Updated: Aug 29
I spend most early mornings in my garden. I pour a cup of my favorite coffee-flavored protein drink into an oversized mug that my sister-in-law got me and stroll through the greenery and blooms, admiring how the squash flowers bask in the gentle morning glow and how the bees delight in them, too. I love watching my flowers bloom - ornamentals and fruiting flowers alike. My dog Reese trails behind me, smelling all of the flowers that I smell. I think she's curious what all the fuss is about, and perhaps likes to partake in the ritual.
In April while I was walking through my roses, gratefully smelling the new blooms, I approached my favorite rose shrub with a citrus scent - not yet blanched by the summer heat. I leaned in to admire it, only to find that the green stem looked like it was flaking. No... it wasn't flaking... it was bugs. Green bugs that were slightly twitching.
I was horrified. Horrified that there are several insects inches from my nose, and that my beautiful rose shrub was covered in something foreign to me that appeared to be taking over.
Tackling insect infestations early on is key to winning the battle, so I suggest regularly monitoring your garden. I've visited with multiple neighbors and friends who don't think they have unwanted insects, but when we take a close look together, we can normally find some. The odds are that if you are creating a hospitable environment for your plants to thrive in (and likely one that you equally enjoy spending time in as well), insects will enjoy it too.
In the spirit of being able to act quickly, I hope that this post can serve as a guide for you with some of the insects you may find in your garden so you can swiftly deter any unwelcome ones. Use this article as a starting point and then research further from there. What I'll share here is what I've found in research, advice from local experts and fellow gardeners, and my own gardening experience.
It's worth noting that not all pesticides are created equal. I suggest treatments that are earth-kind and organic. In this post, I'll share methods that I've learned from our local extension office and read about in books written by growers that I admire. I am a HUGE fan of the safer soap brand. Their main ingredient in the soap I use to get rid of unwanted insects is seaweed, which has zero negative effects on humans, pets or even the good insects that are helping you defeat the bad ones. It's effective and it actually smells good!
Now, let's dive into some of the insects I've discovered in my garden and how I've kept the unwelcome ones at bay.
This year was my first year having roses. As Stirling Macaboy says inThe Ultimate Rose Book, "Queens tend to have enemies; it is one of the problems of queenhood. The Queen of Flowers is no exception..." Aphids are the insects I referred to above, on my Duchesse de Brabant rose shrub, that I found en masse when leaning over to enjoy its sweet fragrance.
The green ones in the photo below are the aphids. They suck the sap from new growth. Aphids leave honeydew behind, which attracts ants. You'll often see them together.
This is another round of aphids that tackled my morning glory. The plant was struggling for a while, but with some adjustments it started to thrive and have new growth. Aphids jumped on the new growth as soon as it appeared.
And more recently, here is another bout of aphids. I was not as quick to recognize these ones, as they were darker than the green ones I'd become familiar with.
For the third round (zucchini plant, which spread to squash and even my sunflowers), I was out of safer soap and the solution wouldn't arrive in the mail for a couple of weeks, so I opted for fertilome at the local nursery. It's not my favorite brand because it's smelly, but it's considered to be an environmentally safe product and could help me jump on this issue quickly. Fertilome uses neem oil, which is effective against aphids. It's important with any of these soaps or oils to spray both sides of the leaves and to reapply regularly until the aphids are gone.
Marigolds help repel aphids, so I've added those throughout the garden, as well. Aren't they lovely? I'm delighted with their ability to hold up in the summer heat! I have them in hanging baskets on the cattle panel trellis, and also planted near the base of vegetables so they can be on the same drip line and near areas of interest for aphids.
Psyllids, also known as plant lice, are host specific meaning they choose one type of plant to focus on. The psyllids that visited my garden took to the cabbage. It was not easy to identify them from the photo below. Our local extension agent asked me to put one against a white piece of paper, so we could better see what it looked like with the contrast.
That made the identification much easier. The recommended pesticide for psyllids was also safer soap.
The holes left by cabbage worms is often the first sign that they are there. When you turn the leaf with holes over you'll likely find one, if not multiple worms. Bacillus Thuringiensis (commonly referred to as B.t.) mixed with water in a pump sprayer will get rid of these guys. It took a couple of applications to completely get rid of them. I've also seen them on my mint and sunflower leaves.
We've decided cabbage is not going into our garden rotation next year. It had the most pests and the smallest harvest, considering the amount of space it takes up. Sure was pretty though!
Tomato hornworms blend in surprisingly well with the color of the tomato leaves, so despite their size they can sometimes be overlooked. In the photo below, the hornworm's mouth is on the bottom and the tail pointing up showcases the horn. The horn on them looks ferocious and they will wave it at you while you hold them, but their sting is not a threat.
We physically remove these and discard them with the stomp of a foot. It took me a while to get used to that... but if you don't they will absolutely eat all of the foliage on your plant! Our yellow bell pepper (in the middle, below) lost all of its leaves overnight to just one of these guys. (They clearly like peppers, too!)
Squash bugs look similar to stink bugs. Both have an odor when smushed. I read through the University of California Ag site that stink bugs are distinguished as wider and rounder, and also put off said smell when threatened. So, ours were likely squash bugs! At first we just found one. I didn't think much of it... until I found their eggs and a neighboring leaf with a not-so-small platoon of them. We have a beautiful squash garden this year and they were delighting in multiple varieties, particularly the zucchini.
I read that while difficult to control with pesticide, EndALL safer soap can be a solution so I ordered that. It would take a couple of weeks to arrive, so in the meantime we extracted them by hand immediately. I held a yard bag and my husband pulled them off the plants and put them in the bag. For leaves that had eggs or a large number of bugs, we snipped the whole leaf and discarded it. They started to slowly scatter to surrounding leaves as we gathered them, so this felt like quite a task.
While I read that the squash bug is not toxic to humans, they did stain my husband's fingers. He removed more than 100 of them from the garden so perhaps the skin irritation was related to the number of insects he handled.
Recommendations for preventing squash bugs include clearing away old vines and using a trellis. We did these things and still encountered them.
These are my least favorite, y'all! Last year during a very hot, dry summer they decided to appear and rapidly multiply on our struggling heirloom tomato. Unfortunately, they recently made an appearance again this year.
With this insect more than any, early detection is key. By the time you spot one adult female, she could have already laid 600 eggs.
In a podcast with Jane Perrone featuring Dr. Cloyd, they talked about how mealybugs can appear on most any plant (for me, it's often vegetables). They aggregate in the "elbow" areas. Note that this info sheet he put together refers to them multiple times as "cryptic", ha! I'd agree. But more importantly it has some really helpful information about their life cycle and how to manage them. Plants that are more than 50% covered by mealybugs are a lost cause. In those scenarios, isolate and dispose of the plant. Most insecticides aren't effective on the eggs or the adults, so they key is to apply insecticide every few weeks (which I believe is in the hopes of catching them in the crawler phase, if I understand correctly).
Since I caught them early this year and have not seen the population get out of control, I mostly manage with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol - wiping them off the plant and disposing of them in a grocery bag. This is not a realistic approach for large crops or for managing a large infestation, but it has been managing their presence in our garden so far this year.
I encourage you to check out Jane Perrone's mealybug episode summary where you can find a lifecycle video, learn about a species of ladybird called the "mealybug destroyer" (cryptolaemus montrouzieri), and see more of Dr. Cloyd's overview and recommendations.
I find ants on my blackberry and squash flowers and also on my artichoke plant. They don't seem to do any harm. I take their presence as an indicator to check for honeydew producing bugs like aphids, but other than that I take no further action.
Ladybird Beetle (Ladybugs)
As mentioned above, ladybirds have helped me out multiple times this year in tackling aphids! It's no wonder they're considered a good luck symbol. They really are a pleasure to have around. Sometimes you can find them at your local nursery, and if not then you can order them from Bug Sales via Amazon. I've been advised to release them in the late evening while it's not too hot, and at the base of the plant as they like to crawl up to find their food.
Lady Beetle Larvae are particularly effective at eating SEVERAL aphids! Here are a few that are not quite yet adults yet. They look very different from the adult lady beetles:
Of all of the insects in my yard, this one might be a new favorite of mine. We've all heard stories of the male being eaten in the mating process, and there is truth to that. However Betty Gray with Aggie Horticulture shares that this behavior is thought to be observed in the lab more than in nature. One thing we do know for sure is that this insect is a true ninja - even eating mosquitoes! Unfortunately, they also eat good insects. But considering the battles I sometimes wage with unwanted insects in my garden, I'll take those odds.
I LOVE POLLINATORS! Dr. Stein with Aggie Horticulture explains in his watermelon overview that bees must visit a female flower 15x with pollination from male flower for the fruit to properly form. I've always known how important pollinators were, however this year I have a whole new appreciation for them with growing a wider range of squash and melons.
Check out this Green Bee that visited a bolting vegetable flower in early April! If I've identified it correctly, this is a variety that is native to Texas.
If we had more space, I'd get a bee hive like the kind that Lind Family Farms makes by hand. For now, I try to make sure pollinators feel welcome in our yard with a smaller hive like the one below. It appears to be sold out on Amazon, however similar ones are available. This also looks like it could be a pretty easy DIY if you want a fun activity to do with your kids!
What insects have you found in your garden? What is your favorite organic treatment plan for unwanted insects? What preventative measures do you take to avoid infestations? How do you attract desirable insects?