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Some pests love hot, dry weather

Spider mites, tomato hornworms spiking now

Spider mites love hot, dry conditions. Ash and fallen leaves cling to spider mite webs covering a camellia. (Photos: Debbie Arrington)

Some of the biggest and smallest pests to attack our gardens are enjoying these last days of summer – much to our dismay. While many critters retreat in high heat, these invaders actually spike in numbers and activity as the mercury rises.

Recent dusty, hot and smoky weather has been terrible for people. Spider mites think it’s heaven. They don’t mind the ash clinging to their webs.

These itty-bitty arachnids thrive in hot, dry, dusty conditions, attacking water-stressed plants.

According to the UC Cooperative Extension master gardeners, spider mites can multiply especially rapidly during these conditions.

“If the temperature and food supplies are favorable, a generation can be completed in less than a week,” say the master gardeners’ pest notes.

No bigger than a pinpoint, a spider mite is a minute arachnid, the same eight-legged class that includes spiders and ticks.

Spider mites spin telltale webs, which are much more noticeable than the tiny creatures. They attack just about any plant, from strawberries to full-size trees, sucking out moisture.

Beneficial insects usually can outnumber the spider mites and keep them under control. But when the weather turns unusually hot, dry and smoky as it has been, the predators tend to retreat, allowing the spider mites to take hold.

The solution? Water. Take the hose and spray dust and ash off leaves, making sure to get the undersides of foliage, too. A strong shower disrupts spider mite paradise and holds them at bay until the real rains come (hopefully) in fall.

To keep them away, keep the garden well watered. Irrigation is key to spider mite control. They don’t like it wet.

Tomato hornworm on leaf
Tomato hornworms will munch on leaves, stems and fruit (both
unripe and ripe) of tomato plants.

Meanwhile, the heat also brought out a late-summer surge of one of the biggest bugs in the vegetable garden: The tomato hornworm.

Natural enemies usually keep their populations under control. But hornworm numbers can spike in late summer with high heat.

Fat as a finger and just as long, hornworms rank as Sacramento’s largest caterpillars. They eat big bites out of their favorite food: Ripe tomatoes. They’ll also eat green tomatoes, leaves and stems.

Their stripes let them hide in plain sight. They blend in so well with their surroundings, they can seem impossible to spot.

If you suspect hornworms, look for their poop. They leave large black or green droppings on or around the plant. If you see those droppings, carefully inspect the plant’s leaves and stems. When you find it, pick off the hornworm and dispose of it.

If the hornworm escapes capture, it burrows into the soil and pupates into a moth of equally gigantic proportion: The hawk moth. Emerging in spring, this brown and gray moth has a 5-inch wingspan.

Rototilling the tomato bed after harvest prevents those moths from ever developing – and laying eggs next spring.

For more on spider mites:

For more on tomato hornworms: ml


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Garden Checklist for week of May 19

Temperatures will be a bit higher than normal in the afternoons this week. Take care of chores early in the day – then enjoy the afternoon. It’s time to smell the roses.

* Plant, plant, plant! It’s prime planting season in the Sacramento area. If you haven’t already, it’s time to set out those tomato transplants along with peppers and eggplants. Pinch off any flowers on new transplants to make them concentrate on establishing roots instead of setting premature fruit.

* Direct-seed melons, cucumbers, summer squash, corn, radishes, pumpkins and annual herbs such as basil.

* Harvest cabbage, lettuce, peas and green onions.

* In the flower garden, direct-seed sunflowers, cosmos, salvia, zinnias, marigolds, celosia and asters.

* Plant dahlia tubers. Other perennials to set out include verbena, coreopsis, coneflower and astilbe.

* Transplant petunias, marigolds and perennial flowers such as astilbe, columbine, coneflowers, coreopsis, dahlias, rudbeckia and verbena.

* Keep an eye out for slugs, snails, earwigs and aphids that want to dine on tender new growth.

* Feed summer bloomers with a balanced fertilizer.

* For continued bloom, cut off spent flowers on roses as well as other flowering plants.

* Don’t forget to water. Seedlings need moisture. Deep watering will help build strong roots and healthy plants.

* Add mulch to the garden to help keep that precious water from evaporating. Mulch also cuts down on weeds. But don’t let it mound around the stems or trunks of trees or shrubs. Leave about a 6-inch to 1-foot circle to avoid crown rot or other problems.

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