dishin' the DIRT on hit and myth landscaping

Archive for the category “organic pest control”

Ants-in-the-Pants Not a Fun Game

Yesterday while removing spring/summer blooming plants in a raised bed, I found a little more than dying plants. Recent rains encouraged fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) to look for higher ground. Raised bed = water-free home. Think of a beach house on stilts. Part of the mound fell from the root ball of a plant onto the leg of my jeans. Passersbyers witnessed moves that haven’t come from my body in quite some time when  I was
stung several times. I still can’t figure out how those demons got skin contact. Soon after the fiery sensation (thus, the common name),  itchy red bumps emerged, morphing overnight into nasty looking bumps that made my right leg look more like a 14-year-old boy’s face.

These boogers have been a southern gardener – and nature lover – problem for several decades now, hitching a ride into the U.S. on ships or even plants imported from their native South America. This invasion does have its upside, though. “Fire ants voraciously consume populations of fleas, ticks, termites, cockroaches, chinch bugs, mosquito eggs and larva, scorpions, etc.” says Galveston County Master Gardener Trish McDaniel in a publication called “Beneficials In the Landscape” from Texas A&M University. “(The) culinary creed for fire ants could be: if it will stay still for a bit, then it’s dinner!”

As far as full-grown humans and livestock, this appetite fire ants have for the things we hate most is good news. Not so much for little ones, though. A fawn born near a fire ant mound can spell disaster if momma doe doesn’t get her baby away quickly enough. So too with a calf or kitten.


Organic pest control is always best to use near children or pets.

There are a number of organic methods for ridding yourself, albeit temporarily, of fire ants. (A great website for this information is from Urban Harvest.) One free way is to pour boiling water on the mound’s freeway. Do this several times over a two-hour period for the best results, as some of the ants could be too far down in the earth to be killed with the 1st pour. As they BRING OUT THEIR DEAD (you Monte Python fans know the line), hit the mound again.

When I found the mound – or they found me – yesterday, I took a little different approach. With a school nearby and me nearby (I’m a clutz and can’t blame McDonald’s if I get scalded), I sprinkled a bit of instant grits around the area.


For a cheap & easy fire ant bait, you can KISS MY GRITS!

The ants will take it down deep into the mound where it will absorb liquid and they’ll blow up like they’re on steroids and eventually implode. Or explode. The point is, they’ll no longer bite.

So sorry to disappoint, but I’ll not be doing the ants-in-the-pants dance for a bit. Unless DANCING WITH THE STARS calls. Then could I borrow a mound from you? That’s basically the only way to get my groove on these days, I’m afraid.


“I Don’t Like Spiders and Snakes…”

“Any natural organic way to keep snakes out of the yard? I am not opposed to killing them, but would rather annoy them so much they go off and bother someone else.  Thinking specifically copperheads and garden snakes.”

This year’s record drought in some areas of the country and record rains in others are bringing varmints that used to live in holes out where we can see them.  Many folks do not like this.  I actually want these creatures in my yard since they are voracious eaters of other things I prefer not to have there.  I don’t even mind SEEING them.  It is NOT unreasonable, in my opinion, that I don’t want an up close and personal relationship.  At six years old, a spider bite nearly rotted two fingers off my right hand.  And even God tells us not to like snakes, doesn’t he?   I have a slinky friend that lives in my yard.  He’s not my pet and doesn’t have a name, nor does he “sit” or “roll-over.”  I’ve found him quite trainable, though.  He responds appropriately when I say, “get-the-heck-away-from-me-if-you-wanna-stay-alive!”

Non-poinsonous Gulf Coast ribbon snake in my yard

Unlike Joan in the  Hormel commercial who doesn’t shave under her arms and keeps a goat on the roof, my dear friend Diane Cabiness is a real naturalist.  In fact, she’s a certified Texas Master Naturalist and the one I go to when I have a native plant question. She’s also the number on my cell phone’s speed dial for critter queries.  She rehabilitates injured snakes and spiders and then takes them to visit school children, which to me is cruel but the kids LOVE ’em.  Nerds get a chance to be cool kids when they let things crawl around on them without screaming or peeing their pants.  Diane’s cool even without her reptile and arachnid collection.  She has an authentic love of creatures, which is not the vibe I get from hairy goat gal who appears lazy instead of an embracer of nature. So I asked Diane what constitutes a yard where snakes would not be happy.  Her answer?  1)  no food, 2) no water, and 3) no cover.  That simple.  Since snakes snack on small mammals like mice, getting rid of wood stacks, brush piles and similar vermin friendly habitats could remove their food source.  (Those are favorite spider hang-outs, too, by the way.)  In dry conditions, use less water and make sure you don’t have leaky outside faucets.  If you have shrubs, ground-cover, or a thick mulch (more than 3″) around the house, you’ve also inadvertently created a cozy snake spot.  

HIT: snakes and spiders are free, NATURAL pest controls for the garden

MYTH: effective snakes REPELLANT, or snake OIL?

As far as repellants, moth balls and sulphur/sulfur – often the ingredients in products touted as SNAKE REPELLANTS – might make the small mammals that are known snake treats scarse, but are ineffective for keeping away snakes themselves.  Their awful scent more likely keeps YOU out of your garden so you don’t see the snakes there.  Beware using both, which are dangerous to mammals.  (“Mustard gas” is made with sulphur.)   I’ve planted pungent herbs such as rosemary and onions surrounding my roses and veggies where I’m puttering around a lot, often with bare hands.  Mint under the hose bibs, too.  The deer are less likely to browse where these plants are present and I’d heard snakes don’t like them either.  I’ve not seen any snakes anywhere near the rosemary….yet.

Keep snakes at bay with a SNAKE-PROOF FENCE....

SNAKE-PROOF FENCING can be installed where small children or pets need to be protected, but cost prohibitive in a large area.  Check out the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management for more information.

While death is natural and organic, the North Carolina Extension Service lumps things into “lethal” and “non-lethal” when it comes to snake control and, like my friend Diane, prefer the non-lethal controls.  (Not sure “decapitation-by-hoe” is considered a death by natural cause, anyway.) They also amen Diane’s suggestions about what works best to keep snakes at bay near homes.  Then they talk about snakes IN the home.

Close cracks and crevices in buildings and around pipes
and utility connections with 1/4-inch mesh hardware cloth,
mortar or sheet metal. All doors and windows should have
tightly fitting screens.  
Thanks, guys.  I’d never even thought about them coming inside…..till now!

Battling Garden Pests

Effective BANDAIDS in the war against pepper attack....

Cutworm damage to sweet peppers.

Am I showing my age?  If you didn’t recognize the title of my post today, Pat Benatar dominated 80’s rock for a time with this song.  That’s how I’m feeling about my garden this morning.  The cutworms have declared war!  My peppers have been under attack the last few days and I want to share some of my organic arsenal for the fight ahead this summer.  First of all,


image courtesy of Montana State University

They aren’t mean; just immature.  An immature MOTH, to be specific.  And like all growing teens, when they wake up hungry in the middle of the night and prowl around the fridge — I mean GARDEN — they can easily take a slice of nice, juicy plant branch like it was leftover pizza.  Preventative care is the best solution for those of us who don’t like to have pesticides of any kind in our landscape.

Bandages DO work as preventative measure.  Sort of.

HIT:  worms + metal = bad news  (in the CRAWLERS CHRONICLE anyway!) 

Yesterday I twirled copper wire around the base of my sweet peppers and other plants cutworms tend to attack. No new wounds this morning.  I’m not doing the victory dance just yet, though.  It’s also too little too late for the damage already done, but should encourage the fiends to find a new spot to munch where the grass is greener.  Another method used by many gardeners is aluminum foil.  I usually keep a bit of clean, used foil in my cart to re-purpose for the garden.

MYTH: you have to pull out the BIG guns for cutworms.

What organic method have you found effective for cutworms?

I also keep food grade diatomaceous earth on hand for just such an occasion.  This is a powder made of tiny marine fossils.  Just think of what it feels like to walk barefoot across razor sharp seashells.  That’s pretty much what those little varmints traverse when diatomaceous earth is sprinkled around the base of a plant.   They won’t cross the line twice.  (Wear a mask when putting out diatomaceous earth, though.  It’s equally as damaging to soft lung tissue if inhaled.  Also it must be re-applied after a rain, but since we’ve been in drought, my soaker hose doesn’t seem to mess up my moat of powder.)

Now that I’ve put out the land-mines for the cutworms, which I should have done a month ago, I guess I should apologize ahead of time to my neighbors, unwilling soldiers in the war when my cutworms march next door.

a C.S.A. subscription doesn’t get you a new magazine…..does it?

Several months ago, I visited my oldest daughter in Arlington, VA and realized I’d had a little more influence on her than I knew:  she’s a farmer.  However, living in a 3rd floor condo with only a small balcony, she’s pretty limited in her crops.  Herbs and micro-greens in the south-facing windows limped through the winter, but her seeds for heirloom veggies were already thriving under a homemade hothouse on the balcony.

last of fresh brussels sprouts from my garden

Boy was I PROUD!  Then when the fridge opened, I saw she had a garden there, too…….all kinds of greens and other winter produce.  But she didn’t grow them in the Fridgidaire.  She’s part of a C.S.A. that delivers a couple times of week to locations in her area.  She hops on the D.C. Metro to pick up her “share,” including various fruits and vegetables and herbs, eggs, meats, including fresh fish and oysters, artisanal breads and cheese, even “kitty milk,” which is raw milk.  C.S.A.’s, or Community Sustained Agriculture is a growing trend, especially in urban areas where land is scarce and valuable.  Families band together and promise to buy from local growers as a subscription, either monthly or annually or by the season.  They then will receive FRESH, seasonal produce, often with recipes and ideas how to use these ingredients of a healthy diet.



My physician is convinced nutrition is the key to wellness and last year she asked me to start a C.S.A. with home delivery for our area.  We have a great little farmer’s market already, but many of her patients are unable to make it the few hours on Saturday morning it is open because of soccer games or other conflicts.  Thank goodness, my friend (and formerly my editor at Houston House and Home Magazine) of AUTHENTIC LIVING Donna Mosher let me know she’s taken up the slack. THANKS, DONNA!  Jolie Vue is one of the local farms now offering home delivery of produce.



Next week I’ll introduce you to the owners of a C.S.A. – Home Sweet Farm – I visited working on the next book in my HEIRLOOMS series, HEIRLOOM EDIBLES FOR TODAY.  Their motto?   “We grow righteous FOOD,” and boy do they ever!  I think their love of the land and the people they meet sharing their bounty will inspire you, as it has me.  Going to pick up your produce weekly at a designated drop-off (or your local farmer’s market) might be a more affordable alternative to home delivery.  Even better, folks were out at the farm, helping to pick their OWN produce while I was there.  They were actually enjoying the task, laughing together as they picked their peck of peppers, as yet un-pickled. (Which, by the way, I’ll give you FARMER BRAD‘S recipe for those next week, too!)  So maybe the combination of laughter (“the BEST medicine”) and sweating together in the near 100 degree temps will count  as my aerobic activity for the day.  What do you think, Dr. Davis???

heirloom sweet bell pepper ripening on the vine at HomeSweetFarm

Periwinkle problems solved?

Gena asks me:


infected periwinkle (photo from, Dr. Jerry Parsons)

Annual periwinkles or vincas (Cathaaranthus roseus) are susceptible to a fungal disease.  A great deer-resistant annual color plant for sun or partial shade, periwinkles have been plagued by this fungus for several years, although it effects only the periwinkles and not other plants.  But once it gets in your soil, anytime you plant periwinkles in that spot, water mixes with the soil and it splashes back up onto the new plant, it will be re-infected.  There have been steps suggested to reduce the chance of re-infection, but in my experience periwinkles simply aren’t worth it, rotting before your very eyes as you watch all your money go down the drain.


The Texas A&M University horticultural team rides in once again to save the day.  My friend Dr. Brent Pemberton has found a solution while doing a trial of a specific variety of periwinkle seed –  ‘Nirvana’ –  from Goldsmith Seeds, Inc.

“The results were UNBELIEVABLE!!!! During the fourth wettest spring and early summer in San Antonio weather-keeping history!!, not a one of these plants died of the disease. These plants were planted in the contaminated beds rather than *clean* beds. The deer walked all around the flowers and did not touch a one!”  (from


You no longer have to give up on annual periwinkles in your garden, even if you lost them in years past.  Look for varieties that are resistant to the Aerial Phytophthora fungus, like ‘Nirvana.’  But don’t be afraid to try other great annuals like white dwarf zinnias or even our American native perennial, desert zinnia (Zinnia acerosa).   Now you can have your flowers and deer won’t eat them, too!

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