Battling Bugs In Our Neighborhood Garden

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By Amy Miller

The yellow wormy things are fun to smush. They are easy to spot on the underside of leaves and you know you are protecting your bean plant every time you eviscerate one. After an hour in the scorching sun, though, you realize you may never find all the 1-millimeter larvae hiding in your bounty. And after two years of head to head battle with Mexican bean beetles, I personally was ready to consult the online experts.

Our growing season in New England is short. Very short. So if a plant is decimated, we have little chance to make it up. And I have learned that the bean beetle, native to southern Mexico, is particularly pesky in the east, where it thrives in the significant rainfall.

My assignment in the garden my family shares with three other neighbors was to find an organic and effective way (not an oxymoron, we still believe) to eradicate the Mexican bean bugs as well as equally destructive squash bugs.

For two years in a row, while our red peppers, lettuce, sage, and lemon basil blossomed, the ever-so-prolific pole beans and oh-so-easy zucchini plants have become skeletal victims of insect infestations.

The squash bugs, even more evil-looking than the bean bugs, start as clusters of tiny red eggs and turn into ugly gray creatures. We have tried to control them through a duck tape removal system. It’s quite lovely – not – to see eggs and bugs clustered frantically on duct tape.

Okay, so what do the virtual masses advise?

Bad news. For both pesky insects, the organic method most often recommended we have already tried: pick the darn things off. There was also the suggestion to cover the plants until they are pushing to be freed. By that time the plants will be well enough established the veggies might outlive the onslaught.

But there are other suggestions:

  • Introduce natural predatory insects or birds or bats. Nectar plants will encourage predatory wasps, a bird bath will welcome insect-eating birds, and a bat house will let bats know they are welcome.
  • Spray the leaves with soapy water or oil, both natural insecticides that will smother the bugs. These must be reapplied repeatedly during the season.
  • Surround or infiltrate your garden with mint or other strongly-scented herbs, marigolds or other plants the bugs are apt to avoid.
  • At the end of the season, pull out the plants and shake them over a wheelbarrow of hot, soapy water to minimize the number that hang out over the winter, ready to attack again next spring.

Read more EPA information on organic farming.

About the author: Amy Miller is a writer who works in the public affairs office of EPA New England in Boston. She lives in Maine with her husband, two children, eight chickens, dusky conure, chicken-eating dog and a great community.