Protecting your garden railway from pests

Tips on how to control pests on your plants
Sometimes "pest-deterrent plants" aren't quite as effective as they're promoted to be. Tom Smith from Shelbyville, Michigan, tried gopher purge (Euphorbia lathyrus) as a chipmunk deterrent in his railroad. The plant, a relative of poinsettias, also contains a latex-like, milky sap, which can cause skin irritation on humans. In order to be effective on garden pests, however, the sap has to be ingested. Tom reports his chipmunks merely retreated to the other side of the railroad. The plants have since spread and, when kept pruned and combined with dwarf Alberta spruce, create an attractive "Valley of Tall Timbers" for his line.
Pat Hayward
Beware, all you brave and fearless garden railroaders. Invaders of all types and sizes, from microscopic invertebrates to mega-mammalians, are on the loose and headed for your greenery! With a summer invasion threatening, it's time to make your plan for "homeland security." Before officially declaring war, prepare your attack with these important steps:

Step 1: Identify your attackers. Most states have County Extension Agents who work with an army of Master Gardeners. These experts are highly trained in the art and science of garden pests and their control, and their mission is to help the public. Seek their advice and counsel before gathering your troops. Local garden centers and nurseries also have trained staff who are there to help, but please make sure your samples are safely contained in a sealed jar before entering their premises.

Step 2: Know your enemy. The most successful campaigns are the result of knowing when your enemy is most vulnerable. Do your garden pests feed at night or in the heat of the day? At what stage of their life cycles are they weakest? Do loud noises, sprays of water, or bright colors intimidate them? Understanding the culture and habits of your garden pests may make the difference between a successful campaign and a stalemate.

Step 3: Choose your weapons. This is the trickiest and most subjective step in the battle, and the hardest part to generalize in a short space. Many pests can be controlled culturally-sometimes just changing your watering times, adjusting the pH of your soil, or even adding certain types of mulches may ease the situation. At other times, your only possibility of success may be mechanical, employing everything from physical barriers to high-tech sensors. Consider taller fencing, deeper gravel in roadbeds, or flashy silver streamers-your research may reveal some simple and easy tactics to employ.

The next line of defense could include biological, botanical, or mineral controls. These "organic" pesticides, made from processed plants, animals, bacteria, or other naturally occurring substances, are often less toxic than chemical-based pesticides. Diatomaceous earth (fossilized algae skeletons) scattered around plants will discourage slugs. Neem oil comes from the seeds of trees native to India and Pakistan and raises a good fight against chewing and sucking beetles and scale insects. Pyrethrin, a common insecticide, is derived from a well-known flower, painted daisy (Pyrethrum).

Man made, chemical pesticides are a last resort and should be considered in the "weapons of mass destruction" category. If you decide on this method of assault, make sure to take all precautions to avoid "friendly fire." For example, the same pesticide for killing tomato hornworms may also inadvertently kill swallowtail caterpillars.

The important thing to remember with any pesticide (chemical or otherwise) is to read the label. Follow the instructions for target pests, application use, personal protection, and cleanup. This is critical for your personal safety as well as for the most effective attack.

Step 4: Schedule your attack. Even the best-laid plans can be "derailed" if your timing is wrong. Some pesticides work only on immature forms while others may attack adults. Deer may only be a problem during winter, when they need extra food. Putting all the pieces together into a year-round plan will maximize your results and minimize your deployment of labor.
Water features and West Nile virus
West Nile virus (WNV) is now present in almost every state in the US. Because it is a mosquito-borne viral infection that can sometimes cause serious illness, it is a threat that we, as gardeners, need to be aware of, both for ourselves and for our garden visitors.

Our best attack on WNV is prevention. The Center for Disease Control maintains a web site ( with easy-to-understand steps you can take, along with links to local information. If you have any type of water feature, please follow their advice and do all you can to reduce mosquito populations.

I've been very pleased with a biological product called Mosquito Dunks, produced by Summit Chemical Company. The active ingredient, Bacillus thuringiensis ssp. israelensis (Bti) is the best, long-term control for mosquitoes that I've found. It works so well because it is targeted specifically to kill mosquito larvae. Even if new eggs are laid, they never make it to maturity and the adult populations slowly diminish. The label lists the product as completely non-toxic to animals such as fish, birds, wildlife, and pets. They even suggest it for horse troughs and bird baths because it's so species specific! More information can be found at their web site (

This little book, 50 Ways to Kill a Slug by Sarah Ford, boasts "serious and silly ways to kill or outwit the garden's number one enemy." It's packed with practical and proven ideas and is one of the funniest gardening books I've ever read.


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