Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Squashing the Borers

My wife Mars and I have fought the squash borer for as many years as we've planted that vegetable. And for that long the lethal insect has won.

Every annum it seems like pretty much the same old story. Around the end of May we go to a local nursery and purchase the infant plants - a few yellow and a few zucchini. On Memorial Day weekend we plant them, carefully distancing them from each other and hilling them up per the squash planting specs.

Then over the next several weeks: we water them; they grow; blossoms are seen; anticipation builds; leaf size expands exponentially making squash watching more difficult; the first yellow or green fingerling is spotted; foliage continues to enlarge further obscuring the progress of the crop; the initial tiny gourd is relocated and having now grown to a usable size is severed from the vine; other edible-sized ones are noticed and harvested; leaves keep getting bigger resulting in sun blockages all along the East Coast; zucchinis ripen at the rate of hundreds per plant per day; Mars pulls out her "Gad Zukes" cookbook and whips up various zucchini dishes including "sloppy zukes", chocolate zucchini cake and zucchini split sundaes; neighbors hear noises on their front steps at night and discover bundles of long, green, smooth-skinned vegetables at their doorsteps; and we both vow to reduce the size of our squash crop significantly next year.

Then suddenly, like a vegetative impersonation of an astronomical black-hole collapsing in on itself, the plants just completely wilt and totally, irrevocably die. The summer isn't even half over and we are, once again, out of the squash business for another year.

According to the Penn State University Entomology web site this is what actually happened. "The squash vine borer injures plants by tunneling through their stem, which interferes with nutrient transfer in the plant. Borer feeding weakens plants providing the opportunity for secondary infection. Plants damaged by the squash vine borer will wilt. Examination often reveals shiny green-to-yellow colored frass within the stem. Often frass will protrude from any damaged areas of the stem. If vine senescence occurs early, the borer may tunnel into the fruit."

Frass and senescence! Who knew? Obviously if we did we definitely would have put a stop to it - or maybe not. We were both working all those years and only able to devote weekends to the tending of our crops, along with the hundreds of other things we needed to do. But now, because we've retired, we have all the time in the world to battle frass and senescence - and win. At least as it occurs in squash. In ourselves it may be a different matter.

The first step is to know your enemy - in this case the squash borer moth.

According to some folks, e.g. Jennifer Frick on brevard.edu, "The moth itself is beautiful - hardly the picture of devastation!" (I'm thinking maybe something like Kathleen Turner in the movie Body Heat. And since this is my essay I'm going to hold that thought for a moment.........okay, now back to work.)

The squash borer moth has clear wings (yes you can actually see right through them) and is about one inch long with orange and black tufts on its body and legs. It lays its copper-colored eggs on the squash stems just above ground level where they hatch in a few days. The newbies then burrow their way into the center of the stem and, protected from pesticides and predators, merrily munch away on the stalk eventually inducing the above mentioned black hole effect.

Knowing all this it should be relatively easy to implement a successful multistage defense against our annual invader.

Stage 1: Seal the border: I'm figuring that if Mars and I alternate eight hour shifts for the month of June we can secure all of the entry points into our garden from illegal insect immigration. Update: I just checked with Mars and there is one slight modification to this plan - there will be no rotating guard duty. She felt that since this masterful plan was my "brilliant idea" that I should be given the honor of "doing the whole damn thing by yourself."

Mars, and a few of her friends, will be providing logistical support for my efforts from a luxury spa/golf resort in Scottsdale Arizona.

Stage 2: Search and destroy: Even in the unlikely event that one of the miscreants slips through my Stage 1 Steel Curtain, how hard can it be to find these ground level, copper- colored, b.b. sized eggs and obliterate them? Besides after thirty straight days of twenty-four hour sentry duty I may be a little tired, so I can use a less strenuous activity. I'll just lie down here on my stomach so that I can get my face up close and personal with the base of the stem and then ZZZZZ, ZZZZZ.....

Stage 3: Cut and run: "Huh! What time is it? When did you get back? How long have I been out here? You're going where?"

Okay suppose somehow a few little sap-hungry caterpillars still make make it through. I'll just take my trusty Swiss Army Knife and, being extra careful not to cut too deeply, slit the stalk lengthwise and - rats! All right I'll try the next one. Damn! Not again! Here, while keeping my temper under control I'll just rest the squash stem in the palm of my hand and plunge...oh no!!! Where did Mars leave the phone number for that "Hunks in Bunks" Campground she was going to?

Stage 4: Yes dear: A while back Mars told me that instead of all this "hands-on nonsense" I should just spray some Rotenone around the base of the plants to keep the moths away and come inside for awhile. Maybe I should have listened to her.

But now she's telling me to stay out in the yard while she's in the house interviewing gardeners. Today it's a brawny, long-haired blonde named Thor. It's his tenth time back, and the third visit this week. He must not be very good at this.

After he leaves I'll have to ask her again about that environmentally friendly pesticide.

I'll also have to find why she feels like she needs a gardener when I'm always outside doing all the yard work anyway.

I mean "duh!"

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