PRODUCTION

Garden Pests: What am I and How Do You Get Rid of Me?


May 20, 2023

Close-up of senior woman planting vegetables in garden

In the years that I’ve been writing these blogs, I’ve probably written about garden pests four or five times. If you are a new gardener, I envy your fresh eyes absorbing all this information for the first time. But if you’re an old timer, let me see if I can give a fresh take on bugs in the garden.

So we’re going to play a game. The game is “What am I and How Do You Get Rid of Me?”

Here goes…we’ll start with an easy one.

Hi. I like to hang out in the cracks between leaves and shoots with my friends. I’m born pregnant, which means by the time you see me, the next generation is already on its way. I suck on the juices inside the plants like a vampire only with plants. I like crowds and you will rarely find me by myself. I come in several colors – brown, black, white, and even red – but green is my favorite because it blends in the best. Sometimes you’ll find these white “jackets” we drop off on the leaves below. That’s actually our skin. I know, gross. But we need a place to put them when we molt.
Lots of times you’ll see my buddies – the ants – climbing up and down our plant before you notice me. They like to protect us. But don’t think they do it out of the goodness of their hearts. Nope. We pay them in honeydew – a sticky liquid we create. And it’s a good thing they do. We are soft-bodied and easy prey for lots of other insects. They don’t actually hurt your plants at all, but without them, we might get picked off. 

Terro Liquid Ant Bait With Borax 6 pk.

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TERRO T2600 Ant Bait Plus, 2 lb Bottle

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Terro, Outdoor Liquid Bait Stakes, 8pk

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Hot-Shot HG-95762 Ant Bait

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But we are also easy for people to kill. If you spray us with mineral oil, we can’t breathe. It doesn’t hurt the plant, but we will die pretty quickly. If you spray us with neem oil, not only do we suffocate, we also go into this weird trance where we don’t think the plant is food and we starve to death. Talk about a bad trip.

Did you figure out what I am? Aphis gossypii, or as my friend’s like to call me – aphid.

Close up of Aphid feeding on plant

Bonide 214 Horticultural Spray Oil, 1 qt

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Bonide Captain Jack's Neem Oil Spray Insecticide Ready to Use 32 oz.

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So that one was a bit of a gimme. Let’s try something harder.

Don’t rush me. Don’t rush me. I’ll get there. Ok. I’m not one of those “first one to dinner” kind of guys. I mean, when I do get there, look out. I can eat like a seventeen-year-old boy who just came home from football practice. I can lay waste to a garden. And also like a teenager, I’m not really fond of daytime. In fact, I’m almost exclusively a night owl. It means there isn’t anyone around to bug me (See what I did there? Bug me?). You can tell I’ve been around because I leave a silver trail behind me. It’s a pretty cool trick, but it does make it easy for someone to find you.

I guess it’s fair to say I’m a pretty simple guy. One of the easiest ways to get rid of me is to pick me off the plants like little slimy strawberries from a midnight strawberry patch. Or you can put down little pellet snacks for me. As I’ve mentioned above, I like to eat. And this is no exception. Problem is, when I eat it – even just a taste – I lose my appetite completely. I just want to find a dark place, curl up and die. And don’t get me started on copper. I take offense at it calling me a fungus, but it will kill me if I get into it. You could say copper is like my kryptonite. Even a roll of copper tape will keep me out. When I touch it, it shocks me and nobody likes that. I don’t want to have anything to do with it.

So, have you guessed yet? I’m a slug. I suppose my cousin, the snail, would also count as a reasonably good answer.

Close-up of of a tail-dropper slug

Corry's Slug & Snail Killer, 1.75 lb.

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Bonide Copper Fungicide, Ready-to-Use, 32 oz.

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Gonzo Copper Stopper Slug and Snail Barrier Tape 30ft Roll

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Getting warmed up? Here’s another one.

So I’m kind of a big deal. There’s actually an old song written about me. I’m not going to sing it for you, because it’ll give away my name. But there’s a hint to start with. I spend my youth frollicking in the garden. When I’m little, I inch my way through the beds looking for food. My favorite meals are kale, cabbage, and broccoli, but I’ll eat anything if I’m hungry enough. And boy do I get hungry. The bigger I grow, the more I eat…kinda like that children’s story – you know the one. See, I told you I was a big deal.

You can tell I’ve been around because, well, I’ve eaten all the leaves off your lettuce. Except for the middle part – I don’t like the stringy centers. You might also see little brown poops I’ve left behind. Don’t freak out. Everyone poops. Mine just tend to get caught in the crevices between leaves and stems.

The most effective way to get rid of me is to pick me off your plants. I like to think I’ll end up in a great big garden in the sky, but more likely than not, you’ll toss me in the garbage or compost. Garbage is a better choice, because I’ll still grow and eat in the compost, eventually transforming into a fuzzy winged creature of the night. 

I’d like to say there are things you can buy to get rid of me, but really, the only thing that might work is neem oil. I am a soft-bodied insect after all. And you can spray under leaves where my parents lay their eggs.

Do you know who I am? I’m known as a cabbage looper, but you probably know me by my common name – an inchworm.

Do you remember the song by Danny Kaye?
Inchworm, inchworm
Measuring the marigolds
Seems to me, you’d stop and see
How beautiful they are

Cabbage looper larvae on fennel

Bonide Captain Jack's Neem Oil Spray Insecticide Ready to Use 32 oz.

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Ok, last one. And this is a hard one.

Before we get to how to find me in your garden, I want to tell you a story. When I was hatched, I only had three pairs of legs. I mean, mom says everyone starts out that way in our family. I spent most of my time poking holes in the plant cells and sucking out its juices. My belly got big and round before I found a spot to rest and molt. When I woke up, I had four pairs of legs. Huzzah! I only ate for a few days before I molted again. And again. Within a couple weeks, I went from an egg to an adult. Talk about growing up fast. I know what you’re thinking – eight legs. Duh, I know what it is. But I’m not an arachnid. Spiders hatch with all their legs at once. I had to earn mine. 

As a grown up, I like to hang out on the underside of leaves. Depending on my family, I can be red, brown, yellow, or green. And I’m super small. Like really small. 1/50th of an inch small. I look like a dot – usually brown, red, yellow, or green. My main hobby is sucking plant cells dry until the leaf turns brassy-colored and falls off. Then I move on to the next leaf. But probably the easiest way to find me is to look for mini-webs. My buddies and I like to spin them in the cracks between stalks and underneath the leaves.

So, I’m soft-bodied like the other guys you’ve met today. Neem oil is not my friend. In fact, I can honestly say neem oil is the death of me. Spray under the leaves and you’ll probably take out me and a couple hundred family members. We just can’t hold our breath that long. And with that funky thing neem oil does – making you think food isn’t food – well, if we don’t suffocate, we’ll certainly starve. You can also use insecticidal soap. That one just flat out kills us – we have very sensitive skin. 

So…any idea what I am? I’m a spider mite.

Macro photo of spider mites on basil

Bonide Insecticidal Super Soap Ready to Use Quart

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Bonide Insecticidal Soap, 1 qt.

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Just for fun… use #mywilcolife on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and tag @wilcostores in post describing one of your least favorite garden pests and see if anyone else can figure out what it is.

There are so many bugs moving around in your mini garden ecosystem. Learning about who they are can help figure out how to control them. Now, wasn’t that more fun than the typical blog article on garden pests? I agree.


ROBYN ROGERS, THE AUTHOR OF THIS BLOG IS LOCATED ON THE KITSAP PENINSULA IN WASHINGTON AND HER ADVICE IS CONSISTENT WITH THE CLIMATE THERE.