New pest in region threatens berry crops

(Photo by Julie O’Connor}

Blueberry-growing used to be so boring. Each autumn I’d spread soybean meal beneath the plants as fertilizer and top it with three inches of leaves, wood shavings or other mulch. Late each winter I’d prune. In late June, netting would go over the top of the plants and from then on, into September, I’d harvest oodles of blueberries.

Earlier this year, I knew things could get interesting. Spotted-wing drosophila (SWD), a new pest fond of many fruits, showed up last year in the area and an encore was predicted. And then, starting in early August, my harvested blueberries began to soften quickly and were soon swimming in their own juice. The culprit, SWD, was here, in numbers, with plenty of enticing berries still weighing down the branches.

“Drosophila” might sound familiar from experiments in your high school biology class; it’s a fruit fly. SWD differs from other fruit flies in not waiting for fruit to be ripe or overripe. This impatient bugger lays eggs in unripe fruit.

Blueberry harvest is an almost-daily affair, and my blueberries are organic, sustainable, green, artisanal, (very) local et cetera, so I couldn’t just start spraying any old pesticide. Fortunately, there is one pesticide called Entrust (derived from a bacterium collected from the soil of an abandoned sugar mill in the Virgin Islands) that is “organic” and effective against SWD. I did spray, and now, despite the mildness of this material, we have to wait three days for the spray to dissipate before harvesting berries. Restraint is needed with Entrust, because one generation to the next for SWD can take less than two weeks, leaving ample opportunity for resistant strains to evolve, especially if the pest overwinters locally (which is not known at this time).

After two sprays of Entrust one week apart, I should and will try something else, in this case a one-percent oil spray – also “organic” and relatively benign. In laboratory settings, at least, oil has been effective.

What about all the berries on the plant with SWD eggs in them that will hatch into adults? Harvesting them and whisking them into a refrigerator at 34 degrees for 72 hours will kill eggs and larvae. Same goes, of course for freezing them. Another option is to immerse them in that one-percent oil mix for five to ten minutes.

The battle against SWD should not – does not – end there. Fine netting encasing the plants could keep flies at bay, as long as it’s put on before SWD arrives or, if resident ones exist, after an early spray of Entrust. Thorough cleanup of infested fruits will keep populations down. We’re throwing soft fruits into a bag that goes into the freezer, and then it’s a dish of fresh-frozen eggs and larvae and blueberries for my chickens. Mmmmm.

You might detect some flippancy in my attitude towards this serious pest. That’s because we already have 69 quarts of sound blueberries in the freezer.

(Thanks to Peter Jentsch and Cornell’s Hudson Valley information for much of this information.)

Garlic has been harvested and, as usual, my yields and bulb sizes are nothing to brag about. “You should have cut off the scapes,” suggested more than one person – the scapes referring to the curly, bulbil-topped stalks that emerge from the centers of hardneck garlic plants.

I’m skeptical about scape removal. After all, that greenery does photosynthesize and hence, help nourish the plant. And while seed development can drain a plant of energy, a scape is capped by small bulbils, not seeds.

A little research yielded widespread recommendations for scape removal, but hard data backing up that recommendation were generally lacking. What I did learn was: 1) Benefits of scape removal depend on the soil and variety of garlic; 2) Benefits are greatest in poor soils; 3) Benefits may be in terms of yield or bulb size. The most consistent reason to remove the scapes is that they are edible if harvested when just developing.

I don’t like the taste of the scapes, so won’t bother removing them. I’m also not a big fan of garlic flavor, so tend to plant them outside the garden in out-of-the-way locations where they’re never watered and the soil is not particularly rich. Hence, my poor showing of garlic.

The garlic is now curing as it hangs from the rafters of my front porch, where it fortunately keeps its aroma to itself. Along the path leading up to the porch are a few plants whose aromas are a lot more welcome on the way to the front door. Those plants have clustered there not by some grand plan of mine, but just by chance.

Let’s see: First on the way to the door is Jasmine “Maid of Orleans” (Jasminum sambac), whose flowers emit a pure, sweet aroma. The plant has been blooming more or less all summer, but you do need to put your nose right up to the flower to smell it. Next come jimsonweed (Datura spp.) and angel’s trumpets (Brugmansia spp.), both vespertine plants with six-inch-long trumpet-shaped blossoms that appear sporadically. I’m always enjoying rose geranium, mint and rosemary, next in line, because it’s their leaves that are aromatic; a pinch can send me to olfactory heaven anytime I wish, day or night.

Nestled in among these last-named plants is one small pot of alyssum. Alyssum blooms nonstop through summer and into autumn, so the honeyed scent can be enjoyed whenever I pass, as long as I stick my nose down into the flowers.

Plan now for the best tomatoes for next year’s garden! I’ll be holding a workshop, “The Best Tomatoes: Know ‘Em, Grow ‘Em, Taste ‘Em,” on August 22 from 6 to 8 p.m. Learn which varieties taste best, how to save seed, how to plant for maximum production in minimum space, how to control potential pests organically and how to pick, dry and can the fruits. And there will be a tasting of some of the best varieties.

Space is limited, so registration is a must. The cost is $45. Call (845) 255-0417 or e-mail garden@leereich.com for more information.

Any gardening questions? E-mail them to me at garden@leereich.com and I’ll try answering them directly or in this column. Come visit my garden at www.leereich.blogspot.com. For more on local homes and gardens, go to Ulster Publishing’s homehudsonvalley.com.

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