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pests and disease

Vegetable Garden

12 Garden Pests We Don’t Want To See In Our Veggies

April 30, 2014

Sometime’s it seems there are more bad guys in the garden than good. When we emptied a large strawberry container this week in a HSE garden that caters for adults with intellectual disabilities, we found four of the ten pests listed below in one container alone! When we’re gardening without chemicals it can be a challenge but not impossible to either get rid of, or contain the pests and the first step is identifying the good guys from the bad, something covered a couple of weeks ago with the 12 Friends We Want to See in Our Gardens blog post.

Companion Planting Nasturtiums

Companion Planting Nasturtiums

To identify the pests we need to see them first so the first rule of thumb when dealing with pests organically is vigilance. Check your vegetables regularly, daily if possible and if you spot anything unusual, try to find out what it is and deal with it immediately – it’s very unlikely it will go away on its own.

One of my favourite books to help identify pests and diseases is the RHS Pest & Disease book and I’d recommend it for all gardeners shelves. After vigilance there are several things we can do to prevent a build up of pests, from good soil management, hygiene, crop rotation, companion planting as well as learning pest life-cycles (the weevil below is a case in point), using fresh compost and encouraging beneficial wildlife – all topics covered in my workshops. To help you begin the pest ID, here are a dozen I’ve come across, though there are many more.


Leatherjacket – root eating cranefly larvae

1. Leatherjackets

Not the ones we wear, but little grey-brown grubs. Leatherjackets are the larvae of crane fly and are root eaters. They’re fleshy with no legs and can grow as big as 50mm. For more information on how to identify and get rid of them, take a look here.

photo credit: E_Journeys via photopin cc

photo credit: E_Journeys via photopin cc

2. Cutworms

Cutworms are moth larvae that generally live under the soil and are again, root feeders.

They’re larger than the leatherjackets mentioned above and are a green, grey, brown colour about 2.5 cm long. Supernemos are available online if you’ve noticed a particular problem with these grubs or the leatherjackets.

cabbage white caterpillars3. Caterpillars

Cabbage white butterflies and moths start appearing around May and lay their eggs on the undersides of Brassica leaves (kale, cabbage, broccoli). The eggs hatch and the caterpillars feast on the leaves of seedlings you may have lovingly grown, leaving gaping holes and if left unchecked, no leaves whatsoever.

There are a few ways of dealing with caterpillars organically. First of all cover the bed your Brassica are growing in with netting made with holes small enough the butterfly can’t squeeze through to lay her eggs. Make sure the net is fixed to a frame and not sitting directly on top of the plants or the butterfly will lay her eggs through it. If you do spot signs of caterpillars, pick them off the plants and destroy them or move them to a sacrificial plant such as nasturtiums where they can chomp away without damaging your precious leaves.

snails4. Slugs & Snails

I could spend every lesson in every workshop discussing slugs and snails as they’re the bane of gardeners lives! Instead I wrote a blog post that has 15 ways of dealing with them organically and a few more comments have been added to the list. Take a look if slugs & snails are your nemesis.

Carrot Root Fly Damage

Carrot Root Fly Damage – spot the larvae

5. Carrot Root Fly

I think I’d heard about carrot root fly long before we began growing veg but only came across this pest recently. Boy does it do some damage. I won’t go into detail here as I dedicated a blog post to it after we discovered it in Callan community garden, but trust me, you really don’t want this pest in your garden.

aphids7. Aphids

Greenfly, blackly – most of us are familiar with aphids in one guise or another.

They love our roses and they love our broad beans and they breed like mad. Here’s a post all about them with a few suggestions on how to keep on top of them.

spidermite8. Red Spidermite

My polytunnel became so infested with red spidermite last year I had to take everything out and wash the tunnel and everything it contained from top to bottom because the spidermite had infected it all. It was a demoralising experience that I don’t want a repeat of, ever. How did it happen? I took my eye off and didn’t spot them early enough. It was a hot summer and I didn’t keep the polytunnel damp enough – red spidermite thrive in hot, dry conditions. There’s no excuse as I’ve seen infestations a couple of times. Here’s a post about a red spidermite attack we spotted early enough in Goresbridge Community Garden a couple of years ago you might like to look at for tips and suggestions.

weevil grub

photo credit: Scot Nelson via photopin cc

9. Weevils

Whether the weevils are after your legumes as in pea and bean weevil or after your strawberries, as in strawberry weevil, they’re a curse as the distinctive orange headed larvae eat the roots and the adults eat the leaves. The Irish produced Supernemos are said to be effective against strawberry weevils and may well be the answer.

Beet leaf miner10. Leaf Beet Miner

Beet miner’s are maggots that have hatched from fly eggs laid between the layers of leaves. There’s no cure, organic or otherwise, other than vigilance. Once you spot them, remove the infected leaves and the plants will recover. This post explains them in more detail.

Cockchafer (May Bug) aka root eater11. Chafer Grubs

The first time I came across one of these grubs (cockchafer pictured on the left) it reminded me of the enormous widgedeygrubs our children are fascinated with on ‘I’m A Celebrity’.  Almost the size of your thumb they eat roots and once they pupate the cockchafers will become Mays Bugs or Billy witches. We tried watering Supernemos onto the raised beds in Leighlin Parish Community Garden the first year we came across them and didn’t see them again as a result.

12. Gooseberry Sawfly

gooseberry sawfly

gooseberry sawfly larvae

Lots of people were tweeting about gooseberry sawfly larvae damage last year – a caterpillar than can literary strip bushes bare in just a couple of days. They’re also partial to currant bushes which I learnt when they took a liking to our red currant bush. Here’s a post on how to deal with them. I heard a tip recently suggesting laying rhubarb leaves at the base of bushes to deter this fly – something I’ll be trying soon.

There are many more pests and just when we think we’ve seen them all, along comes a new one. Lots of people have mentioned the weevils this year and ants seem to be causing a problem too. Ants won’t damage your garden but they do harvest aphids, a sprinkling of cinnamon or semolina powder seems to sort them out however.  I have a general rule of thumb in our garden – as long as the bugs aren’t trying to eat our vegetables, they can stay.

Have you come across any pests that have had you hopping mad at the destruction they’ve caused?

Vegetable Garden

Looking After and Planting a Polytunnel in Winter

November 15, 2010

Looking After and Planting a Polytunnel in WinterAs a working mum with three children, an old farmhouse that’s in a constant state of renovation, a Scout group leader and a gardener, I face a constant battle with time management. Life can be a rollercoaster and trying to keep a balance a struggle at times – whether it’s washing, cleaning, cooking, typing, sewing, homework or helping whichever family or group member is shouting out the loudest.

Needless to say our house isn’t spick and span, the kids watch more TV than I’m comfortable with, the kitchen door remains unpainted after four years of adding filler to it, I regularly serve up omelets and oven chips, my filing hasn’t been sorted and put away for months and the weeds are growing in my veg beds.

So it’s with a massive sense of delight and relief when I finally tick off one of the jobs that’s been taking up head space…. and this weekend it was the polytunnel.

Looking After and Planting a Polytunnel in Winter

24th May 2009

Our tunnel had remained in the shed, still packaged in its cardboard box, for over a year before we finally erected it with the help of a few friends, on a still, warm day in May in 2009.

Looking After and Planting a Polytunnel in WinterMy in-laws had bought it as an anniversary present from Highbank Organic Farm in Cuffesgrange, Co Kilkenny and so I was pleased as punch that I’d started off several seedlings in a friend’s tunnel during the springtime so that I could immediately plant up the beds once the cover was on.

That first season we grew lovely crops of tomatoes, coriander, radishes, cucumbers, carrots, chilli’s, sweet peppers, flat leaf parsley, melons, aubergines and basil.

Looking After and Planting a Polytunnel in Winter

19th July 2009

We made parsley wine and repaired a hole in the roof of the plastic after our youngest daughter had decided to climb barefoot to the top. We also got our share of pests and diseases – the dreaded tomato blight and red spider mite.

On a wet, cold day in November I drove over to Scariff in Co Clare and attended an informative full day workshop at Irish Seed Savers about using a polytunnel throughout the year.

I came back inspired and enthusiastically cleared the tunnel of anything dead or decaying and replanted it (yes in November) with carrots (Amsterdam Forcing), Overwintering Lettuce, Broad Beans (Bunyards Express) and Peas (Onward I think, seed packets got a bit muddled!). I left the parsley, chives, radish and carrots already growing to do their own thing.

Looking After and Planting a Polytunnel in Winter

Peas growing in May 2010

Everything remained dormant for the worst of the cold winter but then as the light levels increased and the air became warmer, they started to grow and we were eating fresh peas in May.

After we harvested everything (it all grew) we planted shallots, onions, garlic, basil, more carrots, baby tomatoes, cooking tomatoes, lots of cucumbers, courgettes, french beans and sweetcorn.

The onions and garlic didn’t do as well inside (their bulbs weren’t very big) and we only picked about four chilli’s (they were in a draught), but when clearing the tunnel yesterday I harvested 10 more sweet peppers.

Crop rotation can be tricky in a polytunnel or glasshouse.  Many of the fruit and vegetables we tend to plant in them, plants that require warmer temperatures to fully mature, are of the same family, for instance tomatoes and aubergines (Solanaceae) , cucumbers and squashes (Cucurbitaceae).

Looking After and Planting a Polytunnel in Winter

Three Sisters Planting in August

Most folk I’ve spoken to just seem to move the plants around the best they can each year. Some remove the soil and add new soil the following season (a bit too labour intensive in my mind). Some grow tomatoes in containers as they’re more prone to disease (eelworm). Some take their chances and grow them in the same space each year.

Looking After and Planting a Polytunnel in WinterWhatever you chose to do it’s important to keep adding as much organic matter as possible to the soil.  It will help with drainage and subsequently moisture levels amongst other things. I appreciate it makes financial sense to keep a tunnel planted up year in, year out…. the plastic has to be replaced every five to ten years, so get the most from your money and sow as much as you can. Any of the vegetables that don’t require Mediterranean temperatures and light levels can be grown in a tunnel over the winter months, and at this time of year anything that says ‘early’ on the packet should grow for you.

Looking After and Planting a Polytunnel in WinterThere are massive temperature fluctuations in polytunnels that you have to be aware of…. at lunchtime today I opened the door and the temperature had reached 23ºC in the bright sunshine, despite falling to just 1oºC overnight.

(If you have a tunnel it’s worth investing in a good thermometer that records highs and lows.)  It will guide you as to whether you should put some horticultural fleece or newspaper onto crops to give them some added protection, or whether to water more in the summer months.

However, this winter I’ve chosen to give the soil a good rest. For the past 18 months the tunnel’s been fully productive.  I’m aware there are lots of vegetables we could be growing and sowing (see the fabulous Joy Larkcom book for all her oriental veg ideas for starters), but for the next three months we wont be sowing anything inside.

Looking After and Planting a Polytunnel in WinterOutside we still have leeks, celery, parsnips, swedes and curly kale. We have potatoes, beans, onions and garlic in storage and bags of strawberries in the freezer.

At this date in time there isn’t a food crisis in Ireland (just an enormous financial one!) – I don’t need to keep the tunnel endlessly productive.

Looking After and Planting a Polytunnel in Winter

Preparing the polytunnel beds for winter

So, we’ve cleared the beds, watered the dry earth and covered the soil with lovely, well-rotted cow manure that’s full of big, fat worms.  Now we’ll watch while nature does her job, replenishing and nourishing the soil.

In the spring time, when I’ve caught up with a few more jobs, I’ll dig out the seed packets and trays and start growing again.

I’ll also be keeping a look out in the library for Charles Dowding’s new book How to Grow Winter Vegetables, that’s due out in May, and see if I can overwinter anything next year.

I wonder what other people will be doing with their tunnels and greenhouses this year?

Looking After and Planting a Polytunnel in Winter

Vegetable Garden

Pesticides and Fungicides using kitchen/garden ingredients

June 21, 2010

Lots of people have been asking how to deal with pests and diseases organically recently so I’ve listed below a few ‘recipes’ to deal with most of the common ones.

However, even organic pesticides and herbicides should be used as a last resort, and are generally never recommended for use in polytunnels and greenhouses.

In the long term encouraging a garden full of biodiversity is the aim.  Planting hedges and flowers that will provide hiding places and food for natural predators as well as providing bird boxes and areas with water will all help to create a more balanced environment.

Traps and barriers work well if you put them up early – for instance adding netting will prevent butterflies landing on the brassicas before they become a problem.  Turn a terracotta plant pot upside down, stuff it with straw and balance it on a bamboo stick – this will attract earwigs that can be collected and disposed of easily.

Crop rotation and companion planting should be used too eg moving potatoes to a new area each year will help prevent the build up of potato eel worm and planting alliums and carrots/parsnips together will benefit both species.  Blasting aphids off with a hose or squashing them between your fingers works whilst colonies are small and keeping greenhouses hosed down will help to keep red spider mite at bay. Learning to recognise pests and their cycles is important too. 

However, until you’ve built up the ‘good’ insect population in your garden, you may have to resort to more instant control, so here goes: (its a good idea to test a small amount on a plant 2 or 3 days before use to check that it doesn’t damage the plant).


NOTE: Most insecticides kill beneficial insects as well as their predators so use with caution. It’s often advised to spray in the evening when the beneficial insects will not be as active (for instance if you spray soap to kill greenfly, you may kill the hoverfly larvae that would eventually eat the greenfly).  As with any chemical, organic or otherwise, wear gloves and avoid breathing in the spray.

Insecticidal Soaps – Control aphids, thrips, spider mite
Buy from organic suppliers or make your own:

Soap Spray

2 tbsp (30ml) phosphate free washing up liquid (label may say safe in septic tanks)
2.2 lts water

Avoid spraying in bright sun as it can scorch foliage. Test a few leaves a couple of days before use as it may damage the plant. Will have to repeat every 24 – 48 hrs.

Rhubarb Leaves – All leaf eating insects

Rhubarb leaves are poisonous as they contain large quantities of oxalic acid. Wash vegetables thoroughly that have been sprayed before eating them.

1kg rhubarb leaves (can use tomato, elder or nettle leaves instead)

1lt water

Mix together, leave for a week, strain and use as a liquid spray.


450g rhubarb leaves
1.1lt water

15ml soap flakes

Boil for 30 mins, topping up to allow for evaporation. Allow to cool and add soap flakes as a wetting agent. Strain and use as an undiluted spray.

Elder Shoots – Controls aphids and caterpillars

450g young Elder shoots
3lt water

Mix in large pan and boil for 30 mins. Strain and cool. Can be bottled while hot and will keep for 3 months.

 Cinnamon PowerDeters ants

Sprinkle at the entrance to their nest and they will move away.

Garlic SprayKills many insect pests and friends

Note: Do not use metallic containers with garlic sprays as they may react with the mixture.

1. Non oily version

1-2 garlic bulbs
Boiling water
1ltr soap spray

Chop garlic bulbs and cover with boiling water in a lidded jar. Leave to soak overnight. Strain and add to soap spray. Unused spray will decay but it can be frozen to preserve it.

2. Oily Version

100g chopped garlic

30ml liquid paraffin or baby oil

500ml water

5ml liquid soap (phosphate free)

Soak garlic for at least 24 hours in paraffin or oil in a sealed jar. Add water and liquid soap and stir well to emulsify the oil. This should keep well. Use 30ml of preparation in 500ml to spray plants.

3. Powdered dry garlic bulbs

Sprinkle the powder over affected plants or mix with water to make a spray.

Wormwood TeaControls aphids, caterpillars, flea beetles & moths

225 g wormwood (Artemisia absinthium)
2.25 lts water
1 tsp soft soap

Simmer for 30 minutes, strain and add soft soap and add to spray bottle. Alternatively place dried sprigs beside carrots & onions to mask their scent.

Sulphur – Spider mites, thrips


Fungal infections are usually visible to the naked eye and include mildews, leaf spots and rusts. They are spread by spores. Carefully removing infected leaves immediately they are infected will help to control the infection.

Sodium BicarbonatePowdery Mildew

5g baking soda

1lt water

Mix together for a spray


Blackspot & mildew on roses

3 tsp baking soda
1 heaped tsp soluble fertiliser
Few drops phosphorous free washing up liquid
4.5 lts water

Mix first three ingredients together thoroughly with 200ml water. Add to the remaining water in a watering can. This can be watered over the foliage every two weeks, starting in early spring and continuing throughout the growing season.


Downy mildew

100g washing soda
4 lts water
50g soft soap

Dissolve washing soda in water then add soft soap to a spray bottle


Powdery mildew, blackspot

20g baking soda
15ml citrus oil
2.2 lts water

Mix and spray foliage lightly, including the undersides. Do not pour or spray this mix directly into the soil.

Milk – Mildew

300ml milk
700ml water

The enzymes of fresh milk sprayed on plants will attack mildew. A stronger solution will result in a foul smell as the milk goes rancid.

Elder SprayMildew and black spot

Same as pesticides:

450g young Elder shoots
3lt water

Mix in large pan and boil for 30 mins. Strain and cool. Can be bottled while hot and will keep for 3 months.

Dock SprayMildew

15g mature docks
1 lt water

Puree docks and mix with water. Leave to soak for an hour and spray.

Garlic SprayFor scab, mildew, bean rust & tomato blight.

See pesticide preparation above.

10g crushed garlic or – Powdery mildew.

15g crushed onions
1lt water

Horsetail – Mildew on crops and some rusts, eg., celery

Preventative against potato blight.

28g horsetail (can use all parts of the plant, including rhizomes)
1 lt water
Mix together and allow to stand for 24 hours. Strain and use undiluted as a spray.


DISCLAIMER: The control methods are suggested here as a matter of general information. Under Irish and EU law it is illegal to use any preparation as a pesticide/fugicide/herbicide that is not approved for such use. The author and the website accepts no responsibility for how a user may mix, use, store, or any effects the mixture or its elements may have on people, plants or the environment. The information here is for reference only and does not imply a recommendation for use. If you disregard this warning and make any of the preparations, you do so entirely at your own risk.


Vegetable Garden

It’s Bath Time!

February 19, 2014

Bath Time

Spring Cleaning in the Vegetable Garden – There’s a Good Reason Why We Should Bother

Is there a job in the garden you try to avoid at all costs? One that has you procrastinating or ignoring altogether in the hope it will go away?

When I’m outside there’s not much I don’t enjoy, though I do like help and company when it comes to digging and sorting out the compost, but that’s as much to do with having a weak back and a fear of anything small with a long tail and sharp teeth than anything else.

My personal pet hate however, is cleaning the trays, pots and modules. Thoughts of standing at the kitchen sink, surrounded by sluggy, cobwebby then wet, drippy plastic has never filled me with joy and I’ll confess to avoiding the job altogether for a couple of years, just knocking the bits of old soil and compost out of the modules as I needed them. That was until now.

With thanks to a tip from Philippa over at Leighlinbridge Community Garden, spring cleaning the garden, and in particular washing the plant pots, just got more pleasant.  Continue Reading…

Vegetable Garden

How to get rid of Mealy Cabbage Aphids on your Greens without Chemicals

June 12, 2018

How to get rid of Mealy Cabbage Aphids on your Greens without Chemicals

Mealy Cabbage Aphids on Brassica Crops

There are a vast array of aphids in the natural world. We usually think of greenfly on our roses or black bean aphids on our broad beans but there are many more varieties of these little pests, including Mealy Cabbage Aphids. They are all unwelcome visitors to our vegetable, community gardens and allotments but there’s an easy way to dissuade them. Creating great soil conditions that keep your plants healthy and attracting beneficial insects is a start.

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Aphids have a tendency to head for the soft tips of our plants, reducing yields as they munch their way through flower and growing tips. They leave their skins, wax and honeydew in situ as they move from one plant to another, often killing young plants and attracting ants who like to farm the aphids for their sticky excretions.

How to get rid of Mealy Cabbage Aphids on your Greens without ChemicalsMealy Cabbage Aphids can transmit virus, including turnip mosaic virus and cauliflower mosaic virus as they pierce the leaves with their proboscis, sucking the sap and then depositing the virus into the next plant as they move around. They can smother leaves, flowers and stems, look unsightly and make the vegetables quite unappealing and unappetising.

One of the first and most important steps in Integrated Pest Management is prevention, making the crop walk a necessary and vital element of organic gardening and growing. If you do it regularly, you’ll notice changes in your plants before major problems occur. If you’re not sure what to look for, invest in a good book such as the RHS Pests and Diseases by Pippa Greenwood. An invaluable asset on any gardener’s bookshelf.

Unfortunately, we missed the attack of the Mealy Cabbage Aphids on the kale plants photographed above. We were leaving the plants to set seed in Gleann na Bearu community garden, hoping to save the Irish Seed Saver seeds for the next growing season. By the time we spotted the little pests, we were only able to rescue a handful of seed pods, the rest of the plants were too late to save.

How to recognise a Mealy Cabbage Aphid Attack

The first symptom of an attack in vegetable Brassica that include greens such as kale, cauliflower, cabbage, turnips, swede, broccoli and calabrese are small, bleached patches on the leaves. You will then notice that the patches become yellow and the leaves crumple. Small, wingless, bluish-grey aphids up to 2.6mm long cluster together, often on the undersides or tips of the leaves.

Non Chemical Control for Mealy Cabbage Aphids

How to get rid of Mealy Cabbage Aphids on your Greens without ChemicalsVigilance is the number one control.

If you spot aphids of any kind early enough, you can rub them off with your finger tips or blast them with the hose if the plants aren’t too delicate.

Remove and destroy infected leaves and stems, don’t compost them; the pests will simply move from your compost heap back to your plants.

Provide Habitats

Providing habitats for natural predators such as parasitic wasps, ladybirds, hoverflies, lacewings, spiders and predatory flies will help with organic pest control. Herbs such as Calendula, chives, feverfew, yarrow, dill, fennel, marigold, angelica and caraway will attract ladybirds, as will leaving patches of stinging nettles. Avoid sprays of any kind. Even ‘natural’ soap sprays are indiscriminate, killing the beneficial insects as well as the pests.  There’s a lovely list of plants that attract beneficial insects on the Permaculture News website.

I hope you haven’t suffered a serious aphid attack in your garden but if you did, which ones have been the most problematic for you?


Why People Are Freaking Out About the Harlequin Ladybird

July 10, 2017
Why People Are Freaking Out About the Harlequin Ladybird

Harlequin Ladybird: Image by Frank Hecker Alamy

A few posts have popped into my Facebook timeline recently asking questions about the Harlequin Ladybird (H. axyridis), or sharing dramatic headlines from tabloid newspapers:

how to spot a sex crazed invader”


“biting alien ladybirds riddled with STDs are swarming the UK in their millions posing a threat to our native bug”.

During a return to college earlier this year, my chosen invasive species for an Ecology assignment was this colourful little beetle. Now seems a good time to share some of my findings. In the following article we’ll look at why invasive species in general are a problem, how to identify the Harlequin Ladybird, how quickly it breeds and spreads, its preferred habitats, what to do if you experience an autumn invasion, and finally how to report a sighting.

But first, how worried should we be about invasive alien species?

Why People Are Freaking Out About the Harlequin Ladybird

photo credit: MacRo_b Harlequin Ladybird #2 via photopin (license)

Why is the Harlequin Ladybird a Problem?

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that “invasive alien species, of which Harlequin Ladybird are one, are the second most significant threat to biodiversity after habitat loss, capable of causing significant damage to human health and the economy”. The costs are considerable; controlling and repairing the harm invasive species do in the EU alone, amounts to over €12 billion per annum.

Research has shown that Harlequin Ladybirds contribute to a reduction in biodiversity by directly competing with other invertebrates for food and habitats. In the absence of aphids and scale insects, Harlequins predate on the eggs of native ladybirds, as well as moths, aphids, eggs and larvae of butterflies and other scale insects. In 2005, a UK Ladybird citizen science survey recorded that seven out of eight assessed native ladybird species were in decline due to the Harlequin Ladybird. Additionally, it has been shown to host several parasites, one of which has been linked to the decline in native ladybird species.

Why People Are Freaking Out About the Harlequin Ladybird

Guide to Common Harlequin Ladybird Varieties: All Ireland Ladybird Survey 2016-2019

How did the Harlequin Ladybird get here?

The Harlequin Ladybird is already established on the island of Ireland and it’s unlikely that it can be further prevented from entering, though the Irish sea has been a limiting factor in keeping it from our shores. Fresh vegetables, cereals and cut flowers have been its main pathways in.

Introduced widely across the USA, Canada, and continental Europe, as a means of controlling pests biologically in glasshouses, primarily aphids and scale insects, the Harlequin originated in Asia. From 1995 it was sold by various biological control companies in the Netherlands, France and Belgium and was intentionally released in at least nine other countries. This, combined with its ability to easily escape from glasshouses, resulted in the establishment of the invasive species across Europe, North America and Canada.

Why People Are Freaking Out About the Harlequin Ladybird

Guide to Common Variations of the Harlequin Ladybird. Image All Ireland Survey

From 2002, the spread had begun and the Harlequin Ladybird’s ability to adapt to new habitats gave great cause for worry, resulting in it being placed on the European Commission list of Invasive Alien Species of Union concern. Due to its spread in Europe, and more recently in Northern Ireland, the National Biodiversity Centre listed the Harlequin Ladybird as a ‘most unwanted potential invader’ in the Invasive Species Ireland 2007 risk assessment. It was finally noted as Established in the Republic of Ireland in 2010 after two breeding pairs were identified in Cork City in 2010, and in 2011 in Co Carlow. Since then its geographical spread has increased.

“An estimated congregation of 20,000 were recorded in one site in the US.”

Does the Harlequin Ladybird bite?

The Harlequin Ladybird can be a nuisance to humans as they congregate in houses during the autumn months searching for overwintering sites, often in their thousands. An estimated congregation of 20,000 were recorded in one site in the US. Reports have been made about staining of soft furnishings and an odd smell from the secretion of reflux blood that can exude from Harlequin Ladybird leg joints if under attack. A small number of allergic reactions have been reported in the UK as well as bites, but they are rare.

Why People Are Freaking Out About the Harlequin Ladybird

photo credit: Hornbeam Arts Hibernating harlequins via photopin (license)

“Harlequin Ladybirds can have an impact on the quality of wine. This is mostly because the invertebrate are difficult to separate from the grape harvest.”

What does the Harlequin Ladybird Eat?

Apart from other insects and their larvae mentioned above, Harlequin Ladybirds feed on grapes, pears, and raspberries at the end of the growing season which doesn’t significantly impact yield but the quality of fruit can be affected.

Studies in Switzerland in 2009 showed that if there’s a presence of Harlequin Ladybird when grapes are harvested, it has a negative impact on the quality of wine. This is mostly because the invertebrate are difficult to separate from the grape harvest.

Where does the Harlequin Ladybird live?

Harlequin Ladybirds thrive in a range of habitats and climates. In the UK researchers found that the Harlequin has successfully established in urban land, as well as in rural locations. In the UK Ladybird Survey, 56% of sightings were in mixed or broadleaf woodland, 29% were within deciduous trees and shrubs such as limes, maples, birches, and roses including stinging nettles, 11% evergreen trees and shrubs, and 4% grasses and others.

How do I Know if it’s a Harlequin Ladybird?

The multi-colour variations of the Harlequin Ladybird are the reason for its name. A general description is that it can be yellow to orange to red, the number of spots can range from 0 to 20 and it is between 6-8 mm in length.

Why People Are Freaking Out About the Harlequin Ladybird

Harlequin ladybird variations. Image

Harlequins tend to be larger than most native ladybirds and more domed shape, often with reddish-brown legs. They usually have a distinctive W or M marking on the back of the head. Young Harlequins may have orange stripes on each side of their body. The most common form reported to neighbouring surveys in the UK is orange with 15-21 black spots and black with two or four orange or red spots.

The reason for the diverse harlequin effect is that researchers have noted “phenotypic adaptability in relation to colour and pattern polymorphism”, or in other words, their colour and pattern adapts according to their habitat. Three main colour morphs have been reported in the UK with ranges in temperature influencing the polymorph. The larvae that eclosed later in the year had larger spots than those eclosing in spring and early summer and were generally the darker variants. It is thought that this enabled the Harlequin to successfully overwinter, due to being able to blend better into surroundings.

How Quickly Can the Harlequin Ladybird Spread?

It can take up to 25 days for new Harlequins to appear once eggs have been laid from females that have mated in the springtime, longer in cooler areas. Eggs will hatch in three to five days with the larval stage lasting 12 to 14 days and the pupal stage (that happens on leaves), lasting 5 to 6 days. The adults can live two to three years and will survive if they can overwinter in protected sites.  Adult Harlequin Ladybirds can reproduce at least two times in a year, up to five times if conditions are favourable, though this is unlikely in Ireland. A full identification sheet can be found below:

Why People are freaking out about the Harlequin Ladybird

photo credit: Marcello Consolo Harmonia axyridis copula via photopin (license)

“The most invasive ladybird on earth and one of the fastest-spreading invaders worldwide.”

How Can We Control the Harlequin Ladybird?

The Harlequin Ladybird has been described as the most invasive ladybird on earth and one of the fastest-spreading invaders worldwide. Methods of control and understanding about the species’ natural enemies are still being researched. Some beetle eating birds such as swifts and swallows successfully predate on other ladybird species, as well as various ant species. Indications are that it is less susceptible to attack from native pests and diseases than other ladybird species. It is thought this will change as natural enemies adapt and evolve. On attack the Harlequin Ladybird secretes a powerful pheromone as well as toxic reflux blood that deters predators and, along with the red and black colouring that act as a warning, have allowed it to proliferate.

A mite has been identified that makes female Harlequins infertile, but it was found to make other ladybird species infertile too so has been disregarded as a biological control without further assessment.

Harlequin Ladybirds originated in warmer environments and it has been found that cold temperatures prevent it straying to colder countries.

Report it. Become a Citizen Scientist

If you’ve got this far and you think you’ve identified the Harlequin Ladybird accurately, take a photo of it, top and underside, preferably next to a coin or ruler for scale, and submit a sighting. You can either submit to the National Biodiversity Data Centre or to the Ladybirds of Ireland Survey. The more sightings we can submit, the greater the understanding of researchers.

Keep an eye out in imported plants, vegetables or food sources for the Harlequin, don’t import it, report it.

Will My Home be Inundated?

Fortunately, we don’t have the kind of numbers mentioned in the US just yet, though it is a good idea to keep a look out during the autumn months to see if clusters are beginning to appear and look for overwintering shelters.

Should you spot a congregation, after recording it the most immediate and cost-effective method for eradicating the species that I came across during my research was vacuuming, both indoors and out. In households a regular vacuum cleaner can be used and out in the field, by use of back-pack insect packs or leaf vacuums.

If you’d like to learn more about the information I unearthed during my research, or more detailed references for published papers, please contact me.

Have you come across the Harlequin Ladybird yet? Did you report it?



16 Natural Alternatives to Herbicide Use

November 9, 2015

How to weed without chemicals

As I sat in a building and watched someone spray a herbicide outside the window, apart from the immediate sense of disappointment, the first thing I noticed was that they weren’t wearing any protection. Judging by the way they were emptying the liquid into the spray bottle, quite possibly they hadn’t paid any heed to the recommended dilution either. I asked if it was Roundup® and whether they had a mask and gloves. The response was “yep it is”, and “ah sure”

It set me wondering. How much do people know about herbicides (often lumped in the same group as pesticides), and in particular the popular Roundup®. Why are people still using it despite all the warnings?

Do they believe that if it’s sitting on shelves in DIY and garden centres, or if they ignore the dilution instructions that it’s safe to use? There’s a vast amount of information available about why we should be concerned about excessive herbicide use and quite possibly an equal amount of reports claiming it’s safe.

I’ve re-written this article several times in trying to narrow my own thoughts and help you choose alternatives. If you want to skip the reasons and head straight to the 16 alternatives below, just scroll down to the list. If you can think of any more, please leave them in the comments. However, I’m beginning this post with some background on Monsanto, the company that make Roundup® and one who recorded profits for the quarter ended 28th February 2015 of $1.43 billion.


Do you remember DDT? It was one of the first, and most widely used pesticides that came onto the market after World War II and was heralded as the answer to farmers dreams as it wiped out pests across acres of farmland. It was banned in the US 40 years ago, yet it took until 2001 before it was banned worldwide by the Stockholm Convention for Agricultural use for Persistent Organic Pollutants.

Many people living in Ireland remember DDT being dusted in beds and even on themselves as they grew up, to rid homes. However, long after the pesticide has ceased to be available, residues continue to show up in food and human blood supplies (hence its persistent pollutant ban). Its health implications are alarming with pages of research undertaken about its harmful effects. One report I came across indicated that “girls exposed to DDT before puberty are 5 times more likely to develop breast cancer in middle age, according to the President’s Cancer Panel” and I’m now wondering if this is why breast cancer rates are high and growing.

Rachel Carson

Yet in the early sixties, a courageous American scientist by the name of Rachel Carson highlighted the dangers of DDT in her book Silent Spring, alerting people to the terrible consequences of the overuse of insecticides, which triggered the establishment of the American Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Why was she so courageous? Because this woman went up against the incredibly powerful and wealthy pesticide industries who did their utmost to professionally discredit her, and are still trying to do so. Although banned for agricultural use, DDT is still being used in affected countries to fight malaria.

What’s the big deal about Roundup®

Why am I bringing the story of DDT up now in relationship to the weedkiller Roundup®? Because it’s impossible not to see parallels once you start looking.

DDT was a product of Monsanto who, in the 1970s, brought a new herbicide to market called Roundup® which contains among others, the chemical glyphosate. This chemical in particular is being linked to many of our current day health and neurological diseases and groups around the globe are now fighting a similar battle as Rachel Carson once did, trying to have it removed from shelves and food chains. It took forty years before DDT was banned for agricultural use worldwide. Do we have to wait another 40 years for Roundup® to go, when it’s already been linked to new worries?

How is Roundup® used?

Apart from killing weeds in urban and city gardens, the biggest users of the world’s most popular herbicide are farmers as they try to find ways to control the weeds around their crops. As a result of its extensive use, Roundup® is impossible to avoid as residues are contained throughout our food chain. It’s sprayed on fields before seeds are sown, on or around plants as they grow, and again to kill of the top growth before harvest. The sprayed grains are fed to our animals which we then consume, we wear cotton clothes sprayed with Roundup® and we eat fruit and vegetables regularly doused with it.

Friends of the Earth undertook a study and found Roundup® residues in the urine of 44% of people tested from 18 European countries but it’s used by 160 countries – great news for Monsanto and their stockholders, but a horror story for our soils.

Although their second quarter sales in 2015 for pesticides and herbicides dropped 14%, Monsanto’s productivity agricultural sales still managed to reach $1 billion.

Roundup® Ready Seeds

Apart from pesticides and herbicides, a huge part of Monsanto’s business is in seeds. They develop and own the patents on genetically engineered seeds, known as Roundup Ready, which produce plants such as corn, cotton and soybeans that resist the herbicides sprayed in the fields around them.

Within the space of 15 years in the US alone, Roundup®’s use grew from less than 11 million pounds in weight to almost 300 million pounds. And yet this quick fix solution to protect fields from weeds seems to have backfired as the weeds are evolving to be resistant to glyphosate and are growing back stronger and thicker than ever.  So with nature being what she is, strains of super weeds have evolved, resulting in farmers having to apply increasingly more Roundup™ or turn to stronger weed killers.

Roundup® Acts on Plant Enzymes

Representatives try to reassure us that glyphosate, the active ingredient contained within Roundup®, acts on an enzyme that exists only in plants and not mammals, so we don’t have to worry, yet as its use dramatically increases, so too do human diseases. Coincidence, or something more worrying? Whilst research has to be undertaken on the active ingredients on glyphosate, it doesn’t on the inert ingredients. Nor does it have to be carried out on how chemicals react when they meet different ones, or as far as I’m aware, the accumulation or cocktail effect.

Personally we’d rather not take the risk with our own family’s health. There are many things in this day and age that are considered harmful, including smoking, drinking, eating sugar and eating meat, but we can choose whether we want to do those.

The use of Roundup® is so pervasive, it’s impossible to avoid, unless we switch wholly to organic which can be difficult for financially strapped families, though the Holistic Life blog has a post on how we can try. Roundup® use on conventional food is the number one reason we grow our own food here at Greenside Up.

Nature is Complex

Nature is complex and constantly evolves, and I’d suggest an area that scientists will never fully understand in our lifetimes. Can scientists, hands on hearts, swear that the herbicides and pesticides or GMO’s they’ve created won’t harm us, our animals, or the soil and microorganisms they land upon?

There are alternatives. They might take a bit more effort, but they are effective. If you’d like to ditch the chemicals and switch to organic methods of weed control, here are 16 ideas to get you started.

16 Natural Alternatives to Using Herbicide

1. Garden Design

When you’re planning your garden, consider keeping it as low maintenance as possible. Look at the problem areas and think of alternatives. Use gravel under fruit areas, plant shrubs that will cover the soil, or pave pathways. Anything you can plan now to make your garden as low maintenance in the future will pay dividends.

2. Mulching

Mulches can have a double benefit depending upon the type. Well rotted compost, leafmould and animal manures spread on top of soil will not only feed it, but also suppress weeds – a double bonus. You can find a more detailed post about mulching here.

3. Ground Cover

It’s recommended to keep our soil covered to prevent soil erosion and maintain nutrients. Mulches can do this but so too can sowing a green manure that can be cut and dropped, or cut and dug in again. It will feed the soil and if your timings are right, will prevent weeds coming through. In flowerbeds and borders, choose ground hugging plants to grow between shrubs and perennials and try not to leave space between plants, which will attract weeds.

4. Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is one of the fundamental systems of soil management. It not only helps to prevent pests and diseases building up in the soil, it also helps to prevent weeds. Some crops such as the Brassica – cabbage and kale – will suppress weeds as their large leaves grow and they prevent light reaching the soil and subsequent weed germination. Others like alliums, leave lots of space for weeds to accumulate. Moving them around each year will disrupt weed life cycles.

Covering the soil over winter, or preparing it in the spring a few weeks before sowing will allow the weeds to germinate and offers the opportunity to remove them easily before the new crops are sown. With careful crop rotation it’s possible to almost completely eradicate weeds, as can be found in the example on a farm here.

5. Good Soil Management

Good soil management is a combination of 2, 3 and 4 above, along with adding an annual dose of well-rotted manure or garden compost. As you manage your soil each year and learn to understand it better, the weeds will become less troublesome.

6. Biological Control

Whilst I’m familiar with biological controls for pests in the form of nematodes, I was intrigued to find they’re being used successfully along waterways here in Ireland, as well as by exasperated farmers in the US who are trying to move away from the GM/Roundup cycle they’ve found themselves. You can read more about biological weed control here.

7. Organic Weedkillers

I tried Irish Organic Weedkiller for the first time this year as we’ve put down a gravel drive and it did a great job on the stray dandelions and scutch grass. It’s a vinegar based product and if you’re reading this outside Ireland, look out for similar products in your own countries or simply try dosing the weeds with distilled vinegar.

8. Flame Guns

Flame guns (a small gas cylinder on the end of a rod) are great for spot weeding pervasive perennials and annual weeds and are another example of a technique that can be used on paths and driveways.

9. Hard Work & Hand Weeding

Hand weeding or hoeing weeds, roots and all, is one of the best ways of weed removal but it can be time-consuming and at times, hard work digging them out. Many people find hand weeding therapeutic and the trick is to do it little and often. An hour or so once a week is far easier than a full day once a month. If you don’t have time to keep on top of the weeds, consider employing someone to help. Gardeners for general maintenance can often by found advertising in local papers and ads in news agents and will welcome the opportunity to get stuck in for a couple of hours each week.

10. Strimming

If you’re worried about how untidy your road fronts or garden edgings are looking, invest in or hire a strimmer. If you strim before the weeds flower and the seed heads set, you’ll keep knocking them down and prevent the problem escalating. Yes, you will have to keep doing it, but you’ll have to keep spraying with weed killers too as they don’t eradicate the problem for ever.

11. Power Washing

Again, invest in or hire a power washer to remove moss and weeds from Tarmac or paved drives. Power washing is a great way of cleaning up, without adding chemicals to your frontage.

12. Livestock

If you’ve a large area that you want to cultivate later on, or are having trouble keeping on top of a lawn, consider getting some sheep, a goat or pigs. Whether for pets, or for the freezer, goats are fantastic at tackling brambles, sheep will keep the grass and weeds nibbled down, and pigs will not only eat the weeds, they’ll turn the soil over ready for future planting.

13. Weed identification

Learn weed life cycles. If you begin to understand the weeds in your garden, whether it’s the roots, the seeds or both that cause the problems, you can address them. Some annuals like Hairy Bittercress burst their seeds into the air, covering everything around them, whilst Docks root deeply and new plants will grow from them if you snap their roots.

14. Make Fertiliser

Nettles make a fantastic natural fertiliser that your plants and vegetables will love you for. Here’s an archive post with the recipe.

15. Eat the Weeds

Many weeds are edible and once you’ve correctly identified them, can be used in the kitchen. Hairy Bittercress and chickweed can be added to salads, as can dandelion leaves or their flowers made into honey. Red clover can be steeped in water for a hot tea, plantain can be sautéed with garlic and sorrel added to stir fries. Buy a wildflower identification book or borrow one from a library and familiarise yourself with this additional bounty.

16. Learn to Love Weeds

The clue was in number 15… the majority of weeds can be found in wildflower books and many have herbal properties. Some are beautiful, most are listed in herbal preparation books whilst pollinators and bees love weeds. To them they’re just another food source – just look at a Ragwort flower in late summer.

Moving On

If you’d like to learn more about switching to organic methods head to the Organic Trust or IOFGA in Ireland or the Soil Association or Garden Organic in the UK for more information; or search for similar bodies in your own country. Above all try moving away from herbicides and to a more natural approach to weed control. Your garden and everything within it will love you for it.


Note: whilst every effort has been made to link to cited papers and reputable news sources which are highlighted throughout this post, the author cannot take responsibility for the content contained within the links.

Gardening for Beginners

July 30, 2015
7 jobs for the autumn vegetable garden

I began writing about vegetables back in 2009 as a way of sharing our own experiences at Greenside Up HQ and helping beginners learn how to grow their own food. You can find lots of articles on the blog giving you an insight into our family life and homestead as well as lots of recipes.  However, as time has passed, more gardening articles have been added and tips shared but unless you scroll through the archives, they’re in danger of disappearing.

Although the posts are geared towards vegetable gardening, many of them form the basis for all gardening. Seeds are seeds and should be stored the same way whether they are flower or vegetable. Good soil is the basis of all gardening and garden pests aren’t necessarily fussy about whether they’re chomping on our roses or our beans.

The following links are to key articles I hope will help you to garden more confidently, no matter what you’re sowing or growing, but ultimately they’ve been written to help you grow your own fruit and vegetables successfully.

How to Start a Garden

Seeds and Seedlings

In the Vegetable Garden

Pests and Diseases in the Garden

Gardening Undercover

Other Useful Links

Once you’ve started growing your own fruit, herbs or vegetables you might like to check out some recipes.