Battered By Bugs

THE REAL DIRT

July 31, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

During The Big Freeze last winter, my garden suffered heavy losses: two azaleas, a rhododendron and a tender rosemary plant that I should have mulched better. The ice buried everything, including a cache of fresh carrots that I'd left underground.

When I finally rescued them, the poor, limp carrots weren't fit to eat. Even the rabbits turned up their noses.

The Big Freeze took its toll on the garden, but I took the casualties in stride, consoling myself with cheery thoughts of spring. For instance, while chipping through the ice toward the carrots, it dawned on me: Bugs must get clobbered in weather like this.

Eureka! My spirits soared.

Certainly the harsh winter would affect the insect population, especially those that nag the garden. I pictured colonies of cabbage worms shivering in the soil . . . armies of aphids deserting in the cold . . . families of flea beetles packing up for Florida.

Or so I thought. Would that it were true.

It's summer, and my prayers weren't answered. The bugs came back in droves. Worse, they seem hungrier after such nasty weather. The Big Freeze didn't kill the little creeps, it only piqued their appetites.

Cutworms devour young seedings the moment they emerge. Potato beetles gobble their favorite plants. Japanese beetles attack the okra, chewing the leaves and weakening the plants.

Winter didn't faze these insects at all. In my garden, the only pests whose numbers are down are garden slugs. It figures. Slow-moving slugs are easy to catch. Try trapping the flea beetles that are peppering the tomato leaves with pinholes.

Several months ago, the yard was filled with pretty white butterflies fluttering about in the warm spring air. These cute things would have you think they just flew out of a Disney movie. In fact, they are cabbage moths whose larvae can destroy a head of cabbage faster than you can say coleslaw.

Everywhere I look, I see trouble. Insects that fly, hop, crawl and burrow to munch on my flowers and vegetables. Tiny cucumber beetles spread a bacterial disease that can wipe out entire crops. The squash vine borer is the only organism I know (man included) that can bring a zucchini harvest screeching to a halt.

I fight these pests with common sense and a wealth of organic weapons. Some insects, like the Mexican bean beetle, are easily hand-picked. My hands are stained brown from squishing the bronze-colored creatures.

Many insects are held in check with natural sprays and powders, such as pyrethrums, rotenone, sabadilla dust and diatomaceous earth. Sometimes I outwit the hungry bugs without resorting to sprays at all. Covering plants with floating row covers (trade name: Reemay) keeps many pests at bay.

Most sap-sucking, leaf-chewing insects I can deal with. Those that I can't include earwigs and thrips.

Everywhere I look, I see earwigs, ugly brown bugs with pincers on their backs. I've found earwigs in the garden, the mailbox, the basement and my underwear, which was hanging on the clothesline.

In fact, an earwig just ran across the keyboard of my home computer, disappearing between the letters H and J. Excuse me while I try to squash it. HJHJHJHJ.

Horticulturists call earwigs beneficial insects because they eat decaying vegetation. Alas, my earwigs favor live plants. Zinnias, hollyhocks, lettuce and dahlias. I've emptied my arsenal and still they keep coming. Now the earwigs are inside the house. HJHJHJHJ.

On the other hand, I've never actually seen a thrip. Yet I know they're here because my wife's roses are ruined. As each bud opens, the tips turn brown as if singed by a flame.

Meg returned one such rose to the garden center where she'd purchased the plants. "Thrips!" the manager exclaimed, recoiling horror and handing her a bottle of murky liquid. The stuff contains a polysyllabic chemical which, when released in the air, destroys thrips and all life as we know it. Except for the roses. At least, that's how I read the label. I'm afraid to touch the bottle, much less open it.

The thrips live on. But so do I. And that darn earwig. HJHJHJHJ.

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