Killin’ Bugs and Takin’ Names


One of my favorite things about summer is gardening. Ever since I was a little girl, growing up in an Italian-American family on Long Island, NY, I’ve been exposed to gardening. My Grandfather was a master. He could literally make anything grow. My Grandmother, would then take the spoils of his victory and make it even more delicious as she worked her magic in the kitchen. Some of my favorite childhood memories are my times spent with them. Whether it was watering, planting, harvesting or weeding with my Grandpa or cooking with my Grandma, I grew up with an appreciation and love for growing and cooking my own fresh food.
Now in Long Island, where the soil is so rich it’s almost black, with just enough sandy material to aerate it properly, it’s not difficult to grow with ease. When we first moved to the Southeast, we were all bewildered by the soil. I use the term “soil” loosely, because, as anyone in the South knows, the soil is not soil in many places.

It’s clay.

Red clay.

Hard, red, clay.

Not very conducive to growing a nice veggie garden, but with a little elbow grease, a nice dose of mulch, a fair amount of tilling and a hell of a lot of Black Cow manure, it is possible to grow beautiful fruits and veggies, despite the cranky soil.

When we bought our first house 2 summers ago, having a real garden was one of the things we were looking most forward to. Since we lived in an apartment, our gardening efforts were confined to whatever creative container would hold dirt. We actually grew zucchini in a wheelbarrow.

So last year, we tilled up an 8X12 patch, enriched the soil and planted a nice little garden of tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, peppers, Japanese eggplant and various herbs. It may have been small but we had a great harvest from that little plot of land!

But alas, along with the highs and sense of accomplishment from taking a tiny little seedling and nurturing it into a plant that produces 50-60 fruits (I kid you not-the zucchini, eggplant, cucumbers and banana peppers were insanely prolific last year) there are lows.

Usually those lows come in the form of creepy, crawly creatures that like to chomp on the plants. Now I’m all about being green. I do not like to use pesticides and always go for the organic solution to my gardening woes. Last year, it was neem oil, beneficial insects and hand picking the damn squash bugs off my plants and drowning them in soapy water. Yes, I realize that this doesn’t sound particularly eco-friendly (or friendly in any sense of the word.), but hey, if you saw the damage these little bastards do to squash, cucumbers and pumpkins, you’d get a little violent too…

But I have to say, we had a great harvest last year, bugs be damned. We shared a lot, ate a lot and even started pickling (there is nothing like a hand crafted pickle, seriously). Needless to say, after the great success last year, we went hog wild and decided to plant a second garden this year. We’ve included pumpkins, a few exotic gourds, more varieties of cucumber and even melons (cantaloupe and watermelon), in addition to the tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and eggplant. Everything seemed to be doing fine, until a couple of weeks ago, when the pumpkin vines started looking a little sad. The zucchini was also kinda sad looking, and not producing nearly the crop as last year’s plants. Upon inspection, I found the culprit….

Vine Borers!
(Insert scary-horror movie music)
For those of you who have been fortunate enough to never have encountered one of these creepy crawlies, allow me to share a picture…

“Muah-ha-ha-ha-ha! You’re mine, little pumpkin vine! All MINE!!!”

Pretty gross, huh? Trust me, the damage they do to your plants is even uglier.

“Help me, dammit! These freakin’ bugs are killin’ me!”

So what’s an organic gardener to do? Last year’s solution was using beneficial nematodes in the soil. Basically these are microscopic creepy crawlies that are the good guys! They actually eat the bad guys from the inside out. Pretty cool, huh? (Ok, yeah, it also is a little gross, but since they are attacking the bad guys, I can look the other way) This year, we got started late and haven’t gotten nematodes in the soil yet. Plus they are not something you can just run down to the Lowes or Home Depot and pick upon a Sunday morning (yeah, I can see how that conversation would go down…”You’re looking for what kind of toads? Try PetSmart.”) So after scouring the internet for an environmentally friendly solution to the vine borer problem, I found a product called BT or Bacillus Thuringiensis. Basically this is a type of bacteria that, once ingested by the target insect, digests the pest from the inside out. Yummy! So from what I’ve read, injecting BT directly into the affected vines helps to wipe out vine borers.

Now if any of you are getting squeamish out there, I’d like to share the alternate method of removing these buggers from your vines. First, you have to find the affected areas, which is pretty easy to do, since you’ll see gaping holes and an icky, mushy substance called “frass” (which basically is vine borer poop) around the affected area. Now, take a sharp knife, and carefully slice the vine lengthwise and open up the vine until you find the little bastard. You then can remove and dispatch of it in whatever method you prefer (I like torture personally. The way I see it, they deserve it for invading my garden) So either way, you are basically performing a medical procedure on your plant. And your Mom thought all those hours of playing “Operation” were a waste of your time…

“The funny bone’s connected to the-wait, what is the funny bone connected to?”

Now the problem of getting a needle to inject this magical elixir into my plants.
So where does a green gal go to grab a hypodermic needle at 9am on a Sunday morning?
Walmart of course!
Now, in order to fully appreciate this scenario, you have to know what I looked like as I walked into the pharmacy department. No makeup (for real), hair pulled in a ponytail, military cap, bleach-spotted capris, a tye-dyed tank top and my paint- splattered cooking crocs. I waltzed right up to the pharmacy counter without thinking much about what I was there for. And then it hit me. How the hell was I gonna ask for hypodermic needles without sounding like, well, a heroine addict? Now those that know me well, know I have a habit of explaining my life away in pretty much any situation. Laugh if you will, but my wordiness has gotten me out of more than one speeding ticket. So I took a deep breath and told the pharmacist:
“Hi there. This is gonna sound like a strange request, but do you have needles for purchase without a prescription? You see, I have these bugs that are killing my pumpkins and squash plants and I found a bacteria that I have to inject into the plants but Lowes didn’t have an injector. Do you have anything that would do the job?”
To quote one of my favorite movies, “A Christmas Story”… the pharmacist “looked at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears”. She sat behind her counter, sizing me up and trying to figure out if this crazy story she was just told was true or if I was, indeed, a desperate heroine addict looking to score some needles. Maybe it was my honest face. Maybe the story was just too crazy not to be true. Maybe it was my Italian hips and ahem,”other curves” that told her I was not sufficiently emaciated looking to be shooting smack. Whatever it was, she gave a sigh and asked what gauge I needed. I told her to give me the thickest she had and she relayed the order on to the gal at the front of the pharmacy. Seconds later, I was happily looking for my hubby, who was looking for a new pair of sneakers. He was not at all shocked that I was able to score the needles without a prescription. “You told them the bug story, didn’t you?” I started to come up with a sarcastic retort, but chose to give him “the look” instead and saunter off with my prize. He knows me way too well, dammit.

Later that night, armed with my needles and my bottle of BT, I entered the garden with murderous thoughts on my mind. I mixed up a nice concentration of BT and water, filled up the syringe and got to work “vaccinating” my pumpkins. Now if you’ve never grown pumpkins before, let me tell you, they one passively aggressive plant. Sure, they look all demure and leafy, but those leaves sit atop stalks that are armed with thousands of tiny little spikes that are just looking to dig into soft, unsuspecting flesh. And here I was thinking that the stupid plant would appreciate me helping rid it of parasites. Appreciate, my ass. My arms  looked like I went 10 rounds with about 27 really pissed off cats. What a mess. “So this is the thanks I get for trying to help you out, huh?” I muttered. “I should just let the borers eat you.” I resentfully continued my work, injecting all of the pumpkin and zucchini vines. After I made the rounds with the BT, I checked to see how the vines looked and lo and behold-vine borers were falling out of the vines! Joy! Rapture! I could not believe how quickly the stuff was working! “AH-HA!” I shouted, causing my husband and three dogs to jump. “What the hell is wrong with you?” “The BT is already working-look!” And using the syringe, I harpooned a big, fat vine borer and held it up victoriously. “Meet the little bastards that are killing the pumpkins.” Poor Gary looked at me with the scared, yet sympathetic look of a man who’s just realized he married a crazy woman who talks to plants and exacts revenge on insects. “Uh, ok…” I laughed gleefully and paraded around the garden holding my prey, impaled and writhing in it’s death throes on the end of an insulin needle, up for all the world to see. “HA! That’s what you get for coming into my garden, beeyotch!” At this point, Gary and the dogs were all standing still, watching my descent into madness. “Um, honey. Why don’t you just put the thing out of it’s misery?” What a party pooper. I sulked over to the walkway and proceeded to smash the borer into the stone walkway with the sole of my croc. Fine. Whatever. Seems like I’m the only one around here that knows how to have a good time. We finished up watering and weeding, leashed up the pups and went inside.

Fast forward to the next afternoon. I took my knife out to the garden with the intent of opening up the vines up a bit to clean out as much of the frass as possible. To my utter delight, when I sliced open the vines I found the blackened, shriveled bodies of vine borers, liquified by the bacteria in the BT. “WOO HOO!” I yelled, once again causing Gary and the dogs to jump. “Now what..” Gary wearily said. “Check it out! The BT is working already! Look what it did to these borers!” I said with the decaying body on the blade of my paring knife. “That’s great honey. I’m never going to use that knife again, you know.” “Yeah, whatever, dude. I’m just happy that the little bastards are finally getting what they deserve!” I happily finished cleaning out the vines, washed up and gleefully started running around, playing with the dogs, while Gary just looked at me, shaking his head and laughing. Hey, I am not nothing if not entertaining.

So less than a week later, the pumpkin vines were back and with a vengeance. They came back so strong, in fact, that the vine borer moths started coming around, looking for fresh vine-age to lay their evil spawn in. Just in case you have no idea what these harbingers of wilting leaf death look like, consider this a public service:

Oh sure, it looks all innocent. But just wait till it sets its’ grubby little sights on YOUR pumpkin vines…

These guys are pretty deceptive. I mean, they are kinda pretty and their flight style is similar to a hummingbird, so they’re also cool to watch. Don’t, I repeat don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. These guys are the spawn of Satan when it comes to your plants so if you want to keep your plants alive, you must, ahem, “dispatch” of it toot-sweet. In layman’s terms, I mean kill the little bastard and kill it quick. Now they do fly so this can be a challenge. Which is why on any given morning you will find me, barefoot, running around the garden swearing, armed with my crocs chasing the little buggers down and squashing them between my shoes, while my husband and dogs watch the show. I should sell tickets-I swear, I’d be rich.

We are now at 2 weeks past my initial “vaccination” and I’m happy to report that the vines are doing great! I went ahead and treated the zucchini plants, too, and I’m noticing a bunch of tiny little zucchinis popping up. BT is now my BFF when it comes to the garden. I’ve already treated the plants a second time and they are looking beautiful! By “beautiful” I mean, taking over the whole freakin’ garden, but I’m not about to complain.
The way I see it, ginormous pumpkin vines mean bunches of pumpkins, which translates into all sorts of yummy pumpkin recipes.

Well, I’m out to go water and check on the garden. If you hear shouting coming from Gaston County, shout out your best warrior cry and raise your shoe in support of one small gardener’s plight to keep her plants safe.

Until next time…Have fun, and be fearless!

xoxox

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3 thoughts on “Killin’ Bugs and Takin’ Names

    1. Lowe’s garden center has it-look in the organic garden section. The brand I use is Garden Safe. I only use it where the pest caterpillars are (i don’t use it on parsley or carrots since the caterpillars that munch on them are swallowtails butterfly caterpillars-i just plant extra 🙂 Happy Gardening and if you need anything else give me a shout! Xo

    2. Rebecca,
      So I found out this weekend that the Garden Safe BT is “not on order” at all Lowe’s stores. They seem to be changing the packaging which may be the reason why. Also, I found that the Garden Safe insecticidal fatty acid soap actually works on stink/squash bugs. You have to hit ’em directly and on the underside (which can be tricky) but it works like a charm. Since I cannot get to my cucumbers easily to hand pick the little suckers off and drown them, I tried the soap (which I keep around for aphid issues when I don’t have any ladybugs on duty) and it was highly effective.
      🙂

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