Trouble in Paradise – Squash and Its Problems

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October 8, 2012 by frontyardfarm

Black Beauty Zucchini and Yellow Crookneck Squash . . .just thinking about them, grilled, sautéed or fried makes my mouth water.  Summer squash in general is a vegetable I have loved my entire life.  Most gardeners complain that at a certain point in the summer they get over squash.  It just keeps coming and coming and pretty soon you don’t know what to do with it any more.  This has never bothered me.  I grew Black Beauty when I lived in Iowa and some of the squash got almost two feet long and thick as a baseball bat.  I carried them home from the garden like a cord of wood on my arms.  We ate them in every way imaginable, including creating zucchini “noodles”, baking zucchini bread and cookies.  It was simply heaven.  I started them from seed along with Golden Zucchini Squash.  And they took over their section of the garden – huge jungle-like vines, green and beautiful.  The easiest vegetable I have ever grown – zero pests, one of the earliest to bear in the summer and they never stopped.

But this time around I’m having problems.  Sure, I’m partly to blame.  I planted the squash, which should be given room to ramble, in only a small corner of the raised beds, (but I am using tomato cages to help keep them up and away from the other plants).  And then there is the weather, wet, so very wet and hot.  I started the plants from transplants from Lindley’s rather than seed because we were already into September and I wanted to make sure that my squash harvest wouldn’t be killed by a potential frost.  Instead, however, it is being killed by bugs.  Lots of them.

Perhaps I should have seen this coming when the Yellow Crookneck didn’t take off the same as the Black Beauty.  It is still only about half the size of its darker sibling.  Its leaves were smaller, paler, and more immediately attracted bugs – caterpillars mostly, leaf rollers.  I dutifully scrapped off the caterpillar eggs, removed the leaf rollers and squashed them.  Then the same damages started appearing on the zucchini.  I started spraying with an insecticidal soap (that washes off everyday in the rains) in the morning as well as picking off the visible culprits on my morning and evening garden patrols.  Then whole leaves started dying and the few baby squash that had been appearing simply melted away before they could get longer than four inches.  And little brownish white piles of something appeared around the vines.  Signs of squash vine borer, which can kill a plant.

What is going on is at least three different things.  First there were these black caterpillars:

The good news is these guys mostly just eat some holes in the leaves.  Still, I remove them when I find them and squish them between my thumb and forefinger.  Very satisfying.

The melting baby squash are from the excess of rain.  Nothing I can do about that.  Just hope that more flowers get pollinated and more babies appear.  And hope that it dries out long enough to let them come to delicious maturity.  An annoyance, but not the end of the world.

The signs of squash vine borer damage are much more troubling.

Little piles of saw dust looking stuff around the base (its called frass).  The squash vine borer, Melitta curcurbitae, can so badly damage the plant that it won’t survive.  They lay their eggs close to where the squash vine emerges from the soil.  When they hatch they bore into the plant to feed during their larval stage.  They can cause the vines to completely wilt and die, especially if you get more than one inside a plant.  When they are ready to pupate, the exit the plant and burrow down into the soil.  As adults they look alarmingly like beneficial pollinators (masters of disguise).

I could always spray with Spinosad, a chemical pesticide recommended for borers and caterpillars.  It would kill the bastards both on contact and also when the eat into the vines.  But the problem is although it is considered a natural pesticide (it comes from a bacteria) it can still be toxic to beneficial insects like the pollinators I need to make new squash appear.  And if too much of this chemical gets into the world it can damage some shellfish.  And there is some concern that over very long periods of exposure that it can cause cellular mutation in mammals.  Okay, so it’s not like I’m going to be drinking the stuff, but is it worth putting more of this potentially hazardous chemical into the environment and my body just to get a few squash to eat?  No matter how delicious they are, are they worth the trade off?

Right now, my answer is no.  I am continuing to kill the borers as I find them.  And the plants are putting out new growth, so I think I may be able to win this battle.  I hope I can wine this battle.  There is so much I want to do with the zucchini and the yellow squash.

The most disappointing aspect of these problems is I feel as though they just shouldn’t be happening.  Squash up north is so prolific that people give it away by the sack full to neighbors and friends when it is in season.  In Iowa we said that if you have to buy squash when it is in season, you obviously don’t have any friends.  Down here I have yet to encounter that kind of ambient harvest generosity.  Hopefully with enough patience and some drier weather, I may be able to turn the tide.

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