I have heard that you know you have a healthy garden when you have a hard time keeping the bugs out of it. If that’s the case, then mine is abundantly healthy. I have baby grasshoppers in droves, swarms of ants, so many different types of beetles I can’t even begin to name them, and let’s not even mention the tiny white snails. I have worms, flies, aphids, and ladybugs. I have wasps, caterpillars, moths, butterflies, and spiders.
Kirabug amuses me every time she squeals in her high-pitched child voice and tells me, “Awww! It’s so cute!” The first caterpillar I picked off the turnip leaves was named Munchy because it was munching on our turnips. The second one was named tiny because it was soooo tiny! After that she started squealing in glee as I launched them across the yard because I decided I wasn’t going to walk the hundred yards to the field to humanely deposit them in the thistle. After a dozen or so launchings, I started collecting them in my palm and dumped them all under the bird feeder (right next to a thistle bush, in case the caterpillars actually managed to escape the birds).
I’m trying not to spray my garden with chemicals. Partly it’s a gross factor. The whole point of growing your own food is to keep them chemical-free, right? Part of not spraying insecticides all over the place, though, is that by killing off the bad bugs, you also kill off the good bugs. Beneficial bugs do things like eat the bad bugs eating your fruits and veggies (ladybugs like to munch on aphids!) and pollinate your flowers (bees help your squash and cucumbers actually produce, well, squash and cucumbers). So you have to be careful with what you do put on your plants to kill your problem bugs.
For example, I have a huge ant problem. I discovered the ant problem right about the time my new neighbor moved in, and he was just sure they were fire ants. Being from Up North where fire ants don’t exist, I’m rightfully terrified of them. They’re on the same list as scorpions, rattlesnakes, and brown recluse and black widow spiders, even though only half those critters can actually seriously injure or kill you. However, after having worked in my garden and stepped in these ant piles a few times now, I’m pretty confident they’re not fire ants. If they were, I wouldn’t be here to write this post!
So, I’ve tried a few things. One of the big things I’ve read is to use food grade diatomaceous earth. The “food grade” part of that is very important, as diatomaceous earth can be harmful if breathed in or consumed by animals larger than insects, including humans. We still have a few random semi-feral cats around, and my neighbor has a dog that mostly stays outdoors “guarding” our property, so that is something I really have to take into consideration, too. It works, sometimes. Mostly, the ants just move their outer doors. One time, I sprinkled the diatomaceous earth over a line of hills crossing my sidewalk between my garden beds, and the next day, they just built new hills over the top of the diatomaceous earth. A friend at church told me my DE was too compacted, and I needed to sift it to make it less clumpy. I actually think it’s already pretty fluffy, but I guess sifting it won’t hurt.
I try to be sparing with the diatomaceous earth, though, because like chemical pesticides, it hurts more than the bad bugs. I save it for around the windows and doors, mostly, or when I have a persistent problem. So I’ve also read you can use cornmeal to get rid of ants. I tried that once, too. It worked, also, briefly. I only tried it once, though. Shortly after I tried it, they came back. I went looking for ant remedies again, and I found an article that said cornmeal actually just feeds the ant babies. So they go away because you’re feeding them, not killing them, unless you’re adding poison to the cornmeal. So that’s why cornmeal is a short-term solution.
One day, I turned out my salad bed. I spent two hours digging out this bed. I pulled out the mesclun and Tom Thumb lettuces, spinach, corn salad, and all sorts of weeds I had let come up. I tilled it, added a bag of compost, tilled it some more, pulled out more grass that had been turned by the tiller, and tilled some more. I saw some ants on the boards, but nothing more than I usually do working the garden. I planted an oregano and stevia, then dug a hole for my thyme, uncovering the exact spot where the little buggers had laid all their baby eggs. I’d spent two hours in this small bed, and all of a sudden they decided me sticking a shovel directly into the hole was the time to start moving those eggs? The tiller wasn’t enough of a clue? Definitely not fire ants, by the way.
So I planted the sage, my other oregano, and the rosemary to give the ants some time to move out. I went back inside and drank a lemonade. Two hours later, I decided it was time to build the ants a swimming pool. The ants and their eggs floated to the top and then kept chugging along. So I gave them a couple more hours. Before the sun went down, I sprinkled some more of that DE into the hole. The next morning, I gave them another bath. Nothing was working, and they just weren’t moving those eggs. I really wanted the thyme to go in this spot in my garden bed. It was going to leave a gaping bare spot if I didn’t. So I called my mom. After an hour of chatting with neither of us really coming up with anything, until we’re saying goodbye. Then she says, “Alright, I’ll talk to you later. If nothing else works, you know you can always sprinkle a little cayenne on there.”
Well, duh. I had actually done that before, too. Actually, I had used cinnamon, but the principle is the same. The two spices disrupt their sense of smell, and the ants lose their way. Or I thought I had read that somewhere. Anyway, the cayenne worked, I planted the thyme, and we all lived happily ever after. Especially the ants, because apparently they’ve all now hatched based on the number of miniscule ants I now have scurrying around the concrete whenever I go water the garden. Anyway, if you’re looking for even more ideas on how to eradicate ants, check out this page here: Getting Rid of Ants by the Frugal Life.
The caterpillars and grasshoppers are something else, though. Ants, in and of themselves, aren’t terribly destructive. They harvest aphids, which is a bit annoying, but they aerate the soil, which is good. So I don’t mind the ants. But the caterpillars and grasshoppers destroyed my turnips leaves overnight. When they started in on my pea plants, I really took notice.
Something else is eating up my pea plants, though. I thought it was some kind of leafminer, but when I noticed snail tracks on my basil, I put natural pine mulch down the next day. No new snail tracks. I still have snails, I’m sure. There are only a gazillion tiny little white snails out there. I usually pull two or three out of each bed when I pull the grass out each day. They are as proliferous as the grass, it seems anyway. But them seem to be leaving my basil alone. For now.
But there is only so much I can do before I just throw my hands up in the air and let Mother Nature have her way. Sometimes that is for the best. Wasps will lay eggs directly on caterpillars. I didn’t want to kill their nests, but they kept building them right next to my doors. I do have limits. And I’ve always been friendly to my spiders and try really hard not to destroy their hard work, like letting this mother spider keep her nest in my carrot leaves. I found her when I pulled up the turnips last week. We might have issues when it comes time to harvest those carrots, though.
Or noticing this Eastern Bluebird using the rebar stake I planted to keep my sunflowers in line as a watching post. Maybe it’s a good thing I dropped and broke the feeder hanging in the tree out in the yard. It’s brought the birds back to the feeder by the house, and by happy coincidence, they’ve noticed the new perches I have in the garden beds and all the lovely bugs I’ve provided.
Part of organic gardening is planting things to attract beneficial bugs, deter bad bugs, or be trap crops. My turnips were really sort of a trap crop, and I have a couple of sacrificial radishes out there lingering, partly to flower to attract pollinators, partly to keep the bad bugs there and away from the things I’d like to keep harvesting. We’re just starting to get into tomato season, though, so I might have to resort to some sort of soapy spray to deter the squash bugs, but I’m hoping to find some other solution. Short of picking the little orange crawlies off by hand, I haven’t found a truly organic solution to those little buggers yet. I’m sure that is next on my list.