Miss Floribunda: Halloween List of Garden Horrors

Tent catepillars or The Mummy Multiplied.

Dear Miss Floribunda,

Last October your “War of the Weeds” column gave a rundown on the most evil weeds invading our gardens. It actually helped me figure out what to pull out this year. Still, my garden has gone through a horrible summer due to insect damage. Maybe you could make a Halloween list of some of those baddies to help me identify them.

Nightmare on Nicholson Street

Dear Nightmare,

Although you haven’t identified the plants damaged, it’s not difficult to guess which marauders were most likely to ravage your garden. Here are the Top Ten Garden Horrors:

10) The Harlequin Beetles, or Killer Clowns. They look bright and festive in their yellow and black spotted outfits, but they spell doom for your kale, collards, cabbages, and broccoli. Another cute but lethal lookalike is the yellow-and-black striped or spotted cucumber beetle that not only kills cucumbers but melons and other cucurbits. And there’s the pretty red and black bean beetle that doesn’t limit itself to beans but will attack beets, squash, peas and tomatoes. (Don’t mistake it for its cousin, the beneficial ladybug — it’s no lady.) The best deterrent for these bozos is the planting of strong-scented herbs, garlic, and/or pungent marigolds and chrysanthemums among your crops.

9) Tent Caterpillars, or The Mummy Multiplied. Larvae of an array of moths spin shrouds of silk around trees and shrubs and then proceed to devour the leaves at their leisure. Although many trees do survive defoliation and the shrouds fall off, it’s best to remove them as soon as you see them. This mummy will return for sequel after sequel!   

8) Tomato Hornworm, or The Invisible Mandible. This predator is hard to spot because it takes on the exact shade of green of the stem it crawls on and so blends right into the background. It not only chews up stems and leaves but even your fruit. Although the damage is done for this year, be sure to rototill the soil after taking away the plants so that all larvae are destroyed. If you are rotating your tomato patch, also rototill the new plot before planting again.

7) Japanese Beetle, or Bugzilla. Although not giant in size, this monster and its friends can devastate your rose garden as if it were Tokyo. The only thing I’ve seen work effectively is a kind of sun tea my neighbor Nosmo King made from a gift of cigars. Reacting to tea sprayed on the roses, the beetles fell like kamikaze planes. But nicotine is harmful to other insects too, so I can’t recommend it. Prevention is better. If you see a beetle, nip the buds off your roses before they bloom to keep their fragrance from drawing this beast to them. The only good thing is that it doesn’t reappear regularly — rarely does it produce a remake. By the way, milky spore disease is only helpful if everyone in your neighborhood applies it to their lawns also. NEVER use the traps — they draw beetles that might never have thought of coming and double the damage.

6) Cabbage Worms, or Zombie Invasion. These creatures may not be after brains, but they certainly will devour the heads of cabbage, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts with savage gusto. They are produced by those ghostly white butterflies that flutter about like spirits from the Elysian Fields. No, they are quite alive and they spawn relentless eating machines. To make them quite dead, sprinkle a combination of baking soda and flour on your crucifers. Remember to reapply after each rain.

5) Squash Bugs, or Life-Sucking Vampires. They crave sap the way vampires crave blood. Going even further, they use their needle-like mouthparts to inject a toxin into the tender stems and young fruit of squash and pumpkins. You can vanquish them with a garlic spray made by soaking garlic cloves in mineral oil and adding water and soap. If you lay thin wooden boards down, they will go under them like Dracula retiring to his coffin. In the morning, you can lift the boards and dispatch them.

4) Whiteflies, or the Vineyard of the Damned. These pallid little demons particularly like to gang up on grapes, citrus fruit, and tomatoes, but they will also swarm together to attack such vegetables as kale, okra, eggplant, and peppers, as well as winter-weakened azaleas and other shrubs. Explosives won’t work with these creatures, but a strong spray of water will help, as will sticky traps and horticultural oil.

3) Slug, or The Blob. This  disgusting mollusc eats everything in its path, including vegetables, flowers, mulch, earthworms, and carrion, and it can double in size in a single night. It has a teen’s curiosity about beer, though, and some report success putting out pans of brewski in which the hapless creature drowns. Others prefer the deterrent of a rough surface of sand, crushed eggshells, or diatomaceous earth around vegetables and flowers. Copper tape, though expensive, will repel them. Don’t use salt — it kills the slug but is bad for your soil.

2) Cutworms, or Edward Scissorjaws. If only they were artificial fantasies, but these creatures are very real and very destructive to lawns and gardens. They bite off seedlings and young plants right at ground level, so cardboard collars and aluminum foil around them is recommended. Like slugs, they don’t like crushed eggshell or diatomaceous earth either. Make your garden bird-friendly, since birds can significantly reduce their numbers.

1) Squash Borer, or Alien. This creature destroys from within, and when it pops out, all is over for the plant — usually before anything edible can develop. It is the bane of zucchini. It overwinters in soil, so it is a good idea to rotate squash crops yearly. Also watch out for the “mom,” a rather attractive red and black clearwing moth. Put out sticky traps to catch her before she perforates your squash stems and lays the eggs that develop into this super-destructive larvae.

The next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society take place on Saturday, October 15, at the home of Joe Buriel and Dave Roeder, 3909 Longfellow St. The meeting starts at 10 a.m. and includes a plant exchange.