December 20th, 2011

What’s That Bug?

My vegetable garden is crawling with all kinds of insects. Should I be worried? I’m new to this and I don’t want to use chemicals if I don’t really need to.

blog-dougThere are millions of species of insects, so don’t feel bad if you don’t recognize them all. Most insects have no direct impact on the plants in your garden, even when you see them crawling on a leaf. Some insects provide valuable services by pollinating fruits and vegetables or by preying on pest insects. A few—the minority, really—are pests that can reduce the yield of crops or spoil the appearance of ornamental plants.

In my garden, instead of focusing on every insect that passes through, I keep an eye out for insect damage to leaves and fruits. When I spot some damage, my next step is to identify the culprit. Books, websites, and experienced gardeners (including the ones who are helping each other with gardening dilemmas in the discussion forums on this website) are helpful in identifying pests. Once I know what is causing the problem, I can do some online research to discover the best course of action. Some pests cause only superficial damage that doesn’t affect crop yields or quality. Many can be controlled through nontoxic means—a shot of water from the hose, hand-picking, or sticky traps, for example.

Once you know what insect pests are common in your region, you can prepare for them with growing techniques that protect your harvest: using floating row covers to exclude insects, for example, or timing crops to avoid the worst periods of pest pressure. As a last resort, you might want to consider spraying with an organic pest control, such as insecticidal soap or neem oil. Read the product label to make sure it is appropriate for both the plant and the insect involved, and take care to protect beneficial insects from the spray.  —Doug Hall

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