Story last updated at 7/10/2012 - 1:18 pm
Plant a garden and the bugs and slugs will find it. Arriving on foot, on the wing or perhaps slithering in on a self-generated film of slime, they will not miss the opportunity. The uninvited visitors will likely appreciate your vegetation whether they aim to chew holes in it, suck its juicy sap or preferably, devour the creatures that chew holes and suck sap.
This year I've been taking particular interest in the unfamiliar insects I find in my greenhouse (good or bad), getting photos if possible and studying them closely for positive identification in hopes of discerning exactly what I'm up against. I want to learn their habits and improve my overall pest management.
My problems with slugs, having been so endless and overwhelming over the years, had largely distracted me from investigating other garden pests and I pretty much blamed any and all plant damage on slugs, but perhaps my casual attitude toward garden housekeeping needed reconsideration. Here was a good place to start making some changes.
I faced facts that my usual clutter of moist, crowded ground cover (weeds) in past years helped create viable conditions for slugs and bugs. In Southeast Alaska with our rainy, humid climate, removal of any excessive moisture in an unheated greenhouse really helps. I found that by paying attention to weed control, I also began to spot hidden freeloaders hiding under leaves. As a bonus, some nutritious edibles like chickweed or volunteer kale and mustard provided tangy forage while weeding.
Of course numerous slugs of all ages are still issuing forth from their surreptitious daytime sanctuaries to wreak havoc, as it were, on the plants that remained in the weedless beds. I was tired of trying to hand pick them so finally tried an environmentally friendly, biodegradable slug/snail product that comes in little pellets. Unfortunately, the environment in my greenhouse led to small spots of fuzzy, gray mold everywhere the bait had been left uneaten which seemed worse than slugs so that challenge continues.
When spider mites and aphids decided to help themselves to my dahlias, nasturtiums, zinnias, cucumbers and corn, I washed them away with soapy water and/or plucked them off for a temporary fix but when the stem near the top of one of my strong, healthy giant zinnias bent over and withered, it was time for some answers. One possible answer was hiding under a leaf on the back of the stem.
Most people have seen the small patches of spit-like foam attached to grasses, weeds and pretty much any plant where spittlebugs are present in yards and gardens. Around here, these sap sucking insects also feed on Sitka spruce seedlings, hardwoods and ground foliage.
I had certainly noticed them in my greenhouse and assumed the spit was eggs until Connie, a fellow gardening aficionado, dropped by and explained that the spittle is a protective covering produced by spittlebug nymphs as a safeguard from predators and extreme temperatures, as well as moisture control while these immature spittlebugs furtively misappropriate the plants vital juices. Just washing the spittle off with water as I had been doing might not solve the problem, she said, since the nymph might just latch onto another stem and resume foaming or enter another nymph's spittle hideout. A dab with a rubbing-alcohol-soaked Q-tip for removal of the nymph was recommended as a control strategy.
Apparently spittlebug damage is usually rather inconsequential to healthy plants and these insects are often not even listed among common pests in gardening books. They may not have been entirely responsible for my dead zinnia but I did have a widespread infestation on beets, carrots, marigolds, kiwi, celery, sage and the spicy lettuce mix.
In the meantime other insects were under scrutiny in the greenhouse. I've seen grasshoppers in the muskegs here on Prince of Wales Island, but none so tiny as those hopping around in the greenhouse. I caught one and photographed it under glass since it wanted to hop away.
Insect identification can be tricky. When researching spittlebugs I discovered they are also called froghoppers. I studied the available photographs for some time, trying to recall if I'd ever seen these bugs before finally grasping the obvious. My "grasshoppers" are none other than the adult spittlebugs.
Another mystery solved. Who knows what else lurks among the flowers, herbs and vegetables I try to nurture? Only time and attentive surveillance will tell.