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Eating Insect Damaged Crops

Q. I hate to waste any of my precious produce, and after 20 years have come to terms with the fact that I have to share some amount with creatures big and small. So I tend to eat collards and kale that have some leaf nibbles, but not any with little squiggles on the leaves. I tend to eat the odd looking little raspberries that aren't picture perfect, but I toss ones that are already half-eaten. Now I'm wondering—what do I really need to avoid? I figure eating a collard green with a hole in it isn't going to hurt me. But do the insects that make the hole perhaps leave something behind I should worry about? One thing is certain: I'll always toss crops that were hit with bird poop, because I'm afraid I won't be able to wash it all off completely. I use some fertilizer (not Scotts!) and free compost from the township. But I don't buy any kind of insecticide, and wonder if I should stop being cheap and invest in some safe ones. How do you strike a balance between getting a decent harvest and paying $65 for a tomato? I'm not out to win competitions; I just want a few fresh crops to supplement the table. Thanks.

    ----Cathy; in a suburb of Philly

A. Well thank you, Cath—the main focus of your excellent email—whether or not to eat somewhat damaged crops—is a question that affects virtually everyone who grows food. But it isn't generally spoken of, and it's high time we did discuss it out loud.

Much of the answer comes down to personal choice, of course, and the choices you've made so far seem very sound. Here's my 12 cents on the matter:

First, it's important to realize that EVERY farmer and gardener on the planet suffers damage in the field—whether they grow chemically or organically. It is often reassuring to go to a University or industry website and read that a successful harvest of one crop or another means that more than 50% of the crop is marketable. It's simply a fact; I've helped really talented farmers at harvest time and, although I winced with every toss, followed their instructions to put only absolute perfect produce into the "for market" basket.

Now, many of the fruits that went into their compost-or-pig-feeding bin certainly would have made it to my table. Especially the ones that didn't have actual pest damage: Cukes that took a weird bend, zukes that had a little scar down one side, peppers with a little bit of brown cross-hatching in a small area... Such fruits may be a loss to a market farmer, but they're hands-down success stories for a home gardener: Wash, chop, and maybe toss a small area but otherwise eat and enjoy.

When it comes to truly damaged (that is, attacked) produce, tomatoes and cucumbers are easy. If a slug got a little taste of one corner of a tomato or cuke, a pepper weevil made a little hole in an otherwise fine bell, or there's some kind of mysterious blemish on a fruit, I cut away the damaged areas and take a good honest look at what's left. If the damage was minimal, I use the good parts in a salad or for cooking without worry. Or the damaged fruits get made into tomato sauce or pickles after some prudent surgery. But if what first seemed to be a small amount of discoloration goes deep, or I see that I'm tossing close to half of a fruit, then it all goes into the compost bucket or worm bin.

I have found that raspberries that don't 'look right' also don't taste good, so those 'odd-looking' little ones get tossed at our house. But if I find a giant, juicy, otherwise-perfect one that a wasp got a little bit of first, I am happy to finish it off.

Nibbled greens? When I first started gardening, I ate every leaf, no matter how many other denizens of the planet seemed to have gotten there before me. But as I got better at this game—and learned to plant more rows of things we really liked—I have gotten downright persnickety on this topic. If a spinach or lettuce leaf is nibbled—or even slightly less green than its brethren—it's fuel for the compost. But again, I can be this selective because I'm growing lots more rows and runs than I did back in the beginning of my Garden Adventures.

Leaf-eating insects don't leave behind any resides that could harm humans, so if your plantings are small and your harvests limited in size, go ahead and eat the good parts, even if there's a hole or two involved. But those squiggly little lines that turn greens into what looks like a bad road map are made by leaf miners inside the produce, so unless you're into eating bugs and their frass, those greens should get tossed.

You're also wise to toss anything that was 'decorated' by birds. I would do the same for anything that might have been attacked by mice or raccoons.

And finally, I hear what you're saying about not wanting to spend more on inputs than the produce is worth, but I think some wise buys might be in order. For instance, if that 'not Scott's' fertilizer of yours is a chemical, use more compost for nutrition and use the money you save to buy some floating row covers—they provide perfect protection for crops like your kale and collards. The covers keep bugs (and bird poop) off, so you'll get perfect greens; and the covers will last for many years with a little care; a wise investment with a big return.

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