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What’s Bugging You? Dealing with Common Pests in the Square Foot Garden

Written by Kristina Hicks-Hamblin

Baby squash bug

Baby squash bug on a squash plant. Photo by Chad Hamblin.

While Square Foot Gardening offers a clear advantage over other gardening methods in terms of space, time, and energy savings, practitioners of this food growing technique still have to be on the lookout for pests. 

After all, gardening takes place in and with nature! We rely on beneficial insects to pollinate many of our crops, and we enjoy the beauty of bees and butterflies as they flit around our raised beds. 

But meanwhile, we also need to keep our eyes peeled for unwanted visitors. Let’s learn more about three of the pests we’re likely to encounter in the raised bed garden and what to do about them when we find them. 

Aphids 

There are many different types of aphids, but the ones found in the raised bed garden are usually quite small and are often green, brown, orange, or black in color. 

aphids

Aphids on underside of leaf.

These tiny insects tend to hide out on stems or the bottom sides of leaves, where they suck sap from plant tissues, weakening crops and sometimes spreading plant diseases. 

Once you have correctly identified the bugs on your raised bed crop as aphids, your first line of approach is a fairly easy one – use a garden hose to spray a strong jet of water to wash the aphids away. 

Repeat if needed a few times a day and for several days. It may sound too good to be true, but don’t knock it until you try it. You may be amazed at how well this strategy works. 

Cut Worms 

Have you ever admired young seedlings emerging from the Mel’s Mix in your grid – only to be met with disappointment the next day as some of those seedlings had their tops lopped off? 

Cutworm

Cutworm and severed corn stalk. Photo by Frank Peairs, Wikimedia Commons, via CC BY 3.0.

Blame the cutworms. They may look like worms, but they’re actually caterpillars – the larval forms of moths. 

Cutworms usually like to spend the day barely under the soil, emerging only after dark to go find their dinner. They target young seedlings with tender stems, and leave tell-tale damage behind: seedlings that look like they’ve been decapitated. 

To protect emerging seedlings from cutworms, you can fashion DIY “collars” for them out of empty toilet paper rolls cut in half. Place the roll around the seedling and sink it into the soil half way. Once the seedling has matured and has a tougher stem, you can remove the protective cardboard barrier. 

Squash Bugs

Squash bugs attack members of the gourd family – they are partial to summer and winter squash, but are sometimes found on melon and cucumber plants too. These pests are brown, black, or gray, and look a bit like stink bugs, but are slightly narrower and longer. Frequent inspecting and hand picking is the best way to protect plants from squash bugs, and the best time to check for them is right after watering. 

Squash bug eggs

Squash bug eggs on underside of squash leaf. Photo by Kristina Hicks-Hamblin.

Squash bug.

Squash bug. Photo by Christina Butler, Wikimedia Commons, via CC BY 2.0.

These pests tend to hang out in the crown of the plant, and will scurry away when water reaches them – making this the perfect time to nab them and put them out of their misery – well, out of our misery. Be forewarned, squash bugs emit an unpleasant smell when crushed. 

Also, look for the eggs of these pests on the undersides of leaves – they can be orange, brown or black. Remove and destroy them too. You may also find freshly hatched squash bug babies feeding near the crown of the plant, and these should also be dispatched. 

Seek Help from Natural Predators 

While each of these pests can be dealt with in the ways described above, it’s also important to tilt the odds in our favor – by cultivating a healthy garden eco-system. That means using companion plants, rotating crops, and above all, enlisting the help of natural pest predators. 

Parsley flowers attract beneficial insects.

Parsley flowers attract beneficial insects to the raised bed garden. Photo by Kristina Hicks-Hamblin.

Beneficial insects like ladybugs, lacewings, and parasitoid wasps will help us keep pest populations in check if we invite them to our gardens. We can do so by including some of their favorite nectar and habitat plants in our Square Foot Gardens – herbs like parsley, dill, and cilantro, and flowers like zinnias, and cosmos. 

When inspecting your raised bed plants, be on the lookout for any aphids that are bloated and opaque – that’s a sign that wasps have parasitized them. This is a very good sign! That means you have predators around to help you keep these pests at bay. There are even parasitic wasps and flies that target squash bugs. 

Birds can also be enlisted for pest control. To keep cutworm populations in check, place bird houses nearby. In spring time, robins and other songbirds hunt for tender larvae like cutworms to feed their babies. If you happen upon a cutworm in your Mel’s Mix, toss it out of the raised bed to a spot where a bird will easily find it. 

You may be dealing with some other pests we haven’t covered today – if so, take this simple approach: identify the bug, remove it if it’s causing damage, and work on attracting natural predators. 

Square Foot Gardening is an organic approach to growing food, so even certified organic sprays should be our last resort when dealing with unwanted insects, since these products can harm beneficials as well as pests. 

If you find this blog informative, consider donating to the Square Foot Gardening Foundation. Your support helps us to continue providing tips, resources and the mission of Square Foot Gardening.  

Kristina Hicks-Hamblin

Kristina Hicks-Hamblin lives on a small permaculture-style farm in the high desert of Utah, USDA Hardiness Zone 5b. She is a Certified Permaculture Designer, holds a Certificate in Native Plant Studies from the University of North Carolina Charlotte Botanical Gardens, and a Landscape for Life certificate through the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the United States Botanic Garden. Kristina strives to create gardens where there are as many birds and bees as there are edibles, and has been using Square Foot Gardening as a guiding light since 2012.

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