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Everyday Gardeners

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Watch for Hitchhikers

Mealybug on HibiscusEvery fall I bring into the house a large number of my favorite tropical plants from the summer season. Because I’m fortunate enough to live in a house with very large windows, I get enough light to keep most of my plants going through the cold months.

 

I’ve learned from experience that it’s vital to watch for pests — and treat them before they make it into the house. One of the most troublesome is mealybug. It looks like a little tiny white piece of cotton when young; it’s easy to miss. Mealybugs reproduce like wildfire — and just one hitchhiker can turn into a full-scale epidemic in just a couple of months.

 

Prevent pests from being problematic by:

  • Hosing off plants with a strong stream of water from the garden hose before you bring them in.
  • Carefully examining plants for the actual insects (a magnifying glass helps).
  • Spraying plants with insecticidal soap (available at your local garden center), making sure to get the tops and bottoms of the leaves.
  • Cutting plants back a bit, as many insects prefer to feed on the new growth.

Japanese beetle attack

Japanese beetles feeding on Knock Out rose

Japanese beetles feeding on Knock Out rose

Every morning for the past week and a half, my day has started by making the rounds of the garden in search of Japanese beetles. These voracious pests prefer the roses in my garden, but I’ve also found them on raspberries, hydrangeas, asparagus, and hibiscus. And I’ve seen evidence of their feeding on chokeberries and cannas, too. They can feed on more than 300 species of plants, so they may choose others in your yard. At other locations I’ve seen extensive leaf feeding on grapes, golden rain trees, and  lindens. Most feeding injury occurs on plants in full sun. Damage can quickly mount up because as the beetles feed, they give off a pheromone that attracts other beetles to the site. That’s why you’ll often find clusters of them feeding as on the Knock Out rose pictured above.

Damage to foliage is characterized by leaf skeletonization. The beetles eat the “good stuff” and leave the tough veins behind. Lower on the same rose plant I found the skeletonized leaves pictured below.

Leaf skeletonization from Japanese beetle feeding on rose

Leaf skeletonization from Japanese beetle feeding on rose

Rather than allowing the beetles free reign of the yard, I fight back with a bucket of soapy water. The beetles have the curious habit of dropping off their feeding site when disturbed before flying away. This trait makes it fairly easy to hold a small bucket with several inches of soapy water (I use liquid dish detergent) under the flower or foliage being devoured, and with a light brush of the hand, sweep the beetles into the bucket where they meet a quick demise.

In the grand scheme of things, collecting Japanese beetles every morning during their month-long feeding cycle may not put a noticeable dent in the population (unless you can convince enough of your neighbors to join the attack), but it feels better to be doing something to thwart their actions than to give in to their appetites. And I have to think that eliminating hundreds of hungry beetles at least does a little good. If nothing else, I get the satisfaction of seeing a bucket full of dead beetles!

A morning's harvest of Japanese beetles

A morning's harvest of Japanese beetles

For a list of plants that Japanese beetles tend to avoid, and more control tips, read our online story about Japanese beetle control.


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