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Winter is the time to ward off garden insect pests

“All kinds of happy insects seem to be in a perfect fever of joy and sportive gladness.”

— John Muir, “A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf,” 1867

Naturalist and author John Muir wrote these words in his journal as he traveled from Indiana to the Gulf Coast of Florida right after the Civil War.

Unfortunately, Muir might have penned them just last summer if he had been surveying squash bugs having a field day with the crooknecks in my raised vegetable bed. I was so discouraged by the insect infestation that I pulled up all of the squash plants “in a perfect fever” and vowed never to grow any kind of cucurbit again!

Six months later, I’m feeling a bit more optimistic, but I’m determined to get ahead of the insects in my garden this year. Now is the perfect time to plan my strategies and take action against overwintering bugs. I checked in with Master Gardener Marsha Waite, who for the past 18 years has been the coordinator of the Plant Clinic at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point. Here are tips from Waite to help us all debug our gardens:

It’s futile to try to eliminate all the insects in our garden, nor would we want to, because there are many beneficial insects that prey on the “bad” bugs. Ladybugs, for example, eat aphids, mites, whiteflies, mealybugs, scales and insect eggs. Ground beetles feed on cutworms, maggots, cabbage worms, loopers, and flea beetles, among other garden pests. Plan now to grow plants nearby that attract these predators. Ladybugs love goldenrod, dwarf morning glory, White Sensation cosmos, sweet fennel, dill and spring-flowering shrubs. Ground beetles will make their home in groundcovers of sweet alyssum, rock cress, candytuft and primrose.

Plan to grow vegetable varieties that show resistance to common pests. For instance, if I dare to grow squash again this year (not in the same bed, though!), I might try winter squash such as Blue Hubbard, acorn, spaghetti or butternut. Pest-resistant cucumber varieties include Ashley, Chipper, Gemini, Diva, Country Fair and Piccadilly.

Become familiar with the insects that are common to specific crops so we know what to look out for. Besides my nemesis, squash bugs, squash are also hosts to aphids, cucumber beetles, earwigs, leafhoppers, slugs and spider mites. On the other hand, if I grow a whole garden of garlic, I only have to worry about thrips!

Waite says the No. 1 reason for insect problems is plant stress, brought on by too much or too little watering, fertilizing or sunlight. Protect against weakened plants by providing the right environment, and then be sure to stick to a fertilizing schedule. Monitoring our gardens frequently and checking soil moisture levels is the best way to grow healthy plants that are able to fend off insect invasions.

A clean garden is key. Get rid of any remaining weeds, dead limbs and plant debris now, which provide homes for overwintering insects. After pruning, use dormant oil spray to smother insect eggs and larvae, but use them when rain or freezing temperatures are not expected for a few days. Waite recommends JMS Stylet-Oil, an organic dormant oil that has a fine spray and is odorless.

Wait will offer more tips for controlling insect pests and plant diseases throughout the gardening season. Sessions will take place from 12:30 to 3 p.m. March 26, 6 to 8 p.m. June 20, and 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 26. All classes are held at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road, Central Point. Cost is $10. For more information, visit the Jackson County Master Gardener website at www.jacksoncountymga.org, or visit the Plant Clinic, open in the winter from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.

During his 1,000-mile trek, John Muir observed, “The world, we are told, was made especially for man — a presumption not supported by all the facts.”

I think Muir was right; surely the world was made for insects!

Rhonda Nowak is a member of the Jackson County Master Gardener Association and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.