Monday, June 17, 2013

On the hunt...for garden bugs

The tomato hornworm caterpillar is a garden pest that can defoliate an entire plant within hours.

It’s dark outside and although I’m still snuggled beneath a mound of covers, my husband is not by my side.  He’s been up for hours, outside and active.  It’s hunting season – not for deer or turkeys or game animals of any sort.  His target is garden pests - the slow-moving snail, slimy slug, smelly stinkbug and leaf-defoliating caterpillar. 

Although Ralph doesn’t carry a gun, he’s not without weapons.  In one hand is a flashlight, in the other a container of soapy water.  When prey is spotted, he swipes the offensive bug into the soapy mixture to meet its sudsy demise.

I’m still rubbing the sleep from my eyes when my bright-eyed husband concludes his hunt, shuts the door and comes inside. 

“You should see all the stinkbugs I caught!” he says while I totter unsteadily toward the bathroom.  “I found a couple big, black caterpillars.  You should come out and see.”

Stinkbugs are a menace in the garden as well as in the orchard.  A pair mate while clinging to an unripe mulberry.

I give him a look that I hope combines my support for his efforts with a strong dose of leave-me-alone-until-I’ve-washed-my-face. 

A half-hour later, a more coherent me joins him in the kitchen for breakfast.

“What time did you get up?”  I mutter while filling a tall mug with caffeinated tea.

“Around 5a.m.,” he replies.  “I couldn’t sleep so I thought I’d check on the plants.”

My husband is passionate about his gardens, especially his broccoli plants.  Unfortunately, many garden pests share his passion for members of the Cruciferous family (broccoli, kale, cabbage, etc.)  They nibble holes in the leaves, suck juice from the stems and gnaw their way into the inner chamber of cabbages.  

Although I'm holding it, my husband grew this beautiful head of broccoli, his all-time favorite vegetable 

Although Ralph is opposed to using toxic sprays in his garden, his arsenal does include a few biological weapons approved for organic gardens. 

Thuricide kills caterpillars by using Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) bacteria to paralyze their digestive tracts.  

Organocide is a sesame oil-based spray effective on a wide range of small soft-bodied insects.

Spinosad is a broad-spectrum insecticide that, like Thuricide, uses bacteria to cause digestive disruption.  In addition, it attacks insect nervous systems, killing on contact.

Although biological controls are effective for short periods, they only work well in dry weather.  The lightest downpour washes their potency away.  Handpicking pesky bugs, however, has no limitations.  Insects can be collected rain or shine, day or night, although nighttime seems to be their most active period.

A black caterpillar on the squash plant is about to be swept off into a bucket of soapy water
That brings me back to my husband’s pre-dawn, post-dusk and occasional midnight forays into the garden with flashlight and bucket in hand.  While I sleep, he’s doing his best to protect the food that feeds his family. 

When I think of hunters, I think of men in camouflaged clothing toting rifles or bows and arrows.  I think of men who get up early to follow deer tracks in the sand or huddle behind duck blinds in the marsh.  If they’re successful, they’ll bring home meat for dinner.

My husband doesn’t eat meat but that doesn’t make his hunting any less meaningful.  Thanks to his perseverance and persistency, Ralph’s efforts yield some of the freshest, tastiest vegetables I’ve ever eaten.  He grows, protects and diligently provides food for the table.  In that way, he’s not unlike the hunter stalking wild game in season.

I’m proud of Ralph’s efforts and applaud his successes.  If I have any complaint, it concerns his effusiveness.  While I find his unbridled enthusiasm endearing, I wish he’d restrain himself until I’m more fully awake.  One cup of tea – that’s all I ask.  If he’d only wait to tell me about his bug-hunting adventures until after I’ve had my first mug, I’d be ever so grateful.

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