It's true we didn't have our usual mid-summer heat in July, but August looks to be catching up on what we've missed.
Tomatoes are finally beginning to ripen and cucumber vines are starting to wilt, but these delays in harvest haven't kept away our usual summer pests. Fortunately, along with the pests are the beneficials that help, along with healthy plants, to keep those undesirables in the garden under control.
Take, for example, the always interesting praying mantis. Children, and even some adults, have a hard time containing themselves when encountering a praying mantis resting on a huge leaf. After all, it isn't as easy to spot this large garden insect due to its uncanny ability to change colors based on its surroundings. Southern states have their little green anole (Anolis carolinensis) lizards that dart around throughout the gardens hiding among the leaves, and we have praying mantis.
Praying mantis is considered a beneficial predator in the garden, often preying on small insects such as beetles, grasshoppers and flies. When searching for food, the mantis will sit upright with its front forelegs together in what is described as a praying position. Also preyed upon themselves by larger insects and birds, mantises can change color to blend in with their surroundings.
Like the southern lizards, praying mantis is a predator of most pest insects, such as grasshoppers, beetles, aphids, leafhoppers, caterpillars and even mosquitoes. If you are lucky enough to have a praying mantis in your garden, you can be assured it is there to feed itself and its offspring. A mantis egg case can contain as many as 200 baby mantises.
The praying mantis is named for its posture of holding up its front legs in a praying position. They are quite patient when searching for food, waiting in one position without moving until their prey emerges. They are lightning fast to the point of being nothing more than a blur, if they are seen at all, catching an insect. While they can bite, they have no venom and are not harmful to humans or pets.
Everyone knows the benefits of bees in the garden, but many don't realize that honeybees aren't the only pollinating bee that is welcome. There are more than 3,000 species of what are called ''solitary bees'' in North America. Unlike honeybees, the males of the species also pollinate crops. Pollen bees fly more slowly and tend to stay with one crop rather than going from tomatoes to peppers to squash. This results in more efficient pollination since different plant species do not cross pollinate.
There are plenty of beneficial insects to go around in the garden. Ladybugs or lady beetles are the most commonly known predator, particularly when it comes to feeding on aphids. But they also include mealybugs, spider mites and Colorado Potato beetle and European Corn Borer eggs, as part of their diet.
Other beneficial insects you might see flitting around your garden are green and brown lacewings, which like the lady beetle, feed on aphids and other soft bodied insects. They are not harmful to humans and do not bite. Still more beneficials include several species of parasitic wasp, which feed on whiteflies as well as armyworm, bagworm, European corn borer, peach borer, squash borer, cankerworm, alfalfa caterpillar, cutworm, corn earworm, wax moth, tomato hornworm, cabbage looper and codling moth.
So before you grab that can of chemical spray, keep in mind that you could be upsetting the balance that nature provides. Where there is prey, there are predators. Chemical sprays, dusts and even biological controls can harm beneficial insects that are just there looking for a good meal that has nothing to do with your plants.
Garden pests that aren't so friendly include everyone's enemy, aphids. While Japanese beetles are at the top of the list, these voracious little pests don't usually kill our plants, but simply make them ugly. The beetles like to munch on our leaves and flower petals, and without leaves, a plant will eventually die. But large infestations in the home garden aren't common and the beetles are only around for a few weeks.
Aphids are much more devastating, not alone but in large numbers. It doesn't take long for their numbers to grow and before you know it, several populations are attacking. Aphids can range in color from pale green, yellow, purple or black. They are soft-bodied and suck the juices from vegetable and flower leaves and stems. There are many different species of aphids and most are exclusive plant families.
If you must resort to chemical controls, be sure to read the packages' directions explicitly. Don't spray on vegetables and only purchase enough chemical for your own use as there is no safe way to dispose of what's left at the end of the season. Chemicals also should not be stored from one season to the next as most formulas change from year to year based on the insect's ability to become immune to the pesticide. You can see why using beneficial insects is safer and easier when you are concerned about an infestation.
Besides insect pests in the garden, late summer diseases can begin to show up on many of our garden plants. The most annoying of these is powdery mildew. While powdery mildew is not usually deadly to a plant, it can be unsightly. Powdery mildew is present when temperatures are moderate, usually between 60 and 80 degrees. The fungus is not active during the hottest days of summer. Powdery mildew is spread by airborne spores and some varieties are more prevalent when humidity is high.
To avoid this fungus on plants without resorting to chemicals, make sure plants are healthy first of all. Plant them where they like to live. The disease will almost always show up on plants that like full sun, but are forced to live in partial sun or shady locations. Don't crowd the plants, giving them ample space for good air circulation. Don't work with your plants when they are wet, such as early morning before dew has evaporated or after a rain or you could spread the disease from plant to plant.
If your plant does become infested, you can do two things. You can resort to chemical fungicides, or you can simply wait out the season, keeping an eye on the plant for signs of decline before spraying.
Other disease problems, particularly with vegetables can include wilt diseases. When choosing vegetables for the garden, you can opt for plants that are bred resistant to these diseases, particularly Fusarium and Verticillim wilts. Learn to distinguish between the two if they are a problem and treat accordingly. Cut the lower or main stem and look inside. If the tissue inside the stem is dark brown, it is likely Fusarium wilt. If there is rot or a knot, called a canker, at the base of the stem, root rot is probably involved. Once again, these problems are likely to show up near the end of the season anyway, and simply pulling up the affected plant and discarding it is the best method of control.
Plant diseases often live in the soil for a couple of years, so rotating crops by planting them in a different section of the garden every four years can help keep the incidence of these fungus diseases at bay. The same species of wilt disease that affects one family of plants will not affect another, so it is safe to plant broccoli cabbage next year where your potatoes and tomatoes were this season.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University Extension of Trumbull County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.