Those Pesky Pests

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tomato hornwormtomato hornwormThere's nothing more frustrating than working hard with your child or grandchild to build and plant a garden, only to have pests munch your prized plants before you can. Insect pests can ruin the party by devouring the leaves and fruits of kids' hard work. However, pests also provide an educational opportunity to talk to kids about insects and their role in nature. Kids are sharp observers and finding some pests is like a game of hide-and-seek. Encourage kids to check their plants often, and take time together to identify any pests they find using books or the Internet. These resources can offer safe control tips, help get children excited about finding uninvited guests on their plants, and contribute to an ultimately successful experience that will keep kids coming back for more gardening fun.

Here are some common insect pests you may find in your garden this summer and organic controls to help reduce their impact. If using a pesticide -- including the organic controls we suggest here -- always follow the label directions, keep children away from freshly sprayed plants, and store any remaining pesticide safely. Even organic pesticides can be harmful if accidentally ingested. We've also included some fun activities for kids to make the insect world more engaging.

Soft-Bodied Bugs

Aphids, mealybugs, soft-shelled scale, spider mites, and thrips are all examples of soft-bodied insects. These creatures are small and hardly noticeable until you see yellowing leaves or stunted plants. Look for these pests on young growth, the undersides of leaves, and in leaf crotches. For fun, invite your child to try to spray the insects right off the plant using a strong stream of water from a hose nozzle! While this may not resolve the entire pest problem, kids love the idea of 'blasting' the insects away. Just be sure your child doesn't get too vigorous or they may harm the plant. Control any remaining pests with sprays of insecticidal soap or neem oil.


Some of the squishy caterpillars found in gardens include cabbageworms, tomato hornworms, and pickleworms. These pests are often hard to find, since their color generally matches the leaves they feed on. (Remember that game of hide-and-seek?) Take the opportunity to follow the life cycle of a caterpillar with your kids. For example, in early summer look for a white butterfly with a black spot on its wings fluttering around broccoli, cabbage, kale, and cauliflower plants. This is the adult of the cabbageworm caterpillar. It lays single white eggs on the undersides of leaves. Encourage kids to find the eggs, and then keep watch until the small green worms (caterpillars) hatch. This is the most destructive stage of the pest. Talk about squishing the eggs and small worms to control this pest. Also mention that if you squish the wrong caterpillar, you may kill one of the beautiful butterflies that adorn summer gardens, such as black swallowtails and monarchs. It's all about proper identification.

You'll know you've missed a few caterpillars if you find their blackish-green droppings in the center of a plant. Use Bacillus thuriengensis (Bt), a simple and safe biological spray, to control these pests. It only affects caterpillars and is safe for wildlife, beneficial insects, pets, and humans. It's also a great tool to facilitate a discussion about targeting pest controls to a problem insect rather than indiscriminately spraying to kill all insects.


Cucumber beetles, Japanese beetles, and Colorado potato beetles are among the toughest beetle pests to control in gardens. The key is a multi-pronged approach that involves hand picking, creating barriers, and using appropriate sprays. A fun tactic to use with kids is to launch a game to see who can collect the most adult beetles. The winner gets to blast aphids! (Or maybe enjoy an ice-pop reward.) Handpick beetles in the morning when they're sluggish and drop them into a container of soapy water. Also, encourage kids to check the undersides of leaves for the orange eggs of Colorado potato beetles and then crush them.

Use floating row covers to create barriers around any prized plants. This lightweight, cheesecloth-like fabric lets air, light, and water in but blocks pests. Remove the row cover from cucumber, squash, and pumpkin plants when they flower so bees can pollinate them. It's a great moment to talk about how fruits form on plants that have separate male and female flowers.

Spray Bacillus thuriengensis 'San Diego' to control immature Colorado potato beetles. Use neem oil and pyrethrum late in the day to control cucumber and Japanese beetles.

With close observation and a little forethought, you can turn pests in the garden into an educational adventure, and save your crops using safe techniques.

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