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Garden Help Desk: How to be the best Garden Scout you can be

By USU Extension - | Jun 11, 2022

Courtesy Meredith Seaver

Insects damage in flower buds can show up as holes or discoloration once the petals expand.

The garden season is in full swing, now. During the weeks between planting and harvesting, there’s more to do besides water and weed. We should also be scouting. What is Garden Scouting? It’s going out into the garden and looking for problems; finding little insect and disease problems before they become a big deal. Here’s how to be a great Garden Scout.

Scouting for insect problems

Whenever you’re out in your garden or landscape, keep an eye out for a few things — holes in flower petals, in leaves, on bark; curling leaves, especially at twig and branch tips; discoloration or unusual appearance, on buds, on blossoms, on leaves, or on stems.

If something out of the ordinary does catch your eye, you’ll want to check for insects themselves. You may find them at leaf axils (the spot where leaves attach to stems), in buds, on the underside of leaves, along stems. Many insects are attracted to young, tender growth, so don’t overlook those new shoots.

You can also hold your foam board under suspicious-looking foliage and give the foliage a few good taps or shakes. Watch the bits and specks that land on the poster board. If any of them move, you might have a spider mite or thrips problem to take care of.

Scouting for disease problems

You’ll be looking for some of the same clues that tell you there’s an insect problem.

Courtesy Meredith Seaver

There are many possible causes of holes in leaves — insects or disease. This potato leaf was damaged by small insects called flea beetles.

In addition to holes in leaves, stop and take a closer look when you see discolored spots. They may be small specks or large splotches, but they all need to be checked.

Watch for oozing, gumming, or cracking of bark. While this can sometimes be caused by insect activity, it can also be a symptom of disease or environmental disorders.

Discoloration on leaves and stems, sunken or discolored bark on trees and shrubs can also mean something needs your attention. Vegetable plants are susceptible to fungal and bacterial diseases that show up first as discolored areas on lower leaves and stems

Container gardens and potted plants

If you have potted plants and container gardens, you’ll be watching for the same things, but you also have an advantage: it’s easier to check the roots for insects and diseases. You can even tip smaller potted plants out of their containers to take a quick look for discolored or soft roots.

There are three little tools that will make your scouting easier. First, a small hand lens will help you tell the difference between little bits of dust and mites. If you can attach a lanyard or leash, even better. Second, a 12-foot-by-12-foot piece of white foam board; it’s sturdy enough to carry around in the garden, small enough to carry with ease, but large enough to hold under foliage while you tap vines and branches to check for thrips and mites. And third, your smart phone. You can use it to take photos of problems you find, make notes about how your garden is doing, or do a quick online search once you think you’ve figured out the problem, to confirm your suspicions. You can also send your photos to gardenhelp@usu.edu if you’re stumped.

Courtesy Meredith Seaver

When the texture or color of leaves or stems seems "off," a closer look may show a problem like aphids.

To wrap it up:

  • Start early in the season and get out in the garden frequently.
  • Involve the family. The more eyes, the better. They don’t need to know insects and diseases, but they can know what things should and shouldn’t look like, and let you know.
  • Keep good records. Make note of when specific pest, disease and problems first show up- not just the timing on a calendar but also the stage of the crop. Then you’ll be on guard in advance. If you did something about a problem you found, write down what you did and whether you got the results you wanted.

You don’t need to make garden scouting a big project, just make it one small habit in your gardening life.

Hi, we missed the boat for planting in early spring for spinach, Paris Island lettuce and cilantro. Can I plant any of these 3 now? If not, when is the best time for each?

It’s harvest time now for cool-season vegetables, too late to plant these crops, but there are some cool season crops that can be planted over the next several weeks, for harvest during the cool fall weather. Choose varieties with shorter maturity dates so that you’ll be able to harvest before frigid winter temperatures arrive.

You can plant lettuce from June 1 to August 1, spinach from July 1 to August 15, and cilantro in late summer for a fall harvest.

Courtesy Meredith Seaver

Lettuce prefers cool spring temperatures and has it's best flavor before temperatures warm up in the summer. Lettuce planted in mid-summer will be ready for harvest during the cooler temperatures of autumn.

There are several other vegetables that can be planted for a fall harvest. Here is a simple guide for planting dates in our area:  https://extension.usu.edu/yardandgarden/research/wasatch-front-planting-dates

Some people wait and plant spinach in the fall, overwinter their plants and then harvest after growth resumes in the spring. The plants need to have 4 to 5 true leaves before they’re hardy enough to overwinter. Mulch them heavily after a few frosts and remove the mulch in early spring.

Spinach is a great vegetable to plant in the early spring. You can also plant it in the fall, mulch it heavily after a few frosty nights, and it will be the first veggie ready to harvest the following spring.

Peas are a spring crop. If planted in mid-March, they'll be ready for harvest in early June.

The underside of leaves is one common place to find aphids or spider mites, so it's important to turn leaves over when scouting in the garden or home orchard.


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