Coping with yard and garden pests, critters, and plant diseases the wildlife friendly way
Part one: I Critters
A great joy is observing and encouraging birds, butterflies, pollinators, and other wildlife, especially in my yard and neighborhood. I am alarmed and discouraged to observe a noticeable reduction in the numbers of butterflies, other pollinators, and birds over time. In fact, this is part of a disturbing and very real global trend. In addition to climate change, the main culprits are the mass use of pesticides and herbicides and the constant removal of native vegetation due to a number of factors like development, frequent mowing of natural areas, and landscaping with non-native plants.
One thing I would ask all to consider, In addition to landscaping with native plants, is whether or not we can use less poisons overall, or at least more wildlife-friendly, targeted ones, to control what we might consider to be pests. For example...
Ants: I will be the first to admit that I dislike, and treat for, fire ants. For those in my yard I use Amdro, which is very targeted and usually only makes it into the ant colony itself. Be sure to follow the directions on the Container. But other species of ants are often only a problem if they get into our house or bird nest boxes. There is a bait called Terro that can be used indoors or outdoors and which works effectively. The active ingredient is simply boric acid!
Mosquitoes love me, and I hate them! But instead of having my yard sprayed routinely, or using any poisons at all for that matter, I knock down their populations by making sure I don’t have any leaking irrigation, flower pots that are stagnant with water, rain gutters with water, etc. And if you have any places that accumulate water - for example, where the air-conditioner condenser drips water onto the ground, in a birdbath, in the basins under flower pots, or so on - try a product called Mosquito Bits, which kills larval mosquitoes but is otherwise completely harmless. You simply re-apply the pellets every few weeks and voila! The mosquitoes (in at least your own yard) are prevented from reproducing.
IF you don’t poison them, your dragonflies, frogs and toads, and bats really help with mosquitoes, not to mention goldfish, koi, mosquitofish, etc. if you have a pond. Although the technology is improving, those ultraviolet bug zappers still kill huge numbers of harmless or even beneficial insects and should be avoided. I recently discovered a new product, called the Biogents System, uses a packet containing chemical similar to those that humans emit, And uses this to Laura mosquitoes into the trap where they are desiccated in the bag. It captures specifically the Tiger mosquitoes that our abundance here and carry disease. Read more about this on my mosquitoes page.
Most snail poisons these days, like Sluggo, are wildlife friendly: but the old ones containing deadly metaldehyde should be avoided. The best method of control is right after it rains, and taking them out of your garden and dispatching them with a bootheel works very effectively.
For roaches, I use the old-fashioned roach motels (ordered from Amazon) in my house and on my enclosed patio. Seal up cracks, crevices, and door and window insulation to keep them out. Roaches are creepy but are not a huge health hazard, although some folks have allergies to them.
Please please please never ever use sticky traps outside. They kill beneficial insects, lizards, birds, harmless snakes, and more. Speaking of beneficial insects, many of the ones you see conspicuously on plants, like most types of bees, as well as wheel bugs, assassin bugs, dragonflies, and spiders, are there trying to help you eat the bugs in your garden or pollinate your plants!
Many wasps are eating the beetle larvae that attract armadillos to dig in your lawn, or the caterpillars that are eating the plants in your garden. If yellow jackets or paper wasps have a nest near the entrance to my house, I wait ‘til night and then just knock the nest down with a long pole and move it away from the house or destroy it. Otherwise, these wasps as well as all the other wasps and bees are completely uninterested in you, and most of them don’t even sting! And many help us as pollinators, too.
I know I’m never going to convince many of you that spiders are almost always harmless (and in fact always beneficial), and a plastic cup and sheet of thin cardboard are all you need to relocate them outside rather than kill them.
As far as scorpions, the most earth friendly thing you can do is to buy a portable ultraviolet light. They glow greenish in the dark, so turn off your lights in your house and check all the dark corners, backs of closet, etc. (You’ll also discover if your cat is urinating in the house, unbeknownst to you!) Go around the perimeter of your house at night, and don’t have brush or wood piles and such next to your house. I never kill scorpions, but I can understand why people would. I simply grab them with tweezers or use a cup and sheet of paper to move them well away from my house. If this approach doesn’t appeal to you, diatomaceous earth or boric acid, spread near likely entryways, are relatively harmless; when freshly applied, the powder can get into the tiny holes through which insects and arachnids breathe, smothering them.
If you have snakes in your yard...lucky you! Most species of snakes are beneficial, controlling the kinds of pests that you would much rather not have them harmless snakes. Most importantly, learn the snake species so that you don’t remove or even kill the harmless and beneficial ones. Many snakes look like and even mimic rattlesnakes, which it is understandable to wish to avoid. But remember, every snake removed from your yard that is not a rattlesnake, creates a vacancy that is much more likely to be occupied by one! Many communities, including the one in which I live, I have various services or even “Snake Wranglers” that will come, remove, and relocate your snake if you really feel the need.
Chemical and non-organic fertilizers like miracle grows and turf builders create an actual dependency in the garden. My main fertilizers are the leaves that I mow back into my lawn or rake or sweep together and put in my planters, and occasionally I add organic fertilizers or compost that contain soil microorganisms. Even horse manure is underrated!
Mulched leaves return a lot of the trace nutrients to the soil. I never throw away leaves from native trees, but you should always get rid of the leaves from Ligustrum, oleander, and all the other non-native stuff. If your leaves are from live oaks or post oaks, you need to mulch them finely. Rain and grass clippings contain nitrogen, so if you mulch mow your lawn, you seldom if ever need to add fertilizer! I always supplement with mulch and add compost whenever I plant. You can get all the free mulch you want from that TDS transfer station by San Gabriel Park. It isn’t the best stuff, but it works just fine in planters.
One more note. “Weed and feed” is not the way to go. Look around; if you see red oaks and other trees with dead or dying limbs, that may be due to overuse of “weed and feed” products. If a native plant sprouts up in your yard, why not just give it a chance and let it grow? You can always pull it out later. Some people seem so paranoid about weeds it makes me crazy! If you have faith in your lawnmower, knocking the tops off of most weeds will eventually cause them to give up. Remember that all a weed is, is a plant growing where you don’t want it. Many of our weeds are actually native annuals and perennials that are either host or pollinator plants for our critters that we want! My motto is, “when in doubt, don’t pull it out!”
I have some opinions about stuff...that I want to share with fellow nature lovers and tree huggers!
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