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Garden Plot: Pests never take a vacation

Friday - 8/23/2013, 12:57pm  ET

Don't let squirrels terrorize your tomatoes. Scare them away with water or rubber snakes. (Thinkstock)

How to get ready for the fall planting season

WTOP's Garden Editor Mike McGrath.


Stink bug revenge

Not every email I get is a question. Greg in Paeonian Springs (just north of Leesburg in Loudoun County) writes: "You may already know this, but stink bugs seem to love hosta flowers. We have a sea of hostas that recently started blooming, and nearly every bloom cluster has a corresponding cluster of stink bugs. I have developed an intense dislike of stink bugs, and see this as an opportunity to get rid of as many as I can. I fill a bucket with a few inches of soapy water and hold it under the plants while gently tapping the blooms with a trowel. The bugs panic and let go, falling into the soapy water and drowning. Works every time."

All I can say is great work, Greg! Keep soaping them stinkers. Get a few for me while you're at it. Oh - and maybe taunt them on the way down. That's Philly style!

Don't let evil squirrels eat your tomatoes

Shelia in Sumerduck, Va., writes: "My tomatoes are being eaten and not by deer (or I would see hoof prints). No, I'm thinking it's squirrels, as I have plenty of those little critters! Do I have any options? It's been an awesome summer and I would hate to pull the plants out so early!"

You should immediately think of evil squirrels as the guilty culprits whenever evil things occur, because - well, because evil squirrels are evil!

I keep a motion-activated sprinkler aimed at my garden to keep the terrible tree rats (and deer, and cats, etc. ...) at bay. Works great. All you need is a hose and a 9-volt battery. The best-known brand name is "The Scarecrow." It's available online and at bigger independent garden centers.

I just had a long conversation with a gardener who swears he's had great success with rubber snakes. He buys them at the dollar store and hangs them on his tomato cages. He says they even stopped the terrible tree rats from nibbling on his cedar siding. (Here's a money-saving tip: I bet that a lot of rubber snakes and big spiders and similar scary things will be on heavy markdown the day after Halloween. Hmmm ... I wonder how Evil Squirrels would react to one of those motion-activated, grabby, skeleton-hand thingies?)

Several other gardeners have told me they decided to get even with squirrels by covering red Christmas tree balls with a sticky substance (such as Tanglefoot or a non-temporary sticky spray adhesive) and hanging them next to the ripe tomatoes. (OK, maybe that's a little mean. Make it hard red plastic balls instead of glass ones. Try red ping-pong balls!)

Next season, grow your tomatoes inside cages of sturdy fencing like rabbit wire and be ready to cover the tops with more fencing (held on with twist ties) when and if evil squirrels strike again.

And finally, don't feed evil squirrels - either directly or with birdseed. If you want to attract lots of birds, set out birdbaths filled with clean water.

Don't let caterpillars eat your oaks

Bob, who lives on Sherwood Forest Drive in Mount Airy writes: "For the past three years, the oak trees in our neighborhood have become 'infested,' completely covered, with inch-and-a-half-long caterpillars and been completely defoliated. Have you heard of such recurrence of evil-doers? And are there any organic based methods of eradicating them and saving our woodland neighborhood?"

Yes, Bob. When pest caterpillars aren't controlled, they'll breed like - well, like caterpillars. And the next generation will naturally return to do the same damage to the same kinds of plants in subsequent seasons.

And yes, there is a great organic answer, Bt, an organic pesticide derived from a naturally-occurring soil organism that only affects caterpillar. And it only affects caterpillars that chew on the sprayed leaves. There's nothing more direct or safer for the environment and it's tremendously effective. It's also known as BTK for Bacillus thuringensis Kurstaki. Now you know why we just call it Bt. Sold under brand names, including Dipel, Thuracide and Green Step, it's available online and at virtually all garden centers.

Organize your neighbors and/or enlist your local municipality and be ready to start spraying the trees as soon as the first caterpillars appear next season and you'll break the cycle and save your oaks. Bt is effective against any caterpillar pest, but only when the caterpillars are actually eating the sprayed leaves.

Oh, and there's a reason I included the name of your street. I spent a good amount of time in Nottingham when I visited England years ago and was broken-hearted to discover that what used to be Sherwood Forest was now an industrial park - so please protect its namesake!

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