Organic, safe ways to control caterpillars, snails and bugs


It’s fun to watch the monarch butterflies sip nectar and lay eggs on the Asclepias (butterfly weed).

It’s fun to watch the caterpillars turn into butterflies.

It’s not fun watching the many looper caterpillars that eat almost everything and leave ugly green or black poop behind. Most common ones come from either a moth or little white butterflies.

Look for the caterpillars above the poop on your plant. If you see eaten leaves, it is usually either caterpillars or snails. Here’s how to know the difference. Snails leave a shiny trail; caterpillars leave poop, called frass.

Another terrible pest is the geranium/petunia budworm. They can put your petunia or geranium out of bloom in a week. It doesn’t develop into a pretty butterfly; it grows into a tiny night-flying moth. Once you see the holes in the bud, the worm has left and is eating somewhere on your plant. So many munchers having dinner on your plants.

Sometimes relying on birds and hand picking are not enough. Is there a safe and organic way kill the bad caterpillars and keep the ones you like?

Yes. There are two organic, safe and nontoxic products. Sprays with Bt kill only caterpillars. Sprays with Spinosad (pronounced SPIN-o-sad) kill both caterpillars and larvae. Both are safe, organic, Omri labeled and come under various brand names.

(Hint: Larvae look like caterpillars but come from other insects. Spinosad will kill both. The larvae or caterpillar must eat some of the sprayed leaves.)

These sprays do not stay active long, so spray every two weeks.

What about my roses? you ask. The rose slug skeletonizes the leaves but is very hard to spot. It’s called the rose slug, but it has nothing to do with slugs. It is the larvae of the sawfly. Spinosad is the best organic choice.

As for snails and slugs (ugh), I have good news and bad.

The drought means less watering and fewer moist areas for snails to hide in. The bad news is that when there is no water, snails can form a protective membrane, hide and survive for up to three years — ready to wake up with the first rain and start eating.

Controls can be fun and effective.

• Fun: We all love the beer trap. Not very effective, but you get to drink the extra beer. Containers need to be deep enough to drown the snails. Refill often. They will attract snails in a 3- to 5-foot area.

• Better and still fun: Water your garden at dusk, go out later and hunt them down. Throw them into a pail of soapy water or have fun with the smash-and-crash method. (Drink your beer instead of giving it to the snails.)

• Best but not fun: Scatter any of the new organic nontoxic iron phosphate baits. You’ll find them under brand names like Sluggo, Excar-Go. Iron phosphate is a natural part of the soil; it’s very effective and perfectly safe. It kills by stopping the pests’ feeding ability. You can bait often but with less quantity.

For all these garden products, always read and follow the directions. That is what they are there for!