Insects and Summer Crops

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by Marlene Condon

When I first moved into my house, I planted my entire summer veggie garden by May. With the danger of frost past, the growing season for frost-sensitive plants had begun. So in went tomato and green pepper transplants, and seeds of squash, cucumbers, and melons, all in one fell swoop.

However, my home at that time was not surrounded by a nature-friendly landscape. Thus the natural system of checks and balances was not in place. This meant a dearth of predators able to limit insect numbers to a population size that would not be detrimental to the health of plants.

Although the tomatoes and peppers did fine, the bush (summer squash) and vining crops (cucumbers, melons, winter squash) were soon serving as delicacies for various insects. Cucumber beetles and squash bugs made themselves at home and reproduced like crazy. Since I refuse to use pesticides in my gardening efforts, I had to work at keeping insect numbers down personally.

Every morning, well before the sun was high in the sky, I would check over the plants as best as I could. Mostly I searched for clusters of eggs that I could remove before they hatched, as I don’t like to kill animals, including insects.

I was not thrilled with this state of affairs. I figured that there had to be a better way until I could turn my yard into a naturally functioning ecosystem.

After giving the matter some thought, I realized that many insects occur in greatest numbers during a limited period of time each year. If that were the case with the squash bugs and cucumber beetles, perhaps I could avoid having my crops in the ground during their most reproductive period. Then there might be few enough insects that my plants would not be overwhelmed by them. I decided to experiment.

First, I checked how many days these plants needed on average to mature. Cucumbers typically need from 50 to 70 days; summer squash require 50 to 65 days; and melons and winter squash take as long as 70 to 130 days. The beauty of living in Central Virginia is that we normally have a minimum of 150 days between frosts every year. This meant that I could push back the planting date for these crops as late as the end of June, especially if I chose to grow varieties that took the least amount of time to reach maturity. Lo and behold, my experiment worked wonderfully!

So if you are one of those folks who can’t wait to get everything going because you are eager to eat homegrown cukes or squash, restrain yourself! Start these crops in June and you will still get plenty to eat as well as experience peace of mind.

Please note that if you are a serious gardener who truly loves this pastime, do start working on transforming your yard from the standard manicured style to a more-natural look. I guarantee you will find gardening to be much more enjoyable as well as more productive.

Eavesdropping on book presentation

Marlene A. Condon, author/photographer of The Nature-friendly Garden, will give a 45-minute presentation at New Dominion Bookshop on Saturday, June 27, at 11 a.m., explaining how folks can create their own nature-friendly landscape.

Marlene’s “Zuke” Bread

NOTE: I love gingerbread, which is what this quick bread tastes like to me.
It freezes wonderfully and thus it’s a great way to preserve your excess zucchini.
It will keep well for 3-4 months, tightly wrapped in plastic.

Mix together the following ingredients in a large bowl:
3 cups flour (I prefer unbleached)
1 tsp. EACH baking powder, baking soda, and salt
4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground cloves
1¾ cups granulated white sugar

Beat or whisk together in a large measuring glass:
1 cup vegetable oil
3 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract (I prefer real vanilla)

Then coarsely grate enough washed and dried, but unpeeled, zucchini squash to make 2 cups lightly packed shreds.

Grease two 9×5-inch loaf pans. Start heating the oven to 350º for aluminum pans or 300º for glass or dark-colored pans.

Now add the egg mixture and the squash simultaneously to the dry ingredients and stir thoroughly. (This does require some effort, so I highly recommend the use of a spoonula.) Then divide the mixture evenly between the two greased pans, pressing down on it with the back of a spoon (or spoonula) so it fills the bottom of the pans.

Place both pans onto the middle rack of the preheated oven, spaced evenly apart between each other and the oven walls. Bake for 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the top of the loaf comes out clean.

Place pans on a rack to cool for 20 minutes. Then run a spatula or plastic knife around the edges of the pans, if necessary, to remove the loaves. Place the loaves on a rack and allow them to cool for a few hours before slicing.