Friday, July 5, 2013 0 comments By: David Velten

Flea Beetle Management

A few years ago, the flea beetles were a curiosity in the community garden. I noticed a few shot holes in my eggplant. which were waist high at the time and not really bothered by the beetles. But every year since then the beetles have increased their numbers and their appetites. It has gotten so bad that I cannot grow eggplant at all and the quality of many of my Cole crops is affected. I’m pissed off and I declared war on the flea beetles this year, which is kind of ridiculous considering how tiny they are. Flea beetles are nasty and really hard to control, so I only used the term management in my title, but here is what I am trying.


First, you have to understand the enemy. Flea beetles winter over as adults in the soil, usually in wooded areas near the field or your garden. They emerge in spring as soon as temperatures get to 40F and go looking for breakfast. There are as many as 3-4 generations a year and adults can live up to 2 months, so that's a lot of munching. In my area, flea beetles are present up to frost and beyond.  The larvae live in the soil and feed on the roots of the plant before emerging as adults. Usually the damage to roots is minimal except in the case of the potato flea beetle, where the larva can significantly damage the crop.

There are many kinds of flea beetles and they usually feed on one type of plant. In my garden the two biggest pests are probably (I'm not an entomologist) the crucifer flea beetle (Phyllotreta crucifera) that feeds on brassicas, and the eggplant flea beetle (Epitrix fuscula) that feeds on solanaceous plants (tomatoes, peppers, but mostly eggplant). Whatever type of flea beetle, the adults feed on the leaves of the plant, chewing tiny holes all over the leaf (an effect called shot holing, looking like the leaf has been hit with shotgun pellets)

Row cover works if you put it on early enough and seal the edges very well. That's assuming the beetles didn't overwinter in the soil under the covers. I tried covering my eggplants last year (in brand new Mel’s Mix so no eggs) but they still got in. And they eventually killed all my eggplants, even the ones with 4-5 leaves, so much for that theory.

You can try physically removing the beetles. Last year, each visit to the garden started with an examination of the eggplants and brassicas to pick and kill flea beetles. They are tiny, hard-bodied beetles and hard to catch and squish. I find it more effective to use my thumb to trap them and then, with my fingers under the leaf, roll the beetle to the edge of the leaf. If the beetle hasn’t disintegrated by then,you can roll them between your thumb and finger until they do. A trick I haven't tried yet is to use a hand-held vacuum (dustbuster) to vacuum up the beetles. This sounds tedious but my theory is every beetle you destroy is one less beetle laying eggs and multiplying.

Trap crops properly done probably work for farmers who, say, surround their field of broccoli with a 4-foot band of mustard. The beetles flying out from the woods land on the mustard, and the farmer then heavily sprays the trap crop with insecticide. I don't believe planting some radishes next to your broccoli is going to lure the beetles away. In fact I know it won't, because the radishes I have near the broccoli are ones I actually want to eat, and both the radishes and the broccoli are being chewed up. And I guarantee you planting radishes near your eggplant is not going to lure eggplant beetles away. The beetles you see on the radishes are crucifer beetles, not eggplant beetles, and are now ready to move on to the main course, your brassicas. And obviously, garden areas should be kept free of weeds where beetles can shelter and feed, particularly weeds in the mustard and solanaceous families (and I include volunteers in the category of weeds).

You can try dusting the leaves with DE (diatomaceous earth), which either irritates them or slashes their little bodies. I haven't found this very effective but you can give it a try. I have also used a garlic chili spray, which seems to repel (but not kill) them for about a day. I make the spray by putting 2-3 cloves of garlic and a chili in a food processor with a cup of water. Puree then let steep for a day. Strain into a quart spray bottle, add a few drops of dish soap, and dilute with water to a quart.

If you are willing to use organic sprays, pyrethrin sprays are moderately effective but short lived. They degrade quickly with exposure to sunlight. Look for a spray that has an OMRI label and is not mixed with piperonyl butoxide, which makes it unsuitable for organic gardens. Also avoid spraying it when pollinators are active in the area.

A new and better substance is spinosad, an organic insecticide produced by fermentation with a common soil bacteria. Spinosad is a stomach/nerve poison and has to be ingested, so it is safe for beneficial insects, earthworms, and pollinators as long as it dries before contact. It can be used up to day of harvest. Flea beetles were recently added to the insects it will control and in tests it is more effective than pyrethrin and persists longer. In addition, it will also control cabbage loopers and caterpillars, so you get a two-fer when you spray your brassicas. It also controls leaf miners and will penetrate and kill the maggots inside the leaf. I sprayed my brassicas and observation the next day showed only a few flea beetles present. I also bought some pyrethrin spray and plan to try alternating spinosad and pyrethrin through the season so resistance does not build up.

Another product used by commercial growers is Surround WP, a kaolin clay compound that coats the leaves and acts as a repellant and protectant. When mixed with water, transplants can be dipped in a bucket of it before setting them in the ground. Rain will eventually wash it off so you have to spray to reapply it. And it will discolor fruit like eggplant so it can’t be used after fruit has set. For flea beetles it was not as effective as spinosad but works well on other pests.

Hopefully, you don’t even know what a flea beetle is. But if you have them, good luck in managing them. If you have other techniques that work, I would be interested in what you have done.


Thursday, July 12, 2012 0 comments By: David Velten

Powdery Mildew in the Garden

The July 5, 2012 issue of the UMass Vegetable Notes reports that powdery mildew has reached Central MA and you should check your summer squash for symptoms. Sure enough, we can report that powdery mildew (PM) is now affecting at least zucchini in the Bolton Community Garden. Here are some pictures of what it looks like on summer squash. PM will affect any of the cucurbits and a lot of other garden plants including beans, peas, and broccoli.


The best solution to powdery mildew is to prevent it from appearing. First of all, select varieties that are described as being resistant to powdery mildew, such as cucumber Diva and yellow squash Success, Sunray or Sunglo. Make sure plants have adequate spacing for good airflow. When powdery mildew is reported in the area, spray plants to prevent infection. It is easier to prevent infection than cure it. If plants are heavily infected, remove the most affected leaves and dispose of them in the trash, NOT in the compost bin. Spray with a fungicide.

An organic solution that is reported to be effective in preventing PM is easy to mix up. For a quart of spray, add milk (any kind) to water at a ratio of one part milk to nine parts water (4 ounces milk to 28 ounces water). Don’t use higher concentrations because it can cause the growth of other diseases. To the solution, add a tablespoon of baking soda and a couple of drops of dish soap. If you have it, add a teaspoon of neem oil, which has fungicidal properties. Spray this mixture on plants in the morning so it can dry adequately before nightfall. Repeat spray weekly. This is a preventative method, so spray now even if you are not currently affected by mildew Spray at least squash, pumpkins, melons and cucumbers now and monitor other susceptible plants.

Friday, June 8, 2012 0 comments By: David Velten

Squash Vine Borers

Squash vine borers (SVB) are maggots of the SVB moth that bore into the stems of cucurbits (squash, cucumbers) and work their way up the stem. You can tell you have borers when your plant suddenly wilts. Check the stem about an inch and a half up from the ground and you will see a small hole with sawdust around it where the borer entered.

Once the borer is in the squash, the plant is at great risk. If you catch it early enough, you can slit the stem with a razor knife from the entrance hole up to where the borer is and destroy the borer with the knife blade or a wire. Then bury the slit stem under soil to keep it covered. This may or not be successful, but if you do nothing, the plant will die. If the plant can’t be saved, pull it and destroy it. You can replant squash in early July after the SVB threat is over.

The best method is to prevent the SVB from laying eggs near your squash, or provide a physical or biological barrier. If you can cover your plants with floating row cover, that keeps the moths away from laying eggs near or on the plant. But the cover has to be removed when the plant starts flowering so pollinators can get to the flowers.

The SVB moth does not look like a moth but more like a wasp or bug. It emerges from a cocoon in the soil the end of June or beginning of July (but remember we are way ahead of average on degree days because of the mild winter and spring). These moths fly during the day and are very good fliers like a wasp. They stand out because of their coloring so keep a lookout for them and let others know if you see one in the garden (squish it first, then let us know).


The borer itself is a big, fat, ugly thing, shown here in this cross-section. These pictures are courtesy of the University of Minnesota Extension (see for their advice on SVB management).


Here is a video that suggests using cardboard tubes to prevent the borers from physically reaching the stem and boring into the plant.

Other suggestions are to wrap aluminum foil around the stems at the soil level and several inches up. Another, more elaborate technique is to inject the squash stems with a BT solution, inoculating the insides of the stems with BT, which will kill the borers when they try to enter the stem.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012 0 comments By: David Velten

Update on Garden Pests - 30 May 2012

It’s the end of May and according to the UMass Extension Vegetable Program, we are facing Armageddon as a huge swarm of insects start to emerge early because of the warm Spring that we had. Already doing their work in the Bolton Community Garden are cabbage caterpillars, flea beetles and a new, surprise pest, the Tortoise Beetle!

You should be aware that flea beetles are back now in large numbers and are attacking eggplants (their favorite), mustard family plants (mustard, radish, turnip, etc.) and any other plants if they feel like it. For info on flea beetles, see this post. Eggplants should be checked now or you risk having your plants stunted or killed.

Cabbage caterpillars are the larvae of the cabbage moth, the white “butterflies” you will see fluttering around the garden. I have seen only a few moths so far , but I found a caterpillar chewing up a Brussels spout that was under the floating row cover. They are not bad yet but be aware they are here. Check your cabbage-family plants or risk losing them.

Finally, a new pest, as if we need another! While squishing flea beetles on my new eggplant transplants, I noticed a spot that looked a little like bird poo. I made a mental note to check it out and went off to talk to Pequita and warn her of the arrival of the flea beetles. We found flea beetles all over her potatoes. While squishing beetles (successful technique is to quickly pick the beetle off the leaf and then roll it between your fingertips until it disintegrates) and enjoying this sport, Pequita noticed several weird things on the potato leaves. She picked one off the leaf and flipped it over. It had little legs and after squirming for a few seconds, it flipped itself back on its feet!

What we were looking at turns out to be the Mottled Tortoise Beetle. I didn’t take a camera to the garden so unfortunately I don’t have a picture to post  See this link for a good picture. These beetles overwinter as adults. They feed on weeds until sweet potatoes emerge, then feed on those. In our garden we found them on potatoes and eggplant. They also like morning glories. These beetles and their larva (spiny green blobs) eat holes in plants. They are not considered a serious threat but I plan to see if they like the garlic and chili pepper enema I’m about to give the flea beetles.

UPDATE June 8, 2012: Here’s a photo of the mottled tortoise beetle found on a potato plant in plot 8.


Sunday, April 15, 2012 0 comments By: David Velten

Garden Opening Day, April 14, 2012

Saturday was the official Opening Day for the Bolton Community Garden. Members gathered to clean up the garden and ready it for the new gardening season. The garden plots were measured and staked, garden paths were repaired, fencing was mended, and some sub-standard plots were cleaned up and fortified with soil and compost. Let the gardening season begin.

Below are some photos taken during Opening Day by Joan Finger,

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011 0 comments By: David Velten

Got Rodents? Get A Harrier


The past couple of years we have been fortunate to have a pair of Eastern harrier hawks nesting in our backyard. Why us, I do not know. It can’t be because our neighbor raises homing pigeons and flies them every day. Harriers prefer juicy, furry critters to bony birds. We have had an explosion of squirrels, rabbits and chipmunks. Now with the harrier couple and their three fledglings in the neighborhood, the few chipmunks left seem to neurotically run from bush to bush.

As far as birds go, the harriers have shown an interest in wild turkeys. We apparently also have a nest of turkeys somewhere in the back. One morning a giant ruckus erupted in the trees as a large turkey hen clumsily chased a hawk through the tree tops, sending a shower of pine needles and dead branches raining down out of the trees. The hawk retreated, leaving the angry turkey perched precariously in the tree tops. Who knew they could fly like that? Moral: don’t mess with a turkey hen who has chicks.

Some more photos below. Sorry for the quality of the pictures. They were taken with a compact camera on full optical zoom so they are a little fuzzy.

UMass Extension Vegetable Program

The Agricultural Extension Program at UMass Amherst has a Vegetable Program for growers of vegetables. While the Program is aimed at commercial growers of vegetables and herbs in Massachusetts, their web site has lots of useful information of value to home gardeners throughout New England. For example, they have a page on the halo bean blight that hit my pole beans after TS Irene.

In addition, they have an email newsletter called Vegetable Notes that is well worth subscribing to. It provides an update on disease and insect prevalence in New England and suggests what measures can be taken to protect your garden. The advice is oriented toward commercial growers and is not necessarily suited for organic growers, but is still useful to us home gardeners.

The September 8 newsletter provided a lot of useful information on how to deal with the effects of storms Irene and Lee, which included flooding followed by outbreaks of disease and insect infestations. Certainly in our community garden, we have seen many of the problems described in the newsletter. Fortunately for us, flood water in the garden was only a few inches deep and was clear and not full of mud, but we still got the mildew and rot that followed.