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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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For week of Dec. 3:

Make the most of gaps between raindrops. This is a busy month!

* Windy conditions brought down a lot of leaves. Make sure to rake them away from storm drains.

* Use those leaves as mulch around frost-tender shrubs and new transplants.

* Rake and remove dead leaves and stems from dormant perennials.

* Just because it rained doesn't mean every plant got watered. Give a drink to plants that the rain didn't reach, such as under eves or under evergreen trees. Also, well-watered plants hold up better to frost than thirsty plants.

* Prune non-flowering trees and shrubs while they're dormant.

* Clean and sharpen garden tools before storing for the winter.

* Brighten the holidays with winter bloomers such as poinsettias, amaryllis, calendulas, Iceland poppies, pansies and primroses.

* Keep poinsettias in a sunny, warm location. Water thoroughly. After the holidays, feed your plants monthly so they'll bloom again next December.

* Plant one last round of spring bulbs including daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, anemones and scillas. Get those tulips out of the refrigerator and into the ground.

* This is also a good time to seed wildflowers such as California poppies.

* Plant such spring bloomers as sweet pea, sweet alyssum and bachelor buttons.

* Late fall is the best time to plant most trees and shrubs. This gives them plenty of time for root development before spring growth. They also benefit from fall and winter rains.

* Lettuce, cabbage and broccoli also can be planted now.

* Plant garlic and onions.

* Bare-root season begins. Plant bare-root berries, kiwifruit, grapes, artichokes, horseradish and rhubarb. Beware of soggy soil. It can rot bare-root plants.

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