Member Login

Intrepid Urban Farmer: All About Bugs

OK, the severe cold with its deep blanket of snow is mostly behind us this year.  As a gardener, the first thing I want to know is this:  What am I gonna get out of it?  I know, I know, there will be good ground moisture.  And though the temperatures were brutal on perennials (my asparagus!), there was a nice, thick blanket of snow to help insulate.
 
But what I’m most interested in is the bug population!  Am I going to get a break this year?  Did the freezing temperatures help decimate my seemingly unfair share of squash beetles?  Squash Vine Borers?  Spider Mites?  Stink Bugs?  Thrips?
 
Unfortunately, not a whole lot.  Most insects are really good at staying alive in the most adverse conditions.  I have heard it said that if a nuclear bomb hit New York City, the only survivors would be the cockroaches.  Damn.
 
Freezing winters are a pale threat compared to atomic bombs.  Most insects, through a process of diapause, their own distinct hibernation, and seeking shelter, are little affected.  They go through a form of cellular alteration that prevents freezing and bursting on that level, which is what would cause their end.  Nature can be a cruel mistress for the vegetable gardener.
 
There are a couple of bright spots.  I am pleased to note that Stink Bugs, and their fancy  kin, Harlequin Bugs, are affected by cold.  They will be diminished.  Well, except the ones that have made it into your house this winter.  They get in through attics and crawl spaces, and before you know it, they’re watching TV with you.  But here’s the thing.  When they get in the warmth, they don’t slow down into a hibernating state, and so continue to need to eat normally.  But there’s nothing for them to eat.  So, I’m not sure what the outcome will be.  I’m rooting for profound starvation.  It’s a watch and wait situation.
 
Thrips, an insect that has a wonderful capacity for spreading disease in the garden is not so affected by cold temperatures as by excessive moisture.  Snow, we’ve had lots of snow.  Certainly that will help.  Thrips are the urban gardener’s nemesis for spreading Tobacco Mosaic.  Tobacco Mosaic can spread to tomatoes by cigarettes!  If you smoke, make sure you wash your hands before you get near the tomatoes.  If you don’t smoke, thrips will do the job for you.  Remember all of the nasty cigarette butts you see on the ground?  (The joys of urban living!)  Thrips love them.  They are as efficient as a cargo drop in taking that nasty little virus from point A to point B.  I didn’t have any trouble with it for many years.  Then, my new smoking neighbors made their presence known through my tomatoes.  They have moved on, the winter has been very wet, and I remain optimistic.
 
As I have stated before, there are real challenges in gardening in the same spot for many years.  You don’t have the luxury of truly effective rotation.  I do the best I can, but its not the same if the distance in your rotation is only fifteen to twenty feet as opposed to thirty feet or more.  Problems crop up and you just have to learn how to deal with them.  But that’s part of the challenge.  Garden clean up at the end of the season is essential.  Tools, plant supports, seedling trays, etc. all need to be disinfected.  It can be quite a project to keep everything in its best condition to minimize insect and pathogenic issues.
 
This is the first really cold winter we’ve had in a very long time.  The most recent series of warm winters have been a little too kind to the entomological world in my opinion.  It will be interesting to see what the bug population will be like this year.  
 
But, let us not forget.  Balance in all things.  Fortunately, the hardiness that insects show in winter temperatures also protects Bees, Praying Mantises and other beneficial insects.  There is a Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton in every one of them, be it Honeybee or Stink Bug.
 
On another related note, fleas should be a little less aggravating this summer.  Those of you who have indoor/outdoor dogs and cats should get a little break.
 
Well, even if the insect world is not diminished I can always take absolute comfort in knowing that I have NEVER had a deer in my back yard.  Now that is truly the joy of real Urban Gardening.
 
Previously in The Intrepid Urban Farmer: All About Seeds & All About Tomatoes
 
The River City News is proud to produce this new regular feature column, "The Intrepid Urban Farmer". Every couple weeks, our local expert will offer tips, stories, and more for the urban gardener. Questions for The Intrepid Urban Farmer? Email: [email protected]
 
Photo: Thrip via Wikipedia