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You can avoid corn pollination failure

Many gardeners, especially new ones, are dismayed to find that the luscious ears of sweet corn that they expected look more like this:

Corn pollination failure

Failure to pollinate can drastically reduce yields of corn

Only a few kernals are present on  the cob!  All that hard work, fertilizer, watering, and all is just wasted!

(Please note that all the illustrations of corn pollination are with field corn, as I do not currently have room for sweet corn in our garden – a problem I’m working on – but the illustrations will work fine; all the principles are exactly the same.)

There are two main reasons why we have failure to pollinate: one is that the pollen is dead, and the other is that the pollen just did not reach the female flowers.

Dead pollen is common in years of extreme heat and drought during the pollen shed time for corn. Corn is rather unique among plants in that it is on an exact schedule from the day it is planted until the day it is harvested. When pollination time comes, whatever will happen will happen, and it only lasts a few days, after which the opportunity is gone. The corn will go on doing its thing, but all the inputs of the farmer or gardener are wasted if pollination doesn’t occur.

Corn is generally wind pollinated. Lack of wind can be a big factor in corn pollination. When one sultry day follows after another, corn pollination can fail.

A morning thunderstorm can do an immense amount of pollination in that first rush of wind before the rain starts. There is normally a flush of pollen shed in the morning just after the dew dries, and there may be another smaller discharge in the evening as the air cools. The male flower is the tassel at the top of the stalk.

An acquaintance of mine had a charter helicopter service in Illinois, and he was kept busy during the corn pollen shed, by contracting with farmers to provide wind for pollination. He would hover over the fields, moving up and down the rows – and got paid for it, because it was a valuable service for the farmers.

 

Corn just tasseling

Tassel just emerging on corn stalk; in the next few days it will produce 2-15 million grains of pollen

The pollen is produced inside the anthers:

Corn anthers

Hollow anthers hang down on threadlike stalks; pollen is produced inside

Gardeners generally have pollination problems for the second reason – pollen doesn’t reach the female flowers at the right time:

Corn silk ready

Corn silk is the female flower, which is receptive when fresh and green

The silk is the female flower which can be seen at the tip of the incipient ears on the side of the cornstalk. Each thread connects to a single incipient kernal on the ear. When it is green and tender, it is receptive, but it will turn brown in just a few days and the opportunity to pollinate is gone.

Corn pollen on silk

Pollen that falls onto the silk adheres

When a grain of pollen falls and sticks to one of the silks, it begins to grow a pollen tube down inside the silk strand, right to the incipient seed, which it then fertilizes.

The problem with garden pollination is that there are usually few plants; not a whole field; there is a limited amount of pollen available – and it may blow the wrong way. New gardeners are frequently advised to use four short rows, rather than one long row, for this reason. Corn planted in blocks does pollinate a bit better.

For even more pollination insurance, do it by hand – it only takes a minute. When tassels first appear, pollen shed is only a day or two away. If you look at the tassels in early morning light,  you can see the pollen, if you look toward the sun. If you shake a tassel there will be a visible dust from it, if it’s ready. If you shake it too hard, of course you’ll shake loose the anthers themselves.

So, when the tassels are ready, in the morning just after dew is mostly dry, bend a tassel over the silk (on another plant) and shake it.

Corn hand pollination

Hold the tassel over the silk and shake

Or you can snip a tassel and go down the row, “dusting” each silk. If you do it gently, focusing as much of the pollen on the silks as possible, you can do 10-15 ears for each tassel.

On bigger patches, you can simply walk the rows with your elbows out, so you give the stalks a bit of a jar, which will shake loose the pollen.

Some gardeners claim the process works better if you play soft music (but that may be a myth).

Corn is considered a wind pollinated plant. It’s pollen is tiny, and millions of grains are produced; only a small portion of them falling onto the female flowers.

Corn pollen on a leaf

Corn pollen shed is extravagent; much never makes to to the silks

Some falls on the leaves, some on the ground, and some will fall on your car hood, if you are downwind of a corn field.

Because the grains are small and have very little protein, they are not a priority pollen for bees to gather to feed their brood. However, many times corn pollen shed is during a general time of pollen dearth; on these occasions honey bees and bumble bees will vigorously gather corn pollen.

In the process of gathering, they will shake loose quite a bit also – and this can fall on adjacent plant silks. So, while corn is basically a wind pollinated plant, bees can be significant in pollination, particularly if there is no wind.

Coastal SC tomato trials

Background
This is a difficult place to grow tomatoes. The weather is hot and humid, yet tends toward drought in many seasons. For us, gardening is all about tomatoes before we even consider any other veggie. So we tried a number of heirlooms and two hybrids this spring, and rated them for a variety of characteristics.
We are trying to find the ones that will give us consistent yields under our conditions. Many varieties that do well in other areas are junk here. And even varieties that seem OK often fail the final test – taste!
We are now finished with our evaluation, except for Green Zebra, which was planted late and probably can’t be fairly evaluated. For most varieties, even those that claim to be heat tolerant, EARLY is the name of the game. Many folks around here won’t set out tomatoes until Easter weekend. That was nearly a month too late this year!
All were planted in raised beds (40% local fine sandy loam, 40% compost, 10% crushed coquina, 10% crushed charcoal), with minimal fertilizer, no pesticides, hot and dry weather except for a three day rainy spell in late May which didn’t give much rain, but stayed wet and started off early blight), watered with rainwater as long as possible, then town water, mostly with soaker hose to avoid wetting leaves. An exception was the two cherry types, which are planted in buckets; otherwise culture is similar. We have excellent biological pest control; no tomato worms or other insect pests have been present. Blossoms were actively pollinated by bumblebees, so early set was very good.
Main crop (red globe) tomatoes
Abe Lincoln tomato

Abe Lincoln has exceeded all other varieties this year in growth, fruit set, fruit sizing, and disease resistance.

A surprise winner for us was from a chance packet I picked up at a hardware store. It’s an heirloom from Illinois! Abe Lincoln has clearly won the overall race. In volume, it has produced more – and kept on going through the heat – better than any other variety. Almost every fruit is perfect; no cracking, no blossom end rot (BER), no sunscald – and the icing on the cake is the excellent taste. The plants are stocky and vigorous, and obviously the most disease resistant variety we have. I just can’t say enough good about them.
Ozark Pink from Arkansas was our taste test winner, until the Cherokee Purple finally ripened. But this would have to take second place as all around tomato, due to less production than Abe Lincoln. It’s also one of the four that is still setting significant fruit despite some three digit temperatures. I will plant this one again.

Marion tomato

Marion has done very well in this year's test

Marion came in pretty good, just a bit behind Ozark Pink, because it petered out earlier. But it gave us a big crop of fine tasting tomatoes with few blemishes.
Super Sioux BER

Super Sioux had serious blossom end rot at first, then improved in the latter part of the season.

We had high hopes for Super Sioux, a Nebraska heirloom, but it did not meet expectations. Taste is not to brag about, and it is susceptible to BER. The BER did clear somewhat after the first flush, and it went on to be a heavy producer for a short time, then tapered off, but is still making some late tomatoes.
Homestead is a popular variety, and I expected much more of it, but truth to tell, has now disappointed me three seasons in a row. Early blight, insipid taste, hard green shoulders, and unimpressive production give this one the boot from future trials.
Park's Whopper tomato

Park's Whopper has proven to be a reliable yielder.

Of our two hybrids, Parks Whopper was the best, but it’s certainly no match for Abe Lincoln! It produced quickly and heavily, then petered out just as quickly when it got hot. It also had more early blight than I want to see.
The second hybrid, Big Boy, is just not up to the task. It was heavily infected with early blight, and faded out just as it began production. Many of the fruits were also small. Both hybrids were decent in the taste department, but not outstanding. I won’t grow this one again.
Box Car Willie only had one fruit per plant (my grandson picked when I wasn’t paying attention, and mixed with others, so didn’t have a chance to taste). The dismal production was largely due to early blight.
Italian Heirloom was also very a poor producer, and very late. I got one tastable fruit off the dying plants (early blight). It was OK in taste, but not worth another try.
Sauce tomatoes
The traditional sauce tomato, Roma, was a big flop. Early blight hit it hard and production was poor, though the few fruits it did have were OK. Of course all the sauce tomatoes were insipid and kind of dry in our taste tests, so they aren’t really recommended for fresh eating.
Rio Grande tomato

Rio Grande - better than Roma for sauce - larger, more disease-resistant, much more yield. Some BER.

Rio Grande - a heat tolerant improvement on Roma from Texas waaaayyy outproduced Roma. It proved resistant to early blight and is continuing to set fruit even as I write this evaluation on July 1. It is also quite a bit larger than Roma.  Its main problem is BER, and this did cut production somewhat; otherwise it would have been a huge producer.
Black Plum tomato

Black Plum has excellent taste as a fresh tomato, except for a slightly mealy texture. Mainly for sauce.

Black Plum – small but mighty. I wish these were larger, as they add a lot of flavor to sauce. They’ve done well, disease resistant, and productive even after the heat came. Flavor is excellent, and it would be a great fresh eating tomato, if it weren’t a bit mealy in texture. I will grow it again.
Specialty tomatoes

Cherokee Purple tomato

Cherokee Purple won the taste test, but it was hard to get enough of one to taste, because most fruits split deeply as they were ripening, allowing spoilage and insects inside.

Cherokee Purple makes a huge tomato that easily wins the taste contest. But alas, we had a hard time getting fruit to taste! It’s a very late variety, and is  highly prone to deep splits, which allow spoilage and bugs to ruin the fruit.
I will try it again, but won’t invest a lot of space, due to lack of net productivity. The fruits we did get are the best sandwich fruit we have.
Verja’s Paradajz have produced in great abundance and enormous size – some as big as a softball! The oxheart heirloom from Bosnia is reputed to be fantastic in other areas. But here, they are running about 90% BER – and it’s massive, not just a little on the end. And the ones that don’t have BER have split deeply and been ruined. We had trouble getting part of one to taste. The taste is good, but not good enough to enter our next tomato trials.
Cherry types
Large Red Cherry is a great tasting snack tomato (you can pop the whole thing in your mouth, crush it, suck out the good parts and spit out the skin – big tomatoes that you have to bite will squirt juice all over your shirt.) I have these all in two and five gallon containers, with the larger ones producing better.
Yellow Pear is also for snacks. It’s sweeter and has less zing than the Red Cherry, but still is nice. Both of the cherry types produce many fruits, but not a lot of total volume of fruit. They both continue flowering setting in the hottest weather (my bumblebees love them).
I’m planning my fall tomato production, and will be starting seeds soon. And we will continue testing varieties next spring, God willing. Some varieties that have been suggested to us for testing are: Black Krim, Arkansas Traveler, Stupice, Green Zebra, Kosovo, Matina, Red Calabash, Brandywine, Neptune, Zhezha, Red Georgia, and Floridade.
Anyone have any other suggestions, or comments on the ones already mentioned?
Note: Some varieties were obtained from swaps. Abe Lincoln was from Ferry Morse Seed Co.  Ozark Pink, Black Plum, and Super Sioux were from Hazzard Wholesale Seeds.

Garden snacks add to gardening pleasure

For many years I’ve taken a salt shaker to the garden in the morning with me when checking on ripe tomatoes. There’s nothing in the world that’s finer than to take a bite of a really ripe tomato. It’s one of the things money can’t buy – because all supermarket tomatoes taste insipid by comparison.

The problem is that a bite of a ripe tomato usually results in juice squirted all over your shirt! And who wants to wear tomato juice all day?

In recent years I’ve discovered cherry tomatoes. This year I’ve grown two types – Large Red Cherry, and Yellow Pear.

Large red cherry tomato

Large red cherry tomato is a real winner in tomato taste tests.

The glory of cherry tomatoes is that you can pop them into your mouth, crush out the goodness and spit out the skins, without the drench of your shirt! The Large Red Cherry above will compete with the best tasting large tomatoes in taste.

And Yellow Pear is like garden candy!

Yellow pear tomato

Yellow pear tomato is sweeter and less acid than red cherry types.

Both types are grown in buckets to save my precious garden space for main crop tomatoes and other important veggies. Both will survive and produce in two gallon pots, but I’ve found that they produce much better in five gallon pails. Drain holes are made in the bottom, and an inch of grass clippings or pine straw is added to keep from plugging the  drain holes. Then a mix of about 45% soil, 45% compost and 10% crushed coquina (our soil is very acid) are added to the buckets and the tomatoes set in them much deeper than they grew in their starter pots.

Not only can cherry types be grown in containers, but they will set fruit even in the scorching summer days. Last year, unlike my main crop tomatoes, the cherries produced all through the summer and into the fall.

They’ll never be much for processing; they don’t really produce near enough volume of fruit; but they make a nice addition to your garden, if you can find a few buckets and a place to put them.

A garden should be a symphony, not a battle zone

I have *almost* no insect pests in my garden.

I’m not bragging so much as wishing to share some wonderful principles that I have learned.

I like to browse the Internet garden groups, and am seeing large numbers of gardeners who are losing all or a major part of their garden crop to aphids, grasshoppers, tomato worms, flea beetles, squash bugs — you name it, and somebody, somewhere has a major problem with it.

If these are a problem year after year, something is wrong. We often treat our gardens as if we are fighting a fire. We stamp out a spot fire here, and another pops up there. We are in constant damage-control mode. A garden should be a symphony, not a battle zone.

Here are some of the important principles to consider:

1. Learn to work alongside Nature instead of fighting her. Simply by tilling the soil, we are altering Nature a great deal. Then we plant monocultures, add herbicides, spray poisons for pests, add extremely concentrated nutrients, and generally totally disrupt Nature’s balance in multiple ways. How can we reduce our impact and get things back into balance?

My garden is no longer tilled. The only soil that’s disturbed is the spot where I put a seed or a plant. Minimal! I don’t pack it down either. All my gardening is in raised beds that I can reach without walking on it. I let the worms till it, the natural way. I can wiggle my fingers and easily dig six inches into the soil.

2. Feed the soil. Our southeastern soils are naturally heavily leached, so they are mineral poor. They tend to be higly acid. Organic matter is near zero because of burning of crop residues and scorching of the sun. I add about an inch of compost each spring on the top. The worms till it. Then I use lots of leaves and grass clipping for mulch around the growing plants. This cools the soil, preserves moisture, and promotes biological diversity in the life of the soil.

Yes, plants grow much better when the soil is teeming with life – much of it too small for you to see. These organisms feed the plants. Plants grow sturdy and resistant to pests. If used at all, fertilizer is used sparingly. We don’t want an artificial growth spurt, especially one from overuse of nitrogen, which actually makes plants more susceptible to insect pests and disease.

3. Aim for as much biodiversity as possible. Mix it up. Yes, plant your flowers intermixed with your veggies. If you choose your flowers well, you can have nectar and pollen sources that run continously through the garden season. Some folks do this for pollinators – and this is good – but most don’t realize that you also gain pest control. Many pollinators, soldier beetles for example, in their adult stages are voraceous predators in their younger life.

Marigolds add to the biodiversity of the garden

Tomatoes in raised bed, marigolds in the cells of the concrete blocks, asclepias and borage also planted alongside - result - not a single pest this season!

4. Don’t freak out when you see a pest, and go to battle to eradicate it! Identify it. Learn about its life cycle; its food preferences; its enemies. The more you know, the better you are prepared to deal with it.

A lot of folks dust their garden at the first sign of any insect. This is very bad policy; first the insect may well be a friend. And second, using a pesticide that’s not labeled for an identified pest is a violation of the label (pesticide misuse), and it may well be ineffective or add risks that you don’t need.

5. Learn to accept some damage and the sight of a few pest insects. Ten years ago, we had a plague of Japanese beetles. Today, I can count on my fingers the number I see each year. The reason – we are practically overrun by assassin bugs, who love to eat Japanese beetles.

Now when I see an occasional Japanese beetle here or there, I am glad. I don’t want a pest to die out completely – as its control may then also die or leave the area. I just want to keep them in balance.

Evaluating squash pollination

A critical, but often overlooked or misunderstood part of growing squash is pollination. Some folks have a vague notion that bees are good – that bees have to visit the squash blossoms – and they assume bees will come.

In these days of pollinator decline, this is not a valid assumption. To grow squash sucessfully, one must ensure good pollination. And pollination is not just an on/off switch, where a bee just visits the flower and pollination is accomplished.

Well pollinated squash

A perfect squash resulting from almost every incipient seed fertilized.

Pollination is a progressive thing with any multi-seeded fruit. You can have many stages, from no pollination at all, to full pollination. This is because many grains of pollen must be delivered to the sticky stigma of the female flower – two pollen grains for each incipient seed. And these pollen grains must be evenly spread across the surface of the stigma.

The perfect squash in the photo above results from almost every incipient seed being fertilized. The act of fertilization stimulates the development of the flesh of the fruit.

Female squash blossoms have an ovary – the incipient fruit – at the base of the flower. If no pollen grains are delivered, the ovary will simply shrivel and dry up. If you touch it, it will fall off.

But, if a few grains are delivered, the fruit may actually start to grow. This fools some people into thinking that it’s pollinated.

Squash fruit abortion due to inadequate pollination

Squash fruit abortion due to inadequate pollination

The fruit will stop growing, shrivel up and often rot at the blossom end. This is not blossom end rot. Blossom end rot is a calcium metabolism problem; it shows up in fully-formed fruit; and it is much more common in tomatoes than squash.

There is a fungus involved here, but it is opportunistic; no amount of fungicide will prevent this fruit from aborting.

Poorly pollinated zucchini

Poorly pollinated zucchini: the fruit starts to grow, then shrivels and aborts.

Zucchini (courgette) and other squashes all will exhibit the same kind of response to inadequate pollination.

Let’s suppose a few more incipient seeds are fertilized, but still nowhere near the full quota of seeds. This is what you get:

Deformed squash fruit from inadequate pollination

Deformed squash fruit from inadequate pollination

The fruit may actually size up somewhat, but it still will be wrinkled and poor quality. It will also grow much slower than a well pollinated fruit.

Partly and fully pollinated squash

Partly and fully pollinated squash: the upper one did not have enough pollen for fertilization of all the seeds.

The poorly pollinated squash on the top is actually 2 days older than the well pollinated one on the bottom.

When I was in the pollination business, a farmer called me. He was just about in tears. He had planted 75 acres of yellow squash for market. During the winter, he had given me an order for bees to place on the fields, and he gave me the date he expected to need them. But he planted his squash much earlier than planned – taking a risk with frost – but he figured he’d win big if he had the first on the market.

Unfortunately he forgot to call and tell me he needed the bees earlier.  Now his harvest crew was on the first picking, and they were throwing away almost the entire picking. They looked just like the upper squash in the above photo. I went straight to his farm that morning, and bees were notably absent from his fields.

The bees were delivered that night, and the rest of his harvest was very good. The problem: The day of the first picking, there was very little squash on the market – and it was bringing $18 a box. If he’d had a normal picking, it would have brought a small fortune. But the price dropped rapidly, and by the fourth picking only brought him $4 per box. There was no 5th picking, as the market price of $2 a box would not pay the picking cost.

The lesson is clear: we need to pay much more attention to the bees. Pollination is a critical part of growing squash, whether for the garden or the farm. And commercial growers cannot assume wild bees will do the job!

Pollination failure can occasionally happen from a rainy day. In small plantings, you sometimes have crazy plants that have all female and no male flowers. And extreme heat can kill squash pollen. So there are other possible reasons for pollination failure. But persistent pollination problems usually stem from a lack of bees.

In an upcoming post, we’ll talk about the kinds of bees that do squash pollination.

Live and learn department

The squash borers got a couple more squash, including one I had done surgery to, to remove the borer, whom I thought was a loner. But the post mortem revealed that he had four siblings.

Tomato variety trials – some notes so far

We are testing some tomato varieties to see how well they do in our unique environment. Many varieties that do well in the northland are pretty poor producers here. In Coastal South Carolina, heat is a killer; already in June we have hit 101 and have been in the mid to high 90s for the first half of the month. Humidity is also very high, though we are prone to drought – which we have right now. My tomatoes are all in raised beds, and are watered as needed – with rainwater if I have it; when that runs out we use town water.

The soil is a mix of about 40% fine sandy loam, 40% compost, 10% crushed coquina, and 10% crushed charcoal. Some of these beds are in their second year and were amended with about one inch of new compost. The soil has been stirred as little as possible.

On all tomato varieties the lower leaves and lower suckers are removed. No leaves are allowed to touch the soil. No chemicals have been used, although we are considering the use of some mild ones for the future to see if we can retard early blight.

Biological control by the many paper wasps and assassin bugs apparently is keeping tomato worms out of the picture. Marigolds are also planted around the raised beds. These are reputed to be helpful in repelling insects, but we don’t know if it is a factor for any tomato pests.

Pollination is ensured by abundant bumble bees on our wild bee refuge, and the bumbles are often seen “buzzing” the flowers. This is called sonication, or buzz pollination, which releases great quantities of pollen with resonant vibrations.

Two varieties have already been sufficiently tried to say they’ve passed the taste test with flying colors. These are the large red cherry and the Abe Lincoln. For others, we have not harvested or we are wanting more samples to give a fair test.

One variety has a serious weakness – Super Sioux:

Super Sioux BER

Super Sioux BER

This one is close to being disqualified for further tests, with blossom end rot (BER) spoiling about 20% of the early harvest. If all the rest of the production comes clean, MAYBE, I’ll try it again.

Another one that’s pretty sorry is Homestead, which is supposed to be a heat tolerant variety. But this is the third year of testing for me; the plants are puny and they aren’t very heavily loaded with fruit, nor is the fruit sizing up well. They are also highly infected with early blight. I see no reason to continue testing this, especially with the limited amount of space I have.

Marion has proved the opposite of Homestead, though they are supposed to be related.

Marion tomato

Marion tomato

This variety produced large stocky plants that set a large quanty of tomatoes that are sizing up very well. They have some early blight on the lower branches, but the harvest appears to be outracing the disease. Only the taste test awaits to see if these get the thumbs up.

Abe Lincoln is already a winner, having proven its taste as excellent. The plants are extremely stocky, vigorous, and deep green, with no sign of any disease whatsoever. They are heavily loaded and already yielding ripe tomatoes.

Abe Lincoln tomato

Abe Lincoln tomato

Rio Grande looks very good, with a very good set, and no disease. It has not yet produced a ripe tomato.

Rio Grande tomato

Rio Grande tomato

Cherokee Purple also looks good, with good set and large tomatoes. None have ripened yet for tasting.

Cherokee Purple tomato

Cherokee Purple tomato

Black Plum is supposed to be more of a sauce tomato, but we find it to be excellent in taste. It has some early blight, but the yield should be good before the blight takes over.

Black Plum tomato

Black Plum tomato

One surprise for us is Verja’s Paradajz. It was tried last year and it just didn’t set enough fruit to really test it. This year, perhaps with our much higher bumblebee population, it set fairly well and the tomatoes are very large. It also has no disease evident at all.

Verja's Paradajz tomato

Verja's Paradajz tomato

And finally, besides the heirlooms, we have two hybrids this year – Park’s Whopper and Big Boy.  I am cutting back on hybrids, partly because I want to save seeds from at least some varieties. But these two are long respected as heavy producers, so I continued to try them. I must say that Big Boy is out of the running at this point. I won’t be growing it again. It is full of early blight, and I think some of the later tomato set is just not going to make it. There won’ be enough leaf surface to feed the fruit. We will get some of the early fruit, and that’s it.

Whopper is doing well, though it also has some early blight. But I expect we’ll get a very good crop before the blight gets these plants. I’ve grown Park’s Whopper several times over the years, and it has proven to be a very reliable producer. The flavor is also quite good.

Park's Whopper tomato

Park's Whopper tomato

We’ll return to this topic soon with more comments and photos.

Bubba, you’ve got a home here as long as you live!

While watering my flower beds, I noticed a hole next to the house foundation. I wondered what creature was accessing the crawl space. Could it be a rat, a snake?

I don’t get bent out of shape too much about wild critters. Most mean us no harm, and actually will help us. But rats and mice are certainly not welcome. And poisonous snakes would not be either, though I am happy for non-poisonous ones.

On a whim I tried filling the hole with water from the hose. In a moment this little guy popped out:

Bufo terrestris - Southern garden toad

Bufo terrestris - Southern garden toad

I don’t think he minded the water; he doesn’t like his skin too dry, so he goes underground when the sun gets hot.

But I told him he’s welcome to stay; my house is your house, as they say!

He’ll make a meal of many a pest insect (slugs too). Maybe he’ll eat a few of the good guys too, but on balance he does far more good than harm.

Here’s more info on toads, and how to care for them in winter:

http://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Gardening/Archives/2006/Backyard-Houses-for-Toads.aspx

 

Time for emergency surgery!

All of the various squashes are prone to suddenly wilt and die, just when we think we will have a bumper crop. It’s all due to a reddish moth that looks like a wasp to the uninitiated, that has a larva (grub) that eats the inside of the squash stems.

Squash borer adult

Squash borer adult

If you see this mama flitting around your squash, be prepared for trouble!  And you can see that she’s already been there. Note the holes and the damage to the main stem.

Squash borer adult - closeup

Squash borer adult - closeup

She’s not going to hold still very long to get the camera focused, but here you see the coloration that identifies her as an adult squash borer.

Once you see damage on the stems, just above ground level, that plant is not long for the world, unless you intervene. Soon, as it munches away, you will see gelatinous pellets of frass alongside the hole. The larva is growing.

We are going to try to catch this one young. We hope we can save the plant.

Squash borer frass

Squash borer frass

So we will carefully slit the stem, parallel to its length. This won’t hurt the stem, at least not near as much as the borer will!

Careful cut to find squash borer

Careful cut to find squash borer

Found ya! You little parasite!  You are dead meat!

Found squash borer!

Found squash borer!

We’ve saved this plant. Time to cover the wound with some moist soil, so it can heal.

One can try a less intrusive form of surgery by poking a sharp toothpick or a stiff wire straight into the stem every quarter inch or so above the entry hole. But this poses a risk of missing the larva.

Here’s one that was too late to save; the borer has already eaten out all the plant’s plumbing, and has grown to large size.

Squash borer from killed plant

Squash borer from killed plant

The squash borer is a serious pest of all kinds of squashes. Some try to kill it with pesticides, but this is fraught with problems. You must kill the adult in the brief time it comes to lay eggs – or the freshly hatched egg just before it bores into the stem.

Once it is inside the stem, it’s pretty well protected. But using an insecticide on squash that is blooming may contaminate the nectar and pollen that feeds the pollinators. Kill the pollinators – and you bite the hand that feeds you!

So I would personally rule out pesticides for borers. Most years, you can get a harvest before the borers arrive.

Some use aluminum foil around the stem to either confuse or prevent the moth from egg laying. Some wrap the stems in pieces of old pantyhose.

One technique that I have used for vining squash is to cover the stem with dirt every couple feet. The plant will put out new roots at that point. If the main stem is destroyed by a borer, the plant will still live and produce from its alternative roots.

What has worked for you?

It’s all my mother’s fault!

When I was four years old, my mother handed me two packets of seeds and pointed to a row in the garden.

“That’s your own row now. You can plant your seeds there just like I do.”

The pictures on the packages made their contents plain. The one held radish seed. I was sophisticated enough, having watched her do gardening, to realize that you had to put the seeds in the ground and wait for them to grow.

I liked radishes, so that was a hit with me. The second one had a picture of a pretty blue flower on it. I didn’t want to do flowers. I wanted things to eat.

But my mother insisted. “These are bachelor buttons. You are a bachelor, so they are appropriate for you to grow.”

Bumble bee on Bachelor Button

Bumble bee on Bachelor Button

I had no idea what she was talking about; her wry humor was not apparent to me until years later. But I guess she impressed me with her big words and I went along with her.

She helped me, of course. I learned to hand weed, to hoe, to water the plants – all the sorts of things that gardeners do. Both radishes and bachelor buttons were failsafe, and they did well.

The next year I got a bigger section and more responsibility. She gave me some tomato plants, and ever since then, gardening has been mostly about tomatoes.  I soon acquired the habit of carrying a salt shaker to the garden with me during tomato season.

I don’t recall ever growing any flowers again until my “mature” years.

I began planting flowers around and among my veggies when I retired. I was looking for beauty, but moreso for plants for the bees and for biodiversity.

Then, I planted some bachelor buttons. As they came into bloom, and I (and the bees) enjoyed their beauty, I began to be immersed in the memory of those bygone years with my late Mama.

She knew, of course that she’d infected me with the gardening bug; that was pretty obvious.

But I wish I could tell her now, how special and beautiful was that row of bachelor buttons!