Ground rules and tools for May

May 6, 2004
Victoria County
Master Gardener Intern

April showers bring May flowers AND BUGS. As a result, we see good bugs, such as lady beetles, as well as bad bugs that seem to eat everything.

Did you know that if bad bugs were not in the garden for good bugs to eat, the good bugs we need in our gardens would not stay? So put away the bug killer and quit trying to kill all the bugs. Let's look at this in a way that takes in the whole picture, possibly even planting some "trap" plants for the bad bugs that may also help bring birds to your yard.

This concept is a simple one and is part of a system called integrated pest management, or IPM for short. IPM employs the least toxic means to control pests, including a number of control alternatives such as planting trap plants to lure destructive pests away from desirable plants or allowing them to breed in enough numbers that they attract beneficial insects.

The components of IPM include: preparation, pest prevention, pest monitoring, economic thresholds, and lastly, management options such as non-chemical or chemical control.

Under management options these can be further divided into 1) cultural control; 2) host plant resistance to pests; 3) biological control of one organism over another; 4) mechanical control with the intervention of various devices; and finally, and as a last resort, 5) chemical control, or the use of pesticides, selecting those that are the least toxic first.

The use of trap plants is the use of the cultural control management option of IPM. One of the plants that can be used as a trap plant is the Gray Mammoth sunflower - my favorite, but any sunflower will do. Sunflowers are also a favorite of grasshoppers - a frequent pest as the summer days approach. Now that the soils have warmed up, plant one sunflower for every 2,000 square feet of yard space you have (I can never plant just one!). Near this sunflower hang a bird feeder. Not all birds can get to the feeder at the same time, so while they are waiting their turn at the feeder, they are always on the "look out" for a quick meal, and the grasshoppers on the sunflower and other plants around them will be an inviting meal to birds.

Marigolds are great spider mite trap plants, and their plant fragrance can be used to your advantage. Although I must tell you, if not managed properly marigolds will simply infest your garden with spider mites. Plant some marigolds in a pot that can be moved and placed in the yard or garden where needed. Set your container near your tomato plant. When your marigold container becomes infested with spider mites, simply remove it to an area where you can spray it with a mixture of 1 quart of water, 1 teaspoon of canola oil, and 1 teaspoon of dish detergent (do not use anti-bacterial dish soap). Spray the tops and bottoms of the leaves, as spider mites are very small and hide very well. When the marigolds are dry, put them back in their positions as trap plants again.

Butterfly weed is a great aphid trap, but also a very important plant for butterflies to lay eggs on and for butterfly larvae to eat prior to becoming a butterfly. Aphids tend to congregate at the top of the stem. When you see large numbers of aphids, move a ladybug to the stem. If for some reason you cannot find a ladybug, wait until late evening and set out a sweet attractant such as a cola, a cantaloupe rind, or a watermelon rind near the stem. Pick up these sweet items early the next day, as other daylight sensitive bugs such as bees, wasps, and yellow jackets will find your attractant. Lastly, if you just cannot stand the aphids on your plants, spray them down with a high-pressure water hose or cut the stem just below the aphids and place it in a closed sack in the trash.

Mosquitoes are aplenty now with the recent rains. If you can construct a water feature in your back yard that will sustain the life of goldfish, a natural predator of mosquito larva, you will help to reduce the number of mosquitoes in your yard. For this to work you must eliminate all other standing water in which mosquitoes will breed such as in buckets or pans that collect water. For standing water that cannot be drained, purchase and use the mosquito donuts, which contain a Bt product that is very safe except to mosquitoes.

Honey bees can be seen in flight from flower to flower and they are crucial to many species of fruiting and flowering plants in the spring through summer. They perform daily pollination needs of numerous plants in the landscape, garden, and agricultural setting. Bees are very susceptible to many pesticides, and caution should be used in selecting pesticides that control the targeted pest yet don't affect the other insects. The pesticide carbaryl or Sevin is very toxic on bees and should only be used as a last resort or with special precautions.

Now let's talk about the good bugs you never or rarely see, but which contribute to the health and success of your entire yard, including grass, trees and shrubs. Many live in the soil. Just like the great whale depends on the tiny plankton for its survival in the ocean food chain, the mighty oak tree depends on the microbes, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, arthropods, protozoa, moisture and organic matter in the soil for its survival. As the tree grows and sheds leaves and twigs fall back to the ground, the organisms in the soil have a renewed food source. Worms in the soil open airways as they come to the surface, and down deep they deposit valuable waste to the tips of the roots of trees and plants through their digestion of organic material. Try to keep these thriving. To find out more about the soil and its food chain go to this web site:

May to October is the season most microbial activity occurs. Adding compost to your landscape, garden or turf brings life back to the soil. Monitor your landscape continually. Search for insects. Learn if they are beneficials or pests. Did you know that there are at least 100,000 species of insects in North America alone? The consolation is that only 3 percent are pests. So as you go through the garden and landscape during this month, remember not all insects need to be destroyed.

If you do opt for using the chemical control method, remember to read all pesticide labels and use them responsibly whether they are organic or otherwise. If you aren't sure how to mix or use a product, ask a qualified person for help, call the manufacturer or your extension agent - or a master gardener at the extension office - for help. As recommended previously, utilize the IPM concept. It is socially acceptable, environmentally responsible, economically practical, uses monitoring of pests and beneficials, and uses the least toxic method of control first.

Happy gardening as you help maintain the balance of good and bad bugs in the environment.