Grit Blogs > A Long Time Coming

The Most Insidious Garden Pest Is Ignorance

A photo of Shannon SaiaI’ll admit that whenever I first encounter any kind of garden pest I go into a kind of anxiety paralysis. I think that I want so much for things to go well, and as I’m still fairly new at all of this gardening stuff, I tend to drift towards seeing everything as success or failure in the moment, rather than everything just being part of the process; as if by the very fact that I have garden pests I am a failure as a gardener.

Of course this could not be further from the truth.

Some weeks ago I found these pretty harlequin beetles on my broccoli. I looked them up. I was hoping they were beneficial bugs and not pests, because they seemed too pretty to kill.

Fingertip and harlequin beetle on a broccoli leaf

But it turns out they had to go. I think I killed about 5, and then I never saw another one. I was feeling pretty doggone proud of myself for nipping that in the bud. Too proud, I think; since I started to let my daily inspections kind of slide.

Consequently, when I discovered this (quite beautiful, I think) creature on a broccoli leaf, the problem was already getting out of hand. Something was most definitely eating my broccoli leaves, and from the looks of some of the holes, it looked like something that was really, really hungry.

Cross-striped cabbage moth larvae on a broccoli leaf

Had the Harlequin bugs left behind progeny? I think that I was stupid enough to actually not pluck him off and kill him right away – and stupid enough not to look for more. I mean, he was beautiful, and I didn’t know what he was … I grew broccoli last year and I didn’t have any significant problems with pests. But then again, I grew half a dozen plants last year. I have twice that this year, along with brussels sprouts and collards and kale and various other things. This year I’m using more garden space, I have more plants, and I’m attracting more pests. Also, I suspect that since things went so well last year, and I didn’t really have to deal with fall garden pests, that in a sense this fall I’m operating in even more ignorance than I did last year, in having the audacity to think that pests wouldn’t be a problem. Well, let me tell you something. At this point I’m pretty sure that there is no caterpillar-looking thing on earth that should be left to mind its business on any of your crops. They will eat you out of house and home.

Largely because of my blogging activities – I feel a responsibility to present as much and as accurate information as I can – I overcame my essential laissez faire attitude about the whole thing (translation: laziness) and went on an Internet hunt to find out just what this pretty boy was. Turns out he’s a cross-striped cabbage moth larvae. And these – which I discovered in several places on the underside of broccoli leaves – are the cabbage moth’s eggs.

Cabbage moth eggs on a broccoli leaf

The cross-striped cabbage moth larvae is not the first visitor against whom I’ve had to wage war this year. Back in June I started noticing these very beautiful beetles on my potato plants.

Colorado potato beetle on leaf

Colorado potato beetle larvae eating leaf

They turned out to be the (again beautiful) dreaded Colorado potato beetle (brown and yellow) and their slightly less attractive larvae (red and black). I am anti-pesticide, so after learning what they were from the Internet, I started picking them off and smashing them by hand. This is an activity that really gets you in touch with your primal side; it’s a gross task that requires a certain amount of “live and let die” determination. It also requires a certain amount of technique. My approach was to fold over the leaf they were on and to pinch them inside of it. For the most part this kept the goo off of my hands. Quite honestly, the indiscriminate massacre of insects in the garden is something that I can hardly bring myself to do without a twinge of conscience. But I want to grow my own food, so I do what I have to do. Understanding what providing for yourself really means is kind of what this whole endeavor is really all about. And even now, in my pre-chicken days, I can see that what it's all about is life and death – at every level.

For days this summer I went outside and inspected my twelve banana fingerling potato plants, and picked off every beetle and beetle larvae that I saw. And amazingly, once I took this action, the situation was corrected in a relatively short amount of time. I had read that the Colorado potato beetle can damage up to 30% of the foliage of a potato plant before it actually begins to effect the yield of the plant, and my beetle damage never approached anywhere near that amount of green. I’m hoping that I can exert some similar control in the great cross-striped cabbage moth everlasting broccoli brunch that’s going on outside in my garden right now. And so far over the course of three days I bet I’ve killed hundreds of those larvae, of varying sizes, and destroyed a couple clutches of eggs – every day there are drastically fewer of them, so I suspect this approach is working.

Expanding my knowledge of the insect world is another unexpected and useful result of my gardening efforts, but garden pests are not what this post is about – unless you count ignorance as a “garden pest” – because I’m coming to understand that what really causes me transient anxiety about any problem is not knowing exactly what the problem is, and therefore not knowing what I can do about it.

The current issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine has an article titled, “Homesteading Lessons Learned, If I Could Do It All Over Again…” In it, 20-year veteran homesteader Steve Maxwell offers his advice to anyone starting out on a homesteading adventure. Interestingly enough, one of his recommendations is to “get high speed Internet right away” – for the wealth of information that will then be at your fingertips, of course.

I haven’t been in the “homesteading” business for very long, but nonetheless I’m going to offer my first lesson learned here:

Don’t panic or get discouraged until you know exactly what your problem is and what actions you might be able to take to mitigate it. Chances are, once you have that information, you’ll be too busy solving your problem to panic about it anyway.

There is a happy ending here, too. Check it out. It looks like I’m going to have some broccoli this year after all.

New broccoli head forming