Garden pests are a problem, but figuring out how to get rid of them is an even bigger problem. When growing your vegetables and herbs, many backyard gardeners don’t want to use heavy pesticides. They would prefer natural ways of discouraging pests from their plants. Two main types of pests attack your garden: chewing pests and sucking pests. Chewing pests will leave small holes or tears in your plants, while sucking pests will cause plants to wilt, yellow or brown when attacked. These two categories can be further broken down into pests that attack leaves, roots, stems, flowers, or fruits. There are many “good” bugs that you can attract to your garden to help keep the “bad” ones from destroying all your hard work. 

snail with lettuce leaf
snail with lettuce leaf

There are millions of insects in the world. Roughly one percent of these feed on plants in a harmful way. Not all bugs are bad. Some are the natural enemies of those plant destroying types. Other insects are necessary for plants to grow. Bees, for example, are the best pollinators out there, so using potent pesticides that also kill bees would not be beneficial to your garden. Some insects create by-products that humans use like silk, wax, and honey.  Always try to attract good bugs to your plant beds before resorting to harsher measures.

The Good

We all know that when a ladybug lands on you, it brings you good luck. Most ladybugs in your garden is even luckier. Both adults and larvae eat scale insects, aphids, mealybugs, mites, and several other soft-bodied insects as well as their eggs. Did you also know there are ninety-eight different species of ladybug in Florida? Of these, there are two varieties, the Mexican Bean Beetle and the Squash Beetle, that are harmful to plants. Think of these two as those distance cousins your family never speaks about. 

Assassin Bugs come in 160 different North American species. The Wheel Bug is the most well-known of these. Assassin bugs have a curved beak which they use to inject venom into their prey. They will bite humans if handled, and it is a painful bite. They are good to have around because they prey upon mosquitoes, earthworms, flies, and aphids. 

You know you are truly hitting the “environmentally friendly” goal when you attract dragonflies to your garden. Dragonflies can be especially sensitive to pesticides. Dragonflies are sometimes called “mosquito hawks” because of their ability to eat substantial numbers of the pests. Since dragonfly nymphs share a love of water with mosquito larvae, their presence can help to control populations before they can become biting adults.

When one thinks of a stink bug, they likely aren’t feeling it’s a good bug for the garden. There are two types: predatory stink bugs and crop-destroying stink bugs. Predatory stink bugs feed on caterpillars, among other insects, so you do want them in your vegetable garden, but not your butterfly garden. So how can you tell them apart? There are two ways you can tell the good from the bad, crop-destroying stinkbugs have long thin mouthparts, and rounded shoulders. The predators have short, stout beaks and a spine down the thorax.  Crop-destroying stinkbugs, like the Green Stinkbug, can become a problem on any plant, but they are most attracted to tomatoes. If stinkbugs become a problem, you’ll notice your plants starting to wilt, at which time you should consider using a pesticide. You can always tell if you have stinkbugs because of their infamous foul odor. Another caterpillar predator is the Big-Eyed bug. They look similar to chinch bugs (and eat them too) but have larger eyes. This bug is particularly useful for eating soft-bodied insects on the soil surface. 

The Bad

While some caterpillars do grow up to be beautiful butterflies, you might not want to invite these leaf-destroyers into your vegetable garden. There are even some species that will burrow into your fruits. Cutworms will attack young plants and transplants. These bugs will topple your plants by chewing through stems. Two bugs previously mentioned are excellent for caterpillar control, the big-eyed bug, and the predatory stinkbug. Caterpillars are usually easy to spot, so hand-picking them out of your garden is one solution if you don’t have many plants. However, for bigger gardens, floating row covers will work to prevent them from seeking nourishment on your spinach. For cutworms and other night-feeding species, consider using a barrier or “sleeve.” Place the sleeve over the bottom of the plant and push it into the top of the soil. This method should help prevent soil-invading insects from crawling up the stems of your plants.

Aphids are tiny pear-shaped insects that attack the stems of your plants. They are commonly called “plant lice.” If your plants show signs of leaves curling or become distorted, you likely have an aphid problem. Having aphids will also increase ant populations because their sweet honeydew excrement attracts them. Lacewings are sometimes called “aphid lions” because this is the insect that they most like to eat. Some homeopathic remedies for aphids include hot pepper or garlic repellant sprays, but lacewings, ladybugs, and aphid midges will help keep these plant destroyers in check. A strong spray of water will also wash these bugs off the plants. Pesticides should be used as a last resort. 

Beetles can be a big problem. One way to reduce the likelihood that you will get beetles in your vegetable garden is to remove any grass or weed debris when tilling your soil. It is also recommended that you do this at least 30 days in advance of planting. Four of the most significant pest beetle problems in Florida are the Mexican Bean Beetle, the Colorado Potato Beetle, Cucumber Beetle, and the Flea Beetle. These adult beetles are leaf destroyers, but most are not problematic enough in backyard gardens to warrant extreme measures. Usually, hand-picking these from your garden, if done routinely, is enough to prevent significant damage. The problem with these beetles is in the larval stage when they attack roots. The preventative measures mentioned are best for reducing the likelihood of infestation. Floating plant rows are a good source of protection against these insects, as well as mild pesticides. 

Tips for Preventing or Controlling Pests in Your Garden

By rotating your crops every season, you allow the nutrients in your garden to replenish. By planting the same crops repeatedly in the same place, the soil structure weakens. Crop rotation also helps eliminate soil pests from taking hold in your garden. Tilling your garden thirty days in advance of planting helps to aerate the soil and mix in organic matter that you are adding, such as compost. Try to keep the depth to less than twelve inches as this can do more harm than good to your prepared planting area. Tilling the soil about thirty days before planting, and keeping it free of weeds during this time, will also keep pests from invading before you plant. 

When you are ready to plant, there are several things you can do to help prevent or control the invasion of pests. If you plant seedlings or immature plants, make sure they are free of pests, weeds, or other signs of disease before planting. Make sure to follow the guidelines for watering and fertilizing your plants. Too much fertilizer can attract certain pests, while too little water can stress the plants and make them prone to disease or attack. 

You can help put a stop to fruit harming pests by harvesting your plants as soon as they are ripe. Make sure to check on your garden once or twice per week. Implementing this practice is recommended to alert you of any potential problems brewing and, come harvest time, allow you to pick your vegetables at the peak of freshness. When your plants have finished giving off fruit for the season, make sure to cut them down and plow the leftover roots and stalks into the soil. This practice will help add vital nutrients back into the ground for next year’s crops. 

For larger gardens, consider installing floating row covers, which will keep a variety of pests off your plants.

One pesticide recommended by the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture is Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis. This pesticide is especially useful against caterpillars and worms, but is not harmful to many of the good bugs mentioned earlier. Bt is approved for use in organic gardens. There are also many home-use pesticides available at your local home supply store. Be sure to read up on the chemicals used in them, as you don’t want to chase all your bugs away. Remember, some are essential to your garden’s growth!  

Summary

While this is not an exhaustive list of all the pests you might find in your backyard garden, it is a list of the more commonly seen problematic insects. Following the guidelines set forth here, you will find that your instance of pest problems can easily be reduced. Of course, nighttime animal predators could also be a problem. Consider fencing in your garden to prevent rabbits, raccoons, and deer from damaging your garden. Tunneling pests such as moles, pocket gophers, gopher tortoises, and others will destroy root systems. If you happen to live in more desolate areas of Florida, you may become victim to coyotes or wild boar, which can destroy an entire garden in one night. 

Resources

University of Florida IFAS Extension:

http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/pinellasco/2017/04/06/vegetable-garden-pests/

http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/VH/VH03600.pdf

https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/sarasota/gardening-and-landscaping/horticulture-commercial/integrated-pest-management/beneficial-insects/

https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/archive/hot_topics/sustainable_living/beneficial_insects.shtml

https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw369

Dusty Showers has been in the urban nuisance wildlife and pest control field since 1993. Taught by Garon Fyffe, a pioneer in humane nuisance wildlife management, Dusty has a passion for finding humane solutions to human & wildlife conflicts. Dusty was the only individual invited by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission in the lat 1990's to help write legislation for legal protection of Florida bats. With an instinct for solving wildlife, Dusty found pest control to be an easy "add-on interest". Dusty started his first business "Animal Instincts Wildlife & Pest Management" in the Tampa Bay, Florida area in 1995. Eventually selling Animal Instincts in 2002, Dusty went on to start Creepy Creatures Termite and Pest Control in 2009, which he still owns and operates today in Palm Harbor, Florida.