Friday, 2 September 2011

Creepy Crawlies: Friends and Foes of the Gardener

For the past couple of weeks, I have been guilty of neglecting both my garden and blog. To some extent, my diminished interest can be blamed on the hornets, which have their now-mammoth nest near my roof garden. My lack of attention has cost me dearly. A host of mealy bugs, aphids and ants have made my brinjal plant their home. The basil has also been affected by a few black aphids.

This post is about few of the creepy crawlies that have come uninvited to my garden, at different times.

While ants in the garden can be useful -- they decompose organic matter -- occasionally they tend to eat the plant. Ants may also cultivate or "farm" other pests like aphids and mealybugs. There was a short period, when all my ladies fingers were being devoured by ants. Diatomaceous earth  (microscopic fossils of algae like, water plants) is supposed to be the best all-natural ant killer. But I couldn't find this miracle powder and so settled for the traditional, cure-all Neem oil spray. When that didn't work, I tried a thick paste of turmeric and soap. This helped marginally, but the paste had to be applied twice a day. And I didn't want to be overdosing on either soap or turmeric. Finally, after a couple of weeks, the ants did get fed up, quite literally, with my ladies finger and their numbers began dwindling. I think the ants actually quit because their voracious appetites could no longer be satisfied.
Ants Feeding on Immature Lady's Finger Pods
Aphids and Mealybugs
Aphids are also called plant lice. Both aphids and mealybugs suck the plant sap and can carry a host of plant diseases. The aphids on my brinjal had been unnoticed, because they were feasting from the underside of the leaves. It was only when I detected ants on my plant, that I uncovered a huge colony of aphids. Ants act as guardians of both aphids and mealybugs as they benefit from the honeydew (sweet secretions) that they secrete.

Pale Green Aphids and White Mealybugs on the Leaf Underside
While a butterfly is welcome in gardens, their predecessor, the caterpillar isn't. Here's a hungry baby caterpillar. Yeah! Caterpillars are ALWAYS hungry.
A Banished Caterpillar
Leaf Miners
These look like threads fused into leaves. They are actually larvae of various insects like beetles, moths and even wasps. The larvae tunnel their way through the plant tissue and live within the leaf. So far, simply removing the affected leaves is all I've had to do to keep them in check.
Leafminer on a Tulsi Leaf
Set a bug to catch a bug. Lady birds are natural predators of aphids and many other plant pests.  I have spotted a couple of ladybirds on my brinjal plant. How they have sensed that my plant is in trouble I do not know. But I feel reassured to know that I'm not alone in my fight against the aphids.
Ladybird: Hunting Pests
Now here is a creepy crawly that clearly isn't a pest.  An indicator of healthy soil, earthworms are farmers' friends. I love finding them in my garden soil. The fatter they are, the more delighted I am. Not only do these worms aerate the soil, their castings act as natural fertilizer.
A Glistening Earthworm
Since harsh chemical insecticides are a no-no in my garden, I rely on natural pest control. Most of these are painfully slow to act. The Penguin Book of Gardening in India by Meera Uberoi has  plenty  of "Indian recipes" for driving away pests. Usually they call for turmeric, neem oil, soap solution (not detergent) and tobacco leaves (cigarettes will suffice if you can't find the leaves). There are some offbeat recipes too, like the one for snails. Apparently snails enjoy beer as much as many humans. So snails are to be trapped in bottles that have beer in them! But having tried some of these home remedies, I believe the best remedy is Prevention. A healthy plant is less likely to fall prey to pests.

I'll end my post with a video link of a beautiful kitchen garden. I'd watched this a year ago; yet I vividly remember the entire presentation. Watch till the end, on how to confuse pests, the Permaculture way.


  1. Your post tells a tale that is very familiar to me! Gardening is a constant battle against the elements and Nature, isn't it? I hope none of you have been stung by the hornets.

  2. Good video. I like the gardening style presented.

    The snail trap isn't that offbeat, we do it here in Canada (that is if we manage to have leftover beer to put in the trap).

  3. Dear Anita,
    I completed reading all your posts just now and I must congratulate you for your fabulous writings!I too completely subscribe to the organic way of growing veggies and the way you have managed to grow them on your terrace is truly commendable!!

  4. Mark, none of us have been stung by hornets. Yet, they're always whizzing by, threatening to do so. On hot days, they seem more aggressive and that's when I try to hurry up with my gardening.
    Adele, I didn't know that beer to trap snails is a well known trick.
    Thank you Green thumb for your comment. Actually, I don't grow too many plants. But even the few that I grow are teaching me so much.

  5. Anita, It is a rainy and humid evening. Good time to check in with your Blog and others I am following. Looks like your garden does need some help. Bugs can be beneficial and a great food source for birds etc. but I think your garden needs some help. Seems to be way too many. I wish you well as you get back to doing what you can to enjoy your place again. Jack

  6. Hi Anita..this year several of my plants have been infested with mealy bugs too. I've used tobacco leaves before on the mussaenda and it seemed to work but it took some time.
    Btw, I loved the video of the kitchen garden. Thanks for the link.

  7. By the way, beer also works well for baiting wasp traps. Here's a link to making your own trap, just put a little beer in the bottom to really attract your hornets.

  8. Thank you v.much Adele, for that link. This trick will definitely be useful if I have to trap a hornet that's accidentally come into our house. But it'll be hard to remove the entire wasp population this way. Our hornet's nest is more than a foot long and an expert told us that it probably hosts at least a thousand hornets. Will need lotsa beer for it!

  9. That was a wonderfully informative post. And the images are gorgeous. You have made me uneasy about the status of my plants now!

  10. Hey Nivedita, your plants are doing fine and don't let a newbie gardener make you uneasy! You know, you've been one of my inspirations. It was the fragrance from your herb garden that drew me to the roof.