Saturday, June 1, 2013

Pestilence and the Barrier Method

Let me preface this post by saying...  I Hate Sewing.

It takes a lot to get me to sew these days.  I can't seem to get along with a sewing machine...

I never took Home Economics in high school.  Instead I took Physics and Trigonometry and other brainiac classes.  Obviously, looking back, I should have taken something more useful such as Home Ec, possibly photography and definitely a shop class or two.  And I struggled through Physics and Trig, but not nearly as much as I struggled with cutting a square piece of nearly invisible, stretchy, green tulle fabric.  I mean how is that supposed to happen?  Maybe we should have covered it in Physics.

I've done my fair share of sewing.  I grew up thinking that was natural.  My grandmother was a wonderful seamstress, and so is my mother. They sewed their own clothes.  They even sewed my riding habits which, for those who don't know, are the equivalent of a tuxedo with satin collars and ribbons up the outside seams.  Obviously they were well schooled.

Mom taught me how to thread the machine and load the bobbin and sew a straight line.  I haven't advanced much past that.  One evening my sister came home to find me elbow deep in a pair of removable upholstery covers with tasseled edges for some large floor pillows.  "I hate you.  You know how to do everything." she griped.  I replied, "No, all I know is how to thread the needle and the bobbin. The rest I'm just making up as I go."   "Okay", she countered, "I hate that you believe you can make it up as you go along and it works."

Fine.  Guilty as charged.   The floor pillows came out incredibly well.  You see, I have very particular tastes.  I get an idea, and if I can't find it already made, I set about to make it myself.  I've sewn countless window treatments on this premise, including some rather difficult roll shades with scalloped edges which garnered compliments from a friend with her own decorating business.  I've found that when approaching a sewing project, the best start is to find some very forgiving fabric to work with.  If it is striped or plaid, then I'm all set because I just follow the lines.  I was not prepared to work with green tulle netting.  But these are desperate times.  You see...  we have a plague.  The plague is flea beetles and last year they decimated my eggplants.

I've dealt with flea beetles in some numbers from the very beginning.  Below you can see some minor damage on the upper leaves of this Rosa Bianca eggplant which is a beautiful variety with jewel like, deep rose fruit.  The damage just looks like little pin pricks with the sun shining through.  It doesn't bother the plant much.  The brown shingles in the background tell me it's from 2008 or earlier so that is at least 5 years of successful flea beetle breeding operations.

Below is a specimen of a Galine eggplant from last year's garden.  How far we've come!  The poor thing!  I don't really remember getting a single eggplant last year, but photographic evidence proves that I got at least one before I pulled the miserable things out and humanely destroyed them.

It begins innocently enough, with a few beetles that look and behave exactly as their name suggests.  You could easily mistake them for fleas.  Diaotomaceous earth discourages them.  Spray drives them off for five minutes or so, but the constant assault of chemicals (even innocent ones like soap) and leaf choking powder does more harm to the plant than the beetles do.  Maybe.

The beetles also enjoy radishes and potatoes.  They LOVE Mustard Greens.  Organic gardeners suggest planting some as a "catch crop" where the flea beetles will happily munch away and perhaps, if you planted an acre or so of Mustard Greens, they may ignore a few eggplants nearby.

2012 potatoes with flea beetle damage

My garden is a haven where I hope to enjoy lush green, thriving plants.  I do not enjoy looking at plants which resemble Lorraine Swiss Cheese.  This just smacks of gardening failure and a black thumb.

I love to grow eggplants.  They come in a veritable rainbow of sizes, colors and shapes and, to me, are as interesting as any rose bush or geranium .  Prosperosa (above) and Round Mauve (below) are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

They even come in different shapes from round to long and narrow.  The long and early Japanese variety Ichiban prospered in my 2010 garden with lush foliage ribbed by deep purple veins. Not a single flea beetle in sight.  Exquisite

My personal favorite is White Lightening which is a bit smaller than the traditional American Black Beauty with a creamy white skin, smooth texture and a very mild tasting flesh.  Just look at that huge velvety leaf! Soft as a Basset Hound's ear.  See, I get a bit nutty about eggplants.  They are second only to tomatoes in my garden.  So, I take all this munching and destruction pretty personal.

This spring, in late April, on one of first really warm spring date, the flea beetles hatched.  And it was a bumper crop.  Alarming!  I first noticed them sunning themselves on the ties that edge the beds.  Thousands of them.  Literally.  Thousands.  It looked like someone had spilled a pepper shaker down each tie. I went around and sprayed with some organic bug spray.  This didn't seem to worry them.  Next, I mixed up a super strong mixture of Clorox and water and made the rounds again.  Still, no visible effect.  A day or two later, as I was weeding the beds, I waved my hand over the soil and felt them jumping, by the millions, in a cloud against my hand,  Ooooo this is not good.  Visions of devoured eggplants flashed in front of my eyes.  So, the plan is:  Lock them out.  Cover Everything.

Since eggplants are self pollinators, and do not require bees to spread pollen from flower to flower, it is a viable alternative to bag them.  Some people use floating row covers.  I don't have rows of eggplants, and I wasn't too keen on the idea of billowy white bags over each plant like runaway pillow cases. When saving seeds for tomatoes and other self pollinators, I have used small, white, tulle drawstring bags which craft stores sell for putting in wedding favors.  I decided to make giant versions of these.  But how would I get the fruit out?  Or hand pollinate them if need be?  I couldn't be ripping the bag off each time and then stuffing the plant back in.  The simple answer was to install a zipper down one side.  Now I realize, these bags do not hermetically seal the plants. Some beetles will still get in.  After several days I have found a couple of beetles on the leaves which I have squished.  But, when you know for a fact you have a gozillion beetles jumping about, one per plant per day is a ratio I am comfortable dealing with.

And sew I set out to make the invisible, green, tulle eggplant condoms with side zippers.  They turned out pretty well.  I pinned Velcro cord organizers to each corner to suspend them from the plant supports, and used pretty green satin ribbon as the drawstring, which probably won't be pretty and satiny or even green for long.  The green tulle is sheer enough to allow air and sunlight in and allow visual inspection for other pest infestations.  And speaking of other pest infestations, the barrier theory is adaptable to other pests as well.  Take for instance slugs and cut worms in your cucurbits.

Two years ago, my cucumber transplants began to mysteriously damp off.  Or at least that was what I thought was happening.  The conditions didn't make that seem possible.  After several days of this, as I crawled along on my hands and knees peering under plants, I noticed baby slugs, so tiny that you could line two of them up end to end on a grain of rice, were gnawing away at the stems.  Some of them survived as the stems scarred over.  Applying Diatomaceous Earth at the base, and setting out trays of beer kept them under control.

Last year I had my first real trouble with squash vine borers.  They chewed the heck out of this zuchini plant.  Now, zuchini are tough.  You can cut the invader out, cover the damage with soil and water well for a few days and the plant will probably survive.  In fact, this one carried on with no intervention at all for many weeks.  But again, I don't want to look at gnawed on plants anymore than I want to replace them.  So, preventative measures were in order.  We saved toilet paper rolls all winter.

Planting your cucurbits in toilet paper rolls will ward off slugs, cut worms, and squash vine borers because the little buggers crawl along the soil looking for an unattended stem to eat.  If all they find is a cardboard wall, they will move on.  Hopefully.  Plants this size are easy to thread through the tube.  If the tube comes unglued with water damage, or the leaves are too big, just cut down the side and place two over lapping tubes around the stem.  And why, as my husband asked, use cardboard rolls which are sure to fall apart and not some sort of plastic collar?  #1.  They are organic and can be thrown in the compost #2.  They are FREE (more or less) and #3.  There is a guaranteed constant supply of them.

Another barrier is used stockings.  This has the advantage of being long enough to protect a length of stem which may be lying along the ground.  Here I have my zuchinni dressed with a toilet paper roll and a knee high stocking just waiting to be pulled up the stem.  Again, FREE (more or less), a guaranteed constant supply, and they expand to fit.  What more could you want?

This is one of those pauses in gardening.  The seeds are sewn.  The plants are transplanted.  The peas, the flowers, the potatoes and the carefully coddled tomatoes. Everything is trimmed, weeded, edged, mulched, protected, mowed, hoed and hilled .  Plans have been laid.  Hopes are high.  And now.... we wait.

1 comment:

  1. This may be one of my favorite lines ever written.

    "And sew I set out to make the invisible, green, tulle eggplant condoms with side zippers. "

    And I was an English Major.