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Smorgasbord in the Garden

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Three daughters with plate of tomatoes.
My girls hold fresh picked tomatoes and basil from our garden which we will make into a side salad for dinner.

By Renee Adam

“A little bit of this…a little bit of that….a bite or two of another!” That is what the garden pests are doing to my veggies and fruits as they plow through my raised beds! It seems like the minute I stepped back and admired my garden, the troubles began (does that ever happen to you?).

Father’s Day weekend, we added three trays of flowers to our beds and topped them with soil conditioner. The soil conditioner or straw helps hold the moisture in the soil which we added on our beds just in time as the heat in Birmingham is in the high 90’s and is suppose to hit 106 over the weekend (yikes)!

Fast forward thorough the weekend to Monday. My husband was watering some potted flowers that sit near the veggie beds early that morning and actually HEARD  something chewing…chewing…chewing away! A hornworm had eaten (it literally appeared overnight) about one-quarter of my tomato plant. It had attached itself to the stem and blended exactly to the color of the stem. My husband said it was the munching sound he kept hearing that caught and held his attention. But it had already helped itself to several stems of leaves…and they had been stripped clean!

Look for hornworm droppings.
Hornworms leave droppings behind on leaves or on the ground directly below.

When I went down to check out the tomato plant myself, the little black droppings sitting on a leaf (a.k.a. hornworm poop) was the indicator of what I was looking for… (not to mention the obvious stems stripped of their leaves). Now I’m on the prowl for another!

Nothing like finding a pest in your garden to get you to check EVERYTHING out. So, moving on to the cucumbers, I found flea beetles on several of the leaves. Flea beetles are tiny, black, shiny little beetles that jump if you disturb them. I battled them last summer by trying to remove them by hand, but they are back again. Since my beds are clear of debris and weeds, I am going to assume that the beetles have been living in my soil and making their way to the party. This year I’m going to try the Neem, which is an organic insecticide. Personally, I really don’t like using any pesticide at all but I’m not giving up on my cucumbers as everyone has their limits, and the cucumbers are mine! I’ve not been successful the past couple of years with squash because of vine borers…so I didn’t even bother to plant it this year.

Look for flea beetles on cucumber plants.
Flea beetles dine on my cucumber plant.

So, as they say, “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Yesterday after a late afternoon swim, my girls and I picked some vine ripe tomatoes and some fresh basil to use as a side salad for dinner. Almost every afternoon in the summer, as vegetables and fruits ripen, I look over my beds to look for pests and to see if anything can be harvested for our next meal (or snack if portions are small). If I am in question of whether to leave something on the vine longer because of pests, I usually go ahead and pick my produce because I learned the hard way from NOT picking my Japanese eggplant (and a worm dined on it before me)!

One of our favorite summer sides/salads is sliced ripe tomatoes. While I enjoy them right after I pick them with a pinch of kosher salt, my family likes them with fresh basil and/or cucumbers (and slices of Buffalo mozzarella if you have it on hand) topped with drizzled olive oil, balsamic vinegar, a pinch of salt, and fresh ground pepper to taste….Yum!

Harvest tomato and basil for a salad.
We harvested a mixture of fresh picked tomatoes and basil for a dinner salad.

I guess that’s how those pests feel about my veggies, too! I really don’t mind sharing some of my crop here and there with nature, but when the entire plant is affected, it’s another story. The best advice that I can give from my experience is this:
If you can’t identify a pest that’s affecting your garden, by all means first find out what exactly is the problem. I have used the Ask an Expert service through Bonnie Plants several times. Treating pests begins with identifying them first in order to present your best options for ridding them from your garden and getting a harvest. The experts will even offer suggestions on how to remedy the problem if you so choose to ask. As my knowledge on pests and gardening expands (my first garden was more of “what NOT to do to have a successful garden”), I love gardening more with every growing season.