So you’ve got your vegetable and flower transplants in the ground, their roots are reaching out into surrounding soil, and stems are starting to grow. Wait before you turn your back on them! A few common pests might be lurking.
Transplants are threatened by three kinds of pest damage this time of year: Stems might be chopped off at the soil line, leaves might be chewed, and/or leaves might be shot full of tiny holes. The most likely culprits are, respectively, cutworms, slugs, and flea beetles.
All three pests have cosmopolitan tastes, attacking practically any transplant you set out. Fortunately, they can be kept in check without pesticides.
The pest is yet to come
Slugs work at night
Chewed leaves are likely the handiwork of slugs, nocturnal creatures that especially love wet weather. These slimy creatures, from a couple of inches to half a foot or more in length, are basically snails without shells. Besides leaving ragged leaves, slugs make their nocturnal presence known the morning after by the shiny trails they leave behind.
Slugs avoid anything sharp or caustic against their slimy bodies, so if you sprinkle a circle of sharp sand, diatomaceous earth (the kind sold at garden suppliers, not the kind used for swimming pool filters) or wood ashes around your plants, a slug will think twice before crossing this barrier. Renew these barriers after rains, when slugs are most active.
You could take a flashlight into the garden at night and sneak up on slugs while they are at work. Mano a mano combat is difficult against these slimy creatures, though, so take along a saltshaker. Sprinkling salt on them will kill them.
Beer is also an effective poison bait for slugs. Put a shallow pan of beer on the ground, and almost immediately slugs will start inching to their demise. No need to open a fresh bottle each night; slugs are happy even with stale beer. Some gardeners report good results with only yeast plus water. Be aware that it is possible to attract more slugs to an area with a beer or yeasty attractant.
Cutworms do cut
Cutworms only take a few bites out of new transplants, which doesn’t seem like it would do much harm, except that those bites are at ground level. Attacked seedlings topple over, dead. Don’t confuse this damage with damping-off disease, which is caused by a fungus that also attacks at the soil line, but usually affects only very young, newly sprouted seedlings.
Cutworms can be repulsed by some sort of barrier, such as a cardboard collar around each plant. Toilet paper tubes cut a couple of inches long are convenient for this purpose. Surround each transplant and press the collar a bit into the soil
Another approach is to fool the cutworm, who, before taking a bite of a plant, wraps its body around the stem to make sure it is tender enough. Once the stems of vegetable and flower transplants toughen, cutworms leave them alone. I fool cutworms by sticking a toothpick in the ground right up against each of my transplants. The insects think they are embracing small, woody-stemmed trees, and leave the young plants alone.
Another method to foil cutworms (which I have not tried) is to trap them in foot-deep holes, made with a broom handle or inch-thick dowel. As daylight approaches, the cutworms climb into these holes for shelter. What they don’t realize is they are incapable of ever climbing back out.
Fortunately for us gardeners, the life of a cutworm is not easy, with threats from birds, ground beetles and certain small, parasitic wasps.
Cutworms often are few enough in number that if you scratch around in the ground near a damaged plant, you can find and kill the cutworm. Do this regularly and at some point even the toothpicks or collars will be unnecessary.
Look closely for flea beetles
Leaves perforated with small holes are a sure indicator of flea beetles, who especially like the leaves of cabbage, arugula, tomatoes and eggplants. The beetle itself is tiny, shiny and black, and will hop away as you approach it.
I read of a gardener who capitalized on this habit by building a contraption that looked like a high-riding skateboard, with a handle, which is pushed over a row of plants. A horizontal metal wire down across the front of the board disturbs each leaf — and the flea beetles — with each pass. Flypaper tacked on the underside of the board catches the beetles as they hop away. I’ve never tried this method.
I have thwarted flea beetles by covering plants with a lightweight “row cover,” a sheer material through which light, air and water can pass, but not pests.
Plants tolerate a certain amount of leaf damage from the likes of slugs and flea beetles, with remaining leaf areas becoming more efficient to make up for lost ones. Keep your plants healthy and they’ll usually grow vigorously enough to keep ahead of or outgrow such damage.
Spring is the perfect time to begin digging and growing a traditional vegetable or flower garden. These tips might make it easier for you.
Get an idea
Is this going to be a vegetable garden? An herb garden? A flower garden? If you choose to grow flowers, do you want annuals, which you must replant each year but which give color most of the summer? Or do you prefer perennials, which have a shorter bloom time but come back year after year? You can mix any of the above — after all, it’s your garden. Just one bit of advice: Start small. ’Tis better to succeed just a little than to fail grandly.
Pick a place
Almost all vegetables and most flowers need about six hours of full sun each day. Spend a day in your chosen spot, and watch how the sun moves across the space. It might receive more sun than you think.
But don’t despair if your lot is largely sunless; many plants tolerate shade. Check plant tags or ask the staff at your local garden center to find out how much sun a plant requires.
Put the garden where you can’t ignore its pleas for attention — outside the back door, near the mailbox, by the window you stare out when you dry your hair.
Place it close enough to a water spigot that you won’t have to drag the hose to the hinterlands.
Clear the ground
Get rid of the sod covering the area you plan to plant. If you want quick results, you can dig it out, but it’s easier to smother it with newspaper. A layer of five sheets is usually thick enough; double that if your lawn is Bermuda grass or St. Augustine grass. Spread a 3-inch layer of compost (or a combination of potting soil and topsoil) on the newspaper and wait. It’ll take about four months for the compost and paper to decompose.
If you don’t want to wait or if the area is covered with weeds such as creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea), you’re better off digging the sod out.
Improve the soil
Invariably, soil needs a boost. The solution is simple: organic matter. Add a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost, decayed leaves, dry grass clippings or old manure. If you’re digging the soil, till the organic matter into the soil. If you decide not to dig or are working with an established bed you can’t dig, leave the organic matter on the surface, and it will work its way into the soil in a few months.
To learn more about your soil, have a soil test done through your county cooperative extension office. They’ll lead you through the procedure: how much soil to send from which parts of the garden and the best time to obtain samples. Expect a two-week wait for their findings, which will tell you what your soil lacks and how to amend it.
Dig or don’t
Digging loosens the soil so roots can penetrate more easily. But digging when the soil is too wet or too dry can ruin its structure. Dig only when the soil is moist enough to form a loose ball in your fist but dry enough to fall apart when you drop it. Use a spade or spading fork to gently turn the top 8 to 12 inches of soil, mixing in the layer of organic matter you’ve applied. In vegetable gardens and beds of annual flowers, turn the soil only once a year — in the spring before you plant.