There is nothing worse than successfully starting your seedlings and hardening off your seedlings only to have them fall prey to garden pests once they are in your garden! There are so many things out there in the real world that want to eat what you want to grow. So it is important to take precautions to protect your plants so that they have a chance to grow and give you the bounty you deserve.
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Garden pests come in all shapes and sizes. They can attack from above, below or anywhere in between. They could be fluffy, feathered or scaly (or whatever bugs are that works…you get where I am going). So let’s take a look first at some common animal garden pests and how to deal with them. Then we can move on to some common insect garden pests and what you can do when they appear in your yard.
Common Animals Garden Pests
First, let’s start with the wee whiskered crowd. I’m talking about mice, voles and yes rats. I’m not hating on them, honestly, I think they are cute and my son had pet rats for years. That said I don’t want them ruining my harvest either. If you have a compost pile (congratulations if you do, I love making my own dirt) that can definitely attract rodents (and other critters to your yard). I currently use a rotating compost and I haven’t had issues with critters.
Another thing that can attract them to your yard is shelter. They love to hide out in piles of firewood, garbage cans, etc. So keeping your yard as tidy as possible can help a bit, but in reality these guys are little and can make a home just about anywhere. Birdfeeders can also attract then as you are basically giving them shelter and a buffet!
Rats, mice and voles are primarily nocturnal so you may not see them scurrying around but you can definitely see the damage they can leave in their wake. Also keep an eye out for signs of tunnels that tend to have openings of about 6-9cm. You may also notice their cylindrical droppings or telltale gnaw marks on wood or your veggies.
So here are some of the best ways to deal with rodents in your garden:
- Keep your garden tidy and cut the grass – handy incase your mum or mother in law may stop by as well.
- Move things around – rodents are creatures of habit and don’t like it when things are changed.
- Keep bird feeders away from your veggie garden
- Keep them out from under decks and sheds – This is easier said than done but do your best to ensure they can’t get under or in these structures.
- Keep them out of your compost – As I mentioned a rotating compost bin is great for this.
- Remove produce as soon as it is ripe.
- Let the dogs out! Rodents aren’t going to like having a dog running around which can help to dissuade them from taking up residence in your yard.
- Remove pooling water – which is also important to reduce the mosquito population as well.
Personally I like squirrels but a lot of people do not. They are quite partial to apples, cherry tomatoes, tulip bulbs among other things. They tend to be more active in the fall as they prepare to stock up for winter. They will also lay a beating on any bird feeder in sight.
These guys are honestly harder to keep out than many other four legged pests. Some things to try are cayenne or pepper flakes sprinkled around your plants. You can also install hoops over your raised beds, which are great for keeping a variety of intruders out. Dog or human hair sprinkled around the garden. can help, but honestly it kind of grosses me out so this option isn’t high on my list.
My favourites are gorgeous nasturtiums, they really are the go-to plant for the garden. On top of that, they are also edible! I haven’t tried nom nom noming on them yet but damn they are pretty. I picked up some gorgeous orchid cream nasturtiums from Baker Creek Heirloom seeds.
If you live anywhere in or about a city you probably have raccoons. They love to get into your garbage and your garden. There was even the whole #deadraccoonto craze of 2015. If you missed it, a raccoon died in Toronto and was there for a bit before the city moved it to its final resting place. In the meantime, the residents of Toronto gleefully created a memorial for the less than fortunate raccoon. Complete with flowers, a framed picture of a raccoon in its prime and even cards.
In my own garden, I have had to deal with one pesky raccoon that even managed to get into my bird feeder. It would sit there watching me as a flailed my arms and flashed the backyard light on and off. It just sat there watching me and continuing to munch on the birdseed. Sigh, Kiri 0, Raccoon 1. Which brings me to one option (which also works for squirrels), move the bird feeder.
Raccoons also LOVE corn, so if you are growing it like me then one option is to sprinkle blood meal around the base of the plants. Wood ash also help to keep them at bay or a mixture of garlic and chilli powder. You can also make a hot pepper spray of sorts that you can spray on your veggies (just don’t forget to wash them off before you eat them). All you need is a bottle of hot sauce, a small container of cayenne pepper and a gallon of water. Mix everything together in a spray bottle and spritz your plants. Don’t forget to reapply it after it rains.
Peter Rabbit may be great for bedtime stories but you don’t want him decimating your vegetable garden! Before you can deal with this type of garden invasion you will need to determine if rabbits are in fact to blame. Generally, rabbits will nibble plants to the ground with a clean-cut edge as if they were almost cut with scissors. I currently suspect them of devouring my asparagus but it could have been Bacon (my French Bulldog) as well, so the jury is out on that one. You can also keep an eye out for their telltale circular poops.
As with rodents and other animals, one thing that is important to do is making your garden less attractive to them. This means keeping the grass short, blocking access under and into structures and piles of wood or brush to a minimum. Barriers can be effective at keeping rabbits out also letting the dogs out can be a deterrent.
Personally I think baby skunks are adorable! Did you know they also make the cutest little grunts and funny noises? Seriously. Look I will even wait for you to go google “baby skunk noises”. That said I don’t want them eating my vegetables. Typically skunks are more likely to make a home under your deck or shed rather than pillaging your vegetable garden.
That said they do enjoy munching on corn and especially grubs. It is relatively easy to keep them out of your vegetable garden by using some sturdy fencing that they can’t go under or through. They can also be dissuaded by bright lights (they hate these).
Birds can be a bit more challenging as they are most likely to target your garden from above. You can go old skool and get yourself (or make) a scarecrow. The modern version of the scarecrow are terror eye balloons or you could use a decoy owl. Personally I haven’t had too many issues with birds (I probably shouldn’t have said that), but plan on making some hoops for my raised beds if this does become an issue. So that is an option is you are dealing with an aerial assault.
Keep in mind that birds also do help to control some other pests such as slugs, snails and some other insects so keeping them out can lead to other issues.
Now I realize that deer aren’t going to be an issue for most urban or suburban gardeners. However, if you live anywhere close to where they roam they can be quite a nuisance. Also given their intelligence, size and strength they can be quite difficult to deal with. The best way to deter deer is to use deer netting around your garden.
If deer are the bane of your existence then be sure to reduce or eliminate deer attractants such as rhododendrons and yew. Likewise, you should increase the types of plants that deer avoid such as boxwoods, daffodils, foxgloves, poppies and bronzeleaf honeysuckle.
Common Insects Garden Pests
Slugs & snails
Slugs and snails will make a be line for your beans, lettuce, tomatoes and cabbage. One easy way to deal with them (if you are willing to part with it) is beer. Yup, beer. I mean it’s not just a matter of putting a can on the other side of the garden to lure them away, but almost as easy. All you need to do is get a container and bury it to the rim and then pour the beer into the container. The slugs and snails will be attracted to it and will fall in an drown.
Another less morose option is to sprinkle crushed eggshells along the surface of the soil. The shape edges are obviously less than appealing to slugs and snails and it can help to keep them away from your precious leafy veggies.
A final option is to lay down some cardboard on the surface of the soil. In the morning you can go out and “harvest” the slugs from underneath the damp cardboard. Oh and if you are lucky enough to have ducks then they can also be amazing at helping to control the slug and snail population in your garden!
If you have caterpillars then you will actually want to see birds in your yard. Caterpillars can very quickly become a huge problem in a vegetable garden! While butterflies are a beautiful and functional addition to any yard, their babies (ie: caterpillars) are not usually so well received. So how can you deal with these critters in your garden? As I mentioned birds are the best line of defence as a natural predator of caterpillars. But there are some other options.
You can make some DIY insecticidal soap with soap and water which can be sprayed on your plants. Another option is to simply pick them off and drop them into a container of water and dish soap. Neither of these is my method of choice as we rely on butterflies as pollinators and I hate to do anything to disrupt that. So another option is to gather them up and move them to an alternate home. Keep in mind that if they do not have access to plants they can eat then this is no better than popping them in the bucket.
Prevention is always the best medicine. In this case, if you are using raised beds then hoops can help prevent caterpillars and a host of other wee beasties from making their way to your precious plants. Or you can choose to share the bounty of your garden with caterpillars at least to help ensure the next generation of pollinators. The choice is yours to make.
That said sometimes you have a choice to make, as I did when I found some swallowtail caterpillars in my carrots and on my fennel. I decided to leave them be as doing my part to help bring the next generation of pollinators into to world wasn’t even a decision. If they want to eat my greens, then they can have as much as they want!
These guys are horrible, they are an invasive species from Japan (as the name implies) and they can wreak havoc on your garden. This is especially true if you like to grow raspberries or grapes as I do. They can turn the leaves into skeletons in a short period of time which is extremely detrimental to your plants. They also have a fondness for rosebuds which they decimate from the inside. In my own garden, I have also found they congregate and destroy my Rose of Sharon flowers.
If you wake up to an infestation then your best bets are to use a Japanese beetle trap, start applying neem oil or get yourself a bucket of soapy water, some gloves and start picking them off and popping them into the water. However, prevention is best and you can achieve this by using beneficial nematodes in your garden. These are best applied in the spring before the overwintering grubs have a chance to emerge.
These little beetles can be quite a nuisance, they get the “flea” moniker due to their ability to jump about like fleas. Look for their eggs down by the base of the plant stem. The wee beasties start to feast on the roots once they hatch. Once matured they move up the plant to start feasting on leaves, leaving round holes. So these guys attack the plant from the bottom and the top! Ironically it is not the physical damage that they do to the plants that is the biggest issue. They are known to spread bacterial diseases such as blight and wilt.
These little pests are attracted to nasturtiums and radishes but shy away from basil. If you are using raised beds then row covers/hoops can help to keep them away from your plants. Sticky traps can help as well by catching the flea beetles when they jump. Beneficial nematodes will also help to deal with these pests when they are in the larval stage. Another option is to use diatomaceous earth, just be careful when applying as you don’t want to inhale any! Neem oil can help to control them at all stages of development.
These pests will literally wander into your garden and will travel from plant to plant. The larva cause the most damage to plants and they attack via the roots. They tunnel thought plant roots and can lead to wilting leaves even when you know that you are watering them sufficiently. Luckily they only tend to have one generation per year, so if you can keep them at bay you are in the clear for this common garden pest at least!
The fact that these guys get from plant to plant-powered by their wee legs means that diatomaceous earth makes a good defence against these common garden pests.
Leaf miner damage hurts your plants and has the added kick in the pants of making them unsightly too. They are not a death sentence for plants like some other garden pests, but they sure aren’t helping your harvest. It’s pretty easy to know when you have leaf miners as it will look like some small and disobedient child has drawn all over your leaves with a white sharpie (do they even make those?). But, it’s not the adults that cause the damage but their larva that is to blame.
As with any insect pests, you could opt to use commercial insecticides but they are not always the most effective and the harm they do often goes far beyond the specific target. So they are not anything that I ever opt to use in my own garden. So if you are inclined to use more natural means then you can opt to look to the leaf miners natural enemy a wasp, known to the scientifically inclined the Diglyphus isaea. Or if you can’t find them then you can resort to the wonder oil (at least in terms of gardening) neem oil. It can help to reduce the amount of larva that survive. Hoops over raised beds can also help to keep the adults away from your plants so that they do not have the ability to lay eggs.
Have you heard of squash bugs before? The science type people like to call them Anasa tristis. I hadn’t until recently and even if I had seen them I probably would have thought they were stink bugs. Why? Well they look very similar and they even stink if you happen to squish one. That said, they are not stink bugs and they will do a lot more harm to your garden, especially if you love growing squash as I do!
These common garden pests are often found on your winter squash, zucchinis and pumpkins. Though you will also want to keep an eye on your melons and cucumbers too. You don’t want these guys in your garden so prevention is key. You will want to keep an eye out for any adults as well as egg masses. There are definitely some things you can do to prevent and deal with an infestation. Here is some more information about squash bugs and how to deal with them.
Tobacco & Tomato Hornworms
If we going to have a conversation about common garden pests and you grow tomatoes then we need to talk about both the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta) and the tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata). Wait…what? Yup, there are two types of these not so little buggers, they can be up to 5″ long! They also love helping themselves to your tomatoes!
If you were curious to determine which type you have there are two features that differ between the two. The tomato hornworm has white v-shaped markings with green edges and a dark blue horn on its bum. Whereas, the tobacco hornworm has parallel white stripes with black dots along the edges and a red horn on its bum. Above is a picture of a tobacco hornworm helping itself to some of my beautiful heirloom tomatoes.
Once they have eaten their fill of your tomatoes the enter into their pupal stage. They will overwinter in the soil and the large sphynx moths will emerge in the spring to start the cycle again. It’s hard to believe once you have seen one that they could start out as. a wee egg or teeny-tiny caterpillar. As with most pests, the best defence is a good offence. Tilling your soil at the beginning and end of each growing season can have a significant effect in ridding you of the overwintering larvae. If you already have them in your garden you can simply remove them from the plants and either drop them in soapy water or if you are lucky enough to have backyard chickens then they will appreciate the treat! I have heard that these guys grow under black light, so I am going to test out this theory and I will let you guys know if it actually works.
Ugh, aphids! These itty bitty pests are usually found in droves on your plants. They can cause your plants to be small, with yellow and/or curling leaves. A quick peek under the leaves should give you an idea if aphids are to blame or not. If you have them you may see clumps of them. Alternatively, you may see the sticky residue they leave behind after their feasting is complete (known as ‘honeydew’). They can be green, brown, yellow, red or black and they are a pain in the ass.
They reproduce very quickly so you will end up dealing with more than one generation in a growing season unless you can get them under control. They tend to target (and transmit diseases too) tomatoes, squash, swiss chard, lettuce, beetroot, melons, potatoes and beans.
You can deal with them in a few ways. One is to hose them off the infected plants, but you need to do this every day for about two weeks. Plus you need to make sure they don’t move to other plants so this isn’t my method of choice. You could use an insecticidal soap but I don’t EVER use this in my garden. My top recommendation would be to make some your own insecticidal soap so that you know what is in it!
As with most of these pest situations prevention is the best medicine. The natural enemy of aphids are ladybugs so you will want to make sure to attract these to your garden.
So there you have it, it’s quite a long list and far from exhaustive. What pests are you dealing with this season? What are your go-to methods for getting rid or them or better yet preventing them in the first place?