Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Pride Has Its Downfall: The Demise of the Buttercup Squash

For the second year in a row, my squash vines have died. The first year, it was the squash bugs that killed them—those hard-shelled creatures that smelled sourly of spoiled cantaloupe when they were smashed. When I examined the corpses, squash bug eggs were everywhere on the undersides of the brittle, gray-brown leaves.

With squash bugs, once you know what you’re looking for, it’s very easy to find them in every stage of their lives. The adults are big, usually at least three-quarters of an inch long, with dull brown coloration. Their backs are shaped like flattened footballs, and their snouts come to a small point, the better to pierce the stems of unsuspecting squash plants and their near relatives, the cucumbers and melons. They try to keep a low profile, and will move to the opposite side of a stem or leaf if they see you looking for them. Often, they may be found at the base of the plant. Sometimes, an adult squash bug or two will emerge after a heavy watering, perhaps because they don’t like being soaked.

The nymphs can be as small as a pinhead, with milky, gray-green bodies and long, thin, spidery legs. Like the adults, they move quickly to the other side of a leaf if they know they’ve been spotted. They tend to cluster on the undersides of leaves, and they’re very easy to squish when young—the mere touch of a finger will do the trick. The eggs are laid in orderly clusters on the undersides of leaves—usually squash leaves, as the nymphs survive best on a squash plant, but sometimes they appear on the leaves of other cucurbit family plants. One squash bug in my garden must have been disoriented, because I recently found a clutch of squash bug eggs on a bean leaf. When ripe, the eggs are an easy-to-spot leathery red-brown; when freshly laid, they are gray. I used to remove an entire leaf if I found squash bug eggs on it, but I later found it just as easy to pinch off the eggs and flush them down an indoor drain.

This year, the squash bugs were fewer in number, and I managed to hunt down all their eggs and nymphs before they could cause much damage to the plants. But there was another enemy I hadn’t reckoned on: the dreaded squash vine borer. The moth that metamorphoses from this horrible larva is said to be an interesting-looking creature, very much like an orange-and-black wasp in appearance, although I have never seen its adult form except in photographs. One moth may lay many eggs, and because the eggs are laid singly, all over the plant, they are much harder to find than squash bug eggs, although they are only slightly smaller and have the same red-brown color.

I crushed many of these eggs between my fingers before I found out what they were; I merely assumed they were bad because they looked like bug eggs and they were on my plants. They appeared on the undersides of leaves, along the vines, on flowers, in the curves of tendrils—anywhere a tiny object could possibly be stuck. When I saw a wet, yellow powder dripping from the underside of a vine, I thought I might be in for some trouble, but I ignored the problem, not wanting to know the truth. In fact, that yellow powder was the frass that emerged from the larva, which is an entomologist’s fancy way of saying that it was caterpillar poop.

One thing I already knew from my reading was that the cure for squash vine borers sounds worse than the disease: you have to slit the vine open lengthwise with a sharp knife and pull the creature out. While I dallied, the larvae ate away at the plants’ vascular systems, destroying their ability to transport water and nutrients to their leaves. Soon, their presence was evident everywhere, as entire vines suddenly wilted, turning a wall of gorgeous, green leaves into a graveyard in a single afternoon. I went at the vines with the knife and pulled out the pulpy, soft-bodied, maggot-like culprits one by one, but it was too late. In the end, I found at least 40 of the creatures inside the vines, some of them almost an inch long and as fat as the vine itself. The vines, already weakened by the pests, could not recover from my hacking, so in the end, I had to take out two more plants by the root (in addition to the one that an early arrival among the larvae had killed more than a month ago) and throw them in the trash.

My biggest squash vine had time to put out one fair-sized fruit and two smaller ones. They are lying on my countertop now. If I’m lucky, the larger squash may prove edible when I cut it open. There is one survivor among the squash vines. It, too, hosted its share of vine borers, but so far, it has not suffered much from being cut open at the base. I haven’t much hope for getting anything out of that vine, however: all the fruits it has produced have been afflicted with blossom-end rot. The Man with the Perfect Lawn informs me that the garden center sells a product that I can spray on the leaves that will cure the problem by providing an instant calcium supplement, but I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble. After lying on my back and cutting out those horrible creatures one by one from the vines, I’m weary of the whole enterprise. Next year, if I decide to try again with this plant, I might have to use an insecticide. For me, that’s a serious acknowledgment of defeat.

The only bright spot in this affair may be that the squash has attracted these pests away from the cucumbers and melons, which have been quite happy (except for rabbit damage, in the case of the cantaloupe). Perhaps I should change the way I view the buttercup squash and use them as decoys instead of crop-bearing plants, much as I used the radishes that I sowed among the lettuce rows. The trouble is, I have a great liking for this type of winter squash, which gives me the greater motivation to try to keep it alive and producing. One day, I must learn how to evade the legions of pests that assail these lush vines, for when the weather turns cold, there are few foods as comforting as a lovely squash. When boiled, its deep-orange flesh turns soft and smooth; when battered and deep-fried, the slivers of squash melt delightfully as you chew them, reminding you with each sunny, sweet bite of the warmth of the summer that was.

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