Partners not Pests – Nature’s little helpers

Jumping Spider eats Cabbageworm
When I was a kid, television and commercials taught me ONE important lesson… Bugs were bad and when I saw them I was to immediately run for a can of Raid to dispatch of the creepy critters.  As I grew up, I started to figure things out on my own.  When I lived in Hawaii, I didn’t want to poison the bugs because the geckos ate those things, and little goldeneyed geckos are cute!  When I lived in Louisiana, I stopped fearing spiders and started to respect them for their ability to trap mosquitos and control cockroaches.  When I moved to Texas, I stopped chasing snakes out of my yard and started giving them space to hunt the mice and other snakes  (I even pried a young rat snake’s tail out of the jaws of my cat once.  Set it free and it slithered off to live another day).  It’s taken me years of deprogramming, but I’ve grown to live and let live when it comes to most creepy crawlies in my yard and house, with the exception of REAL actual pests like ants, roaches, wasps, flies and mosquitos.  If you find a good reason for me to keep those around, I’d be happy to listen.

Now as an adult I’ve discovered a whole new classification of pests, the garden pest.  They savaged my spinach plants, squished my squash plants, and began a barrage on my broccolini.  My once majestic aeroponic tower full of hearty, young seedlings looked like a war zone with leaves full of holes and stems drilled out by squash bores.  After a month all sorts of little animals began to call my tower “home”. Tiny ants, an assortment of spiders, and leaf hoppers all began to take refuge in my plants, but my most unwelcome guests were the caterpillars.  They stated out as a group of tiny, little guys about the size of a fingernail clipping and as the days went by my plants got smaller while the “Catties” got bigger.

I began to research.  “What would eat my spinach and broccolini?”, and Google brought back images of my invading invertebrates, the dreaded Cross-striped Cabbageworm.  Further research on how to get rid of the worm yielded the following helpful bits of info:

You can control cross-striped cabbageworms by picking them off your broccoli plants. You can also use row covers to prevent adults from laying eggs on newly planted broccoli. Plowing up all cole crop plants immediately after harvest can help prevent cross-striped cabbageworms from overwintering in the soil. Introducing parasitic wasps into the garden and planting nectar crops, like alyssum (Alyssum spp.), nearby can help reduce the pest population. Pesticides are available, but thorough coverage is vital to controlling pest.

Hrm, well it’s too late for row covers, plowing doesn’t apply to my aeroponic garden, I’m not sure where to buy a bag of “parasitic wasps”, I didn’t have room to plant Alyssum in my tower and I wasn’t going to start spraying pesticides on my crops.  I buy organic veggies at the store and I wanted to grow organic veggies in my back yard.  I guess, I have to go with the first tip, “pick them off of your plants”.  Sounds tedious, but I did it.  My surviving broccolini are pretty mature now.  I don’t see any new baby cabbageworms on my plants.  Maybe it’s luck?  Maybe newly hatched cabbageworms only feed on young broccoli plants?  I’m not sure, but every once in a while I will see a mature worm on my plants.  This morning I found one  with an exciting twist, it was being stalked by a spider.  Remember I said I used to be scared of spiders?  Well, this morning I wanted to give this Bold Jumper (jumping spider) a pat on its fuzzy, little back.  It gobbled up that cabbage worm!  The worms I had hand plucked a week earlier I tossed on the ground for the ants, and the ants wouldn’t have anything to do with them!  I didn’t know ants were picky eaters, but this spider acted like it was gulping down a delicious, morning, green-juice.  I didn’t see how much it ended up eating, but it was enough to put the kibosh on that caterpillar and I was happy.

The moral of this true tale is that a healthy garden and a happy gardener depends on a healthy balance of pest predators to keep the real pests at bay.  Don’t go spraying pesticides willy-nilly, manmade or natural, until you’ve given nature’s little helpers a chance to get matters under control.  If you think you need a pest control product, try adding helpful critters first.  Ladybugs, praying mantises can be purchased at a local garden supply and there are lots of articles that tell you how to easily attract parasitic wasps.  If you DO end up using a product on your plants be cautious about what you add, where you add it, and how much to add.  Even something relatively harmless, diatomaceous earth, will kill your helpful bees if you sprinkle it on your vegetable’s fruiting flowers.

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