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Listener Tips on Preventing Flea Beetles and Vine Borers

Q. Hi Mike: Like everyone, everywhere I anguish over setting out my eggplants every season, realizing that I'm about to feed the flea beetles. I never seem to have floating row cover on hand (one of your recommendations for preventing their damage early in the season), so this year I cut the bottoms out of some plastic (three-gallon) nursery pots and pushed them into the soil around my little plants in the hope of keeping the hoppers away. (I also put some stakes around the pots to keep the wind from blowing them away.) As I send this email to you it's been about three weeks, and not a single flea beetle has been able to make the high jump over the pot rims (about ten inches). It works so well that even my neighbor, who usually "just dusts the plants with Sevin." is using a similar type of physical protection. Thanks for your show. You add so much to my enjoyment of the garden.

    ---Bob in Lewes, Delaware
A. Don't you DARE thank me, Bob—all the thanks go to you for your great idea, which is elegant in its simplicity. Flea beetles are tiny pestiferous creatures that leap onto the leaves of plants—eggplant being their hands-down favorite—and chow down until the leaves look like they're been repeatedly peppered with teeny-tiny shotgun blasts.

As you note, one of my suggestions is to cover the young plants with floating row cover as soon as they go out, creating a physical barrier against the pests. The row covers allow light and rainwater in, and also trap a little heat around the plants, which they love, helping them grow bigger and faster early in the season. The covers can stay on until the flowers are open and need pollination. The photo of your invention shows it to be more like a giant cutworm collar—a hard plastic physical barrier around the outside of the plant that the beetles can't leap over, but with the top left open so the plant gets light and air. And I presume you'll leave it in place all season, as it looks like the mature plant can easily grow out the top. Nice work!

Q.I use the top halves of plastic milk cartons with the sides split open to prevent squash vine borers. (See attached photos) You just wrap the protection around the squash seedlings at planting time and 'Bob's your uncle'! In the past I've left one plant unprotected as a test, and it was always attacked by borers. All the best.

    ---Bob in Conshohocken, PA
A. Bob's photos were very instructional, and we are posting them with this Question of the Week as well—but my show is radio, so I asked him to also describe in words exactly what he does.

Q. "Exactly what I do"? That could go a lot of different ways. Sorry--I'll try to focus!

The adult form of the squash vine borer—a night-flying moth—flies in and lays its eggs at the base of the squash plant. The eggs hatch, the baby caterpillars chew their way into the hollow squash vine, and the next thing you know the whole plant is wilting. So the trick is to keep her away. To achieve this, I cut the top 4" off of a plastic quart or half-gallon milk container and make one long vertical cut, from top to bottom, along one side. I then wrap the protection around the squash seedling and pile soil around the base to keep the slit closed.


Is this being published? Who knows--I may win one'a dem' dere Poo-Lit-zer Proizes!

A. Oh yeah, Bob—it's already in the mail. It may look like a Public Radio pledge drive donation form, but it's a Pulitzer. Just fill it in. And don't forget the check.

Anyway, you are right on about the life cycle of this pest, and this is another situation where I have recommended row covers in the past. But any physical barrier that prevents egg laying at the soil line will work—one old school trick was to wrap the bottom of the vine in tinfoil (I'm showing my age there), row cover or medical tape. But I like this idea a lot—and now I'm thinking about all the other things we could use for this purpose—like the inner cores from rolls of paper towels perhaps?

Good work, Bob! And keep those cards, letters, emails and especially photos coming, Kats and Kittens. We love when our listeners teach US something. And—who knows—you may get one of them dem dere Pugilist prizes….


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