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How to Get the Best of Those Pests of the West

Horticulture: Is your garden bugged? An entomologist's new book offers strategies for wasting voracious little critters.

October 17, 1998|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Carol Lefferts treats her roses like budding royalty, pampering them with care and plant tonics. She even chases away neighborhood cats that like to claim the bushes as their territory.

But Lefferts can do little to fight the tiny bugs that routinely swamp her flowers. Aphids and mites run all over the stems and leaves as if they'd signed a lease on the property.

"It's disgusting," Lefferts said recently while investigating a row of roses at a Westminster nursery, her nose almost touching the petals. "I watch them so closely [and] for most of the year it's OK. But all of a sudden, my roses are crawling with them.

"I have to swipe them off just to put the buds in vases."

Lefferts, 48, of Seal Beach, resorts to pesticides, but with mixed results. She wants to know of other steps she can take beyond the chemical route. The just-released "Pests of the West" ($20, Fulcrum Publishing, 1998) offers other strategies that could help.

Written by Whitney Cranshaw, an entomology professor at Colorado State University, the 256-page book profiles just about every noisome bug out there, from the army cutworm (they go for tomatoes, beans and corn) to the zebra caterpillar (they love cabbage).

Cranshaw points out how tough these little bugs can be, and how frustrating to the flower or vegetable gardener, but stresses that there are a few battle plans that work.

For one, you can make some bugs your friends. There are dozens of predatory insects that would love to turn your backyard into a movable feast of unwanted pests.

Another approach is "companion planting," where flowers and plants that, in many cases, actually repel bugs can be placed next to favored stalks. Cranshaw also goes into the use of chemicals, a last resort that he says must be used with caution and carefully targeted (read those labels) to the pests at hand.

The bottom line for Cranshaw? Study a pest and know its criminal ways. Only then, you can go out and truly waste it.

"It is important to learn something about the habits, damage and control of pests," he writes. "Armed with this information, you can more effectively manage the whole picture."

Lefferts said she was ready for that, as was Arnie Sadler, 54, of Laguna Beach. Sadler grew animated while talking of his backyard vegetable garden during a stroll in a Newport Beach nursery.

He explained that his harvest of tomatoes, zucchini, bell peppers and other common veggies are often beset by worms, flies and other bugs he didn't even have names for. Insecticides are out because that's why he has a garden in the first place--to have organic produce for the table.

"There's very little I can do but just go out there after work and kill the bugs I see crawling around," Sadler said, sighing.

That's actually not such a bad idea, according to Cranshaw. He recommends that gardeners spend more time among the leaves and stalks, disposing of pests one at a time. But that sounded like too much hands-on experience to Sadler, as it does to many gardeners.

"You want something easier, something you don't have to think of all the time," he lamented.

What would be easier than making friends with predator bugs? Some of the best to have around are ladybugs, green lacewings, ground beetles, damsel bugs and earwigs.

For instance, Lefferts might be able to solve her aphid and mite problem by making her garden more hospitable to ladybugs. They're usually drawn to California gardens in small numbers, but for the really ambitious gardener, ladybugs can be collected from foothills and mountainous areas, where they tend to congregate when aphid prey are scarce.

To keep them happy, spray plants with a light mixture of sugar and yeast, which, Cranshaw says, naturally attracts ladybugs and other "good" insects. Predator bugs can also be bought through mail-order. A few businesses specializing in them are the Bug Store ([800] 455-2847), Bowen Biosystems ([800] 900-0246) and Beneficial Insectary ([800] 477-3715).

Cranshaw also has a chapter on handling animals that feast in gardens, like birds and, in more rural spots, deer, raccoons and squirrels.

If birds like to peck at prized peaches and plums, think about cultivating plants they like as well. Plant elderberry, mulberry and mountain ash near your fruit trees.

If deer stray into your garden, try spraying hot pepper sauce around and on the plants. For another repellent, scatter several empty deodorant soap bags. "Deer just don't like the smell," Cranshaw says.

But "Pests of the West" is mostly about bugs, on which Cranshaw offers one last cautioning note: Don't let all this new intimacy with them freak you out.

"Reading this book may be hazardous to your gardening enjoyment [because] this is a rather sordid subject," he warns. "You will likely begin to notice a few more pests after reading the book and that could be overwhelming.

"But you may also discover that some of those bugs you thought were foes are actually your friends."

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