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Gardeners can control, prevent vegetable pests
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Home vegetable gardeners have a better chance of success if they take steps to prevent or control common insect pests.
Blake Layton, an entomologist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said vegetable gardeners can avoid insect problems if they know what to look for and how to react.
"Fire ants are a problem in home gardens, damaging the vegetables themselves or sometimes the gardener with painful stings," Layton said. "In most cases, people can use a fire ant bait around the perimeter of the garden, where it is labeled for use, to greatly reduce the number of fire ants. Most fire ant baits are not labeled for use directly in the vegetable garden."
Layton said gardeners should put out bait at the beginning of April when they begin to till the garden for the year, and then again around the Fourth of July. But if gardeners missed the April application, they still can put the bait out in May or June.
Most tomato growers are familiar with the tomato hornworm, which can grow to over 3 inches long and eats mainly the foliage of tomato plants. However, the tomato fruitworm can really disappoint growers. This pest feeds directly on the fruit and is smaller than the hornworm.
"If you don't control these when you need to, you'll go out and pick what look like perfectly ripe tomatoes and find they have holes in them and that they're not suitable for eating," Layton said.
To keep the tomato fruitworm under control, use a foliar spray with an appropriate insecticide after tomatoes begin to bloom. The spray should include either carbaryl or a permethrin product.
The best way to avoid losses from the squash vine borer is to plant as early as possible in hopes of producing some squash before the pests become established. Some insecticides also are available to protect late-planted squash.
The cow pea curculio is another common insect pest in Mississippi vegetable gardens. Layton said what appear to be little specks on the shelled peas are actually cow pea curculio eggs or grubs developing inside the pea.
"My mother and grandmother taught me to pick those out," Layton said. "But if you don't want to do that, the key is timing. As soon as you see your first little pea pods about a half-inch long, spray them three times, five days apart, with carbaryl."
Stink bugs pose a problem to gardeners mainly later in the growing season. Layton said several insecticides can control stink bugs, especially on peas and tomatoes where they cause the most problems.
The Extension publication Insect Pests of the Home Vegetable Garden provides detailed information on insecticides, control methods and organic gardening. Extension vegetable specialist Rick Snyder recommended the Organic Vegetable IPM Guide, which features an extensive section on organic fertilizers and how to control insects, weeds and diseases without chemicals.
Snyder said one way to control insect pest problems the organic way is through avoidance. This involves planting vegetables as early as possible to avoid growing during the peak insect season.
"I would plant my vegetables as early as the Extension Garden Tabloid recommends, and maybe even a few days earlier than that," Snyder said. "If you're willing to take a risk, you might even try a couple of weeks earlier than the recommended date."
Mechanical control of insect pests can be very effective. Snyder said larger insects like loopers, armyworms and other caterpillars can be picked off easily, but gardeners may need to get more creative to rid plants of smaller pests.
"Gardeners can place a piece of cardboard or aluminum foil around the base of the stem to keep cutworms from chewing through it," Snyder said. "Certain reflective mulches can keep aphids and thrips out of gardens. Aluminum foil or black plastic mulch painted silver are so shiny that they keep the insects from landing on plants."
Spraying plants with a water hose can knock off small insects, but gardeners probably will have to repeat this process daily.
Companion planting can have a repellent effect on certain insects. Marigolds tend to repel beetles and some other insects. Strong-smelling plants like onions, chives, basil and thyme can help keep insects out of a garden. Snyder said companion planting can be fairly to slightly effective in controlling pests.
A related practice is trap cropping, which involves putting plants that are more attractive to insects somewhere outside of, but near, the garden. In theory, the insects will be attracted to the trap crop instead of the garden vegetables.
"Nothing is 100 percent, but if more of the insects go to the trap crop, that's fewer insects in your vegetables," Snyder said.
Some organic pesticides also are available, and they are listed in the Organic Vegetable IPM Guide. Contact the local Extension office for copies of these publications, or visit http://www.msucares.com/pubs.