I get a lot of questions this time of year about dealing with bugs. They normally start out with, “Something is eating my lettuce, beans, strawberries, (insert your newly planted babies here).” And it’s frustrating. I know. Putting out a row of lettuce you carefully started in greenhouse only to have it riddled with holes the next day can make a person a bit, well, angry. Now there are nasty chemicals you could spray your yard with to kill every bug it touches and it would be a quick, fast solution to this. The problem with that, however, is you wind up killing off your predatory/good bugs as well. Before you know it, you have an even bigger problem because the next wave of bad bugs seems to be worse than before. I always recommend striving for balance with nature and most often that means doing nothing.
But in this case, you can target just those bugs that are going after your plants. The solution? Diatomaceous Earth! It’s the white stuff you see in the photo. But what is it really? It is naturally occurring, soft, siliceous sedimentary rock which is comprised of fossilized hard shelled algae. To us it feels like a soft powder, similar to flour. To bugs it feels like walking across broken glass. Its sharp edges cut the bug’s protective outer layer and dries them out. But they seem to know this. Once I put the dust around my plants, the damage stops immediately. Earwigs, pillbugs, snails and slugs will not cross this stuff thus creating a protective wall around your plants.
Here I find it is the earwigs that cause the most damage to newly transplanted vegetable starts. A bit later in the season, hungry birds seem to do a great job at reducing earwig populations, but in early spring they can be huge. During the day they lurk in cool shady areas, under piles of wood, beneath pots, etc. At night they come out and eat our veggies. To prevent this, simply ring your plants with a dusting of Diatomaceous Earth like you see in the photo where it is protecting my newly planted mouse melons. It’s a completely natural way to stop bugs in their tracks. The only drawback is you will have to reapply after rains or overhead watering about once a week. Basically when you can’t see the dust well anymore. Normally, however, I find I have to do this for a relatively short period of time as the bugs seem to prefer the tender leaves on new seedlings. Once the plants grow to about 5″ or so and harden up from being outside, the bugs tend to leave them alone.
Diatomaceous Earth can also be used to control other insects. It can be dusted indoors on carpets and bedding to get rid of fleas. It can be used as a home perimeter dusting to reduce ant populations (although I find it only slightly effective against fire ants). If you purchase a food grade brand you can use it in your cupboards for pantry pests as well. Just make sure to follow label directions and take some precautions when applying. It is a fine dust so applying it on windless mornings seems to work best. Make sure to wash your hands after use to avoid accidentally getting some in your eyes. It can be irritating. I sprinkle it out with my fingers but you can also use something like a squeeze ketchup container to apply. It is non-toxic so it leaves no chemical residue. Outside it normally dissipates into the ground. Inside it can be removed by vacuuming. Store the Diatomaceous Earth in a cool, dry location. The four pound bag will normally last me two years.