Forget about things that go 'bump!' in the night; anxiety over pest insects plague any green thumb and can frustrate the newer gardener. Not only can ants, grubs, and termites give you the willies, but they can also destroy property, lawns and gardens – and the array of critters that landscapers and gardeners have to contend with can be as numerous as the legs on a centipede.
With warmer temperatures in the air and gardening on our minds, The New Jersey Cooperator takes a look at a few types of pest insects that most commonly wreak havoc on HOA lawns and grounds, what lawn care pros and maintenance professionals do to deal with them, and what role the HOA can take in making sure their green space stays that way.
The Cycle of Activity
While some pests are busy throughout the year, most species typically have an active season and a dormant season. In winter, most insect species lay low and cause little to no damage. They rear their ugly heads following winter hibernation, when they wake up and come out hungry. Not only do they feed and burrow but their eggs also hatch, making them a triple threat to lawns and gardens. According to David Dyer of Dyer Landscaping in Mahwah, “Most pests are active and destructive during the growing season of the lawn,” which is April to October.
Dyer says that the most common lawn and ground pests he encounters in New Jersey include “chinch bugs in early spring and throughout the summer, and grubs in early summer on into the fall.”
Chinch bug and grubs cover both types of insect groups: the sucking group and the chewing group, respectively. Chewing insects (like grubs) eat plant leaves and cause the most visible damage, while damage from sucking insects (like chinch bugs) can be harder to identify, and is usually marked by the presence of curled leaves, or brown patches of grass occurring in a circular or semi-circular pattern.
According to literature from the University of Rhode Island Landscape Horticulture Program, chinch bugs are tiny, only ranging in size from 1/32 to 1/5 of an inch. These little charmers have “piercing-sucking mouthparts, and they feed on the sap of grass plants. They reside in the thatch area of the turfgrass stand and prefer to feed on the lower leaf sheath and crown area of the plant.” The bugs are tough to spot, and suck out the plant juices while “injecting chemicals into the plant which clog the vascular system,” turning the area around the puncture yellow. Dyer adds that chinch bugs also like to soak up the rays; they are most dangerous to sunny, open areas. “Chinch bugs feed directly into the grass plant causing browning of the grass much like drought symptoms,” he says.
Grubs—the larvae of several different beetle types, most likely the June beetle or the Japanese beetle—are more well known, and even more reviled than chinch bugs. “Grubs feed on the grass roots,” says Dyer, “and cause damage in lawns that appears as large sections of brown turf that easily peels away from the soil. Grubs are much larger than chinch bugs and are pretty easy to identify.”
Indeed, as the website HowToGetRidOfThings.com jokes, “It’s pretty much the only big, fat, fleshy, squishy 'C' shaped critter lurking around your soil.” Gross.
Seek & Destroy
In order to locate and annihilate these voracious insects, you first have to identify what you are dealing with. According to Dyer, “Chinch bugs are very small, colonizing in the thatch layer of the lawn—the layer of live and dead roots between the grass and soil—and are usually best seen with a hand lens. Grubs are visible to the naked eye, and can be found by lifting a small section of grass from the soil.” Dyer adds that “Typically, skunks will tear up large areas of grub-infested areas looking for a food source,” which means that if you have a grub problem, you may have yourself a hungry skunk problem as well.
There is no reason for gardeners to throw up their garden-gloved hands and accept that Mother Nature and all creatures great and small are against them. HOA maintenance staff can do many things to prevent and repair insect damage to their green space, says Dyer, who suggests that “The staff in charge should familiarize themselves with the common pests and their life cycles and monitor healthy lawn areas on a weekly basis for any changes” in appearance.
Jeffery Klayman of Freehold Pest Control in Freehold, also suggests that HOAs have a pest control company perform regular service and monitoring. What might seem to a novice gardener or groundskeeper like an insignificant spot of yellow on a lawn or a few dark spots on a leaf could be signs of something tiny causing big problems. Under pressure from a full-frontal assault from pests, lush greenery can quickly become a barren wasteland, and trained professional landscape and maintenance crews can usually save the day by spotting the culprit early on.
So when is it time to call in the pros? According to Dyer, “Any sort of change in a lawn's healthy appearance spotted during weekly inspections” is cause to raise the alarm. “Professional pest-control contractors are trained to determine at what point control of a certain pest is warranted. They're licensed and trained to develop turf programs that will create a healthier environment for the lawn through proper fertilizing practices, which can make the lawn more resistant to insect pressures.”
In addition to pest-preventative fertilizing techniques and tips, landscaping professionals have a vast array of tools and weapons to combat destructive critters, and many of these pest control technologies have improved and become much more environmentally friendly over the years. As Dyer explains, one such method is called Integrated Pest Management or IPM. “The development of IPM programs have evolved over the years, and are based on careful monitoring of lawn areas for any changes. Older, traditional practices would apply preventative chemical applications over large areas even if insects are not present. In areas of heavy insect pressure, 'green' products are typically not as effective but they will help suppress insects if detected early.”
According to Richard Obal, an agriculture agent with Rutgers University Cooperative Research and Extension, "The goal of an IPM program is to use monitoring, cultural, biological and chemical control strategies to manage pest populations and not necessarily to eradicate the pests entirely. While the IPM program may use chemicals to control pests, the rate and frequency of application is often reduced, compared to conventional chemical control programs. It's done in a much more environmentally sensitive way."
According to Obal, IPM got its start in large-scale commercial agriculture but it quickly rose in popularity and is now the recommended method for pest control on any scale—large or small. "People should monitor their landscaping, and stop and think if a pesticide is even needed," he says. "Instead of coming in and spraying on a regular basis, IPM landscaping firms come and monitor your plants to see if the pests are actually there. We're not shooting with a shotgun. We want to check first."
If there is a pest problem, Obal continues, there are various things that can be done before resorting to toxic sprays. Sometimes getting rid of pests is as simple as examining the conditions they're thriving in. Some insects may attack a plant in a location that's too shady, or a plant may have a disease because of poor drainage, or bad soil conditions. IPM looks at all the interlocking factors behind a plant's failure to thrive, and applies the most appropriate remedies—which often don't include harsh pesticides.
According to Klayman, “Green can be a beneficial tool in the pest control arsenal, though materials and methods are only as good as the person employing them.”
If you have kids running around your buggy lawns, the pros stress that before you or a landscaping professional treats green space with any chemicals—'green' or otherwise—it's crucial to read the label and understand the safety information printed there. And when in doubt, or when your HOA is in the clutches of a grub invasion, it’s always best to call a professional. “Everything has risks,” says Klayman, “even kitchen utensils—which is why it's best to employ a professional.”
Even with an ever-watchful eye, it may be impossible for co-op, condo and homeowner associations to completely prevent infestation from lawn bugs and the damage they cause—but they can certainly limit the destruction by keeping an eye out and acting fast if something looks amiss.
According to Klayman, even if the association maintenance staff is performing regular turf inspections, residents themselves also shouldn’t be afraid to speak up if something looks unhealthy or abnormal. They should also do their part to keep their community's lawns healthy and lush. Cleaning up pet waste is a must and discouraging pests by cleaning up after picnics also helps.
“Prevention of any pest problem begins with a dense, healthy, well-maintained lawn,” says Dyer. “Constant monitoring, along with a fertilization program based on a soil test and proper cultural practices is the best defense against pests.”
Regular maintenance and observation will prevent pests from literally creeping up on you and save time, effort and frustration—allowing you to enjoy your lawn bug-free throughout the four seasons.
Rebecca Fons is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.