Brace yourselves for the strip show of summer, coming soon to a garden near you. With tiny jaws and a will to chew, insects intent on turning your garden into an all-you-can-eat buffet are on their way, struggling up out of the soil as the weather warms. First to lose leaves will be the evening primrose, then sumac, tomatoes, cabbage and potatoes.
When flea beetles arrive, your garden will be a hot spot of trouble. Hordes of these small, shiny bugs chew leaves to a nub, threatening the survival of fledgling plants. Just mention them and gardeners panic, dusting and vacuuming the garden to get rid of the vermin.
If your seedlings are going to survive, you need a plan to thwart the flea beetle attack. But with this bug problem, there’s no quick fix. Like swallows to Capistrano, the beetles keep returning, so several methods should be used to help your plants grow large enough to ward off harm.
What: Wrap vegetables in floating row covers that allow sun and water, but not insects, to get through.
Results: These fabric tents keep insects out, as long as the bugs are not already on the plant. If your plants are hosting the party already, clean out the buffet first.
What: Vacuuming the seedlings.
Results: Hand held dust busters do an excellent job and are easy to move around the foliage. As an added bonus, the small capture bag can be quickly emptied of bugs into a plastic bag for disposal.
What: Diatomaceous earth
Results: This powder, made from crushed fossilized diatomes, is a good way to repel flea beetles. The dust irritates the body of the bug and they hop off to find less grating haunts in your neighbor’s yard. Since plants keep sending up new growth, the dust needs to be reapplied often.
Results: Spinosad, a fermented by-product of microscopic actinomycetes (bacteria found in the soil), stops bugs cold. For it to work the bugs have to eat it, which means beneficial insects that don’t eat plants are safe from harm (caution: don’t use this on plants in bloom, or it may harm honeybees). Once the bad guys have eaten Spinosad, their nervous system gets overexcited, and they drop dead within hours.
What: Neem oil
Results: As a repellent, neem, an extract of the neem tree, can slow feeding of flea beetles. But it must be reapplied often and doesn’t affect the larvae, many of which develop in the soil.
Act early to protect your plants from attack, and practice safe gardening by reading and following directions on the label for all products.
This post was previously published in the Longmont Ledger.