Q: How can I tell whether a bug in my garden is good or bad when I don't know its name? I don't know much about insects.
A: Several clues will help you to recognize the good guys and the bad ones. You can use those clues to figure out whether to smile at a bug or smash it. You never need to know its name.
First of all, do you see one bug or dozens of them on a single leaf? Bugs that travel alone or in small groups are predators. They eat other bugs, not plants. Predatory bugs are gardeners' friends. They dine on the hordes of bad bugs like aphids, which will eat your garden plants if they can.
When you see an unfamiliar bug, is it moving fast? If so, you can assume that it is a predator. Because it eats other bugs, it has learned to move quickly to catch them, whether running or flying. The slow-moving insects are the ones to be suspicious about.
Is it an adult insect, with six legs, sometimes also with wings? If not, if it is still a larva, it may be bigger than its adult self will be, and may be really ugly or fearsome in appearance. Larval ladybugs, for instance, are twice the size of adults. They usually have some orange markings but also have a variety of other colors. I have seen them with blue, gray, and white. They look spiky and truly dangerous, rather like miniature dinosaurs, but they are just young ladybugs.
If you see a bug next to a hole in a leaf, that means nothing. The bugs that eat holes often feed only at night. Most of them drop to the ground to hide as soon as the leaf moves. Bugs that stay around next to holes in a leaf or fruit are probably scavengers. Their job is to clean up the damaged remains left by plant eaters. They are garden helpers also.
Most bugs in the garden are friendly. It is always good to let all the bugs live unless you catch one in the act of devouring a plant. There will be only a handful of bad types during a whole growing season.
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Q: How do I know which annuals I have to take the dead flowers off of?
A: When in doubt, remove them. Plants which do not need deadheading (removing old flowers) are not true annuals. They are flowers like petunias which would be perennials in a warmer place. Annuals are in the business of making seeds, not flowers. To keep the flowers coming, try to stall the seed making process.
A reader responded to the discussion of a lawn weed with orange flowers, saying that it might be the orange hawkweed which was infesting her lawn. The original query was not about hawkweed because the original weed had flowers with four petals. Hawkweed comes in both orange and yellow flowered types, but the flowers look like the tuft of a small brush.
Any gardener who suspects that they are harboring hawkweed should follow the basic rule for perennial weeds: cut it to the ground and keep cutting it until the plants run out of food and die. Hawkweeds are perennials. They have running roots, and that means they will not die the first time they are beheaded. Digging hawkweed is a no-no; more plants will grow from pieces of root left behind than were dug out in the first place.
Master gardener Molly Hackett, whose motto is “Never trust a gardener with clean fingernails,” welcomes your questions. Send them to 1384 Meridian Road, Victor, MT 59875; call 961-4614; or email email@example.com. Please include a garden-related subject line in emails. Hackett writes a twice-monthly Dirty Fingernails opinion piece for the Missoulian.