Squash Bug Invasion ~ How They Ravaged My Midwestern Garden
There's an old saying in the South that when a snapping turtle bites, he'll hold on and "won't let go 'til it thunders." When the squash bugs invaded my Kentucky garden even a Midwestern hailstorm with torrential rains and deadly lightning was worthless. It was a battle I lost, but a battle I vowed to never lose again.
It had been a few years since I'd gardened, and having relocated to the Midwest, I found gardening was a little different than in the East. The Midwestern weather was more severe making frost dates a little different, soils were different, and rain needed for thirsting plants wasn't quite as dependable. I'd had a beautiful large Eastern garden years before with all the mechanical bells and whistles, including tiller and tractor, and fed a growing family with it. This Midwestern garden would pave nice path back to good, clean living, I thought, and it would serve as a hobby providing exercise and fresh, healthy vegetables. I purchased a tiller and made a small spot on the property where there had once been a barnyard.
The dreaded American squash bug –– a small pest with a large family and healthy appetite.
The garden was beautifully healthy –– until.....
The garden was a huge success and I was real proud. Then one day I noticed a wilting cucumber vine, the wilt curiously was located on just one branch while the rest of the vine appeared healthy. I mentioned it casually to a friend who was quick to hypothesize. "I bet you've got squash bugs. I got those one year." The real, sad look on his face was bewildering. Squash bugs? What the heck was that? I experienced a sinking feeling and went to the world wide web to investigate.
I'd find after examining my plants and sifting through information on the web that his hypothesis was correct. Back in the East as kids we called these little gray insects stink bugs. In fact they're of the same species but not quite the same pest. They seemed harmless but when we squished them as kids the bugs emitted a pungent sickening, sweet "purfumey" smell I can remember to this day. In the East the pests had never invaded my garden. And these Midwestern bugs had to be Eastern stink bug cousins, and were as smelly as they were invasive.
...the Squash Bugs Began to Reproduce.
The female lays a patch of copper colored eggs on the underside of the leaves of plants, usually on the squash plant. These eggs should be destroyed whenever they're found.
Looking over the healthy plants, I carefully turned back several leaves and finally found a little patch of eggs. Looking at some other plants, I found nymphs and realized I had more than one generation of squash bugs in my garden before I was even aware of a real problem.
Besides having a palate for squash, the bugs also like pumpkins and tend to concentrate on plants that vine. They suck the nutrients from plants and disrupt water flow as they feed. They also inject a toxin into the plant that causes it to die.
The insect army was growing fast and in trying to keep the gardening technique as organic as possible I began to search for safe ways of discouraging the attack. Instead of sprinkling cayenne on the huge, fully grown plants, I'd read that a mixture of cayenne and dish detergent soap would send them away. So I made a concoction by of boiling cayenne with water and sifted it through a cheesecloth, put it in a spray bottle and added some Dawn dish soap. It got good results and obviously the squash bugs weren't happy. Spraying the unpleasant concoction on the squash and other vine plants seemed to drive the bugs away.
As an added measure I added flour to the base of the vines to discourage the bugs, having read the bugs didn't like dealing with flour coatings. Both seemed to combat the infestation producing temporary squash bug retreats.
The biggest mistake I made was slacking off and believing they'd taken their families and run away elsewhere. The army came back like a whirlwind and with a vengeance, and began to devour the cucumbers and gourds. I even found them later in the tomato plants.
I'd happily carry my basket of freshly picked tomatoes into the kitchen and find a squash bug staring at me from the basket. I would find them on my clothing and even the following winter I found them in stacked fireplace wood seemingly smiling up at me in below freezing weather.
They multiplied very quickly.
Another hopeful solution failed.
A hopeful home-made organic solution was temporary.
The bugs like to hide underneath plants and one of the best ways to catch them is to put a board or something flat under the plant. They'll run under the board and you can lift it and kill the startled insects before they scatter.
Because of their tendency to hide, one of the ways to combat squash bugs is to keep the garden as weed free as possible. Planting radishes around the squash discourages them according to one organic expert. There are other stories I've read of using sticky traps and spraying affected crops with tobacco juice. By the time I began my attack, the squash bugs had too strong a grasp on my garden. I did enjoy squash that year, but those parts of the garden didn't last the summer through to autumn as I would have wished. The loss of the cucumber vines was most disappointing.
There were times since I've been thankful we didn't have any pyromaniac tendencies in our family because the squash bugs had me frustrated to the point of thinking some very drastic and desperate thoughts.
I haven't been the first to suffer from the Squash Bug dilemma. In fact it's a growing problem even for commercial farmers. The pests are difficult to eradicate even with commercial pesticides.
My secret of avoiding the problem the following year was to avoid the urge to purchase squash seeds. Inasmuch as we love squash as a vegetable, it wasn't worth another potential battle. In a couple years, after having recovered and gained the wisdom and experience from this crop, I'll try again.
One other idea for future years is to grow squash "up" in tomato cages so a close watch can be kept to the ground beneath the plants where these pests love to hide. Growing the squash in cages will free up the area beneath the plant and make it more visible and easier to keep weed free.