How do I learn to identify and deal with garden pests?
May 15, 2006 12:38 PM   Subscribe

How do I identify garden pests? And what do I do about them once I've identified them?

At the moment, something is eating the leaves of my bean plants. I don't see any insects on them; I just see the holes in the leaves, which start out small but grow until most of the leaf is eaten away. I'd like to know what might be causing this, and what to do about it.

But more generally, I'd like to know how I can go about getting smarter about garden pests and diseases. I'd like to get to the point where I can look at a sick or eaten-down plant and say "Hey, here's what's wrong with it and here's what I'm gonna do to help." What should I read, study or practice in order to get to that point?
posted by nebulawindphone to Home & Garden (7 answers total)
"The Ortho Problem Solver" is a great book to research and know how to deal with the various garden pests. The book is way too expensive but Home Depot/Lowe's has a copy on display in their garden areas.

Also if you have a professional retail nursery around, take the infested/chewed up leaf to an expert there.

Also, Home Depot/Lowe's have experts from university, extension or vendors that can help.
posted by Jazz Hands at 1:17 PM on May 15, 2006

Have you looked on the undersides of those leaves? Also, the bugs might also be a lot smaller than you expect. Once you find them you can use sites like this to identify them. Of course, if you are going to spray poison then it probably doesn't matter that much what kind of bug they are. Identification really helps when you are seeking gentler remedies such as beneficial bugs and less aggressive, more natural pesticides. One good general remedy which is environmentally friendly - diatomaceous earth. It's amazing how well it can protect many leaves. (It does require more frequent application than poison though.)
posted by caddis at 1:18 PM on May 15, 2006

Consider taking a course through your local community college, either a for-credit course or a community ed course. It's a cheap low-pressure way to beef up your garden knowledge. if you're really into it, find out if your state has a Master Gardener program. That'll definitely help you find the answers!
posted by jdroth at 1:24 PM on May 15, 2006

You can pick up a paperback copy of the Ortho Home Gardener's Problem Solver that Jazz hands mentions for a buck plus shipping over on
posted by Pressed Rat at 1:26 PM on May 15, 2006

If you're in Pittsburgh, call or email your local extension office. In PA they're run by Penn State University, which is home of one of the top agricultural programs in the US. There was an article in the Pittsburgh Leader Times recently covering your question as well.
posted by enfa at 2:39 PM on May 15, 2006

Go out at night with a flashlight and look on and under the leaves.
Could be little slugs or other nocturnal critters.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:07 PM on May 15, 2006

My 3 cents:

1: Even if you are spraying, you should always know what the insect is before doing so. The same goes for weeds. The difference is often that you can use a more specified(read: appropriate) pesticide(organic or synthetic) rather than a broad-spectrum one. It's actually even more important when using synthetics as they have the most likelihood of being toxic to your family and pets so you want to be using the smallest amount and least toxic possible(often the broad-spectrum pesticides are some of the most dangerous. Think DDT and Malathion). The suggestions of local extension programs and master gardeners are both good places to start. Sometimes a good nursery can help also.

2: Definately go out at night, early evening and early morning. Different bugs have different times of activity. Get a bug jar, like for kids, so you can save samples and freak out your friends with magnified images of your ravenous new pals.

3: Two great books to start with are Common-Sense Pest Control and
Rodale's Color Handbook of Garden Insects. The first is definately based on "organic" methods. The Rodale one is just one of the better ones for simple identification, even though out of print. Getting more serious is Rebugging Your Home & Garden. Not only is the book comprehensive and scientific, but Ruth is a fun lady to chat with. Getting even more serious is Pests of Landscape Trees and Shrubs. Part of an excellent series by the UC California, it is of the Integrated Pest Management school of thought, which advocates natural controls before synthetic ones, but doesn't rule synthetics out.

For the coup de gras of your problem solving education, you should be looking into proper soil practices, as they are an oft-overlooked cause of pests and diseases. A few examples of life-based growing methods are: Biointensive Mini Farming, Biodynamics and Permaculture. Using these as a jumping point, you should be able to find most resources necessary for developing a healthy garden.

Sometimes certain varieties of plants aren't entirely suited to your local area. In this age of national marketing and uniformity, we often find plants and seeds in nurseries that were developed in a different climate than ours and thus will sometimes do poorly when planted. Many are also hybrids or patented, which means you can't save seeds even if you wanted and are sometimes developed mainly for market due to pickability or storageability, often sacrificing flavor. Furthermore, they sometimes are unusually susceptible to certain problems while OK with others. Some of the resilience is sometimes bred out of them in exchange for more profitable qualities. This is the reason why seed saved over a span of years or decades is so valuable to small farmers and gardeners. You might consider learning to save seed yourself. I like this book. If that's not for you, then at least consider finding seed companies that are in a similar area climate-wise, or offer seeds for hot or cool climates(Some of this is just crop timing as well) and/or have heirloom seeds rather than hybrids. Genetic diversity is still important. The very best resource is the Seed Savers Garden Seed Inventory. Take a look at that book to see what corporate farming has taken from us. A lower estimate I've heard is that 75% of our crop diversity has been lost since modern farming came into power.

Hope that get's you started, nebulawindphone. Feel free to ask me more. I could talk forever about this stuff :)
posted by a_green_man at 10:17 PM on May 15, 2006

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