I tend to get lulled into a false sense of security when my plants germinate and start maturing. They sprouted, they’re growing, what could go wrong? A lot. A lot could go wrong.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of garden irritants and how to deal with them, but this is what we experienced this year and how we handled it or how we plan on handling it next year.
The Cucumber Beetle.
These tiny guys really don’t look like they can do much damage, but after doing some research for this post I realized they were possibly the culprit behind the cucumber plants I lost very suddenly through the summer. I always thought the issue with these beetles was that they just ate the leaves of your plant, but they actually do much more damage than just put holes in your leaves. Cucumber beetles are carriers for bacterial wilt, so when they munch on your plants they will pass that bacterial infection to your plant. This infection works rapidly and causes the entire plant to wilt and die.
I kept losing cucumber plants this year and couldn’t figure out why – one day I’d come out to harvest and it looked like all the life had been drained from the plant. I still don’t know if these beetles were the culprit, but the fact that it seemed to happen overnight makes me think they were. They also seemed to be infested with squash bug nymphs too, though, so who knows what did it.
Your cucumber plants aren’t the only plants susceptible to these pests. They also are drawn to squash and melons. I ran one off of my bush green beans the other day, though, so I wouldn’t trust that list only.
The Squash Bug
The squash bug is a true bug, also known as a leaf footed bug, and is often mistaken for a stink bug. If you were to hold them up side by side you’d notice that a mature squash bug has a more elongated body and has some other parkings on its sides than a stink bug.
If you find one squash bug on your plant, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed. It is however a good warning sign that you need to go ahead and start treating for them because where there’s one, there will be many. Large numbers of squash bugs are what will kill your plants. Like cucumber beetles, the visual damage is a wilted plant. The cause of the wilt is not the same, though. Squash bugs will literally drain plants dry of their sap, so if it looks like the life was sucked out of your plant after a squash bug infestation, it’s because the life WAS literally sucked right out of it. This is why one or two of these bugs aren’t very threatening – they may cause you to lose a few leaves, but the plant as a whole cannot be wiped out by one bug (unless it’s a seedling). Many bugs, however, equal many little mouthparts sucking the sap out of your plant and can quickly take whole plants down, especially during the heat of the summer when evaporation is working against you to begin with.
Identifying squash bugs is super fun (NOT) because even if you get past the similarities between them and stink bugs, your next hurdle is figuring out what they look like throughout their entire lifecycle! From what I found online, they have about 6 different stages from egg to adult. Here are the forms I’ve gotten a chance to snap pictures of:
Squash bugs, as I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, are most commonly found on squash plants (shocker). I’m starting to learn that they’ll eat almost anything, though. We’ve dealt with them on our zucchini, watermelon, and pumpkins the most, but we’ve also had to run them off of tomatoes and pepper plants later this summer. I also just discovered that the little bumps showing up all over my okra pods are squash bug scars.
The Squash Vine Borer
I still haven’t found one of these guys in person, but I know they’re there. Vine borers are look like a cross between a wasp and a moth in their adult stage, but it’s the larval stage that kills the plant. Vine borers will lay their eggs on the plant and when they hatch the worm chews its way into the plant and eats it from the inside out. You’ll identify vine borers from their damage more than their actual physical presence. Here’s a picture of what I can only assume is vine borer damage to one of my pumpkins.
When you see a lot of gummy crud that looks like chewed up plant material around the hole in your plant’s stem, you’ve got vine borers. The issue with vine borers, other than the chewing up the plant part, is that most squash plants have hollow stems. So getting inside one of these plants opens up passageways to the entire plant – a highway of food if you will. For more than one reason it’s important to cut your leaves off at the base of the plant so that it gives less of an opportunity for vine borers, rot, or bacteria to enter the plant. Keeping vegetation off the dirt as much as possible will do the trick too. We’re planning on staking our zucchinis next year because too much contact with the ground makes for lots of opportunities for mildew, pests, and disease.
Some gardeners are able to do a little plant surgery and cut the worms out, but I’ve never actually found the culprit when I try this. My last attempt was with the pumpkin pictured above and I couldn’t dig out any worms, so I just brought some fresh dirt over and packed the “wound” with it and for the moment the plant seems to be doing fine. That is also the next step if you are able to dig the worm out of the stem.
If you’re struggling hardcore with vine borers, here’s a good resource: https://www.growjourney.com/prevent-stop-squash-vine-borers/#.X1E8wHlKjIU
How to prepare before there’s a problem:
I’ve always heard that you should plant marigolds in your garden to help with pests, and that sunflowers are a good addition to the garden. But do you know WHY? I never did until this year. The fancy term for it is called trap cropping.
Trap cropping is adding specific plants to your garden either nearby, on the periphery, or right in the middle of your rows that common pests actually like better than the crops you planted for yourself!
Marigolds and sunflowers are both trap crops, along with many more! Marigolds attract nematodes, slugs, and thrips away from your plants, and sunflowers draw in the stink bugs, bugs, and others.
Here’s a few other trap crops I’ve discovered:
Apparently blue hubbard squash are great trap crops for cucumber beetles and squash bugs. Definitely adding a plant or two to my garden next year! Bakers Creek Heirloom seeds has them as well as a miniature version. Regular blue Hubbard squash apparently produce massive fruit – like 12+ pound squash!
Nasturtium attracts vine borers and cucumber beetles, and produce beautiful, edible flowers! I had already ordered a pack of these seeds for next year, but now I’m even more excited to grow them.
Dill will deter hornworms from your tomatoes, which are nasty green worms that will demolish your tomato crop. Dill will also attract swallowtail butterflies like milkweed attracts monarchs and it’s wonderful!! I watched so many swallowtail cats this year…and saved some from most certain chicken-doom.
Buckwheat attracts good insects, like pollinators, as well as acting as a trap crop for many pests. If you’ve got chickens it’s also a healthy crop to feed them!
This website has a longer list of trap crops, and where I found my information on the ones I touched on:
Sometimes the pests aren’t so tiny and you’ve got deer or rabbits taking out your garden. Planting wormwood will deter larger pests like deer and rabbits. Wormwood is also known as absinthe, and the seeds can’t be shipped to some states because it’s the very same plant that is used to make the alcoholic drink absinthe. It’s perfectly fine to grow for pest deterrents, however. Parts of this plant can be ingested but as a whole wormwood is toxic. It is said that in small amounts the plant has some healing properties such as pain relievers and helping GI issues.
Neem oil kills all soft-bodied insects. It comes from a tree, so it’s completely organic! If you spray it on immature insects, it stops them from being able to continue their maturation, which also means they won’t reproduce. You’re playing the long game, but still gets the job done. It is also a fungicide and bactericide, so things like powdery mildew can be treated with Neem.
Only use neem oil in the evenings, though, or you’ll kill pollinators since bees and butterflies are also soft-bodied insects.
BT stands for bacillus thuringiensis and is a common soil bacteria that will knock out your worm problem. It is harmless to humans but infects and kills things like hornworms and vine borer larvae.
Diatomaceous earth is also an organic method of pest control. It’s made of ground up diatoms, which are little microscopic algae that produce a silica shell for protection. Once they die, the silica shell is all that remains and they can be collected and ground to create this abrasive powder. DE has alot of uses, including being used as a dewormer for chickens, but in the garden it serves to deter and/or kill pests with softer bodies. Glass is mostly made of silica, so think about how a layer of broken glass on the ground around your porch would deter someone from trying to get to your front door. (Don’t try that though…I know coronavirus is making us desperate to avoid other people but that’s too far.)
And then sometimes you find yourself with a pest that just won’t quit, and although it isn’t the organic way to go, I will always fall back on using Seven to get rid of pests if the other methods don’t work. It isn’t the popular thing to do, but I personally wash my produce before I eat it anyway, and if your crop still has a ways to go before harvest time it’s got a lot of rain and watering to wash off the Seven before it lands on your table.