The Boone County Buzz: How to Foil Flea Beetles

Does it look like a tiny shotgun has blasted the leaves of your eggplant? (See Figure 1 for an example.) Chances are you have a flea beetle infestation. First of all, don’t worry, “flea” beetles only bite plants! These are not like the fleas on your dog or cat. That’s a whole different order of insects. These are very small (1/10 inch) leaf-feeding beetles that are called “flea” beetles due to their large hind legs which enable them to jump much like fleas (Figure 2).

Eggplant with flea beetle damage.

Figure 1. Eggplant with flea beetle damage. Photo, Ali Eminov [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Adult flea beetle

Figure 2. Adult flea beetle

There are several species found in Missouri but the only species I see regularly is all black. Depending on the species, they may feed on cruciferous vegetables, spinach, turnips, radishes, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, beans or eggplant. The good news is that the adults die off in July. The bad news is, they can have two generations per year, meaning they can come back for your fall crops. Generally speaking I ignore flea beetles and their damage except when it comes to young seedlings. (Mature plants can usually sustain a bit of flea beetle damage to leaves and still provide fruit.)

For years, flea beetles have severely damaged my eggplant transplants. If I’m lucky, a couple plants survive, and, by late summer, I finally have plants that are large enough to produce. I have tried row covers to no avail. The problem here is that the adults overwinter in your soil and leaf litter. Despite clearing the plant debris from my garden in the fall there are still plenty of hungry adult flea beetles just waiting in the soil for some tender eggplant leaves.

Last year I tried an experiment. Since I only grow four eggplant every year, I went out and purchased some hard plastic domed frost guards. Eggplant are notoriously cold sensitive, so why not? In addition, I thought they might act as a physical barrier to hungry flea beetles. I figured if I found any beetles under the dome, I would shoo them off and quickly replace it since flea beetles jump when startled. In practice, I never needed to do this as the domes worked quite well. After a week I checked and the transplants were hole-free. To test my experiment, I uncovered one of my eggplants. Three days later, when I went out to compare it to the still-covered plants, I found that the unprotected plant was COVERED with flea beetles and feeding holes. The domes worked!

FRGD Frost Guards from Gardener’s Edge

Then, in an effort to save my sacrificial eggplant, I tried spraying it with organic neem oil. WOW! Another real find! It took several sprays, but apparently the flea beetles think it tastes as bad as it smells! They either died or left. My eggplant grew up, became highly productive, and I ended up with a freezer full of tasty ratatouille which my sweet husband enjoys.*

While I think I’ve cracked the code on safe ways to control flea beetles, there are some good suggestions on the websites listed below for other earth-friendly ways to lessen flea beetle damage:

* I have the BEST recipe for ratatouille. Email me at kathy@comogardens.org if you’d like it.

The Boone County Buzz: Are you a gambler?

I am! No, you won’t ever find me at the casino. I’m talking about gardening! I think most of us who garden have a touch of the gambler in us. How else can you explain the leap of faith we take every year when we put our seeds or baby transplants out in the wild world dreaming of luscious produce to come? Sometimes things go well and some not so well. That’s just part of life.

Well, today I want to encourage the wildest gamblers out there to take a chance on REALLY early spring lettuce. You know how all the seed packages say to plant your lettuce from mid-March to mid-May? I think they’re missing the boat!

mixed baby lettuceI followed those recommendations for years and what always happened was that as my lettuce finally started to head up it became bitter! The bitterness used to start around mid-June but I’ve had it happen as early as mid-May when temperatures are unusually warm. As a crazed, baby lettuce aficionado this is most frustrating.

Then about 15 years ago I was reading some book (?) where an old woman from the Ozarks said to put your lettuce seed out as soon as the snow melted. This seemed like insanity, but, again, I’ve got a gambling streak. I tried it. Yes, I ran out with a cloth sheet to protect it a few times. But I was eating beautiful baby lettuce salads by the end of March! Needless to say, I’ve been doing this ever since.

When exactly do I take this risk? It varies with the weather and snow. Looking back in my garden diary (yes, you really should keep one) the first planting has been as early as January 5th but probably averages around January 25th. Have I lost my lettuce? Maybe once, but most varieties of lettuce can survive temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Since lettuce seed is somewhat viable for up to 6 years I usually use old seed from a previous year, so if it is lost I won’t feel quite as bad. Sometimes, when the cravings are severe I’ve been known to start lettuce seeds inside in January and plunk the plants out in early February. Again, it’s a gamble but what an incredible payoff if you succeed! Take a chance!

Gardening Courses

The Columbia Area Career Center has several classes happening this spring that might be of interest to gardeners. These paid classes are offered by the Columbia Public Schools through the Professional and Community Education Program.

For information on dates, prices, class openings and online registration go to:
https://cacc.asapconnected.com/Courses.aspx?CourseGroupID=18858

ALSO: Mid-Missouri Expo—Small Farm to Backyard Garden is being offered by the Boone County MU Extension on Saturday, February 24 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Battle High School. There are going to be four topic areas with five concurrent sessions running on topics ranging from growing mushrooms, raising tomatoes, organic gardening, small animal rearing, pruning and much more. Pre-registration $7, door $10.

For more information go to http://extension.missouri.edu/boone/mid-moexpo.aspx

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Free Fruit Tree Workshop

apple treeYou are invited to a FREE fruit tree pruning workshop at Bethel Church Community Garden (201 E Old Plank Rd.) February 19 at 4 pm. Come learn from Jim Quinn, MU Extension horticulturist about how to get the most out of your fruit trees with pruning.

No RSVP or registration required. In case of bad weather, the back-up date is Feb 22.

New Planting Info for CoMO

Planting ChartIt’s hard to believe it on this particular snowy February day, but the ground is often ready for certain seeds and plants here in Mid-Missouri as early as March.

Check out this updated chart for the the best dates to plant seeds or transplants of various vegetables in our area.

As you start planning your 2014 garden, keep in mind that Boone County is in USDA cold hardiness zone 6a and AHS heat zone 7. Read more about what zone ratings mean in our post from 2012 when the USDA released the latest cold hardiness ratings map.

 

Garden How-to: Drip Irrigation

Fall and winter are a good time to make plans for improvements to your garden next year, like for instance improving how you water the garden. This past year, one community garden, with funding help from the CGC, purchased and installed drip irrigation lines to improve the efficiency of their group-run garden. If you’ve ever considered this kind of water delivery, check out this how-to video they made.