Dirty Business: Pest Control

It doesn't have to be the nuclear option

If you’re going to grow a vegetable garden, then you’re definitely going to have to deal with all kinds of pests.  I’m not talking about the neighbor or family member who jams you every year for fresh produce.  I’m talking about pests that destroy your crops.  They come in a variety of forms, from birds to mammals to bugs.  So, we’re going to—very briefly—go through some pest types and what Mrs. Butcher and I do to keep them at bay.

Pest #1:  Birds.

Birds, generally speaking, are great.  They sing, they have pretty colors, and they eat from our various and sundry bird feeders which is fun to watch.  However, certain birds can be a real problem when it comes to fruit crops.  We have a small blueberry patch which we have to make sure is harvested right on cue because the birds (especially, my favorites:  the orioles) will strip those bushes clean in no time.  The past couple of years I’ve tried to keep them away by installing a wren house near the blueberries because wrens don’t eat fruit and they chase away other birds.  But, this year, no wrens have come to take up residence.  So, we got some bird netting from Johnny’s Selected Seeds.  The netting is 30’ x 14’, so it won’t cover all the way to the ground, but it will cover enough to flummox the birds.  If I just draped the netting over the bushes, it wouldn’t do any good.  The birds could still land on the bushes and eat most of the berries.  So, instead, I needed to sink some 1’ x 1’ posts in the ground and drape the netting over the top.  Then I wrapped the netting against itself along the sides and tied them together with twine.  The result is that probably 80% of the berries will now be out of the reach of the birds.

Next year, when we start harvesting the strawberries, we’ll have to do something similar, but we’ll probably use chicken wire because the squirrels can chew through the netting.

Yes, Blue Lou Marini, chicken wire.

Pest #2: Mammals

There are all kinds of mammals which can decimate a garden, but probably the two most common are groundhogs and rabbits.  You know you have a groundhog problem when you leave the house for a few hours and when you return your garden has been completely annihilated.  Rabbits tend to be more judicious in their eating habits than groundhogs, but can still do real damage.  Because our current garden is grown in a series of landscaped beds, rather than a rectangular flat area, we had to make certain compromises to address both problems.  In the past, when we had rectangular gardens, we just ran a length of rabbit guard fencing around the perimeter and then lined both sides of the fence with cinder blocks to keep the groundhogs from digging underneath.  Well, we can’t do that here, so instead we had to build cages for some of the plants. 

These cages aren’t made from rabbit guard because rabbit guard is designed to be used as a fence, with smaller holes near the ground and larger holes near the top.  We needed something that was uniform so we used galvanized fencing to deal with the larger and more immediate problem of the groundhogs.  We don’t cage everything because as voracious as groundhogs are, they won’t eat certain plants:  most herbs, anything from the onion family, and tomatoes.  The cages are movable because we rotate our crops each year, and we designed them to have wire doors on the tops so we can easily get in there to harvest or mulch.  They’re not pretty but they do the job.  We haven’t had a problem with the groundhogs in a few years.

But, as you can see, the holes are large enough to let smaller mammals through, such as a certain little bunny to which Butcher Dog alerted me recently.

Butcher Dog really, really wanted to eat this little bunny. I did not let her.

You’ll notice, however, that this little guy isn’t munching on the basil leaves in the bed.  That’s because we thought ahead when going with the cage system and planted a bunch of clover seed all over the place.  There’s a clearer picture of the clover in the first picture of the cage, above.  Bunnies prefer clover compared to other things like herbs or cabbage, so if there’s an abundance of it, then they’ll go for that first.  So far, so good.

Pest #3:  Aphids

Mrs. Butcher was looking at what has now become an officially invasive crop of cilantro when she noticed that it was covered in aphids.  Now, being the sensible person that I am, I saw no problem with that because the foulness of the cilantro would very likely poison the aphids.  But, where there is one aphid, there are thousands—and they don’t restrict themselves to only eating disgusting garbage like cilantro.  For instance, take a look at these tomato plants:

Now, we could certainly have sprayed everything with an insecticide and be done with it, but we try, as much as possible, to use organic means in our garden.  So, there are no better destroyers of aphids than ladybugs.  I did some research online for suppliers and decided to go with Nature’s Good Guys.  I’m very happy I did, too, because when FedEx screwed up and wrecked our shipment, Nature’s Good Guys immediately shipped out a fresh box.  They could see by the FedEx tracking that it was stuck in Memphis (probably because they damaged the box and now they have 1,500 ladybugs running roughshod in their warehouse) so there was no back and forth with trying to justify the 2nd shipment.  You can order ladybugs (or really any variety of beneficial insects) by the quantity which will be appropriate for the size of your garden.  The total cost, including shipping, for our 1,500 ladybugs was around $36.  Once they arrived, Mrs. Butcher and I immediately put them to work.

Here’s the thing about releasing ladybugs into a garden:  you can’t just open the bag and shake them all out and expect them to form ranks to seek and destroy the aphids.  If you do that, then the ladybugs will just fly off and you’ll have wasted your money.  Instead, it is a very deliberate process of slowly depositing them on the plants where the aphids are so they can see the food source and stick around.  It’s also important to do this either at the beginning or the end of the day when they are less active and therefore less prone to taking off.  We did this at 5:00pm.

The ladybugs come in a bag and you’ll need to cut a small hole in the corner to let them out in a controlled manner.  Mrs. Butcher cut a hole that was bout ¾ of an inch in size.

Then, you have to hold the bag gently, so as not to squash any of the bugs, and hold the bag near each plant where you want them to go and wait for them to find their way out.

Release the hounds!

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “herding cats.”  Well, try herding ladybugs.  This process is not as easy as it sounds.  The first thing is that the ladybugs tend to keep crawling on the outside of the bag, rather than immediately grab onto the plant.  So, in order to get them where they need to be, we would use a combination of scraping the bag along the edge of a leaf to get the ladybug to grab it, and—when there were too many at one time on the outside of the bag—gently flicking them onto the leaves.  Once they’re on there, though, and they spot the aphids, they’ll stay there until they have eaten their fill.  Quite a few of them fall off and land on the ground, but that’s still fine because they can hunt there as well and still find their way back onto the plants.

Notice those really tiny red bugs on the leaves?  Those are predatory red mites.  They are not to be confused with red spider mites.  In fact, red predatory mites will eat spider mites, so they are another beneficial insect.  However, they didn’t appear to have much of a taste for aphids so that’s why we got the ladybugs.  We don’t have to concern ourselves over the ladybugs eating the red mites instead of the aphids because—generally speaking—beneficial insects don’t interfere with each other.

All told, we spent an hour getting the ladybugs distributed throughout the garden.  I did a fairly quick pass through the tomatoes, eggplants, cabbages and strawberries so I could make sure they all got some.  Then I did a more thorough depositing of ladybugs in those beds on the second round.  When I got down to probably the last couple of hundred ladybugs, I cut a larger hole in the bag to help the stragglers get out more easily.  When I was down to probably the last 20-30, I just ripped the bag open and tapped them down onto the plants. 

The next day I took a look and there were still quite a few ladybugs hanging out in the garden, so they’ve found enough food to keep them busy.

I’m thinking that next year we’ll order some nematodes from this supplier to eradicate all of the underground grubs, cutworms and even detrimental bacteria.  They sent a catalog with the ladybugs, so you can bet I spent a lot of time poring over the possibilities.

About butcherbakertoiletrymaker 568 Articles
When you can walk its length, and leave no trace, you will have learned.


  1. No deer in those woods? You’re lucky.
    I saw one walking in front of my house in the middle of the day here in my big city not too long ago, and I worried it was a harbinger of doom for my plants, but I haven’t seen any more. They live in the woods a half mile or so away from me, so it may have been an advance scout for a future invasion.

    • We had deer at our previous couple of places, but they were easily deterred with the application of slightly diluted human urine around the perimeter.  Even at our last place, when we would see them 30 feet from our back door on a regular basis, they wouldn’t get near that garden after we did that.  We’ve only seen deer a couple of times here, and both times they were on the island.  In order to get to our garden, the deer would essentially have to expose themselves to the street for extended periods of time and they don’t like doing that.

  2. Honest to goodness, you and Mrs. Butcher are the Monty Don of the Northeast. Also, your dear Butcher dog – does she go for any other critters? (Our Emma got a baby possum once. It played possum and escaped to a neighbor’s garage.)

  3. My parents have a sour cherry tree in the back.  I know all about it because I was the one pounded out the hole thru a few feet of hard clay and planted it some 25 years ago.
    The parents plan was to let it mature and then harvest the cherries every year.  LOL.
    Instead, they were shocked that the birds, squirrels and other creatures feasted on the cherries.  They spent years trying to use various netting and other means to keep the cherry eaters away without any success.
    Now, my dad (a bird watcher) just watches every early June when the cherries come out and the animals come to feast.

    • That’s crazy.  I grew up next to a massive corn field, and the farmer who owned it placed these little cannons that had timers set on them to fire off a blank gunpowder charge roughly every hour, except overnight.  Even then, I remember that the biggest problem was the deer and not the raccoons, but we also had dogs which had a habit of killing them.

  4. I’ve heard that we are having a ladybug shortage this year but haven’t tried to buy any myself yet.  Robins are the biggest blueberry eaters we have to deal with.  Bunnies and slugs are pretty damaging, slugs are the only thing that eats strawberries out of our yard I have seen.  Our squirrels do not eat berries.  Our protection bird is the hummingbirds.  I watched one yesterday hover in front of a junco and then peg him in the back of the head when he wouldn’t fly away.  
    I do have a question though, do you know what is the best way to discourage pests on grapes?  It looks like we are going to have a good grape year but I see a bunch of little bugs and messing up the leaves.  I spray neem oil for the funguses but doesn’t discourage these little fuckers.

    • For the slug problem, a great way to deal with them is to get a bunch of empty tuna cans and fill them with beer, then place them around the garden.  The slugs get attracted to the beer, crawl in and drown.

      I’ve never grown grapes before and Rodale’s Garden Problem Solver doesn’t seem to note a particular bug as a grape pest.  Can you tell what kind of bugs they are?

      • I’ll have to get a picture.  They are green & look like a little like a tiny grasshopper.  They don’t eat the leaves but seem to make the leaves turn an ugly color.

  5. I plant things for wildlife so I’m not too upset when said wildlife helps themselves – that being said I was a little sad when the deer ate every single one of my pears in one night. 
    Also, I have a lot of the assassin bugs on my flowers. 

  6. I just want to add that ladybugs will eat humans as well.  Or, at least little tiny bits of human.
    I had one land on my arm way back the first time I was in school, on my way to class.  So, I just figured I’d let it stay there until it decided to fly away, and continued going to class.  It stayed on my arm, and at some point in class, started chewing.  It ate a little spot, maybe about the size of a pinhead or a sesame seed, and then eventually flew away.  I did have a friend/classmate witness this before/during/shortlyafter, but for some reason, almost nobody believes me.
    So, some other time years later, another lady bug landed on me, and I remembered how nobody believed me, so I just left it alone, and after wandering around on my arm/hand for a minute, it too started chewing on my skin.  I just brushed it off soon after it started, feeling sorta vindicated, but still, people don’t believe me…

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