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Be a Sherlock in your garden

What's eating my (whatever)?  Be curious, be aware, and you'll find out

Leaf-footed bug nymphs
These are leaf-footed bug nymphs. The ones I found and
quickly dispatched this morning looked exactly like this. They
are smaller than you might expect.

Gardeners, the invasion is upon us. It's time to take up arms -- and open our eyes -- and learn to outwit the interlopers, or at least slow them down.

The insect pests and vertebrate pests are eyeing and trying our new vegetables, our developing fruit,  our flower buds.  Easy pickings for them, if we're not vigilant. Example: I knocked a collection of leaf-footed bug nymphs into a cup of soapy water this morning. They were hanging out on my little Babycakes blackberry bush. Do I think I got them all? No way -- now I'll be looking for them everywhere, every day.

Train yourself to figure  out what's going on. Relying on answers from social media is a gamble -- and the answers too often are guesses. Be certain of the source of the information. The best source I know is the UC Integrated Pest Management Program and it's right there on your phone, just like social media. The IPM Plant Problem Diagnostic Tool is invaluable.

Oh, and can I say this: Neem Oil Is Not the Answer to Every Garden Problem!

Actually, using any pest management method is a waste of time and money unless you know which insect or disease you're fighting.

Now, a few words on being a garden detective: Use your eyes! Get a magnifying glass if necessary. Get out into the garden often, at different times of day. Then consider these questions, and you might be able to answer that "what's eating" question yourself.

-- Are the leaves full of holes? Look where the holes are; different pests leave different clues. On leafy green vegetables, for instance, caterpillars tend to sit on the ribs of leaves and chew out the leaf tissue in between. Holes along the leaf edges of a new transplant could be from birds.

-- Are leaves or fruit becoming stippled? There's likely a piercing-sucking insect pest on the loose. Could be thrips or leafhoppers or a number of others. If you also see fine webbing, the pest very likely is spider mites.

-- Are there small loose black dots on leaves? That's likely poop from caterpillars or worms. Examine the leaves above it to find the culprit.

For insect management, this IPM page is the place to start . Be sure to look at the photos of insect nymphs (juveniles), too. They often look very different from their adult versions.

-- Are there bite marks in the almost-ripe tomatoes? Rats, voles, raccoons and squirrels are most likely the biters. Birds will peck at fruits, though enough pecks can look like bites. Deer will take the whole fruit or flower and much of the plant if they can. Here's the IPM link to vertebrate pests . (Tomato hornworms will attack tomato fruit, too, but they'll eat the unripe green ones, along with the plant's leaves.)

-- Is the plant dead/dying all of a sudden? Don't blame insects. To quote the California Master Gardener Handbook: "With a few exceptions, insects and mites seldom kill their host plants, but diseases often do."  And that's a topic for another day!

Still have questions about your plants? Ask the UCCE master gardeners! The Sacramento County office is at 4145 Branch Center Road, Sacramento, and the phone number is (916) 876-5338. Or email


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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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