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Intrepid Urban Farmer: Zucchini Crossroad

Raising zucchini is one of my favorite gardening pursuits. 
 
Actually, what I mean to say is attempting to grow zucchini is one of my favorite pursuits. I like a challenge. In past columns, I have referred to the reviled Squash Vine Borer. This creature, in its larval stage, comes up out of the ground and burrows into the main stem of a zucchini plant and completely destroys it. At that point, there is nothing you can do to stop it. Once it burrows in, the game is over. That plant is going down. My battles with this creature have reached epic proportion.
 
I have tried every remedy put out there. I’ve tried the decoy, or “trap crop”, a method of planting a sacrificial plant or two to take one for the home team. Theoretically, the squash vine borer adults are lured to this first planting and will pay little attention to what you are counting on for your own kitchen. Doesn’t work. The monsters will happily infest every squash in your garden.
 
I have attempted rescue after attack! When you notice your plant starting to wilt a little and there is a wet, sawdust-like substance at the base of the plant, the larva has arrived. This sawdusty stuff has a formal term, believe or not. “Frass” is the name. I have other four letter words for it. To enact a rescue, you must have a sharp knife with a thin blade. Further up on the stem, take a lateral slice and open it up very gently and as non-invasively as possible. Hopefully, you will spot the larva. It is big, white and hideous. Take your knife blade and flick it out! Immediately close the stem back up and mound dirt over top of your incision. This is not for the faint of heart. Theoretically, the zucchini is supposed to re-root at that point and be able to carry on. Doesn’t work. The larva wins again.
 
Another variation on this idea is to not open up the stem, but impale it with a couple of straight pins, leaving the larva in situ. This, at least, has the satisfying appeal of believing you are performing some type of voodoo spell. Not that I would know. Not for squeamish types either, and... doesn’t work.
 
A couple of years ago, I looked a little more closely at the life cycle, habits and shape-shifting of this monster. Very interesting... well, at least to me. In early spring, the pupa, or baby borer, over-winters in infested past years' vegetation. The adult moths crop up in early spring. They are obnoxious, gaudy red and black critters and fly all over the place laying eggs near your newly started zucchini. Then, around the last month of June, and through July, the eggs hatch, the larva comes out, and then you watch your zucchini die.  
 
Last year, I came up with a plan. In the spring, I planted my seed and then erected a little tent over each hill. This was cobbled together with a peony support (a wire ring on three legs about two feet high) and an old white sheer curtain held down around the edges with bricks. It was a limited success. My zucchini plants lasted a little longer (not much), and I did get a few more zukes. Still, I hadn’t cracked the code. The moths were still getting their egg-laying job done.
 
This year, something different had to happen. The stakes were high. I became very willful and obsessed about succeeding. I did a foolish thing.
 
I went to the crossroads and struck a deal with the Devil. He promised success. I was weak and I believed him. Bug spray. Yes, you heard me right, bug spray. This is not a holy confession, as I know forgiveness is not forthcoming. I know I can no longer be a member of the Holy Organic Brotherhood. Oh well. At least I will have zucchini.
 
Here’s the plan: Plant the seeds and erect the little tent over top. Before you secure the cover with bricks or garden staples, spray the ground with bug spray… enough to make the ground damp. Go ahead and let the seed germinate and grow. If there has been a lot of rain, spray the ground around the little plants with the bug spray again in a couple of weeks. Try to leave the little tent on as long as possible and when your plants are fighting to get out, remove it. You want this removal to be as close to the last week of June as you can get it. Remember, the last week of June is when the little borer eggs hatch into larva. If you keep the adult moths away from your seedlings, you’ll have no eggs laid and no larva to battle.
 
When the tent is removed, keep a close eye on the stems at the base of the plant. You’re looking for that sawdusty stuff mentioned above. Don’t be shy about one last little squirt of bug spray right at the base of each plant. If all goes well, and you have successfully guarded your plants from the adult moth’s egg laying mission, that should be the end of any additional bug spray application. It’s all green baseball bats from here on out!
 
I did this exact thing this year and so far, as of July thirteenth, I have hung on to all six of my plants. I have the best zucchini crop I have ever had. Even if the plants collapse on the fourteenth, I consider this a win. I will continue to observe what happens and fine-tune my methods. The great thing about gardening is that you are never done. You never know enough.
 
And, sometimes you have to visit the crossroads for solutions.  
 
Ginger Dawson is The Intrepid Urban Farmer. Read her column every other Sunday at The River City News. Questions? Email: [email protected]