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Grow Your Own Food: Bugs, Bugs and More Bugs

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jul 18, 2013 4:00PM

Photo credit: corydalus

If there's one thing every gardener dreads, it's bugs. No matter what the species, little creepy crawlers eating your plants is just about the worst thing in the world. You've nursed those little babies up from seeds, and now darn nature is coming back to take over. This year, with our strange weather, we've had some particular challenges as far as pests. Luckily, we've got our resident garden expert Sara Gasbarra to take us through it. We asked her about some of the bug problems we've been facing, in hopes that they'd be useful to any local gardener.

1) My plants are full of holes! What do I do?

One of the most visible signs of an infestation is giant gaping holes in leaves, especially the leaves of broadleaf plants. It can be incredibly disheartening to go to bed with a whole plant and wake up to thin little leaf spindles. Luckily, not all hope is lost. Gasbarra explains:

"The first line of organic defense is foliar feeding every two weeks with fish emulsion and garlic concentrate - its a stinky, stinky concoction, but it works. Foliar feeding with fish emulsion provides an incredible nutrient boost to the plants (and healthy plants are less susceptible to bug infestations than unhealthy plants) and garlic acts as a natural bug deterrent."

2) The undersides of my plants are covered with sticky little white things. Help!

You've probably got aphids, or at least aphid eggs. These nasty critters spring up fast and take over - and because they live underneath the leaves, sometimes you don't even notice until they're already in abundance. What should we do?

"For aphids, you can spray with Safer Soap—its organic. You spray every part of the plant: stems, leaves, top and bottom. I often take a damp cloth and wipe the undersides as much as I can before I spray. Keep applying every few days until the bugs are gone. Make sure to watch the rest of your garden to ensure they aren’t party hopping from one tomato to the next. Safer Soap can be found at any garden center in a spay bottle."

Another tip? If you have hard, driving rains, often that can kill aphid populations. Luckily, thi is what happened to us - two storms, plus a round of soap spray in between, prevented our tomatoes from becoming bug food.

3) My garden boxes are filled with tiny little hovering bugs, but my plants seem ok. What's up?

You've got fungus gnats, the most annoying, hard-to-kill things in the entire world. Our garden is almost totally infested with them. They came in the soil (Miracle Grow is notorious for being infested before it leaves the store) and are a pain in the neck.

"They are more than I nuisance than anything. They are little gnats - they LOVE this damp rainy weather, so there are a lot more of them this year. They lay eggs and live in the damp soil - but I generally don’t worry about them. Fish emulsion can often control their population."

Luckily, they don't do any damage. We've had great success with gnatrol, a bacterial agent you can order online. It won't kill the gnats, but it gets into the soil and kills their eggs. But, with really wet weather, there's not much you can do. Let your soil dry (if possible) and then try to treat them.

4) My tomatoes have blight. Am I doomed?

If the leaves on your tomatoes are turning yellow and dying, you might have blight. It's depressing.

"There’s often not much than can be done. Just keep feeding them fish emulsion. Some things are in our control, other things are not. The best thing you can do is add nutrients - fish emulsion is the magic elixir. Just make sure you spray on an overcast day!"

If it's contained to a small area, you can try to cut off the infected leaves and stop it from spreading. Fast-growing tomato varieties will often outgrow it, and the tops of the plants will stay green and healthy.

5) At what point do you (if ever) give up and go non-organic to save the plants?
"I will always throw up the white flag and pull the infested plant before I use a non organic method. Sometimes its just too late. I had a tomato plant this season that was covered in aphids from top to bottom. The rest of the tomatoes around it were healthy. The idea of using a chemical on them was horrifying and I was paranoid that if I didn’t surrender to the battle, the bugs would soon spread, so I pulled it. There is always some sort of failure in gardening every season and its better to sacrifice one than risk losing a large part of your garden."

Because we have a porch garden we hang out on, we're not quite as purist. Insecticidal soap and garlic spray take care of most things, but if you're really concerned with saving your plants, try a stronger organic pesticide. Don't do it unless you have to, and be sure to read the instructions for any chemical effects on fruit and edible leaves.

Best of luck with your pests!

Previously in the Grow Your Own Food series

5 gardening tips for early spring

5 tips for perfect soil

What a strange summer it's been.