Bye, Bye Beetles

    So far, this growing season has been one of the most interesting ever. Could it be global warming? Perhaps. Perhaps it’s all a legacy from the relatively snowless winter with long periods of cold, but not frigid, temperatures. Perhaps it was spring’s two nights of plummeting temperature that followed a warm spell. Perhaps it was this summers extremes of dry and wet periods. Perhaps all that’s from global warming. Perhaps . . .
    All I know is that it’s all been pretty good. As I wrote previously, for the second year in a row, Japanese beetles made their entrance on time in June, and then, as if from stage fright, skittered away. Or never emerged from the soil. Or never hatched from eggs laid in the soil. Or the eggs never got laid last summer.
    For years, Mexican bean beetles would lay eggs on my bean plants, and those eggs would hatch into voracious larvae and then adults that would shred bean leaves. I was able to harvest enough beans for fresh eating and freezing only with succession planting of bush beans every couple of months.Mexican bean beetle
    For the past couple of years, only a few beetles show up here and there; nothing to worry about. So now an early sowing of bush beans provides the first plates of beans, and then passes the torch on to pole beans, which unlike bush beans, keep yielding till the end of the season. Bush beans peter out after a few pickings.
    (I did spray neem oil and the biological insecticide ‘Entrust’ a few years ago. Perhaps that broke the Mexican bean beetle cycle here. Perhaps it was the mere threat of a wall at the Mexican border . . . No, no, that can’t be it. Mexican bean beetles have established themselves north of the border for many generations, human and beetle. Throughout the country over many decades, this pest has waxed and waned in its severity, at times turning its taste to soybeans, sometimes to lima beans. My beetles never showed an appetite for my soybeans.)
    Two other pests that, I hope, can now be off my radar are scale insects on the greenhouse figs and flea beetles on the eggplants. That status comes with some effort on my part: weekly sprays, until recently, of “summer oil.” I expect to have to maintain those efforts every season. (Late update: I saw a few scale insects on the figs so did have to spray again.)

Skyrocketing Corn, De-Luscious Blueberries

    This season’s interests aren’t all about pests.
    Right now, corn stalks are as high — no, higher — than an elephant’s eye. (For journalistic accuracy, I looked up the height of an elephant’s eye. One report on the web, that fount of highly accurate information, reported the median height at 98 inches.) I just stepped away from my desk to measure the actual height of my corn, and it topped out at about 10 feet high. And that’s the variety Golden Bantam. I’ve grown it for many years, during which it always topped out at 6 or 7 feet.
    The first ears of this rich-tasting, old variety should be ready any day now. Will they also seem to be on steroids?Tall Golden Bantam corn
    No explanations for this corny behavior jump out. Year after year, the soil gets the same one-inch depth of compost, the 3-foot-wide corn bed is planted in two rows of hills, thinned to 3 stalks per hill, with each hill 2 feet apart in the row, and the bed is drip irrigated. Mislabeled seed can’t explain the phenomenon because this season’s popcorn (Dutch Buttered and Pearl) and polenta corn (Otto File) also have higher aspirations. Anyway, I’m not complaining.
    Apples never grow well here. This low lying valley is a sink for colder, moister air that, along with the backdrop of thousands of acres of forest, is a haven for apple pests. This season, with some spray assistance from me, the apple crop is relatively heavy and attractive. Apples, in those years when I do get a decent crop, are especially tasty here.Blueberry fruit cluster
    I have to tip my hat, once again, to blueberries, my favorite fruit and the most consistent performer among my many fruits. I have never not gotten a good crop of blueberries, come hell or high . . . 17 year cicadas, hurricane Irene, late frosts, etc. This season, canes are arching to the ground with a particularly heavy crop of berries.
    What will next year hold? An even better growing season?

Plagues Come & Go, With Some Help, and Seattle-time

Meet me in St. L . . . Seattle

Come hear me lecture on August 10, 2014 on “Luscious Landscaping, with Fruiting Trees, Shrubs, and Vines” at 1 pm in the Garden Room at Magnuson Park. For more information, go to

Plague again; keep calm

Every year it seems some new plague is ready to attack plants. A few years ago, late blight of tomato moved to the fore. Emerald ash borer, threatening ash trees, was first found on our shores in 2002. (Figuratively; literally, the insect, native to Asia, was first noted in Michigan.) What’s next?

Perhaps a calmer outlook is called for. A decade or so garlic mustard seemed ready to take over our world. Not so, now, perhaps because it’s being crowded out by Japanese stilt grass, which itself seems now ready to take over our world. Garlic mustard is native over much of the northern hemisphere, except North America, and was introduced here around 1860 as a culinary herb. As for stilt grass, it hitchhiked here from China about a century ago, as packing material for porcelain. It’s deer-resistant, for what that’s worth.

Plant problems come and go. The best approach is to keep calm and, in some cases, plant something different, something plague resistant.

Bean Beetle Management

Green beans are a mainstay of my garden, of just about every garden. More than 20 years ago, Mexican bean beetles (a species of ladybug!) found my bean plants and have plagued them every year since.

The adults, with eight black spots over a red or yellow background, wake up late from winter sleep to lay eggs on bean leaves. I’ve come to despise the yellow, balled up spiny larvae that gorge on leaves and other plant parts.

Two bean beetles crawling on bean stem

Still, I have managed to grow good crops of beans over the years, not by killing the beetles or their larvae, but by growing a different plant. Sort of. Rather than grow pole beans, which reside in the garden all season long to provide a constant source of beetle food, I have been planting successive crops of bush beans. Bush bean plants tend to bear quickly and for about 3 weeks, then peter out, so a new planting in a new bed goes into the ground every 3 weeks from mid-May until late July.

Three bean beetles clustering together

Yield from a planting tapers off just as its resident beetle population is beginning a feeding frenzy. Then it’s time to pull up the plants, thoroughly clear the bed of leaves and old pods, and rush it all to the compost pile. Chopping the debris with a machete and burying it beneath straw and manure, and watering the pile, as needed, sends the temperature soaring, killing most of the beetles. Bean beetles are good fliers, so cooking the beetles in the compost pile doesn’t solve the problem, just keeps it under control.

Death to the beetles, with restraint

Something strange happened this year: As of this writing, only one beetle larvae has been seen. Last year I doused the bean plants a few times with one of two organic sprays, which gave good beetle control. It also gave me the confidence to try growing pole beans, as I did in my pre-Mexican bean beetle days. They got some bean beetles but we did harvest pole beans.

The sprays were Entrust and Azamax, both approved for organic agriculture. The active ingredient in Entrust is spinosad, a compound found in bacteria, Saccharopolyspora spinosa, that was isolated from soil collected inside an old rum still in the Virgin Islands. Although toxic to a range of insects, it is otherwise relatively benign. Still, the label requires waiting at least 3 days to harvest after spraying.Image of bean beetle larvae

Azamax is an extract of the seed of the tropical neem tree, native to the Indian subcontinent. In that part of the world, this one tree has been used as human food, insect repellant, bird repellant, and an ingredient of soap. It degrades rapidly in soil or in water, and is harmless to earthworms, honeybees, and insect predators. Food crops can be harvested right after spraying Azamax.

Still, Azamax and Entrust are pesticides. Perhaps the bean beetle cycle has been broken  here and sprays can be forgone in the future. I’ll keep calm. No sprays this year, yet.

SWD, go away

The same two organic sprays might be called upon for another pest, the spotted wing drosophila, unaffectionately known as SWD. Also an Asian import, this one has moved east since being first spotted in 2008 in California. It is hard to keep calm with this pest because it attacks blueberries, my favorite and heretofore my most reliable and abundant fruit crop. The pest is also fond of blackberries, raspberries, and — not that it matters to you or me, because we don’t eat them — honeysuckle berries.

A cluster of blueberry fruitsAgain, there are management options. Because SWD seems to blow in from more southerly locations, a fine net could exclude them. Prompt refrigeration of harvested berries for 3 days kills larvae within. Thorough harvest of sound and unsound berries also keeps populations in check.

And then there’s Entrust and Azamax (or some other neem product), any of which I consider a last resort. I’m setting up traps to monitor if and when SWD arrives. (For information on monitoring, see Till then, and after, I’ll try to remain calm. Om. Om. Ah-oh-om.

Book Giveaway, Goji, and Gardener’s (Not) Delight

A book giveaway, a copy of my book GROW FRUIT NATURALLY. Check out my new video Life on the Farmden and reply to this post with what other plants, aside from those mentioned or shown, you think I should be growing here on the farmden. I’ll choose a winner randomly from all the replies.


Two plants have been disappointments this year.

Goji berry (Lycium barbarum), the first, has been touted as a wonder food, effective for diabetes, high blood pressure, poor circulation, fever, malaria, cancer, erectile dysfunction, dizziness, and ringing in the ears, and for reducing fever, sweating, irritability, thirst, nosebleeds, cough, and wheezing. It’s also used — this Chinese plant has a long history of use in Chinese medicine — to strengthen muscles and bone, and as a blood, liver, and kidney tonic. Wow!
As amazing as this plant is purported to be, it’s easy to grow. Too easy, in fact, which is one of the problems growing it. Lanky, arching, thorny canes grow from the base of the plant, taking root wherever they touch ground. Turn your back on a planting it soon becomes a tangled mass of thorny canes.
But that must be worth it, considering the miraculous benefits of the berries, right? Like so many miracles, this miracle is pretty much unsubstantiated.
The flavor, then, must make the plant worth growing, right? Wrong. The berries taste awful. Worse, they taste poisonous. And, in fact, like other members of the deadly nightshade family, which does admittedly, include tomato, pepper, potato, and eggplant, goji does contain some toxins that cause adverse reactions in some people.
Still, if you believe in miracles and happen to like the flavor, goji is easy enough to grow and bears the first season, so may be worth growing. Not for me, though.
Back in 1975. I wrote a short piece — my first garden writing, in fact — for Organic Gardening magazine about Gardener’s Delight cherry tomato. “It brings back the tangy flavor of [tomatoes of] a century ago,” I wrote (and it’s now a century and a quarter, and then some), “ . . . their tangy, sweet-tart flavor explodes in your mouth.”
Now, here in the 21st century, we have better tomatoes than were available back in 1975, mostly in the form of a lot of excellent heirloom varieties. And because of one relatively new, hybrid cherry tomato, Sungold, that tops all other cherry tomatoes as far as I’m concerned.
This year, after many decades without it, I decided to grow Gardener’s Delight again to see how it compared. The plants grew well and bore quickly. The fruits, however were awful, with mushy texture and bland, mushy flavor. “Blame it on the weather” would be a convenient explanation. In my experience, weather’s effect is not that significant on tomato flavor. My more discriminating taste buds? I don’t think so; the difference between what I remember (and wrote) and what I now taste is too great.

I feel bad, like an old friend has gone to pot.
One more explanation might bring hope. Gardener’s Delight is an open-pollinated variety. Whoever supplied the seed could have accidentally allowed some cross-pollination with another tomato variety. The tomato gets rave reviews from some web reports; other reports concur with me. I’ll try again, with a different seed source.
Every gardening season has it’s quirks, but this year has been the quirkiest yet, a perspective reflecting decades of gardening in four different states.
Oddly enough, the season started off being quirky by being so conventional, or, at least, by being what was supposed to be so conventional. That is, temperatures gradually and steadily warmed in spring, without intervening freezing or torrid spells.
Okay, cicadas were predicted. Still, they were strange and right here, at least, much more abundant than they were last time around, 17 years ago.  They’ve left a legacy of  browned ends of stems dangling from trees along roadsides. I look forward to not seeing that again for 17 years.
Japanese beetles are surely no strangers around here, making there entrance, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, just as the cicadas were making their exit. But the strange — and very welcome — quirkiness of this year’s beetle invasion is that it pretty much ended soon after it began. Stink bugs, likewise expected by now, have yet to make their entrance.
Perhaps this summer’s Japanese beetle quirk is related to the weather quirk. No, not the nice (for humans) spring temperatures which, being below ground, the beetles hardly would have noticed. Weather quirks included June’s incessant rainfall, more than twice the average, followed by July’s throbbing heat, more than 5°F above the average (which would have been higher had not the last week in July been so comfortable).
Another pest that hardly reared its head here was Mexican bean beetle, which I’ve battled for the past 20 or more years. The reason might be the biological sprays I tried, a mix of Entrust (derived from a bacterium collected from the soil of an abandoned sugar mill in the Virgin isles), Azamax (an extract from the tropical neem tree), along with commercial extracts of hot pepper and garlic. Dense bean foliage and my attempts to limit the sprays only to the bean plants made for less than thorough coverage, leading me to guess that something else might also be a factor. The weather again?
Another quirk: dragonflies. I’ve never seen so many of them as this year.
The final quirk concerns breadseed poppy, a self-seeding annual flower that has showed up reliably every year at various locations of its own choosing around my gardens and beyond. This year: almost none. My guess is that the reason has something to do with something I did. But what? Who knows?
The above observations are very casual and very local, mostly right here on my farmden along the Wallkill River in the Hudson Valley. I wonder: Cicadas notwithstanding, has anyone else experienced garden strangeness this year?