What happened to my squash?
A lady called: “What the heck is wrong with my squash? They just fell down! “ About now, in this temperate time the crickets are louder, the grasshoppers bigger and in general the insect population is concentrating on your garden plants- sweet hybrid, non natural plants are targeted by the delicious odors emanating from them. “Yummy” says the squash bugs and vine borers.
All plants have distinctive odors that attract pollinators, but they also attract less desirable insects. There have been gardeners for centuries that have been fighting the undesirable insects off so that they could enjoy the fruits of their labors-sometimes with successes and sometimes with failures. Let us take a look at some of the organic approaches over the years and what we, as gardeners, have learned.
If we look at the scent theory we can make an early “trap plant”. Just one early planted squash that at the time of insect growth-such as August 1st, will be covered in eggs and “bugs”. Lots of old timers used the trap method and when the plant was at its last rites, it was pulled up, bagged and burned. Sometimes this reduces the infestation problem but it is not a cure all.
The other techniques that were common were to plant hither and yon, not all together in one row. So we might plant a squash at one end of the garden and another at the other end, each started early in a pot and transplanted at separate times for the bugs only seem to liken to a plant when it reaches fruiting standards.
However most gardens today are quite small and this does not defuse scents. Inter-planting with loads and loads of flowers- principally: marigolds are a big help. Beans for an example are more resistant to bugs if you interplant with Naturisms, Tomatoes with Borage, Cucumbers with Dill and so on. There are two Companion Planting books on the market for the past 30 years I am aware of.
Different varieties of plants may offer more resistance than others. Many of the old time varieties were developed for that purpose, wherein modern hybrids are designed for mass agricultural acreage planting, or greenhouse hydroponics plantings and really do not do well in your garden. The big advantage with old time non-hybrid seeds is that you can visually spot resistant plants, cultivate it for its seeds and keep going generation after generation.
The “Organic approach” means no chemical man-made poisons. The theory is that natural selection and beneficial insects, microorganisms, etc. will equal out the losses in plants. Well, not exactly since you are repeatedly planting the same thing over and over again for a period of years, or maybe family generations. Bug and pathogen build up far exceeds a happy balance. If you can switch garden spots each year and plant last year’s garden extensively in flowers you might have a chance, maybe take a garden year off and go to the beach.
Mulching is popular for conserving water and reducing the “walk-a-bouts” of the bugs. Unfortunately organic mulches such as ground bark, hay and such naturally decomposing soil enriching materials make a nice haven for some bugs. Take a few minutes with your grandchildren and lie down under a big squash plant. Watch the bug activity under the green shade-it is like a different world. See the bugs emerge from under the mulch and climb on the plant. Most notably is the squash vine borer that with its big proboscis beak gets into the leader vine of the squash, inserts an egg or two, and moves on. In time that egg hatches into a grub, and starts eating out the leader vine and the plant dies right at that point. What you have to do is take a sharp small knife and slit the stalk right in front of the brown frassed hole, and hook the grub out. Then mound soil over the vine stalk, which will root and keep growing.
The better modern mulch of a plastic wide runner made for that purpose does not permit birthing thousands of eggs in the mulch. However many squash bugs, similar pests, and such just lay eggs on the underside of the leaves in a coppery mass. These leaves are just cut off with scissors and burned. Red plastic is best for tomatoes as it stimulates fruit growth. White is best for light reflections, under and up to the leaves, and of course black color for heat retention.
Many eggs are laid on leaves at night by varied moths. One of the most interesting moth killers I ran across, but never made, was a diabolic hair dryer rigged to suck and blow moths into a bag at night. The gardener employed a small light bulb over the suction part and in the morning fed the moths captured to his chickens.
I believe a light bulb is good for attracting night moths and hopefully bats. These wonderful creatures can be spotted at night by holding up a flashlight in the dark and soon the moths come, and then zoom. Here comes a hungry bat. Put up some bat houses.
Encouraging Purple Martins, with 12 nests housing, is a good idea as well as other insect eating birds.
If you raise baby chickens allowing them the run of your garden as chicks before 4 weeks of age is a good clean up as they will not destroy plants so much. Later on at the end of the season, let the big birds in the gardens and they will clean up lots and lots of harmful bugs. So-called “Weeder Geese” and big birds will not only eat weeds but your treasured plants. Keep the goats out as they remember and will make every effort to get back in.
Insects were here before mankind and will certainly, maybe in our lifetime, be there after us. One of their special features is that they adapt to toxic substances, probably radioactive dust too coming from Japan.
Anyway the organophosphates as insect poisons were discovered in Germany in the 1930’s and were in popular use in this country until recently. Foreign countries still use these human toxic substances so you must wash off all your vegetables carefully if you buy from the grocery or are still using some pesticides from the store. This stuff- all of it is cancer deadly. I repeat cancer deadly. Were you to be hired by a major food greenhouse that has a million dollar crop that owner is going to use what ever it takes to kill everything in their except the plants. So the owner dresses you in a filtered air-bio-suit and sets you to work. Keep that in mind next time you are not washing your veggies.
Some of these bug killers are so sophisticated now they remain in the soil for years, if not decades, like the radiation poisoning in Japan at this time. These chemicals kill indiscriminately all the good bugs too. This bring to mind if you buy an old farmstead- find a different garden spot for who knows what was dumped there in the olden days.
Interestingly enough what I have found effective for killing off harmful bugs is quite simple. I wage biological warfare.
Within every living creature are the viruses and bacteria to kill itself-and other like organisms. I take a handful of the bugs and whiz them up in a blender using a quart of water and a spoonful of light cooking oil. Such blenders can be had at local thrift stores for two or three dollars last time I looked. Without a blender you can mash them and stir and do the same basic thing of releasing the anti-bug warfare. These old blenders are for bugs and not home use.
You can make a simple hand held “whisk” of hay, and sprinkle the liquid on the plants. You do this in the early morning while they are becoming active in the warming sun. You can also use a sprayer if you filter out the bug parts and thicker substances with a coffee filter. The bacteria will pass through the filter.
Keep in mind this is a daily made solution as the bio-warfare does not keep well. Fresh is best.
Wash your veggies before cooking them.
Google Images-type in Squash Vine Borers will pull up hundreds of pictures that will help you identify your garden enemy. Also for the novice photographer you can start adding pictures to your gardener’s notebook for future generations of family gardeners.
Keep gardening, as it is the world’s most reliable source for learning and bonding with your children. Stay out of the mid-day heat and enjoy the garden at morning’s first light and in the evening before dark.
Let us look at Deer Fencing in our next article.
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