Pest Survival

Each year presents a new set of challenges. So far, this year it’s been an attack on seedlings, shrubs and pepper plants by three common culprits: rabbits, birds and cutworms. The really tough part is identifying the culprit especially when different culprits leave similar signs of damage. It’s also interesting to point out that one of the culprits (birds) eats another culprit (cutworms).

My belief is it’s best not to mess too much with the web of life. I’ve found that many times the cure is worse than the damage and I’m trying to coexist with nature. As challenging as it may be, it means maybe doing without the affected plant one year, moving it, planting something else in its place, or over seeding in the hopes that maybe a few will survive. It’s easy to get so obsessed with eliminating the pest to loose track of the big picture. When damage has been done, I find it’s always good to step back and ask myself, “what can I do about this problem without without costing myself more than the harvest would be worth and is this really that much of a problem in the first place?” It’s also good to keep in mind a healthy plant will be better able to survive pest damage.

Here is a bit about what I’ve done to better my situation. Unfortunately, I didn’t take pictures of the damage but will if it happens (much to my dismay) again.

 Rabbits

My Great Aunt suggests surrounding the endangered plant with dead rabbits. My Dad suggests hasenpfeffer. So far what appears to be a family of my furry friends have demolished a hazelnut bush, took a bite out of a sweet bay magnolia and almost killed three blueberry bushes. Luckily, I fenced in a large portion of my garden as well as the blueberry bushes and sweet bay magnolia before it was too late. I took a chance with not fencing in the tomatoes but so far they don’t seem find them to their liking (knock on wood). Although this article tells you to bury the bottom of the fence to keep them from digging their way under. I attempted to clamp it down with these

Fabric Staples not recommended for holding the bottom of a wire fence.
Fabric Staples not recommended for holding the bottom of a wire fence.

but I don’t recommend them. Something heftier like a good tent stake would probably work better.

Rabbits like to gnaw through small shrub and tree branches often just leaving them on the ground uneaten. Apparently, they like the bark. The branch or stem will usually be cut at an angle about a foot off the ground. They also enjoy fresh young greens and vegetable plants.

 Birds

A few of my cucumber and winter squash seedlings were being cut off about an inch from the ground but not eaten. Having experienced this before and found it to be caused by cutworms, I figured this was the case. I’ve read articles that say to put a collar like a cup with the bottom cut out around the plant and sink it into the dirt. My husband drinks loads of iced coffee that comes in the perfect plastic cup for making a collar. I just cut down the side and around the very bottom of the cup. This has worked well for me in the past but not so well this time. The seedlings were still being cut off and the few survivors looked like something was pecking at the leaves. Now what could that be I wonder? Oh, yes! starlings, robins and house sparrows just to mention a few, have been having family reunions in my garden. So I cut small square patches of screen and tightened them over the plastic coffee cups with a rubber band so they’ll be protected at least until they reach the top of the cup.

Plastic coffee cups covered with screen protect seedlings from birds and cutworms for a little while at least...
Plastic coffee cups covered with screen protect seedlings from rabbits, birds and cutworms for a little while at least…

I also planted a lot more seeds for every desired plant so hopefully at least one will survive.

Then there are the old favorite bird deterrents such as the scare crow, the large owl eyes, the fake owl and shiny things. I’ve hung old cds so they spin in the wind flashing light (that extends well beyond the garden). I think the birds in my garden have overcome their fear of these things.

 Cutworms

This moth larvae is kind of like the combination of a vampire and a boa constrictor except they’re pretty tiny and only attack plants. They like to hide out in grass and weeds then come out at night in search of their prey. When they find it, they wrap their body around the base of the plant and chew their way through. In the morning you will find the plant lying there like a fallen soldier. In the past I haven’t had problems with cutworms attacking larger plants but yesterday I was appalled to find a two foot high pepper plant lying on its side. I’m pretty sure by the look of the left over stump it was done by a cutworm. Cutworms do their cutting at ground level, sometimes just below. They tend to like moist weedy areas to hide in. The Farmer’s Almanac has an interesting tip to put crunched eggshells and coffee grounds around the base of the plant. For now I’ll go with weeding, collars and maybe coming out at night with a flashlight to catch them in the act.

One more thing, mulching may invite them. Apparently they aren’t in love with some cover crops such as oats.

Some resources for controlling cutworms:

The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service – ATTRA

The Old Farmer’s Almanac

Toxic Free NC

 

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