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Leafminers leave telltale tracks

Damage may not be pretty, but relax -- it's just cosmetic

This shishito pepper plant has evidence of leafminer damage on the leaves. (Photos: Kathy Morrison)

Some garden pests become a nuisance in hot weather. Their damage may not be pretty, but eliminating these little culprits can cause more harm than benefit.

Such is the case of leafminers. The larvae of little black flies, these worms cause serpentine trails on leaf surfaces as they tunnel (or mine) for food just below the surface.

The life cycle of this little pest is only two weeks, so there can seem to be sudden spikes in activity. As gardeners, we don’t notice the black flies – just the winding tracks on foliage left by the larvae.

According to UC Cooperative Extension master gardeners, leafminers attack a wide range of hosts, including cole crops (cabbage, kale, broccoli, etc.), cucurbits (squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, melons), tomatoes, peas, beans, asters, begonias, dahlias, impatiens, lilies, marigolds, petunias and verbena. This year especially, that list includes pepper plants.

Except for seedlings, this damage rarely harms the host plant. It’s cosmetic and really only is a problem for leaf crops such as cabbage, kale, chard and spinach. Protect those seedlings with crop covers. (They probably will appreciate a little shade, too.)

Leaves with leafminer damage
Treatment generally is not required for leafminer damage.
As for other crops, trim off and dispose of invested leaves. Pesticides aren’t particularly effective against leafminers; spraying has to be perfectly timed to actually work. And any spraying will kill the beneficial insects that feed on the leafminer flies and larvae, so it’s doubly bad.

For ornamental plants, systemic pesticides can dissuade the leafminer from munching (but it also makes the plant inedible for people).

Neem oil often is recommended as a way to generally treat any pest infestation. But applied in the heat of August, neem oil will fry the foliage, not save the plant.

Instead, here’s the advice from the UC integrated pest management website:

“Leafminers rarely require treatment in gardens. Provide proper care, especially irrigation to keep plants vigorous. Clip off and remove older infested leaves.

"Plant resistant species or varieties. Small seedlings can be protected by protective cloth. On plants such as cole crops, lettuce, and spinach, clip off and remove older infested leaves.

"Leafminers are often kept under good control by natural parasites. Insecticides are not very effective for leafminer control.”

So, if you see squiggles on leaves, reach for your scissors first. More on leafminers:


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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 26:

Sacramento can expect another inch of rain from this latest storm. Leave the sprinklers off at least another week. Temps will dip down into the low 30s early in the week, so avoid planting tender seedlings (such as tomatoes). Concentrate on these tasks before or after this week’s rain:

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* Knock off aphids with a strong blast of water or some bug soap as soon as they appear.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prepare summer vegetable beds. Spade in compost and other amendments.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Feed camellias at the end of their bloom cycle. Pick up browned and fallen flowers to help corral blossom blight.

* Feed citrus trees, which are now in bloom and setting fruit.

To prevent sunburn and borer problems on young trees, paint the exposed portion of the trunk with diluted white latex (water-based) interior paint. Dilute the paint with an equal amount of cold water before application.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Seed and renovate the lawn (if you still have one). Feed cool-season grasses such as bent, blue, rye and fescue with a slow-release fertilizer. Check the irrigation system and perform maintenance. Make sure sprinkler heads are turned toward the lawn, not the sidewalk.

* In the vegetable garden, transplant lettuce and kale.

* Seed chard and beets directly into the ground.

* Plant summer bulbs, including gladiolus, tuberous begonias and callas. Also plant dahlia tubers.

* Shop for perennials. Many varieties are available in local nurseries and at plant events. They can be transplanted now while the weather remains relatively cool.

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