Ever noticed how varmints always go for the best, choicest, and/or rarest of your plants? Hybrid daylilies, never the orange ones growing wild along the roadside, or expensive new variegated hostas, not the plain green-leafed one you got from your grandmother's garden. I plant a garden. The critters think it is a salad bar. And it doesn't have to be moderate to large furry mammals such as rabbits, woodchucks, and deer. All sorts of creepy crawlies come to dine.
Some have unsightly results but are not killers. Leaf miners for example, bugs so small they fit between the upper and lower surface of the leaf. They make twisty whitish tunnels on columbine leaves but the plants still grow strongly. Slugs on the other hand, chewed my variegated columbines all the way back to bare stalks this year. I'm pleased to report that the plants were able to regenerate, but the new leaves are small. This severe setback is bound to slow the overall vitality of these special plants that I'd raised from seed. Perennials should be in vigorous growth right now. After all, it is the height of summer and we've had good rain. Which is also why we have slugs. They thrive in wet weather. Another planting was completely destroyed. I used coleus 'Kiwi Fern', one of those fern-like lacy-leafed red coleus with a gold and green plectranthus that had red stems to complement the coleus. It should have been gorgeous. Except the slugs ate the coleus to the point where I can't even find them. What's a poor gardener to do?
The first thing is to grow healthy plants. Insect pests home in on weakened plants: stressed from recent transplanting, lack of water, lack of nutrients. How you fertilize is also important. Nitrogen (the first of the three numbers listed on any fertilizer package) promotes leaf growth. And too much nitrogen results in lush succulent foliage that the bugs (and rabbits, woodchucks, and deer) prefer to eat.
Another important point is to know when your problem pests are likely to attack and what the options are. My friend and neighbor Carol Clarke has a big vegetable garden. She grows potatoes. Colorado potato beetles are always a threat. Carol has several courses of action. She can crush the small orange egg masses on the underside of the leaves. After the larvae hatch in late spring to early summer she could spray with neem oil, a botanical insecticide. The adults can be controlled with a synthetic insecticide containing methoxychlor and carbyl. Or, she could plant gene-modified potatoes that have Bt incorporated in their chromosomes. Since the potatoes have bacillus thuringensis in their leaves any potato beetle larvae that chew on their leaves will die.
These various strategies escalate from a simple, low-tech solution to a relatively easy, still organic method, to a potentially harmful response to the problem (only use chemicals registered for potatoes, and carefully follow directions) and finally all-out warfare. Carol doesn't eat what she calls "Frankenfood," and, especially in her vegetable garden and small orchard, prefers to follow organic methods. Her preferred technique is to squash the egg masses. This year she mashed over 100. Timing is critical, because if she is too late, the eggs will hatch. From experience she knows when to start patrolling. In order to gain this sort of expertise, it is important to keep records from year to year.
You could just scribble on a calendar, and keep them from year to year. If you have this "remind me" information in an organized manner it will be easier to act in a timely manner. That's where a garden journal comes in handy. The Garden Keeper is a very nice, user-friendly system in a handy zippered binder for recording all sorts of personalized information about your garden. There is a section for tasks - what to do and when to do it. That's important for all sorts of garden chores, like squashing potato beetles. Another section for records lets you document weather, pests, maintenance and more. Plot keeper has some simple suggestions and graph paper for plotting what's planted where. Plant keeper actually has slots where plant tags slot in, for records of what plants you bought. You can order the Garden Keeper, and extra refills, from Gardener's Supply Company at 128 Intervale Road, Burlington, VT 05401, e-mail them at <firstname.lastname@example.org>, or visit their web site, www.gardeners.com for an on-line visit to their catalog.
Some garden problems are easily avoided. For example: perhaps mildew, a fungus leaf disease, is a problem in your garden. Fungal problems are especially difficult to control. Simply by planting beebalm 'Jacob Cline' with hummingbird-attracting red flowers, or Phlox 'David' with moon-garden white flowers, you avoid the problem since both of these cultivars are mildew-resistant. Select a site with good air circulation for mildew-prone plants, and avoid watering in the evening when leaves would stay wet all night.
Identifying the cause of a problem, and trying the least toxic solution first is prudent. A tool shed with partially used containers of noxious chemicals is an invitation to disaster. Most garden books show us impeccable gardens filled with pristine flowers untouched by blight or murrain. What you need is a book full of pictures of all the ugly things that can go wrong in real gardens. The Reader's Digest Garden Problem Solver (Reader's Digest, hard cover, ISBN 0-7621-0140-7, $34.96) is an excellent guide to identifying all sorts of pests and diseases of trees, shrubs, perennials, fruits and vegetables. Various treatments from organic to chemical are provided. If you cannot find it at the bookstore, the book may be ordered directly from Reader's Digest at 1-800-846-2100. Shipping and handling is an additional $5.99.
Oh yes, those slugs. Beer in a saucer is one popular trap for drowning these slimy snails without a shell. I do use chemical baits but want to avoid the possibility of harm to my cats, wild birds, or other wildlife. Get an empty 2-liter soda bottle. Cut it apart just where the cylindrical portion of the body begins to narrow. Invert the top portion so it looks like a funnel. Put it inside the cylindrical portion, lining up the cut edges. Then staple the pieces together. Put some slug pellets inside, and lay it sideways anywhere in the garden that slugs are a problem. Not nature's brightest creation, the slugs crawl in to eat the bait, but cannot find their way back out. Children, pets, and wildlife are safe. And when it gets so disgusting inside you can pick it up to discard in the trash while keeping your fingers unslimed.