Critter Control

Coping with bad bugs without bad chemicals

This story first appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Edible Seattle 

Nothing is more annoying than discovering something other than ourselves is eating its way through the vegetable patch. Our every inclination is to launch an all-out assault with an eye toward complete eradication, but this is an unsustainable and dangerous approach loaded with severe collateral environmental damage. Instead, pick your backyard battles carefully. Aim to control and minimize pest damage in the least hazardous manner with these effective, economical and non-toxic solutions created from common household and kitchen cupboard staples.

Careful observation and awareness are an organic gardener’s most effective tools. Any task that requires me to be in the garden and doesn’t involve heavy lifting is fine by me, and it’s easily worth the mild effort it takes to keep your eye on the details. Then you can address any emerging problems early by inserting the following gentle controls, and avoid having to wage war later in the season.

Knowing the enemy is critical. A healthy, organic garden is home to many beneficial insects and visiting birds that are more than happy to feast on aphids, cutworms and other garden pests. Spend the afternoon working alongside a knowledgeable gardener to gain valuable on-the-ground training. Or get yourself a bug book with good photographs to help you sort the bad guys from the good guys out there. Yes, there’s even an app for that: search the iTunes App Store for Bugs and Insects.

Aphids are tiny green or black insects aboutthe size of a sesame seed, and they pesterby sucking the sap of garden plants.Relatively harmless in small numbers, theyare easily dispatched with a quick zip alongthe affected stem with pinched fingers,

gloved if you’re squeamish, or with a well-targeted blast from the garden hose. However, a serious infestation is capable of stunting and weakening growth and causing permanent damage to plants, and calls for bigger guns.

Add 1-2 tablespoons liquid soap ( I like Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint ), to 1 quart of water. Mix well, transfer to a spray bottle and thoroughly spray your affected plants. Your homemade insecticide works by desiccating soft-bodied insects like aphids, thrips and white fly, but you must actually score a direct hit on the pest for the solution to be effective.

Discovering a slimy trail where there once was a row of seedlings is aggravating; finding a tiny slug in the salad bowl is downright alarming and a real spoiler at the dinner table. When resident mollusks are feasting faster than you can plant, or when your family begins to fear the approach of dinnertime, it’s time to take action.

Slugs and snails cannot resist the allure of shallow, wide-mouthed disposable containers filled with beer and set at soil level in the garden. Eager to imbibe, they fall in and drown. You’ll understand why I recommend using disposable saucers when it’s time to collect and dispose of receptacles filled with dead slugs and stale beer; start saving those yogurt cups, tuna fish cans and sour cream containers.

Garlic- or onion-based sprays will repel and confuse insects that target plants through their highly developed sense of smell. Carrot rust fly and cabbage moths lay their eggs alongside host plants. Emerging larvae feed on the plants by tunneling into the roots or devouring the foliage