Pester Those Pests!

This week The Real Dirt is featuring a guest blog from Patrick, Community Gardens Maintenance Coordinator. Patrick grew up in Wisconsin, and from day one wanted to be outside whenever possible. While earning his degree from the University of Montana, Patrick enrolled in the PEAS Farm class, and couldn’t give it up – staying for two semesters and a summer session. Through the PEAS Farm and his Environmental Studies Program classes, he’s decided he wants to keep working on local food efforts now that he has earned his degree. When he’s not digging in the dirt, he is hiking, biking or fishing with his dog, Lola.

Whether you are brand new to gardening or have the greenest thumb in town, community gardens offer a place to share ideas, knowledge, conversation, growing materials, and so much more.  Unfortunately, some of the many things that can be “shared” at the gardens are pests, which are not what your friends and neighbors are looking for.

With this in mind, this post will focus on a few common Missoula pests and how to keep yourself, your neighbors, and your plants happy and healthy.  No matter if your garden is in your own yard or you share four borders at one of our community gardens, pest awareness and control are crucial to a thriving garden.

The best defense against garden pests is to have a healthy and diverse garden, strong plants, a bit of knowledge, and time in the garden.

Healthy Soil:

Healthy soil will have the fertility to grow strong and resilient plants and will have all sorts of beneficial life in it that will aid in fighting off garden pests. Incorporating organic material such as compost and plant material will go a long way towards healthy garden soil.  Keeping up with pests before the need to spray any pest control will help ensure the garden life we want won’t be harmed.

Crop Rotation and Diversity:

Rotating your vegetables will ensure that the same nutrients are not being taken out of the soil year after year and degrading your soil.  It will also make it tougher for pests to find the plants they prefer. Planting a diversity of different crops and varieties, including flowering plants, will reduce the effect that any one pest may have on your garden as well as attract an array of beneficial insects.

Healthy plants:

Similar to when we are stressed and unhealthy, an unhealthy or stressed plant will be much more susceptible to and less able to fight off pests and diseases.  Our vegetable plants are especially prone to pest issues when they are young and/or have recently had the stress of being transplanted out to the garden.  For this reason, growing or purchasing healthy starts for your garden and keeping a keen eye early on can greatly reduce pest problems in your garden.

Time in the garden:

The small scale of most of our backyard or community gardens allows us to keep a closer eye on each individual plant in the garden. Physically removing pests as they arise early on disrupts their lifecycle and reduces some negative effects that other eradication practices may have on the critters we want. Timing is crucial when controlling pests.

No matter how hard you try, you will undoubtedly run into some pest problems in your garden at some point or another.  But don’t stress it too hard; as long as you keep an eye out for potential pest problems and address them as soon as you notice an issue, you should be able to get things under control. Fighting off pests and damage requires energy, reducing energy going toward plant growth and food production.   Delays in addressing a pest problem will make eradication more difficult, plant damage more severe, and reduce garden productivity.

Key Elements of a pest free garden

-Healthy soil

-Healthy plants

-Diversity in the garden

-Crop rotation

-An alert presence in the garden and attention to detail

Common Missoula Pests:

Below is a list of a few pests common in Missoula gardens, what they look like, what they like to eat, and how to control them.

Leaf Miners:  Most common on beats, chard and spinach, they produce large blotches and tunnel like markings on leaves.  Keep an eye on the underside of leaves for rows of small white eggs to squish, and remove and destroy any damaged leaves from the garden.

Leaf Miner Eggs. (photo:

Leaf Miner Damage. (photo:

Cabbage Moths:  Most common on cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and kale.  They will eat holes in the leaves, leaving jagged holes or edges.  Look for and squish any green caterpillars on the underside of leaves, also try to catch and kill adult cabbage moths flying in your garden.  Covering plants with a floating row cover will also help keep cabbage moth numbers down early on.

Cabbage Moth. (photo:

Cabbage Worm. (photo:

Flea Beatles:   Usually affects tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants early on in the season before plants are well established.  They are tiny black beetles and will produce numerous small holes in plant leaves.  Hand squishing in the morning or evening when they are a little slower can work well, place sticky traps around the garden to catch them, and shaking them off the plant into a tray of soapy water can help get rid of them.

Flea Beetle Damage. (photo:

Flea Beetle. (photo:

Cut worms:  Commonly affects corn, onions, broccoli, cabbage and kale.  Cut worms will eat away the stem of plants at soil level.   By scraping the soil around affected plants and removing any caterpillars you find will reduce cut worm numbers and damage.

Cut Worm. (photo:

Aphids:  Aphids are common on kale, collards, cabbage, broccoli, and Brussel sprouts.  Aphids will make curled and distorted leaf growth, and will also be visible on the leaves.  Spraying them off the affected plants can help reduce aphids. A soapy water bath to the leaves is also effective.  Promoting or introducing beneficial insects such as ladybugs also help control aphid populations.

Aphids. (photo:

This is just a short list of common garden pests – - there are many others that we may find in our gardens.  There are many good sites online that can help identify garden pests and samples can be brought into the Missoula Extension Service to be identified.

Happy gardening!