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How to Identify and Control 10 Common Garden Pests

Renee Valdes
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Aphid pest and ant on a daisy

Find out how to identify and control common garden pests. To control these common garden pests in your garden, the first step is regularly checking your plants.

When you spot a bug on your plants, try to identify and determine if it’s a beneficial insect for your garden or not. The vast majority of insects are harmless to your garden and landscape because they pollinate or feed on other insect pests.

Only about one percent of all insects are pests that cause destructive damage and disease. When you spot these insect pests, take action. 

Identifying Common Garden Pests

How to Fight Garden Pests Organically

Visit our pest problem-solver tool to find out what pest is attacking your edibles and other plants. The tool provides solutions to typical pests you may encounter in your garden. If your preference is to control pests organically, see the next section and read on for the top signs of common garden pests.

Organic Ways to Control common garden pests

Vegetable and herb garden

For natural control, consider intercropping, or companion planting corn, beans and squash. Adding companions, such as herbs, to your vegetable garden can be a major line of defense in an organic garden. Many herbs can mask the scent of delicious veggie counterparts. 

Trap crops or sacrificial plants placed in your garden around edible crops can help remedy pests in the garden. The idea is that they’re planted to lure pests away from the main crops in the garden.

Hand-picking pests is an easy and safe method for controlling pests when there’s an infestation. For more organic methods to help control pests, read about how to fight garden pests organically.

How to Identify and Control 10 Common Garden Pests

Slug eating in garden

1. A visible trail of slime

You may not find the slugs (and snails, which are slugs with a shell) but you’ll definitely see the wet and slimy trail they leave behind. Slugs eat strawberries and just about anything else. 

If you see a sticky liquid or eaten leaves, it’s time to take action in the garden. Here’s how to get rid of slugs.  

Squash vine borer on a pumpkin plant

2. A sawdust-like substance on Squash vineS

If you notice a sawdust-like substance piling up on the stems of your squash with little holes, you’ve got a resident squash vine borer inside the stem.

Squash vine borers will damage the inside stems of pumpkins (vine pictured above) and other squash. The damage comes when the larvae tunnel into the stems of squash, which can kill your plants. 

To get rid of squash vine borers, first try surgery. Take a small knife and cut a slit lengthwise near where you see the sawdust substance. When you locate the fat, white larvae, gently tug it out and feed it to the birds. Check other stems to ensure the damage is contained. To help the squash recover, cover the cut stem section with soil to promote additional root growth. 

If you don’t find the borer, try injecting the infected stems with Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. Bt is an organic strain of bacteria that will eat squash vine borers and any other caterpillar.

Tomato hornworm eating a green pepper plant

3. Tomato leaves with holes

Tomatoes may be the ideal plant for tomato and tobacco hornworms, but these pests have appetites for other vegetables and plants, too. Tomato hornworms, for example, will also eat peppers, eggplant and potatoes. These bright green caterpillars blend easily with your tomato stems and leaves but a keen eye will spot these pests.

Look for black margins on white stripes with a red horn for the tobacco hornworm. The tomato hornworm has green margins on its white stripes and a blue horn.

To rid your garden of these pesky pests, just hand pick and put hornworms in a soapy bucket of water.

Whiteflies pest on tomatoes

4. White-winged insects on tomatoes

If white-winged insects appear on the leaves of your tomatoes, these whiteflies need to be eradicated immediately, so don’t waste time. They can leave a sticky residue on the leaves of plants and cause significant damage. 

To get rid of whiteflies, you can spray a steady stream of water on the plants to remove them. Then, prune away any damaged stems and spray the rest of the plant with insecticidal soap. Don’t forget to spray the underside of the leaves.

Aphids attacking a rose shoot

5. Sticky substance on plant

If you notice a sap-like, sticky liquid and a black, sooty mold on your plants, chances are you’ve got aphids. You might also spot yellow, distorted leaves and buds.

Aphids suck juices out of plants and eventually kill them. This sticky mess also attracts ants and other insects. 

To get rid of aphids, first try spraying outdoor plants with a powerful watering spray nozzle attached to your garden hose until they’re gone. If that doesn’t work, prune away infested parts and discard. Leave enough foliage for your plant to survive.

If pests return, use an insecticidal soap or neem-based product and follow directions. These tips work for other pests such as scale and spider mites, too.

Fire ants and mound

6. Mounds forming in my garden

If you live in the south and southwest, make no mistake when you spot a mound. Don’t step near these mounds because fire ants will race out quickly and start attacking any exposed skin area.

Because pouring hot water on mounds does not work as a permanent organic solution, try diatomaceous earth as a first line of defense. Neem-based products can be beneficial for controlling fire ants. If organic methods do not work, try using a stronger fire ant killer for immediate control.

Protect Your Garden from Pests

7. Overnight plant decimation

If one day your plants look beautiful, but the next, only leaves with veins remain, Japanese beetles could be the cause. This is a common pest on Rose of Sharon. To get rid of Japanese beetles, hand-pick and drop beetles into a bucket of soapy water. 

Organic neem-based products and insecticidal soaps also provide good control. Always use according to label directions. 

In worst cases, use Japanese beetle control with carbaryl, acephate and permethrin.  

Sawfly damage on roses

8. Roses with skeleton leaves

If your roses have skeleton leaves, sawflies are likely the cause. Tiny rose slugs, the larval stage of sawflies, can cause significant damage. Some sawflies will chew holes through leaves. Get the problem under control early with a neem-based product.

Roses that are otherwise healthy can tolerate significant feeding damage and will usually put out new leaves by mid-summer.

Cucumber beetle

9. Dry, brittle cucumber vine

If your cucumber vines suddenly look dry and brittle, inspect for cucumber beetles. Cucumber beetle species sport stripes, spots or bands. While picking off by hand is a great first option, planting nasturtium and dill companions by your cucumbers can provide additional plant protection.

For heavier infestations, use neem-based products.

Squash pests

10. Bugs attacking my squash

If your squash blossoms and leaves show damage, check for squash bugs and squash beetles.

Squash bugs, which look like stink bugs as adults, attack leaves, causing plants to wilt and become brittle. Because adults and nymphs can be difficult to remove by hand, put a shingle or heavy piece of cardboard under each squash plant to trap bugs looking to take cover. Regularly check the trap and remove the unwanted pests as they congregate.

For squash beetles, pick them off the plants in the middle of a sunny day. Check underneath plant leaves to kill the eggs.

Planting squash early in the season can help with control of pests. Also try intercropping squash with nasturtiums. Another organic method is crop rotation.

Got questions about this article or any other garden topic? Go here now to post your gardening ideas, questions, kudos or complaints. We have gardening experts standing by to help you!