City Seedling: Who Ate My Pumpkin? Adventures in Pest Management, Part II

When we last saw Emily, she was on the verge of discovering the source of her pumpkin plant’s malaise. Will she find the antidote in time?

I was pretty certain that the thing destroying my plant was a Squash Vine Borer. The only way to know for sure was to dig the sucker out of the vine and see.

I’ve always had something of a live and let live feeling about my garden. I’ve never used an insecticide. When I’ve had problems in the past with pests (and it’s been pretty rare) I try to manage it by bringing in predator bugs, or attracting more birds, or smushing the odd Tomato Horn Worm. But generally, I’m fine with insects who snack on my plants. You want bugs. It means things are balanced and safe. As Linda Yang wrote in her book, The City Gardener’s Handbook, “A few chewed leaves are, after all, signs of a functioning garden and can be regarded with pride.” If I see a bug munching one my plants, I usually don’t touch it until I know what it is. And I’m glad of this. I’ve had caterpillars of many gorgeous butterflies make homes in my herbs, and in the end I’d rather have the butterfly than the herb.

Anyway, so it was with this measured response that I decided to deal with the borer. I read that to find and kill the borer, I should slit the vine at the highest part of damage until I found the bug. This is very easy to do, as the vine is quite full of water. I made the slit, and immediately saw the yellow frass. The bugs are supposed to push this out onto the ground, but evidently this borer liked living in excrement. After a moment, the little worm started wiggling out. Here he is:

The squash vine borer: not winning any beauty contests

So I cut off this section of vine and dumped in the trash. I hoped my plant might survive — most everything you read says that by the time you know you have a borer, it’s too late to save the plant. I returned to clean up some weeds from my plot, when I saw another intruder: the Squash Bug. I had read about him while researching borers. These guys look a lot like stink bugs. I was filled with rage for some reason. Not one, but two little things killing my plant? “You!” I growled in an accusatory tone. I scrambled for something to squish him with. I found a trowel and beat the bug to death while gangsta rap played in my head.

Then I saw all these other bugs. Dozens of them. Spider mites? Maybe. I continue my smashing spree until many were dead and the rest had fled. I made a mental note to try to figure out what they were later. (How quickly our ideals get scattered to the wind when something invades our space.)

So much for my gardening Zen. It happens to the best of us, though. Michael Pollan wrote in his gardening memoir Second Nature that he once tried to blow up a groundhog who ate his tomatoes. He failed, and wound up singeing off his eyebrows instead.

It turns out those things I thought were spider mites were baby squash bugs. Ugh.

I think that’s probably it for this pumpkin plant. I don’t see how it can survive attacks from both the borer and the squash bug. If I keep it, it will attract and house more and more pests. I am going over to the garden now to euthanize the pumpkin, and try to kill as many remaining bugs as possible. This video shows one man’s brave battle against the squash bugs: Squash Bugs Must Die!

If I try pumpkins (or any other variety of squash, cucumber or zucchini) again next year, my goal with be prevention. There are many physical blocks you can set up to avoid borers, such as wrapping the lowest parts of the stem in tin foil. The squash bugs require more maintenance. Checking and killing on a regular basis. Soapy water will kill them, but you must spray it directly on the bug. Diatomaceous earth is a prevention tool I’ve read about, but though not a pesticide, it does harm all bugs.

I’ve never used a chemical pesticide, and don’t plan to start, despite my rage-filled beatdown of the squash bugs. It’s just not part of why I garden. You can’t spray Sevin and kill the squash bugs without killing the ladybugs, the caterpillars, the hover flies, and all the rest. I love the tiny world that exists in my 4 x 6 foot plot, every bug doing their different things, living their little lives. And while it’s very frustrating to lose a plant, the bulk of those little guys mean more to me than a handful of zucchini. Only something like 1 percent of bugs are actually pests. I don’t know… I love my plants and get very attached to them, but if they die of natural causes, I’m ultimately OK with it. (If a person messes with them, that’s a different story. I will hunt them down and make them pay.)

Happy planting,

Emily

How do you deal with pests in your garden? Have you battled a squash bug? Tell me about it in the comments!

Emily Helck

a lifelong New Jersey resident who moved to Jersey City in 2006. She earned an MA in English and writing from Fordham University. In addition to blogging about gardening in the city, her personal blog RTONJ is about being a young adult with cancer. She lives downtown with a dog, two cats, and her husband.