Now I remember why I have never successfully grown squash in New Mexico. At our last house, squash plants were killed so early and so quickly by the squash bugs that I hardly remember having squash in my garden at all.
Here at the Mothership garden, I began the season in pleasant forgetfulness, and by the end of July I was still in that enviable state – and had numerous squash plants of various types around the property, fruiting well, when I noticed the first squash bug.
Squash bugs look like a sort of beetle, and they have a distinctive shape almost like little leaves. They can be dark or light grey. Once they find a squash plant they quickly lay eggs on the underside of leaves and produce a huge number of offspring, feeding on the plant and most often causing its death. Some of the preventative measures I read about after it was too late were to cover the squash plants in shade cloth, spray with neem oil, spray with soapy water, or pick off bugs by hand.
Such were the press of domestic affairs, job duties, various events, and caregiving, that I did not take any immediate or comprehensive action when that first squash bug was noticed. Indeed, without resorting to poison, any action I could take would have had to be daily and time consuming. I went as far as to purchase some natural neem oil but after hearing it was effective in killing bees as well I decided not to use it.
In short order, that squash bug begat more squash bugs, all begetting exponentially, until all sizes of squash bug, from grain of rice to cannellini bean, could be flushed out onto the mulch by shaking any vine. For a brief but unpleasant period, on a tip from a friend, I would go out with the dustbuster and shake the vines and vacuum up the scurrying squash bugs. The worst of that job was then throwing them in a bucket of water to drown them. An ugly business. Not a solution we can stomach.
Next I became bitterly resigned to losing my entire squash crop. The squash bugs seemed one more ominous pestilence in a world where such things are common. I felt that like covid, the squash bug explosion was a signal from the natural world of impending doom. I was on the losing side of the Squash Bug War.
There was some hope in one corner of the yard – the fenced portion of the back yard, which houses the hugelkultur beds and chicken coop, and which I call the farm. I had some big pie pumpkin plants and some patty pan squash growing on a straw bale bed there. It was time to release my secret weapon and start letting the hens loose in the farm all day.
Luckily for me, most other plants in the hugelkultur garden were not particularly tasty or valuable – mostly kale and some sunflowers. Otherwise, to save the squash I would have had to sacrifice everything else. But I did have some lovely Aswad eggplants and the hens went for those as soon as they were let out – nice to know those are so tender and tasty – so I had to fence those off from the chickens.
After about two weeks of chickens loose in the farm, the results were mixed. I kept losing squash vines, albeit at a slower rate, and I noticed my squash were still setting fruit. At some point I realized the trellises I had set up to support the squash also kept the chickens from getting right into the heart of the squash plants, and so I opened that up and tried to confine the chickens to that area. I will have at least 6 or 7 pie pumpkins and at least a couple of patty pan squash for my trouble. What vines are left are now developing some kind of new issue where the leaves are turning white – with a fungus perhaps.
Next year, I will try to create a trellis inside the farm to grow squash that gives the chickens good access to squash bugs. Maybe I will also try keeping floating row cover over the trellises to get past the midsummer squash bug invasion. But I gained a more important perspective from my experience this summer.
For every step one takes towards restoring the soil, there is a corresponding leap in biodiversity. Though much of that biodiversity brings immediate gratification – such as when you see a new songbird, flower or fruit in your yard – some of our new neighbors take some getting used to. Few of our food growing endeavors go uncontested by other creatures. Mice will chew on our strawberries, and squash bugs on our pumpkin vines. Seeing our relations with any of these creatures as a war is a mistake, and one that has led us down the path of soil-killing chemical and physical domination of our landscapes.
In fact, it is important to remember that the abundance that comes from re-carbonized soil does not belong to us, although it will repay us for our work a thousand fold. Once you take care of your soil it takes care of everybody, even squash bugs.
As a gardener, one becomes a keystone species, impacting everyone. And although I will make an attempt to grow squash again next year, and use chickens and floating row cover to help me avoid another squash bug invasion, I have declared a truce with squash bugs in my heart. I will keep expanding the number of species of food plants, and varieties of those plants, that I grow, and my garden will be resilient. The loss of one crop will be offset by the success of many others in any given year. And I will always strive to remember that I am the only species in my garden that can go to the grocery store.
Saving our soil, and saving our climate, will mean saving everyone – from songbird to squash bug. Here is to our diverse and interesting neighbors.