Wonderful Ways to Discover What is Eating Your Plants?

New and old gardeners alike frequently have to ask the same question: “what is eating my plants?”. Gardens are not easy to take care of with a lot of different things trying to thwart your efforts around every bend. One of the most frustrating issues is finding out your plants are being eaten by some mysterious pest.

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Actually, most plant-eating pests are far from mysterious. On the contrary, they leave tell-tale signs on the plant itself and around the garden floor. But, in order to get rid of the pest for good you have to know exactly what it is that’s causing the problem. So, what exactly is eating your plants and how can you tell?

Are Mammals Eating My Plants?

Mammals both large and small enjoy snacking on your plants. The main culprits in most areas around the US include deer, rabbits, possums, mice and rats, voles, and moles. Luckily, it’s easy to differentiate mammal bites from insect bites in leaves and stems. Mammals are larger than any insects and bugs that may be interested in your garden, and they use their teeth to rip the leaves away.

Deer leave large sections of your leaves torn as they grab with their teeth and rip the leaves away. They cannot reach the bottom of the plant, so their jagged bite makes will only be on the upper leaves closer to the top of the plant.

Rabbits, mice, rats, and possums can all the only nibble at the bottom of your plants. Look for large nibbles on the outside edges of leaves near the bottom of your plants. Mice and rabbits will sometimes chew on the woody stems of plants, especially during colder months in the winter.

​Block out some larger and small mammals with a wire net fence.

Voles and moles don’t go for the leaves as often as the roots and lower stems. You won’t notice as many bite marks for these.

Do I Have a Slug Problem?

Aaaahhh, slugs. The dreaded slimy creatures that can really mess up your plants! Slugs are a mess and them, unfortunately, live almost everywhere in the US and around the world. You’ll be able to get an idea that slugs are eating your leaves by looking at the patterns of holes in the leaves. Rather than starting on the outside as a lot of other bugs and animals, slugs eat irregular holes on the inside of the leaf.

Often, slugs come in numbers. You might see a lot of holes in a lot of your plant leaves, with the number increasing steadily.

All you need to confirm that it’s slugs eating your plants is a little cup or saucer and some cheap beer. Pour the beer into the saucer at night and set it in your garden. Slugs will be attracted to the sweet scent of the fresh beer and will attempt to drink it. A mixture of drunkenness and drowning is going to kill the slugs and you should find a few dead ones in the saucer the next morning.

​Here’s an instructional video to show you exactly how to set a slug beer trap:

For another option, there are plenty of highly effective repellents and slug killers, such as this one.

What Kind of Insects Might Be Eating My Plants?

The large number of insects that eat plants and the similarity of some of the bites can make it tricky to identify exactly what’s causing the holes in your leaves. However, it’s still possible to figure it out and narrow down the options until you find the real suspect.

Japanese Beetles

Depending on where in the US you live, the pests in question could be some variety of caterpillars (almost all of which are known to eat garden plants), earwigs, Japanese beetles, flea beetles, leaf cutters, and leaf miners.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all insects that will eat your plants, but it’s a good place to start. The above-listed bugs are some of the most common ones you’ll find in your garden.

Caterpillars are similar to slugs in that they eat irregular holes in the center of the leaves. They can also eat stems of seedlings if you are growing young plants from the seed.

Earwigs are more troublesome, as they like to eat new growth. They are usually found eating dead plant parts, but will also chew on the new leaves or stems of you small or large plants. You can usually see earwigs hiding in dark parts of the flowers and chutes or any other dark, secluded place on a plant.

Japanese beetles are another little insect that likes to eat developed plant leaves. They don’t chew holes, but will usually eat the flesh of the leaves around the stems, leaving a skeletal outline behind.

What Eats Roots and Stems Instead of Leaves?

As I mentioned earlier, moles and voles are common culprits for eating roots of plants. Most pests prefer the green leaves and stem growth over the roots, so you can usually narrow the list down very quickly if your plant’s roots are showing signs of being eaten away.

Check out how to get rid of moles or voles in your yard here.​

Here are some of the mole products mentioned in the above video:

Which Pests Are Eating New Growth?

It can be very difficult to figure out which insects, in particular, are eating your new plant growth, because almost everything likes the new growth best. Even earwigs, who are usually found chewing on dead plant matter, enjoy munching on the sweet new plant stems and leaves as they grow.

Why Do My Leaves Look Transparent?

Occasionally you’ll run into insects that don’t like to eat through the entire leaf or who just suck the nutrients out of it. Since they are not actually cutting a hole through and are just removing something from the top, the leaves appear transparent.

Sawflies are usually the villains if you see a lot of transparent dots or holes all over your leaves, but aphids, squash bugs, and spider mites could be the problem if the entire leaf starts looking worse.

For more about Sawflies, check out how to get rid of them here.​

Conclusion

Bugs, mammals, and other pests can do some serious damage to your garden. But, before you can get rid of them you have to know what you’re dealing with. Looking at the unique bite marks and patterns on your plants is the best way to see what has been terrorizing the greenery. Most pests have a fairly unique signature bite mark that makes it easier to identify them.

To find out which pest has been eating your plants, take these steps:

  • Look at what part of the plant is being eaten (roots, new growth, leaves, stems)
  • Identify the type of bite marks on the plants
  • Check out the surrounding area for signs of mammals
  • for signs of mammals- Look at night for nocturnal pests like slugs

What have you done before to find pests that are eating your garden? Do you have some ideas on how to find out what’s eating your plants? I would love to hear about your experience! Leave me a comment below if you have any questions or a story about something eating your plants.

Amelia
 

Amelia Robinson is a lover of plants and gardens, as well as an educator on this topic. It’s her goal to make sure that you get the chance to learn what you need to about gardening to succeed with your own home garden at the blog RobinsonLovePlants.com. You’re not going to find just a collection of basic articles about gardening here. Instead, she wants to answer the difficult questions for you. She tweets at @robinsonplants

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