Stress is a fact of life – everyone feels stressed at one time or another, and we all have ways of dealing with it. Stressors like weather, insects, chemicals and other environmental factors cause stress in your plants. The basic fight or flight option exists among people and other mammals, but plants don’t have that choice. They can’t run away, so they just have to try to cope where they are planted.
The unseasonably hot and dry weather we had this spring has been causing stress in many of our plants. Like people, plants under stress are more susceptible — to disease, pests and general lack of enthusiasm. While plants do have natural ways of coping — some give off chemical scents that repel pests, others become more thick-skinned and conserve moisture — there are things we as gardeners can do to help them.
The first, and best, choice is always to avoid toxic chemicals in the garden. The common “pest control” options for sale will not only kill a few pests but will also kill the beneficial insects that are working hard to help your plants survive. They will also work against the plants’ natural defenses by masking the scents of their chemical repellents. And, of course, it isn’t healthy for you, your kids, pets and neighbors to coat your outdoor world with poisons.
Once you’ve made that choice, the next step is to encourage those beneficial insects to do their job. Instead of trying to wipe out every bug on the face of the Earth, try to recognize the helpers and distinguish them from the pests. Many bugs we think of as scary are really good garden pest controls. Bees, of course, but also wasps, spiders, tarantulas, praying mantis and even tiny little nematodes.
Some of these critters bring out the killer instinct in people, but try to control that. Wasps will eat up the web worms in your trees if you open up their webs so the wasps can get to them. Wasps also feed poisonous spiders to their young, thereby controlling their population. There are a lot of different kinds of wasps, but each has his favorite insect meal, and all are helpful.
Spiders help control all kinds of flying insect pests by catching them in their webs. Who hasn’t walked into the garden to suddenly find yourself in a suspended maze between tomato cages? These traps help keep populations of flying insects under control — flies, mosquitoes, moths, beetles and more. Spiders start helping control pests as soon as pests begin appearing. Many overwinter in your garden without you ever seeing them. Indoors spiders eat roaches, clothes moths, mosquitoes and other insects you’d rather not have around. Garden spiders are not poisonous, but you want to leave them alone anyway.
If you want a spider to play with, consider the tarantula. Big hairy spiders that look exceedingly scary, tarantulas are often best pals with youngsters who love finding them and capturing them for pets. Tarantulas in the yard feed on cicadas, crickets, grasshoppers, sow bugs, caterpillars and beetles. They move slowly and generally live underground. Sometimes they come up to hunt or look around when the weather is rainy or when you are watering. There is no reason to kill a tarantula.
While you are working on finding a balance of predator and prey in your garden, keep in mind that bugs go through a few stages of metamorphosis, and the young rarely look like the mature bug. Just as people would most likely not recognize you from your baby pictures, young beneficial insects rarely look like mature ones. The milkweed assassin bug, for example, often appears on or around the milkweed we are planting to support butterflies in the garden. Milkweed is attractive to aphids, and ladybugs, lacewings and milkweed assassin bugs love nothing more than a meal of aphids. The milkweed assassins apparently overwintered in my garden, and this spring when the aphids appeared on my artichoke, the young were out in force. Looking a little like bright red lobsters, they were on the job in no time, and they keep the aphid population under control. They transform into the mature milkweed assassins who keep up the good work for months and move from plant to plant in the garden, wherever aphids are being served.
Remember, they will not eat them all at one sitting. They want lunch tomorrow too. They control the pests, not obliterate them, and control is what keeps the pests from damaging your plants.
One problem with metamorphosis is that some pest nymphs closely resemble beneficial nymphs. The nymph of leaf-footed bugs is also bright red. It is hard to tell them apart out of context, but if you notice where they are and what’s happening around them, it is easier. It is unusual to see leaf-footed and assassin nymphs on the same kind of plant.
Leaf-footed bugs and their relatives the stink bugs are terrible pests that will sting your tomatoes and make them inedible. They also destroy other food crops like berries, peas, eggplants, cucumbers and melons, as well as some ornamentals and trees. So if you see the adults or the nymphs, you want to kill them. Generally you will find assassin bug nymphs where you have already seen the adults — around the milkweed for example. You also can usually see aphids at work and the ants that often accompany aphids. Rarely do you see adults and nymphs at the same time.
Leaf-footed bugs, on the other hand, often attack in packs of adults and nymphs close together on a plant they like. Usually you see them in the height of summer when the plants are stressed by heat and drought. Tomatoes are particular favorites, and when the plants become too stressed and the weather is too hot for the fruit to set, it is time to just remove the worn-out plants from the garden. If you decide to do that, kill as many of the pests as you can in the process by spraying with soapy water, dipping into soapy water, smashing with fingers or other organic methods.
Keep your eyes open and your gloved fingers ready. Encourage beneficials and your gardening experience will be happier and more successful.