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By REBECCA SLOAN



Published: Sun, June 24, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By REBECCA SLOAN

VINDICATOR CORRESPONDENT

Every summer, gardeners everywhere grab their weapons and get ready for a fight.

It is an age-old battle and one that is fought with cunning strategy.

But although the enemy is dumb, small and easily squashed under the heel of a boot, this is a war not so easily won.

It is the war of human vs. bug, and in case you didn't know, June's hot sunshine just heated things up on the battleground, thrusting gardeners everywhere into full-blown combat.

If something is bugging you, form a plan of attack and get ready to shed some blood -- bug blood, that is.

As any good soldier will tell you, the first step to winning a battle is making yourself familiar with the enemy.

So if you're not sure what type of bug is crawling up your tomato vine or taking a bite out of your rose bush, then pay attention. In this neck of the woods, some bugs are more common than others. Let's start with aphids.

Aphids: These bugs can be green, black, brown, red or pink and are about1/6 to1/8 of an inch long with transparent wings and slender antennae. They are slow-moving and are drawn to succulent new plant growth. Aphid populations can build up fast, and dense colonies can be found along stems or on the undersides of leaves.

Aphids suck the sap out of plants, which causes leaves and stems to become wilted and distorted. As they munch, aphids excrete some of the plant sap, which leaves a black trail of mold on leaves and stems -- a sure sign of infestation.

There are a variety of pesticides on the market that will wipe out aphids, but if you want to take a more natural approach, there are some clever ways to lick these buggers while still being kind to the environment.

Washing aphids off of plants with a steady stream of soap and water is one way to keep them under control without using harsh chemicals.

You can also enlist the help of ladybugs, a human's insect ally in the war against bugs. Ladybugs will gobble up the aphid enemy in no time. They will also eat moth eggs, mealy bugs, spider mites and scale insects. In fact, each day a ladybug eats two and a half times its weight in pesky insects such as these.

If you have not seen hide nor hair of a ladybug in your yard for a coon's age, you can sometimes order these friendly insects through garden catalogues or get them at garden supply centers.

Another tip to keeping aphids under control: Avoid heavy applications of nitrogen fertilizer, which can attract them.

Beetles: If aphids haven't been bothering you, then perhaps cucumber beetles have. These striped beetles are yellow and black and are about1/5 of an inch long. There is also a spotted variety that has a black head and legs and a yellowish-green body.

Adult cucumber beetles lay their eggs in the soil at the base of a plant, and the larvae live in soil and feed on the underground parts of plants.

When the larvae emerge as adults, they feast on the leaves, blossoms and fruits of melon, squash, pumpkin, bean, asparagus, corn and, of course, cucumber plants. They are especially destructive to new seedlings that are just popping through the soil. Besides chewing up a storm, these destructive little pests can spread bacterial wilt and mosaic, which are two diseases that commonly afflict vine crops.

There are plenty of pesticides on the market you can use to control cucumber beetles. Lots of them come in the form of a powder or dust that can be sprinkled on infested plants.

If you wish to practice non-chemical warfare, cover vine plants with polyester row covers and remove the covers after plant blossoms appear so that pollinating insects can get to the flowers. You can purchase polyesterrow covers at most garden supply stores.

Another beetle that can destroy your plants lickety-split is the Japanese beetle, a coppery, metallic-green insect.

Japanese beetles have a one-year life cycle and spend 10 months of that time in the ground as a grub.

In late June, the first adult beetles emerge, and by July and August, armies of these pests are buzzing about.

Japanese beetles will feed on just about any plant. In fact, more than 276 plants are featured on their menu of choice. They can destroy leaves, flowers and fruits of plants, and leave pitiful leaf skeletons in their wake.

They especially love corn silk and corn-ear tips, grapevines, peach trees and rose bushes. Japanese beetle grubs will dine on grass roots in lawns, parks and cemeteries, leaving patches of dead grass behind.

Hand-picking the beetles off of plants is one not-so-lovely method of non-chemical warfare.

Experts warn against using traps, as the traps may actually attract more beetles to your garden.

Slugs: If it isn't a beetle that gardeners are battling, then it's probably a slug.

Slugs, which are considered mollusks and not insects, are the first pests to appear in the spring. They hatch from jelly-like masses found under flowerpots, old boards or in damp, dank crevices.

Slugs feed at night and leave a slimy trail behind them as they creep from place to place. They love cool, damp places and will eat large holes in the leaves and fruits of grown plants.

Slugs are difficult to control, but there is an unusual chink in their slimy armor - beer.

A container of stale beer will attract slugs, and the gluttonous creatures will drown themselves in the shallow dish that holds the beer and die a blissful death.

Spreading coarse sand, lime, eggshells or sawdust around plants, removing piles of leaves or thick mulch and leaving wider spaces between plants to allow for better air circulation will also deter these slimy pests.

Worms: If it's not a slug that's bugging you, then maybe it's a worm.

Cabbage worms, which are found on broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, collards, kale and kohlrabi plants, can make it easy to lose your appetite when it's time to dine on your leafy green vegetables.

These green worms, which are about one or two inches long, get their start in life after a white cabbage butterfly deposits its eggs on the underside of the plant's leaves.

The eggs are yellow, and the butterfly lays them in spring, so if you see a swarm of white butterflies around your broccoli, beware. As soon as the eggs hatch, the larvae start to feed on the plants. If left uncontrolled, cabbage worms can completely defoliate plants and will even eat into the fruits of the plants.

Certain pesticides will cut the life of a cabbage worm, but a more natural approach to the problem is planting beds of rosemary and thyme around plants. These herbs repel cabbage butterflies and worms and make a nice addition to any garden.

Speaking of worms, if you have tomato plants then you might also have hornworms.

Hornworms are large green and white striped worms with a slender horn on their hind ends. The worms are the larvae of hummingbird moths and feed almost exclusively on tomato plants. Because of their color and shape, they are difficult to spot on the plant and can easily go undetected.

Wasps prey upon hornworms, so if you don't want to spray your plants with an insecticide, just pray for an army of wasps to take care of the problem.

Although there are plenty of insects out there that can wreak havoc with our prized flowers and vegetables, not all bugs mean something bad for a garden.

In fact, of the 86,000 insects in North America, only one percent can be considered as pests. So remember that the next time you put on your combat boots and head out to squash every bug in sight.




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