Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Control. Control! You must learn control! - Yoda

Anger, aggression....the Dark Side are they.....

Felt in the Force a disturbance, did I.  I went outside this balmy, cool 80 degree morning, which is downright pleasant by Las Vegas standards, to carry out my daily morning ritual of enjoying our garden and making sure that nothing needed special attention.  Every day, I check the soil for adequate moisture, the mulch and soaker hoses to see if they need re-arranged (our neighborhood cats love to redecorate the yard at night) and the plants to see if they are reasonably healthy depending on the species and where they are in their life cycle. 

Usually, when I examine our surprise pumpkin vine, I notice a little insect damage, heat stress and general aging of the older parts of the vine and think little of it.  It's what one can expect when a plant of this type is nearing the end of its life cycle and is starting to focus on fruit production.  It is still getting a few new leaves and flowers, but they are fewer and farther between.  I had long ago learned that plants do not have to look 'Better Homes and Gardens' Coverplant perfect in order to be pleasing....or so I thought. 

For some reason this morning, the insect damage on the pumpkin seemed so much worse than before. Bad enough, in my eyes, to jeopardize the nearly ripe pumpkin featured in my previous blog post. 

The oldest leaves are being eaten alive!

All I could see in that moment was the damage and ooh! I had to find the culprits and make them pay! 

There they are!

But what were they?  Even in my fit of righteous indignation, I still had the presence of mind to go to my trusty home-built computer and look it up.  According to University of California - Davis' Integrated Pest Management website (a great resource, be sure to bookmark it!) A list of critters that love pumpkin as much as we humans do 

This miscreant was a Squash Bug (Not the most inspired name, but it'll do) AKA Anasa tristis.  To quote the site they are

"0.63 inch long, grayish or yellowish brown, flat-backed, and somewhat speckled, often with a dense covering of black hairs. Edges of the abdomen are orange or orange and brown striped. Nymphs are pale green to almost white."

A moment of translation may be in order.  the 'abdomen' is the last segment of an insect, that is, the South end of a Northbound bug.  'Nymphs' in this case are not fairy tale creatures, but rather the younger versions of an insect. In some species, the nymph stage looks noticeably different from the adult stage other than just being smaller.  Knowing what the young look like can help you spot an infestation sooner than waiting for adults to show up before you can recognize the critter. 

That was what I was seeing alright.  To confirm, they had a lovely little mug shot of some adult versions along with another shot of the wilty result of the damage they cause as they suck your plants' leaves dry.

Leaves on the left starting to wilt from damage. Note also the grayish nymphs taking a break from wreaking havoc on these leaves.
So, now I knew who my nemesis was, but what to do about him? UC-Davis' IPM page doesn't have anything very comforting to say for this momentarily impatient gardener:

"  In spring, search for squash bugs hidden under debris, near buildings and in perennial plants in the garden. Inspect young plants daily for signs of egg masses, mating adults, or wilting. Place wooden boards throughout the garden and check under them every morning, then destroy any squash bugs found...."

"Squash bugs are difficult to kill using insecticides because egg masses, nymphs, and bugs are often hidden near the crown of the plant and difficult to reach with sprays.

"Several insecticides are available that are less toxic (note it does not say harmless) to the environment including products containing soaps and oils such as neem oil, horticultural oil, and canola oil. These soaps and oils are most effective on the smallest nymphs, but good penetration throughout the canopy is essential so that nymphs under the leaves and deep within plants will be covered. Other more toxic pesticides are also registered for use on squash bugs; however, these materials should be used with caution because of negative impacts on bees and beneficial insects such as predators and parasites that help to keep other pest insects and mites in check. In addition, they are not likely to give better control than handpicking combined with softer chemicals. "
So, at this point where I had let so many of the Squash Bugs become adults and so much damage was already done, it was too late to waste my time and money on such things as Neem oil and insecticidal soaps since those, and even the 'harder chemicals' only work on the nymphs and only when you can get to the bottom side of every leaf and bit of debris in the garden.  The shade cloth, logs and soaker hose that I had placed in my raised bed earlier this Summer to create a cooler, moister microclimate so that the little pumpkin and other plants could survive the dry heat was now working against me!  Oh well, that's how it goes. 

That leaves just 'hand picked' and that's what I ran back out to the garden to start doing with abandon!  

I wetted down the entire raised bed of  plants with water (I'm fresh out of canola oil as I rarely fry anything) to flush the bugs out from hiding and started squishing! It's not for the squeamish as green goo gushed forth from them each time I smashed one.  Sometimes, I folded them up in the leaf they were on and squeezed the whole thing, other times I used my bare hands.  On the bigger, nastier looking ones, I resorted to using my handy dandy fencing pliers that my mentor at the NRCS gave me years ago, saying "If you have a pair of these along with what you've learned, you are equipped to do a lot of our work." 

 When I couldn't find anymore that I could catch (they are adept at crawling out of the way and at falling off their perch when you aren't fast enough).  I took a break....then realized that what I was doing was wrong.  Not only was it futile, since I couldn't possibly find every Squash Bug, nor especially ever find all of their tiny eggs, but also because the vine was just about done doing its duty anyway.  It has almost completely ripened the only pumpkin that is likely to survive the dry heat of my yard (others had started, but had shriveled up right on the vine from the heat), so what's the point of postponing the inevitable? 

Even if the Squash Bugs had never shown up, the vine would eventually shrivel up when the cold Autumn winds froze it anyway.  Moreover, the pulp in this pumpkin that I'm so worried about is destined to wind up in a pie.  The rest is destined to first be a jack-o-lantern, and then to be mulch for the seeds inside it....provided that it survives long enough to be picked.  Either way, it's going to die and turn back into the nutrients from whence it came eventually.

"Death is a natural part of life.....Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not, miss them do not" - Yoda 

If I am going to commit to being an 'organic' and 'Earth friendly' gardener, shouldn't I be much more careful about how I attempt to exercise the powers at my disposal?  Sure, I could spray the whole raised bed with pesticides ('organic' or not) and try to wipe them out...all of them.  But there's no guarantee that I'd actually get all of them. In the meantime, I would be risking poisoning the very fruits that I hope to someday eat from the plants.  I'd certainly be killing any beneficial insects that happen to prey on the bugs I'm so worried about for a living.  Even though my squishing tirade didn't kill all the Squash Bugs, if I do have any predatory insects in my bed, they'll have slimmer pickin's for a while.  They might even move on and leave my bed altogether if their prey population drops too much.

It would be easier to spray than to squish, but then if I spray my own vegetables for bugs, why bother growing them at all? Why not just buy them all from the store? All of those are sprayed too. Even the allegedly 'organic' ones are probably sprayed at least with Neem oil (which isn't totally benign either and even has warning labels) otherwise, how could they send so many lovely looking fruits and veggies to the store? They can't possibly be turning most of their crop into compost since picky customers won't buy insect or disease 'damaged' produce...can they? 

I could give into the Dark Side every morning and squish bugs until my hands were sticky with their fluids, but I'd still never get them all and I'd feel just as bad as I do when I pull 'weeds' from a bed.  Who am I to say whether this plant or that bug is 'bad' or 'doesn't belong'?  If we get carried away with pest control, are we really being 'green' or just being 'green-ish' when it suits our purposes? 

As Yoda says, we must learn control.  Control of our own egos, emotions and short shortsightedness.  Something to think about for me and for all of us.

The leaves on my pumpkin vine may not look so pristine anymore, but my pumpkin is still growing. So are the peppers on this neighboring plant in the foreground (which the experts tell me the Squash Bugs won't eat anyway, just hide in). That's what matters, right?

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