How to deal with potato bugs and other insects in your garden

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By: Jim Carpenter

Brad Smith/Flickr

When people ask me my favorite vegetable to grow in the garden, the potato is always pretty much at the top of the list.

I like to grow about any vegetable there is but I would say I enjoy planting potatoes more than any other vegetable. I think there are a number of reasons why this is the case.

One reason is that you can purchase seed potatoes a full month or so before you ever have to plant them. They will store for quite a while until you have to get them in the ground. It’s kind of nice to have them sitting on the back porch until it is convenient for you and the garden to get them in the soil.

Another reason I enjoy growing potatoes in my garden is the the relative ease in which they are planted. If the soil is prepared, you can simply scoop out about a 4- to 5-inch hole and drop your potato in, cover with dirt and tamp down. No worry about fragile roots or tender foliage getting damaged in the planting process.

Also, since the potato is pretty much a cool season crop, it weathers those later spring frosts very well. I actually had potatoes leaves frozen solid in a late April freeze the other year. All the exposed leaves turned black and died. However, a few warm days later new growth appeared and the ultimate harvest seemed pretty normal. It was weird feeling those solidly frozen leaves.

Ah, but potatoes plants also have their pesky admirers when it comes to bugs and the Colorado Potato Beetle has to be number one in having the biggest potato leaf appetite.

I really don’t recall a single year in which I didn’t have at least some potato bugs to deal with. They are a nuisance, but at least they are fairly easy to stay on top of before they can actually reduce your potato harvest.

I have had success with an insecticidal soap spray for the larvae before they become beetles. The soap solution dries out their bodies and reduces their numbers quickly.

If I consider the situation too dire for the homemade solution I can always resort to a natural insecticide I keep on hand that is made from the root of a South American chrysanthemum plant.

I should mention in a little more detail about insecticidal soap. Since soap is the only active ingredient, it is a totally natural solution that is harmless to humans. It works on the following insects very well; aphids, mealy bugs, scales, spider mites, thrips and other immature insects.

Some people add pepper or garlic, or even vinegar to their mixture to repel a wider range of insects. Many add oil so it will stick a little better on the bugs. My only experience has been using just the basic 2 percent solution of soap in water. Ivory, Dawn, Lemon Joy and Dr. Bronner’s soaps are the best to use for this.

The simple insecticidal soap products used against pests in the garden do have one practice that can help their effectiveness quite a bit and that is early detection. To have early detection, you need to examine your crops nearly every day. Of course, this is not always possible, and if the bugs get ahead of me I go for a stronger natural product from the lawn and garden store.

But I don’t like to resort to these chemicals very often and my soap solution won’t do a thing to deter those full grown beetles. So, many years ago I came up with what for me is a simple solution to get rid of those pesky bugs. Squash ’em!

Yep, thumb and forefinger, right there on the leaf they are eating. Yes, it is a little messy on your fingers, but I just wipe them off on the other potato leaves. I like to think that might send a message to the rest of their brethren.

I guess I do have my limits when it comes to disposing of garden pests by smashing them with my fingers. I would never squash cabbage worms. And to squash a tomato hornworm with your fingers is just plain gross!

I will not advocate the practice of squashing potato bug beetles with your fingers as being a necessary part of enjoying your garden. But actually I think it is another example of the way we all do things a little differently to try to achieve a better harvest.

I guess it would be a boring world if our garden practices, as well as people in general, were all the same. And besides that, trying something a little out of the ordinary in your garden might just give you a very interesting story to talk about!

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