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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Organic Gardening With Evelyn Tully Costa: Love Bugs

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood speaks with Living on Earth's resident organic garden expert Evelyn Tully Costa about ways to use insects to your advantage, such as using helpful bugs to get rid of the pesky ones in your garden.


CURWOOD: It's them! They creep, they crawl, they fly, they slime, they chew, they suck, nibble, devour, they never give up!

(Soundtrack continues with gunshots, a man yelling: Get the antennae! Get the antennae! Bang! Bang!)

CURWOOD: Bugs swarming all over our carefully created gardens, destroying months of hard work and our food! Could we control these toxic hordes without toxic chemicals or John Wayne?

(Soundtrack continues; a giant bug wails and bites the dust)

CURWOOD: With us now from Brooklyn to answer that question is Living on Earth's organic gardening commentator Evelyn Tully Costa. Welcome, Evelyn.

TULLY COSTA: Hey, Steve. Sounds like you have a little trouble up there in your garden. Whats eatin ya?

CURWOOD: Oho, that's not funny, Evelyn. My plants are in, I'm watering, mulching, I've loaded the soil with lots of organic matter. The roses are blooming, my tomatoes and cucumbers look wonderful, they're sending flowers -- but I've got this small problem. In fact thousands of them. I'm sharing my vegetables and flowers with lots of ravenous bugs and my garden's the main course!

TULLY COSTA: Okay. Okay, Steve, calm down. Its true, its true. Insects are our number one competitors on this planet. They eat our food, they eat our clothing, our houses and us. They even give us terrible diseases. I'm not saying we should ignore bugs, but before we reach for all those toxic chemicals and the machine guns, please be careful that the cure isn't worse than the problem.

CURWOOD: Yeah, right, that's all well and good. But come on, what about those sap-sucking aphids that are out there destroying my tomatoes right now!

TULLY COSTA: Okay, all right, so now its personal, I understand. Why don't you take the divide and conquer approach to pest management instead of the slash and burn? After all there's some one percent of those bugs are pests, and the rest, that's 99%, we can use those to eat up the bad guys. So why don't we start with the aphids since they've started with your tomatoes?


TULLY COSTA: These sucking, clustering little bugs are definitely a major problem throughout most of North America, so our listeners will be familiar with these guys. Now wherever you have aphids you have ants, because they are involved in this kind of weird but very fascinating relationship, okay. Aphids produce this sweet sticky nectar called honeydew, which ants love to drink. And in exchange for this fruit juice the ants herd the aphids around and protect them. So in a way, aphids are cows for ants and ants are cowboys for aphids. So the idea is to divert the ants from the aphids and leave the aphids vulnerable to other critters. So you got to put coffee grinds around the base of plants to keep the ants away from their dairy herd. Now once the aphids are left unprotected, all sorts of other critters who dine on them will move in and serve themselves.

CURWOOD: Aah -- so let me get this straight. Its like, you know, the ants are the enforcers in the neighborhood. They have this protection thing with these aphids, they get all of their juice. And if we can, like, scare them off then, hey, the aphids are vulnerable and they won't eat my tomato plants, huh?

TULLY COSTA: Yeah. I mean the trick is, with all of this using natural controls to keep your garden in shape is to lure the good guys, we're calling beneficials, to feed on the bad guys, we're calling pests. Now for example ladybugs which everyone's heard of and wants in their garden, their favorite snack happens to be those nice, soft, juicy aphids.


TULLY COSTA: Lacewings love aphids, too, but if the ants are on guard like you said, they'll eat mealybugs, thrips, small caterpillars and mites instead. So you want them to chow down on the aphids first, that's lacewings, and then they'll move on to these other guys you definitely don't want in your yard.


TULLY COSTA: Now, another really neat predator to encourage in your back yard are the tiny bracketed wasps. Now these do not sting humans. They will take out a lot of bugs that we don't want around. Now the wasp table manners are right out of the movie Alien, a little bit gross, they lay their eggs inside a number of bad bugs like the tomato hornworm, for example. The hornworm, which is this big, fat, plump caterpillar, becomes a living feeding station for lots of little larvae which are sucking the vital juices from inside the hornworm, slowly killing them, so that the hornworm cannot snack on your garden.

CURWOOD: (Makes gross sound) Oh boy, well I guess -- I guess I got to go along with this science fiction bug war happening, cause I mean, if this is what I can do to get it to work to my advantage I'm gonna do it but -- ugh! What a mess! Tell me, what do I do to invite the good guys to dinner and get them to chow down on the party crashers?

TULLY COSTA: Well, what I've been saying all along: diversity diversity diversity. You have to grow lots of flowers, which I'm assuming you're doing anyway.

CURWOOD: My wife likes that.

TULLY COSTA: Okay. Well, the flowers will attract beneficials with their nectar and pollen. And when the pest populations are low because the good guys have fed on the bad guys, they will return to these flowers for their nectar and pollen. And that will provide food for the troops while they're waiting for the bad guys to come back in again for another battle. So you want to have something blooming for the entire season. You also might try to grow a little patch of grass. That will attract ground beetles, rove beetles, and tiger beetles, and they eat a lot of bad things. And you want to allow for a little wild spot in your garden.

CURWOOD: Hey, that's real easy for me.

TULLY COSTA: Okay, all right, less weeding for you, Steve.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Yes.

TULLY COSTA: And a little watering hole for the good bugs to slurp from time to time in between their hunts. And do not use pesticides; you will destroy the good guys with the bad, you will leave your garden unprotected. The bad guys will come back in, wipe your garden out, and you won't get your tomatoes, Steve.

CURWOOD: Okay. I'm getting the picture, now. Its the basic lesson here. You gotta create an entire ecosystem, huh? It's everything from the soil to the bug balance.

TULLY COSTA: Right right right right thats right. Theres no magic bullet to winning over nature with poisons, because it always comes back to you twice as strong in a bad way. This garden war is really about balancing with the scales tipped in our favor most of the time. So if we set the stage with an arsenal of diversity to favor beneficials, you'll make it through the season and you'll get your tomatoes.

CURWOOD: Now how can I tell which are the good bugs and which are the bad bugs?

TULLY COSTA: Well, it turns out that the May/June issue of Organic Gardening has a great lineup of the good guys and the bad guys, and Organic Gardening is put out by Rodale Press, which has been publishing organic gardening books for, I think at least the last 30 or 40 years. And they have an enormous listing of books on this topic. And go down to your library and bug them to carry not only the magazine (Curwood laughs) but also the books, which are just filled with really good information on how to do organic gardening.

CURWOOD: Okay, Evelyn. Well I'm all charged up. I am off on a tiny game hunt now in my back yard armed with coffee grinds and Ill let you know who wins. Till next time.

TULLY COSTA: Great. Good luck, Steve.



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