Today’s blog post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.
Across the country, vegetables plants are all the rage. There’s an air of optimism with putting these in the ground, in what the media is touting as a return to victory gardens. But the name “victory garden” is a puzzler here in Colorado; after all, we’ve long known that anytime we even get a plant to grow it’s a triumph worth celebrating.
Every season, we battle drought, concrete soils and hurricane force winds; then summer arrives and things warm up; the heat bringing worse foes: weeds and bugs. With this, new gardeners can get discouraged.
There’s no resting on the laurels of a newly planted bed; once the irrigation starts weeds pop up, unfurling leaves and colonizing areas faster than you can pick them. That blush of green you see isn’t a young lettuce bed; its purslane or Kochia, getting settled into your ground.
Plucking and pulling every day seems like an endless task, so give yourself a break and put down mulch in that vegetable patch. A quick, easy way is to clean your bed, put out your soaker hoses, then lay two sheets of newspaper down over the soil (black and white pages only, not color). Top this with three to four inches of straw or grass clippings.
This simple mulch is very effective in keeping weeds down, since seeds don’t sprout and grow up from under it. You’ll still get some weeds, though, since any seeds blowing into the area can germinate and root down through the mulch.
In addition to keeping weeds to a bearable level, mulching over soaker hoses is water thrifty – it helps retain moisture in the ground for plants to take up, and reduces how often you need to water.
Once the mulch is down, check under it before you water, to get an idea of how long it takes to dry a bit under the covering. Then pull up a lawn chair, pour a lemonade, relax, and wonder what the heck those small dots are savaging your prize seedlings.
Flea beetles. Just the thought sends shudders through a gardener’s world, because they herald the first true battles of the season, where the winner takes all. Just remember – this is YOUR victory garden, not theirs.
Most of the flea beetles plaguing our plants spend the first part of their lives below ground, though some can develop on the leaves. Beginning with the eggs laid in cracks of the soil, after hatch the wormlike larvae grow, dining on tender roots. Typically this isn’t the problem stage – it’s the adults you need to worry about.
These small, shiny beasts with jumbo sized hind legs are voracious feeders that leap out of the way of danger. Even your shadow sends them scattering for cover. Gnawing small, circular holes into leaves – called shotholes – their attacks can result in seedlings being stunted or killed. Many of our vegetables and ornamentals are at risk – potatoes, tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce – everything is fair game to them.
This assault on your garden must be met swiftly, unless you enjoy seeing the look of horror guests get as you parade them through your shredded stalks. Options for flea beetle control vary, but before you break out the serious chemicals, try a few earth friendly ideas like floating row covers popularly called ‘Remay’.
This light cloth tented over your plants keep bugs at bay, but you’ll have to lift it to allow pollinators to get at the blooms.
Radishes planted as trap crops around your garden work well, particularly for attracting one of the types we have here, the Western Cabbage Flea Beetle. Plant them close together in a border or the insects will keep flying further until they find your prized crop.
Yellow or white sticky traps may work, although they must be placed so closely together it will be hard to move around your garden. Anyone who’s worked with these gooey glue boards knows that they capture anything that comes into contact with them: dirt, bugs, leaves, and small toddlers. They get disgusting quickly.
Diatomaceous earth is great as an irritant to repel the beetles. Made from crushed fossilized sea creatures, diatomaceous earth is a powder that, sprinkled on the plant, causes discomfort to the beetle’s exoskeleton. Like a scratchy sweater, it irritates the flea beetles and they move on, into the neighbor’s yard. You have to keep applying the dust, though, after every rain.
One of my favorites is vacuuming off the beetles – I love how the sight of this stops traffic on my street. Like a deranged June Cleaver who can’t stand the sight of a dirty garden, I’ll toss on a set of pearls and march forth, vacuum cleaner in tow.
Years of experience have taught me that the household vacuum is best for this task; shopvacs won’t do. These bugs are little – you only need a gentle pull to get them off the plant. A machine capable of pulling up nails is too big; one slip with that type of suction and in a pppttthhhp! your seedling is a distant memory. You’re left with shredded parts clinging to the hose end and a bunch of flea beetles, bowing down before you, in awe of your sheer destructive power.
No, a dirt devil is the perfect size and if you move with finesse, you’ll get a bagful of beetles in no time. Point the nozzle at an angle to the leaf so you don’t draw up the plant instead of the bugs. Be prepared to repeat this several times per week – there’s plenty more beetles out there willing to reinvade you garden after you and your vacuum leave.
One note: if you do vaccum your bugs, you have to empty the bag. This is not for the squeamish – take the vacuum away from your garden, open the bag cover, and grasp the neck of the bag near the entrance from the machine. Pinch this shut as you remove the bag, tie off the end and dispose of it.
If you’re not in the mood for light housework in the garden, try Neem. Made from extract from the neem tree, this helps gardeners keep flea beetles under control. It’s available as a spray at your local garden centers.
With each challenge you’ll find more to celebrate once your harvest get rolling. If you’ve got a brand new garden, one where food has never been grown before, log onto Grow Local’s 2,009 gardens in 2009 website to register your plot and take the grow local pledge. This project is devoted to bringing people closer to the earth and the food it provides.