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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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Garden Checklist for week of July 7

Take care of garden chores early in the morning, concentrating on watering. We’re still in survival mode until this heat wave breaks.

* Keep your vegetable garden watered, mulched and weeded. Water before 8 a.m. to conserve moisture.

* Prevent sunburn; provide temporary shade for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, melons, squash and other crops with “sensitive” skin.

* Hold off on feeding plants until temperatures cool back down to “normal” range. That means daytime highs in the low to mid 90s.

* Don’t let tomatoes wilt or dry out completely. Give tomatoes a deep watering two to three times a week. Harvest vegetables promptly to encourage plants to produce more.

* Squash especially tends to grow rapidly in hot weather. Keep an eye on zucchini.

* Some weeds thrive in hot weather. Whack them before they go to seed.

* Pinch back chrysanthemums for bushy plants and more flowers in September.

* Harvest tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant. Prompt picking will help keep plants producing.

* Remove spent flowers from roses, daylilies and other bloomers as they finish flowering.

* Pinch off blooms from basil so the plant will grow more leaves.

* Cut back lavender after flowering to promote a second bloom.

* One good thing about hot days: Most lawns stop growing when temperatures top 95 degrees. Keep mower blades set on high.

* Once the weather cools down a little, it’s not too late to add a splash of color. Plant petunias, snapdragons, zinnias and marigolds.

* After the heat wave, plant corn, pumpkins, radishes, winter squash and sunflowers. Make sure the seeds stay hydrated.

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