If it’s almost spring, it’s almost time for lubber grasshoppers (ewww!)

The other day, I got an email from a gardener friend. The subject line was, “Coming to your garden soon …”

Bill usually sends me photos of beautiful new plants he’s discovered, so I opened his mail with happy anticipation.

I was NOT happy when I saw not flowers, but this:

green black and yellow lubber grasshopper

Although this grasshopper doesn’t look exactly like the Eastern lubber grasshoppers we get here in the Tampa Bay area, it was close enough to make me recoil in horror.

For years, my garden was infested with lubbers — thousands of them every summer! The grasshoppers we get are even bigger than the one in Bill’s photo, and lots uglier. They serve no useful purpose that I’ve been able to find and trust me, I’ve tried!

Here’s what our Eastern lubbers look like:

eastern lubber grasshopper, facial photo, green, yellow black and red on jacaranda tree. looks mean

I usually start seeing the babies in March (hence Bill’s nudge-nudge). If you don’t know what they are, you may think the nymphs are cute. A friend of mine once posted a photo on Facebook with the comment, “Look at all the sweet crickets!”

nymph eastern lubber grasshoppers, black with yellow stripe, swarming new growth on a plant

Not!

I don’t care how innocent they look, these babies need to die! They grow up to be armored monsters that spit, hiss and eat your garden, starting with your favorite plants. Once they’re adults, the only way to slay them is man-to-mandible warfare: Smash them with a rock, snip them in half, stomp them.

They’re so hard to kill, normally gentle gardeners come up with creative ways to send them hopping into the next world.

Andy Carr of Spring Hill uses a Dust Buster for the nymphs.

man using dust buster to vacuum eastern lubber grasshoppers from plants in flowerbed lining a lanai. dog watches from inside lania

“I can collect a hundred or so in it, maybe more, until the battery is dead,” he says. “Once we have them in the Buster, my wife holds the small garbage bags, doubled, and I dump ’em in, tie ’em off and sooo long you ugly little plant-eating varmints.”

Norm Smith, a “Mad Men”-style retired advertising guy, turns them into dioramas.

“I try to come up with outrageous themes, something a grasshopper – particularly a lubber – would never be caught doing, like scuba-diving,” he told me back in 2011.

He drops them in a jar of alcohol and leaves them there for weeks so they’re preserved. Here’s the lubber diorama he made for me. (My doppelgänger has lost her legs while swinging on my bookshelf these past three years.)

eastern lubber grasshopper with wig clothes diorama in swing on tree newspaper and potted plant When I first started writing about my lubber problem a few years ago, a couple readers suggested I try  Nolo Bait. It’s not an insecticide in the traditional sense. Rather, it’s an organic bait you sprinkle around your garden, and it doesn’t affect other bugs. If the nymphs eat it, they die. If adults eat it, they’re rendered impotent.bag of nolo bait. drop-out of package

The results aren’t immediate, but I love the stuff.  I’ve used Nolo Bait for three years and my lubber population is down from thousands in a season to a few dozen.

When I first started buying Nolo Bait, I had to order it online. Now, I think a few local shops carry it, but the only one I’m sure of is  Shell’s Feed Store, 9513 N. Nebraska Ave.. Tampa

Owner Greg Shell is taking orders early (and no – I don’t get a cut of the sales for recommending Shell’s).  Since Nolo Bait relies on live organisms, it has a short shelf life, just 13 weeks. Greg’s offering customers who order before March 15  a 10 percent discount because the short shelf life and whopping customer demand once the lubbers appear make it hard to keep it in stock. He doesn’t like having frustrated customers when he’s sold out. (I’ve been one of those!)

Greg has some helpful tips for making your Nolo Bait last longer, including creating feeding stations to place around your garden. That’s what I do, because rain will ruin the bait.

I assure you, it’s lots easier using Nolo Bait than chasing giant grasshoppers with rocks and snippers all summer. Although, if you’re into art, you may prefer the Norm Smith method. His dioramas are loads of fun!

GreenFest — Tampa’s spring garden party

There’s more than one way to catch a pesky — OK, downright evil — garden-devouring pest. Dig for them!

the digging for nematodes game. three women dig in black plastic buckets filled packing peanuts using children's  toy garden tools in a race to find "nematodes" - actually Gummi worms. a game at GreenFest

At Tampa’s GreenFest this weekend, from left, Sally, B.C. Manion and Barb Wilkins dug their hearts out for the microscopic worms that love our sandy soil — and our plants’ roots. Although the “nematodes” they were racing to find were actually fat red and orange Gummi worms, digging through packing peanuts using kids’ plastic garden tools proved challenging.

But rewarding!

Barb won a container of Sunniland Nematode Control from Shell’s Feed & Garden Supply. Who knew there was something besides heaps of compost, oak leaves and peats to keep the little boogers at bay? Not me! But now I have some to try, too. It’s made from sesame oil and humic acid (which is what all that organic material produces as it breaks down, frying the nematodes, as the donor of our prizes, Shell’s Feed owner Greg Shell, told us.)

I had fun returning to GreenFest as a speaker after a year’s hiatus. Being completely unqualified to offer a real workshop (I’m just a journalist — my material comes from the backs of true experts), I tell stories and play games (love games!). This year was “The Hunger Games,” battling the bugs that want to eat your plants. The first was Blast Off — shooting aphids off your blooms with high-powered jet spray, a lesson I learned the hard way. (It really works!)

three people with squirt guns shooting at unseen targets (posters of flowers surrounded by "aphids" made from pumpkin seeds

From left, Ioan Fernandez, Camille D. and Dina Lott fire away at nasty, giant aphids threatening some beautiful blooms.

three white posters with flowers surrounded by "aphids" made from pumpkin seeds. Two people with backs to camera are armed to shoot them with squirt guns

Ioan Fernandez won a tub full of ladybugs, all in a cold-induced stupor until he decides to wake them up. While shooting aphids off your flowers with a hose nozzle set on “jet spray” is very effective, nature has an even better remedy — ladybugs. Greg Shell, who sells them at his feed store, explains to Ioan how to keep them alive, below. (They’re in the tubs he and Ioan are holding.)

two men holding small plastic containers full of ladybugs discussing how to wake them from their dormant state

Of course, no buggy Hunger Games is complete without the Eastern lubber grasshopper, my personal nemesis. They began hatching early this year — February — and I’m dedicated to telling people they should kill them. Starting with the cute little black baby lubbers! Lubber grasshoppers are prolific, voracious, and once they colonize in your yard, an annual plague!

They eat everything you love in your garden and they have just one natural predator, a little bird we don’t see much of  in the suburbs, the loggerhead shrike. It snatches them up, decapitates them, and impales them on thorns or barbed wire to bake out their toxins in the sun.

Birding photographer Reinhard Geisler of Oviedo, Fla., got this amazing shot of one at Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands in Brevard County.

bird called loggerhead shrike with gray head, black eye mask, white chest holding adult Eastern lubber grasshopper in beak. Grasshopper is red yellow and black. Close-up. Credit Reinhard Geisler

Alas, while Greg Shell sells a lot of hard-to-find, old-fashioned remedies at his feed store, he says they haven’t yet figured out how to put a bar code on a loggerhead shrike. So battling the lubbers is your job.

Sometimes they’ll sit still for you, but sometimes they’ll spit, hop away, and lead you on a chase. Hence, the Amazing Lubber Race.

three women at a card table, hands flat on the table, three little wind-up plastic grasshoppers in the center,  preparing for the lubber race.

From left, Andrea Butler, Debbie Peimcano, and Maryhelen Zopfi get in proper start position before winding up the little critters. (See them in the middle of the table?) The first to go over the edge was the winner. Trouble was, they kept turning and going in new directions just as they neared the edge. Oh, SO like their armored real-life counterparts!

Andrea won a season’s supply of Nolo Bait, a remedy I learned about 3 or 4 years ago from a reader. It’s non-toxic, won’t hurt your pets or plants, and eventually snuffs your lubber colony by either killing them outright or rendering them impotent. I’ve been using the stuff for two years, and I love it. While it hasn’t yet wiped them out, my manual lubber kills are shrinking by hops and bounds.

After the games, I had  a chance to roam the park and visit old-friend vendors. There were a lot! GreenFest has has space for only about 80 vendors, so they’re selective. This year, only old favorites returned. (And they’re my old favorites, too. Too many to list here and I would hate to leave someone out, so I won’t even try.)

However, I did run into one I hadn’t visited before. I LOVED Rusty Gate Gardens’ really creative repurposing of vintage household items. Linda Brueske turns them into absolutely delightful little succulent gardens.

vintage hand-crank silver colored meat grinder used as a container for succulents

forest green metal vintage tool box planted with a variety of succulents

If you missed GreenFest this year, be sure to catch it next March. It’s a great way to get your garden on, learn a lot (I think I’m the only non-expert speaker :) )  and pick up some great, hard-to-find plants. It’s a non-profit fundraiser to restore and maintain Tampa’s first public part, Plant Park, where it’s held, so it’s fun for a good cause!

P.S. Thank you GreenFest volunteers Laura Barber, Laura Stevenson and all the other good people who work so hard to put this together. And thank you to my friends Janna Begole, Ginny Grimsley, Greg Shell and Marti Carlsen for being Hunger Games Gamemakers, Mentors and Prep Team. You’re awesome!