Posted by: zhak39 | July 1, 2009

Community Garden Update

The sun dips below the western tree line around 8 p.m.  This is a great time to water and a relaxing time to chat with other plot owners at the garden.  Two days ago a note went out warning about a dreaded squash borer infestation. Last night  I brought along a printed brochure to leave in our reference desk (a ziplock bag tied to the water spigot that we leave notes in).

There were two women that I had not yet met along with a young girl and boy gently misting their plots.  One of the women, the ‘auntie’ introduced herself.  We started talking about the cut worm that has found its way to the yummy hollow-stemmed vines of many of our straight and crook-necked squash plants.  I showed her a picture of the very unusual moth that has found our neighborhood to be so inviting.

SqshBrr Rgnl

You already know that this gardening stuff is not my strong suit but the processes involved fascinate me.  Bugs are interesting.  The transformation of seed to sprout is more fundamental a miracle to me than Lazarus rising from a corpse.  The jargon of flora and fauna is purely poetical.  Say this out loud and listen to yourself–Melittia cucurbitae, Order of Lepidoptera, Family Sesiidae.  That’s who came to dinner.

On the other hand, to a squash plant these little guys are no less than piratical cut-throats that go chuckling into their very marrow and tear the life out of them.  They are cancer visible.

So who wanted to know about our new garden pets, I mean pests.  Auntie?  Mama?  ‘Course not.  It was the little girl and boy.  We sat down by one of my squash plants and looked for the tell-tale wound at the bottom of the stem.

“Think something got in there?  Should we look?”

There’s a question that required no answer.  Well, duh.

Being less sentimental than a real gardener, I ripped the affected vine from the plant.  Our three heads bobbed together as we looked closely.  I started to split the stem open and we saw a tiny amount of fuzzy yellow particles along with a bit of greenish-yellow ooze.

“See that?  I think someone was here.  You know what I think that is?”

The kids put their hands on mine to move the vine and get a better angle.  Then they looked at me expectantly.

“Larva poop.”

Big smiles from the kids punctuated by groans from Auntie and Mama.

“Come on, let’s look a little bit farther but we need to be careful and quiet.”

We examined the widening slit closely until-bingo.

“Look at that.  It’s pretty small.  What do you see?”

“It’s white,” said the girl.  “And it has a black spot on it’s head.”

“Cool,” said the boy.

“It’s pretty surprised right now.  They don’t expect to be in the light.  See, these guys are really smart.  You know how moths usually come out at night and fly around your window or lamp posts?  These guys are moths but they come out during the day.  The mom puts her eggs on a yummy plant like this where the babies can sneak inside the vines.  See, most caterpillars eat on the outside of plants and that’s where something else can find them and eat them up.  These guys live on the inside where they don’t get rained on and they have all the food they want and they have this great shelter.  Pretty smart, I’d say.”

The kids nod.  Sounds like a good plan.

I ripped up the rest of the squash plant.

“Not in my plot.”

The kids thought this was pretty funny.  Their mom, though, she looked a little worried.  Her eyes flicked over to her plot where in the corner was growing a  yellow squash vine with broad leaves and flowers.

“Let’s see what else we can find,” I said handing the kids some stems with leaves.  “Take a look at the bottom sides of the leaves and see if there is anything that looks strange.”

“Hey, look at this.  Is this something?” asked the boy.  He held out a leaf that had a dozen little spots neatly laid out at the crux of two veins.

“Great job.  Look at that.  Those are eggs.  Aren’t they cool?  Look how neat they’re laid out.  Their like treasures all in little rows.  See, they hatch there and the tiny critters just zip down the stem and cut their way in.  Then they’re safe.  Until we came along.”

“So what do we do with them?”

“Well, we can leave them alone and let them grow.  We can put soap on them and suffocate them.  We can put them in a bucket of water and they will eventually drown.  Or I hear their really good for little boys to eat.”

“Cool” the boy said just at the same time that Auntie said “No.”  Mom smirked.

“Just kidding.  You aren’t hungry enough.  Save them for some starving kid.”

While the kids took the infected plants to a water filled bucket to drown the invaders I spoke with their mom.

“It’s important that you not compost your squash vines if they are infested,” I told mom.  “They’ll live in the soil and then just continue to spread.”

Of course mom wanted to look at her beautiful plant and we did find eggs and a suspicious slit.

“See that ooze?  That’s your plant screaming.”

We talked about destroying the eggs and carefully splitting the affected stem to remove the larvae.  I explained that the vines could be re-rooted above the wound by covering with dirt.  I asked her if she had old pantyhose and suggested that she wrap the vines with it so a new infestation of egg laying moths could not find purchase although this is a weak preventative.   I showed her pictures of the jewel bright moths so she could look out for them.  I showed her a brochure with a bacterial insecticide that paralyzes the digestive system of lepidoptera and talked about care in using it as there are other members of that order that offer neither threat nor harm.

We returned to the two kids who were enthusiastically performing their ritual execution through dunking.  It is funny to me how children can enjoy the cycles of living and dying with pure exuberance.  I don’t know if this is a lack of morality or a healthier view of the planet system as a whole.  Either way, the larvae had no chance between their squishing fingers.  Better luck next life.

Mom told them it was time to go and they both groaned.  They wanted to play.  The boy looked at me with his blue eyes bright, cheeks smudged and hands dripping.

“I love nature,” he said.

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