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An immature squash bug. When plants are already under stress from dry weather, insect control is important. Photo: Liz Castro via Flickr, some rights reserved
An immature squash bug. When plants are already under stress from dry weather, insect control is important. Photo: Liz Castro via Flickr, some rights reserved

Drought and pestilence = tough days for gardeners

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The outdoor world is suffering through this hot, dry spell as best it can. Rivers and lakes are low. Forest fire danger is high, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. There's a state-wide ban on burning brush, issued Friday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (See related story.) And as you drive the roads through the region's hay and corn country, it all looks awfully dry.

Home gardeners are also in the height of bug season. Cornell Cooperative Extension horticulturist Amy Ivy has advice on watering key vegetables, and targeting the insects in her weekly conversation with Martha Foley.

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Martha Foley
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Though there were some rainstorms yesterday and a chance of rain forecasted for tomorrow, the region remains relatively dry. During yesterday’s rain, Martha Foley put buckets under the downspouts to catch water. She also discovered that only an eighth of the soil in her garden was wet while the rest remained dry.

Amy Ivy, horticulturist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service of Clinton and Essex Counties, said, “We need a whole day of a slow, steady soak. That’s what works much better. These quick ones, especially when it’s been so dry, it all gets absorbed by that top layer because it’s so parched. Or it even rolls off the top layer. Mulches can sometimes become hydrophobic, they call it, and the water actually beads up and rolls off the top.”

Some gardeners don’t have a lot of water to use on their property, and Ivy recommends that they prioritize. Ivy says she plans to downsize and let the lawn come back in to part of her perennial garden. She said, “It breaks my heart, because that’s my thing, is perennials. But it’s too big to keep watered and I can’t bear to watch them wilt any more.”

Ivy says that many people think that lawns are intensive and take a lot of care and that gardens are a better choice. “I find it to be the other way around, as long as you don’t care what the lawn looks like,” she said. “I do find it easier to have more lawn area that you mow because, you know, we don’t mow the lawn this time of year. It just goes dormant and you can leave it alone, and it will green back up again in the fall.”

Foley says that she has also had to make sacrifices with regards to her flowers. She said, “They’re really on their own. And some years are great; last year was fantastic in my garden.”

According to Ivy, vegetables should be watered at this time of year. She prioritizes her tomatoes and cucumbers. “If you care about production, and this is really important for the growers out there and they know it, but you don’t want to wait until a plant wilts. By the time a plant wilts, it’s already been held back in production,” said Ivy. “So your goal, if production is what you’re all about, not letting it even begin to wilt would be great.”

Some plants, such as squashes, wilt during the middle of the day regardless of how much water they have due to the large surface area of their leaves. These plants perk back up during the evening. However, Ivy says that plants such as tomatoes should not be allowed to wilt since their fruit contains so much water. She said, “We’re going to start seeing the blossom end rot, which is when the bottom end of the tomato turns brown. That is a classic sign that you’re not getting enough water to the plant. It’s because calcium didn’t get to the far end of the fruit, but adding calcium doesn’t solve the problem; you’ve got to get the water to the plant so it can carry the calcium to the end there.”

Gardeners who cannot water their gardens as much as they would like to can use a plastic gallon jug with a nail hole in one bottom corner to drip water right at the base of the plant. Ivy said, “That’s a great way to do it because it’s nice and slow. It’s very hard to stand there with a hose and be patient enough. And you have to go back and forth with a hose and it does take time. You have to wet that first layer, and then the next layer, and the next layer down.”

Ivy cautioned that gardeners ensure that the nail hole is a size that allows the right amount of water to drip out. She also said that a gallon of water might not be enough for some tomato plants and that they might do better with a five-gallon bucket. She said, “A gallon doesn’t go very far on a great, big tomato plant, once they’re fully leafed out and in full production and all that.”

Gardeners are also plagued by bugs at this time of year. Cucumber beetles, Japanese beetles and squash bugs are all menaces. Foley says that she has these in her garden and said, “I am basically hand-picking them and watching for the eggs, and I’m keeping them pretty well under control I must say, but it’s not a pleasant task.”

Ivy says that gardeners have to be vigilant when it comes to these kinds of pests, but that the upside is that many of these insects are specialized and will only eat one type of plant. Ivy said, “We always say, a healthy, well-grown plant can tolerate quite a bit of damage or infestation. And the problem is, you know, it’s already drought-stressed, this huge stress, and now you’re throwing a bug in there too. You’re just trying to find that balance.”

According to Ivy, some insects cause more damage than others. “Cucumber beetles are the worst on the seedlings. They’ll prevent the little squash seedlings from being able to establish and start growing,” she said. Damage from these beetles can be significant, but is often just superficial. This is problematic for growers since it makes their produce scarred and unmarketable. However, the vegetables are still safe to eat.

“Other things, though, you really have to do something about,” said Ivy. She listed the Colorado potato beetle as a threat to potatoes. Identifying the eggs of these insects is a way to keep them from being continuing problems in the garden. Ivy described the eggs of squash bugs as resembling brownish footballs. However, bright orange eggs may be ladybug eggs. These are beneficial insects.

 “I look for the eggs and, for the squash bugs, they’re in incredibly neat, tidy rows and arrangements,” said Foley. “They are precise. And then you get to recognize the juveniles, and of course, you really want to catch them at that stage because the big ones are really gross.”

The juveniles of this beetle tend to group together and can be killed by being squished or dropped into a pail of soapy water. The eggs can survive quite a big and really need to be crushed, according to Ivy. She said, “It’s all a matter of getting to know what your, first you want to know what the crops you care about most are, and then what are the problems that that crop is having? And we’re talking about bugs, but there are good old diseases as well. But figure out what the serious problems are and then develop a strategy.”

Gardeners can contact the Cornell Cooperative Extension offices for help in determining what problems their plants face and how to address them.

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