Tips for getting rid of April's bugs in your garden

I've been rehabbing and resuscitating peace lilies and philodendron since I joined EMSI public relations six months ago and discovered an office full of lively people and comatose plants.

The near-dead are now thriving alongside angel wing begonias, little scheffleras, bad hair day plants, crotons, dracena. Most of my co-workers love plants, particularly if someone else takes care of them, and I'm happy to be that someone, so we've all been satisfactorily symbiotic.

Until a couple weeks ago. That's when we noticed clouds forming — swarms of teeny-weeny gnats. When they became thunderheads and started chasing people out of their offices, we called Marty Gagnon of Tropicare Termite & Pest Control in Land O'Lakes.

(Note to aspiring office gardeners: When you're repotting and watering and generally adding to the vegetative ambiance, you're a hero. But oh how quickly colleagues will turn on you when they hear fungal gnats are copulating on their desks!)

"People are surprised to learn fungal gnats are coming from their plants," Marty says. "They think they're coming from the garbage or the drains. We see it a lot."

Fungal gnats are not the fruit flies you find buzzing the banana peel you left by the phone over the weekend. And they're not the drain flies that breed in the shower no one uses. Fungal gnats grow in soil that stays moist and in vases of water that don't get changed too often, Marty says.

"Remove the source of the problem," he says. "Take the plants outside and let them dry out. That will kill the larvae. The adults live five to seven days, but they'll die and that will end the life cycle."

Our problem was a bit out of hand, so we hauled our plants outside for a dose of Marty's medicine. If you have fungal gnats and want to use an insecticide, ask for a recommended product at your nursery or big-box garden center, he says. And be sure to follow the directions.

He also hinted I might be overwatering. Et tu, Marte?

Beware caterpillars!

While tossing clippings from his duranta recently, Doug Nelson of St. Petersburg spotted three neon green caterpillars bristling with little hairs. Wary of the bright color — nature's skull and crossbones — he didn't touch them.

He posted a photo on Facebook's You can grow that! group page, where local gardening guru Rick Brown identified them as io moth caterpillars. And Doug's gut was spot on; those tiny spines pack some powerful poison.

We have a few varieties of stinging moth caterpillars, some of which can drop you to your knees with pain. They hatch when it gets warm, so they're now on the prowl. The Poison Center of Tampa says if you're stung, put tape over the area and strip it off repeatedly to remove the spines. Apply an ice pack and baking soda paste to ease the sting ("feels like 100 wasps," I read on one website). If you have allergies, call a doctor.

You can see photos of all seven local stinging varieties at poisoncentertampa.org; click on "Bites & Stings ..." in the box to the right, then scroll down to "Stinging Caterpillars." Or call the center's hotline toll-free at 1-800 222-1222.

Doug shook his io moth cats off the clippings and back onto the duranta.

"I didn't want to kill them," he says. "No sense in that."

Kudos, Doug. It's a big, bad world out there if you're a juicy little caterpillar; who can blame them just trying to survive to moth-hood? Gardens need moths, too.

It's raining cutworms

Greg Shell, owner of Shell's Feed Store on N Nebraska Avenue in Tampa, supplies us urban-suburban gardeners with all the stuff you can usually find only in the country, from Rhode Island Red chicks to hand-bagged Just Right turnip seeds. Greg's also a gardener so when we have a problem, he does, too. For those growing veggies, that's cutworm.

The variety we know best neatly snips tender young plant stems at the soil line. But Greg says there are several species, all from the Noctuidae moth family. The one he's seeing feeds on leaves till they look like Swiss cheese.

"If your garden is near oak trees, you're more susceptible because they blow down from the trees when it rains," he says. "If your leaves have holes, look for the bugs on the underside. When they're very young, they're very, very small."

Greg's favorite insecticide for the edible garden is Conserve because it's organic and covers everything except spider mites.

"It's obviously worked very well for me since I haven't found a single worm on my plants in days," he says.

The downside? Conserve is toxic to bees for about three hours after application. He sprays in the late evening to avoid killing his good bugs.

Cutworms love young plants, but feeding plants of any age too much nitrogen will make them super tasty to those and other pests, including aphids.

"My garden insect/fungicide method is 'prevention before intervention,'" Greg says. "It's all organic methods, and I preach it to my customers all the time."

More on lubbers

I got lots of emails when I wrote about my war on Eastern lubber grasshoppers a couple weeks ago. It's nice to know there's an army of us out there doing the job Mother Nature has completely neglected. A couple of readers recommended new weapons for our arsenal:

DustBust 'em

"We take a plain old DustBuster to them (nymphs and juveniles) and I can collect a hundred or so in it, maybe more, until the battery is dead," writes Andy Carr of Spring Hill. "Once we have them in the Buster, my wife (Gina) holds the small garbage bags, doubled, and I dump 'em in, tie 'em off and sooo long you ugly little plant-eating varmints."

Less hands-on

"In 2010 I first noted the lubbas on the screen around my pool. I was infested with them," writes Thomas McGowan, also from Spring Hill.

Last year he tried Bonide's Systemic Granules Insect Control ($16.99 for 4 pounds at Sherwood Forest in Spring Hill). Scatter the granules on the ground around your ornamentals and they absorb it. It's effective for about eight weeks, Thomas says.

"I was amazed at the result. It kills the nymphs," he writes. "Last year I only observed and killed about a dozen adults."

Reach Penny Carnathan at penlyn1@tampabay.rr.com. Find more of her gardening tales at digginfladirt.com or join her and other local gardeners chatting at facebook.com/digginfloridadirt.

Tips for getting rid of April's bugs in your garden 04/19/12 [Last modified: Friday, April 20, 2012 6:26pm]

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