Starting a vegetable garden involves a lot of backbreaking soil work, not to mention the trial and expense of building raised beds, fences, gates and the like. One plus, however, is that the first three years are relatively free of pests and disease.
One exception is a brown caterpillar named the cutworm, which has an annoying habit of biting off seedlings just above the soil line. Cutworms show up at the beginning but never seem much of a problem in an established garden. My own veggie plot in the community garden is beyond the cutworm stage and now welcomes other pests.
I’ve decided that the red currant bush has to go; the excavation may happen in the cooler months, but its fruiting days are over. Actually, they never really started. Once the currants shift from tiny green pearls in May to plumper red orbs in June, the birds or the chipmunks move in. Two legs bad, four legs worse. The chipmunks are the known culprit for another fruiting shrub, gooseberry. Fortunately, I can pick the fruit unripe; it makes superb jam when green. Even so, it’s a race against time and marauding chipmunks. I have stopped growing fava beans, whose pods present themselves as velvet-lined jewel boxes to the chipmunks.
The paradox is that the more fruiting plants one grows and cultivates to abundance, the greater the rise in the chipmunk population. I suppose it is possible to regard them as rats with face paint and set out traps, but that would be too extreme. As with any infestation, it is best to wait for nature to find the fix.
Other gardeners in my vicinity buy bales of straw to spread as mulch. But they often buy too many, and the leftover bundles from spring just sit there, drawing snakes. Some are small garter snakes, but sometimes you hear a shriek as a gardener encounters a big black rat snake. I’ve positioned a bale in the garden in the hopes that a sizable serpent shows up, either to devour chipmunks or scare them away.
I was tying the robust tomato plants recently when I heard a rustle at my feet. This was from a catbird a foot away, literally, and helping itself to the last raspberry on a bush I have yet to sample. I felt like an intruder. It is one of a gang of four catbirds in the garden, and when the raspberry is done, they turn their attention to the grapes, which are green but clearly much desired. They seem wholly unfazed by my presence.
The catbirds are welcome to the grapes, which are in the process of developing brown rot. I would have sprayed them with organic copper spray, but at the critical time for this, wrens were raising a brood in the birdhouse on the arbor. I thought I should spare them the fungicide. The nestlings were fed constantly by the parents. Although one paid me no heed, the other had a fit when I was around, so I was banished to the far corner of this little plot, where I could study the denuded red currant.
I do draw the line at the whitefly. This irritating insect is attracted to some members of the cabbage family and not others, and is selective by variety. But if you have planted its preference, watch out. Its numbers grow exponentially, and it does real damage to the foliage. This year, they have set up shop on German varieties of kohlrabi and a sauerkraut cabbage.
I have recently come into possession of a battery-powered leaf blower. By reconfiguring it, I can make it suck up stuff, and have spent the past couple of weekends vacuuming whiteflies. It’s quite satisfying and most organic. The whiteflies are held in a bag, which I then place in the freezer, away from the ice cream. The vacuuming also will be a way to remove the ants’ nest that has grown inside my storage trunk.
This is the time of year when some gardeners are badly afflicted by Japanese beetles, which are iridescent purple and green insects, airborne and highly gregarious. They lose their aesthetic charm upon the arrival of the 87th individual on your lone rose bush. They eat flowers, buds and leaves and like to feast on other members of the rose family, particularly ornamental plums and cherries. They will disfigure certain trees, especially lindens.
You can buy traps that lure them by the hundreds using scent pheromones, but the consensus is that unless you have a large property and can position a trap far away, you will be drawing more beetles than you otherwise would.
One way of dealing with this beetle is to go after its grub, which lives in the soil. Synthetic pesticides can be effective if used at the right time. A gentler approach is to use a product named milky spore, which is a bacterium that attacks the grubs. I haven’t used it, but retired horticultural professor Frank Gouin, who lives near Deale, Md., tells me that he applied it once when he came to his farm, 25 years ago, and has been grub-free since. He knows this because the mole tunnels, once a ubiquitous feature of the grass, have gone. Without grubs, the moles have moved on.
As you have gathered, dealing with the animal kingdom can be stressful and tiring. I have to keep reminding myself that, first, this is the lot of the gardener and, second, don’t sit down on the straw bale. As vexing as gardening with pests might be, it beats watching the news.
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