careful. It scratches the outer protections most insects have, so they desiccate and die. You do have to replace it after every rain.

And finally there is the pair of scissors, when it comes to slugs. If you can’t handle it, you can always hire the neighborhood children. There will be one who will have the stomach for it! Pick, pick, pick, if you possibly can, and toss the pests in a bucket of soapy water to drown them or pay children to cut them in half. You can consider it training the future generation of young entrepreneurs.

Featured image: Colorado potato bug by Zdeněk Chalupský, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.




Backyard food gardener Madeline Yakimchuk caught the food-security bug in the early ’90s through Cuba’s Urban Agriculture Department, taking her first permaculture course and planting her first garden. She can often be found discussing food security, nurturing a plant-based lifestyle or trying to give away vegetables. Professionally, she is GRYPHON media productions but sometimes uses la bruja in her volunteer work, most notably in managing the garden column, which begins life as a telephone interview.




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