Some people might be deceived into believing from reading this site that all is always rosy at the Stoddart Avenue Community Garden. However that is not true. We only have four rose bushes. Moreover, we suffer from some of the same travails and challenges as other community gardens. Some of them perplex me beyond distraction. One of them has become an obsession: squash bugs.
Your faithful Garden Manager only began gardening in earnest in 2008 when I joined the Redeemer Moravian Church Community Garden in Dublin (which is a far piece from the Bexley area). That was only the first or second year I had grown zucchini. I started with four plants and they kicked butt until mid to late July when they wilted and died in the course of only 7-14 days. I was shocked. They had been so healthy, large and prolific. As they shriveled away, I noticed that they were overrun with a gazillion grey creepy bugs. I dutifully covered them with sevin powder, but they could not be revived. I planted new plants to replace them, but they died as well. I was disappointed and assumed that they had just run their course. I had lots of other food to harvest, so I moved on.
Then, last year I had the same experience even though I had eight prolific and gigantic zucchini plants. I noticed that everyone at the SACG had the same problem: their zucchini wilted and died to reveal a gazillion creepy grey bugs. (Some of the plants also had issues with powdery mildew). Then the bugs moved on to attack our pumpkin patch and it disappeared within two weeks. Mitch asked me about it and I told him it happened about the same time every year and it was probably just nature's way. I was surprised to learn elsewhere that it is possible to maintain a zucchini plant until Fall. However, I also began conducting research into the creepy grey bugs.
These bugs have a name. They are squash bugs. They resemble stink bugs and will stink if you squash them (which I am too squeamish to do). They multiply quickly and you will literally have thousands and thousands of them in a short period of time if they find food in your garden. They prefer zucchini, but they will eat yellow squash, pumpkins and other squashes and curbits (like cucumbers and melons) in a pinch. They travel large distances quickly and can overwinter in your garden under almost anything (which is why it is vitally important to clean out your garden every fall to remove any place where bugs can hibernate).
Sadly, there seemed to be no reliable way to kill them. Few books or websites address the problem because they cannot recommend a reliable solution. My Rodale's Vegetable Garden Problem Solver (i.e., the organic bible that I got for Xmas) had no practical solution. It described them as the "worst pest of squash-family crops" and recommended checking the undersides of leave for the copper-colored eggs and small yellow flecks on leaves (as an early sign of squash bug feeding). The bugs suck out the sap, wilt the vines, pit the leaves and fruit and prevent fruit from setting. To prevent them, Rodales suggested planting as late as possible to allow time for the bugs to emerge and move on to another neighborhood or starve before your squash plants emerge. I do not find this a satisfactory solution. It also recommended handpicking off the nymphs (i.e., baby bugs) and adults (YUCK!!), cutting off severely infected leaves and destroying leaves where eggs have been laid. Finally, it suggested spraying insecticidal soap or pyrethrins to kill bugs and nymphs and suggested that Neem may also be effective.
I did not find the OSU information pamphlet to be useful either. However, Kansas State's website contained some very useful information and pictures. Finally, I found a message board on the ivillage Garden website which had some useful and gross tips. I've tried a few of the ideas and will share what little wisdom I've gathered in the last 10 days.
- No solution is easy. They are all relatively time consuming and some of them are gross.
- Carbaryl is the generic name for Sevin. The powdered form is useless, so don't even bother. It is an ingested poison, which means the bugs have to eat it before it will kill them and they aren't particularly interested in eating powder when there is so much squash sap everywhere they go. I applied it on newly emerged plants as a preventative (since there was no risk of killing beneficial insects at that stage). However, Sevin also makes a spray. I sprayed it on eggs and a few adult bugs (which did not die instantly, if at all. They ran and hid, so I have no personal testimonial).
- The eggs are very noticeable, so you won't have to look hard for them. They are a copper color (both dark or bright depending on their age). They are almost always on the underside of the leaves in nice neat rows of about 25 or so eggs along a vein (often near the stem). Sometimes, they are laid on the top side of the leaf and occasionally along a stem. You will not enjoy looking under each leaf because the stems are prickly and they all look alike after a while. I've read that eggs are impervious to pesticides, so you spray them only to make yourself feel better. I read somewhere that you could remove them with masking or duct tape, but that did not work well when I tried it on Saturday. You could also squish the eggs, but I'm a girl and that's gross. Instead, I recommend ripping off that leaf (or portion of the leaf) and destroying it far away from your garden. Most sites recommend dropping the eggs into a bucket of soapy water, but I don't carry around such items in the back of my car. I stomp on the leaf and then dump it far away. This is the time to be looking for eggs because the adults became active in June. A plant can have several leaves with eggs, so don't stop looking after finding your first batch on a plant. I've read the eggs will hatch within two weeks, so check your leaves twice each week.
- The easiest time to kill squash bugs is shortly after they hatch and are in the nymph stage. They will look like small spiders with grey bodies and black legs. They hang together in a group on the back of the leaf where they were hatched. They are too stupid to run when you pick up the leaf, squeal at the sight and then drop the leaf in disgust. They will still be there when you pick up the leaf again and spray them with whatever is in your other hand. However, some of them may have dropped off the leaf when you dropped it in disgust, so it's a good idea to spray the ground underneath the leaf to get any strays. You could also pick them off by hand and squish them, but that's gross and even more time consuming.
- Adults are hard to kill, run and hide quickly upon discovery and stink when you squash them. However, I read on the iVillage site that someone somewhere had great success spraying them with soapy water. She claimed that it suffocated them. Whatever. I took a spray bottle that I purchased at a hardware store, filled it an inch deep with generic dish soap, put in another inch of concentrated Neem Oil and then filled it with water. Those squash bugs died very quickly after a few well aimed shots of that concoction. I could not be more delighted. I tried the soapy water without the Neem Oil on Saturday and the bugs did not die instantly. There is also the risk of the next day's hot sun scorching the leaf, but I think that's a small price to pay to save the entire plant.
- I've read that Neem is relatively organic. It is an ingestible insecticide that seems to work in a variety of mysterious ways. I have no special insight. Maybe it makes the leaves stink so that bugs don't eat them. Maybe it fools the bugs into thinking they aren't hungry (and then they starve to death). It supposedly will not affect ladybugs or bees because they do not ingest it and are not fooled by it. I have not used it as a preventative. I use it to kill squash bugs and nymphs on contact with soapy water.
Feel free to share whatever tips or wisdom you have. The more the merrier. I also purchased some permethrin/ pyrethrins powder on Saturday, but haven't tried it yet.