Category Archives: Problems

Organic Pest Control: Vacuum-Cleaner at the Ready

You know how these things go: a comment on my cinch bug post led to a brief conversation with my husband, me maintaining that vacuuming up bugs off the lawn is pretty odd, and he claiming that we’d actually done something similar ourselves.

"What? Vacuum up bugs–oh my god."

"Remember the roaches?"

"Agh–yes. You’re right."

"And that’s what finally got rid of them."

This isn’t strictly speaking a gardening story, but it is an organic pest-control story, so I’m going to go ahead and tell it. It took place in our San Diego days, which is a good thing, because if that many roaches had inhabited a stove in New York, neither the stove nor I would have survived the experience. Nor the vacuum cleaner, come to think of it. (I’m not afraid of bugs, but New York cockroaches are a different order of being, truly the stuff of nightmares–mine, anyway, when I was a child. It’s probably because I was the one my two squeamish sisters assigned to kill them.)

There in San Diego we noticed roaches on our stove-top from time to time–slender, half-inch long items, not New York’s lumbering giants, which are often over an inch long and half an inch wide–(and here you see one of the many ways that growing up in New York City leaves one permanently twisted: everything, for the rest of one’s life, exists in comparison with the New York version and these paler imitations are, well, paler imitations. The rule applies to fireworks, cockroaches, you name it. And you wondered what the "twisted roots" in the blog tag meant. Now you know.)

So, back in San Diego, (remember San Diego? (remember Alice’s Restaurant?) This is a story about San Diego) I got up from bed one night and turned on the kitchen light to find the stove-top aswarm with roaches. We didn’t want to spray lethal chemicals all over the surface where we cooked dinner, so we took to lying in wait for them in the dark, then flicking on the light and leaping at the stove, bug-squashers at the ready. It worked great in that we got lots of bugs every time, but there were always more. It looked as though we could go on this way forever, and we weren’t that bored with our lives.

It was Steve who proposed taking the sides off the stove. When we did–pay dirt. Or pay bugs, except that I haven’t found anyone willing to pay. They swarmed over the insulation just inside the metal sides. We could actually see the little hollows where eggs were laid.

Clearly, a couple of sponges weren’t going to do the trick. And again, I suspect it was Steve who suggested the vacuum cleaner, because he really does have a "beginner’s mind" in the Zen sense–open to new ideas and therefore infinitely creative.

There was something perversely satisfying in vacuuming up those bugs by the dozen. We practically fought over the nozzle–"That one’s going to get away!" "Let me!" "No, let me!" And then there was the other side of the stove to do.

As Steve reminded me today, after that it was just mopping up. There were a few stray roaches over the next couple of days, but really, it was over. No sprays, no traps, no powders and, thank god, no nightmares.

We get locked into set ways of thinking about things (bugs=Raid), and this rigidity cramps our style. Sure, vacuuming the lawn may seem odd–but no more so than vacuuming the inside of the stove. If we’re going to give up pesticides, we’re going to have to be creative.

Letter from Toronto: Pesticide Bylaw Not Quite a Ban

I’ve been talking (and writing) about the pesticide “bans” (without quotation marks) in Toronto and other Canadian cities for months now, and just discovered that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

When I decided to visit Toronto to see my parents, I figured it would be great chance to learn more about the impact of the pesticide “ban” passed several years ago. Were people complying? Were there a lot of complaints? How did the parks look? How had the parks department adapted? Was the “ban” successful?

So I called a series of environmental organizations and city parks employees, explaining to each that I wanted to learn more about how things were going since the pesticide “ban.” The third or fourth one interrupted me: It’s not a ban, he said, which brought me to a screeching, stuttering, embarrassed halt.

When I re-read the by-law more carefully after that conversation, I saw the exception I’d missed: that pesticides are permitted “To control or destroy pests which have caused infestation to property.” Herbicides are banned outright, but insecticides are severely limited, not banned.

The city employs an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approach, meaning that everything is done to encourage healthy plants (including grass) and that pesticides are not used routinely. However, if an infestation does occur and other methods don’t succeed in controlling it, synthetic pesticides can be used.

Many Canadian bylaws contain an exception of this sort, I’ve discovered; some even specify the number of cinch-bugs per tenth of a square meter that constitutes an infestation. Apparently property owners in Toronto must stand ready to explain any use of pesticides, so they need to count and record pest-levels.

Before I could ask any more questions, my informant told me I needed to go through the city’s Media Hotline, a clearance center for all requests to speak to City employees. The Hotline is currently processing my request; I’ll be back to you after they get back to me.

Shop-Vac as Organic Gardening Tool: Suck Up those Cinch Bugs

You heard it here first—

In yesterday’s list of weird things I’ve learned while researching a website on organic lawn care, I mentioned the use of Shop-Vacs against cinch bugs.  Here’s the low-down.

Organic gardeners are used to the idea that household items lead double lives in the garden. Lemon juice, vinegar, salt and sugar are all used against weeds or insects, old sheets protect plants from frost. Now the Shop-Vac too can be pressed into the organic line of duty.

That’s right; you too can join the new suburban craze; take your Shop-Vac out to the front lawn and vacuum up cinch bugs! Where neighbors used to visit over barbeques, now they compare their cinch-bug catches, peering into the bellies of each other’s shop-vacs to see who made today’s big haul.

It’s not here yet, but it may be coming, and when it does, I’m going to go out on my front lawn and cheer. (I won’t join in, because there’s no grass in my front lawn, just pine needles.)

The guy who recommends the method insists that “it works!” He’s David Patriquin, a Professor of Biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and he’s got an amazing web of web-pages devoted to cinch bug control.

Now, I’d never heard of these awful creatures before starting a writing project on organic lawn care, but apparently they can do a number on grass despite being only 4 mm (a quarter of an inch) long even as adults. While most pests only feed on grass during one phase of their many-staged lives, the cinch bugs devote themselves to it, through all 5 nymph stages and as adults. Fortunately the eggs and the first nymph stage are red, and therefore it’s possible to see them, even though they’re smaller than pinheads.

Patriquin’s page “Facing a Cinch-Bug Problem NOW?”  <>
walks the beleaguered lawn-owner through the diagnostic process, then offers a range of control options, most of which, however, are not yet legal in Canada (or weren’t when the page was last updated). Even insecticidal soaps and Neem are approved only for some pests, cinch bug not included. Why? Apparently this information is being given out only on a need-to-know-basis, and Patriquin doesn’t qualify.

Patriquin reports that the parks director in one small resort town on the Bay of Fundy keeps out an eagle eye for cinch bugs. When he finds a patch, he rakes the surrounding area into the center of the patch and then descends on it, Shop-Vac in hand.

So if you see your neighbor out front this summer with an industrial-sized vacuum cleaner, tackling not her car but her lawn, you may well decide that she’s lost it at last. (And with that husband, it’s a miracle it didn’t happen sooner.) But there’s another possibility: she’s going after cinch bugs.