July in the Garden

It's high summer in the garden, and enough time has passed since spring planting for things to go really right -- or really wrong. If your okra is tender and your pickling cucumbers are perfectly petite, congratulations. For some of you, gardening probably hasn't been that rewarding, though. The catnip wilted, the dill bolted and that vision you had of a charming landscape buckled under the unrelenting heat. It's enough to make you want to cry into your sun tea.

I'm here to tell you that hardly anyone has complete success in the garden. Well, there may have been a little old lady somewhere in Tuscany once, or maybe it was Sacramento . . . .

One year its lousy weather; the next it's near annihilation by the invasive pest du jour. It's always something. You lose the lettuce to an early heat wave, but the watermelon does just fine. Success in gardening is about taking your triumphs where you can and coming up with revised strategies for next time. Maybe you plant the zucchini as far away from those yellow daylilies as you can get (to discourage squash beetles), or you might decide squash isn't worth the hassle and plant kale instead.

The good news is that it's up to you. The grand experiment of gardening -- and it is an experiment, even if you've been doing it for 30 years or more -- always yields interesting lessons you'd be hard pressed to experience any other way. It's also good exercise, fun -- and sometimes you do get tomatoes -- and herbs, potatoes, eggplant, onions, melons and a basket of berries for your trouble.

If you've lost your will to run out and weed those flowerbeds because of some premature losses, I'm here to share with you what Peace Corp English teachers used to say back in the 1970s: "The first year, you teach English. The second year, you teach remedial English." Things rarely go as smoothly as planned in English lessons or in gardening, but you learn as you go.

Here are some of my personal recommendations:

Make yourself some useful notes. You might think you'll remember that those pesky Japanese Beetles started showing up the second week in June, but chances are you'll forget. You'll appreciate having a journal after a few years, too. It will be your scrapbook of gardening long after your aching back and knees have made crouching among the seedlings less appealing.

Keep watering. Sometimes plants recover when you think they've given up. Have faith and hold the good thought. Nature can surprise you sometimes -- for the better.

Pinch back blossoms on herbs if you're after good leaf growth for harvesting. You'll have bigger leaves from, say, basil, and more of them. It's the easiest way to forestall bolting in summer weather for dill and cilantro as well.

Harvest your seeds. Seeds are amazing. If the plant varieties you cultivated this year flourished and set seed, they're good candidates for next year, too. The bonus is that each successive generation of seed will be uniquely selected to survive in the microclimate you're providing season to season. It's natural selection working for you instead of against you. It's kinda like buying custom kitchen cabinets, but without the high price tag. You get exactly what you need. Seeds are like cash, too. Save them up. You won't be sorry.


Japanese Beetle Control (or Controlling June Beetles)

Japanese beatle

I hate Japanese beetles (popillia japonica Newman) sometimes spelled Japanese beatles -- if they're musical, I guess -- or referred to as June beetles.

When you're battling these relentless garden pests, you probably despise them, too. I've seen a horde of Japanese beetles completely deconstruct a rosebud in well under a day. I wish I could offer more late term advice and comfort. When it comes to Japanese beetles, though, getting at them early and taking the time in fall to lay the groundwork for next year seems to work the best. On hearing this, I've been told by grumpy readers determined to find a quick solution that I'm no help at all (cue the sound of a door slamming).

When and How Did Japanese Beetles Get Here?

One big problem is that Japanese Beetles aren't native to the U.S. and have few natural predators here. Even worse, they love the weather and can find plenty to eat. They've been around since 1916 after arriving from Japan in a shipment of goods bound for a nursery in southern New Jersey. (It's pretty amazing the experts can actually pinpoint this.) Today, they're very active in 25 U.S. states, most of them east of the Mississippi.

You may think the infestation decimating your blueberry bushes is bad, but the fact is Japanese beetles are also a threat to commercial growers and have an impact on the prices we pay at the market as well as the types and quantities of pesticides on some crops.

Before I moved to the Midwest from the West Coast, I'd never seen a Japanese beetle before, although I'd warred with snails, slugs, aphids, tomato hornworms, sowbugs, centipedes and earwigs -- ugly, nasty bugs all. The first beetle I saw looked like something from the inside of Aladdin's cave. I thought it was beautiful -- an iridescent green and bronze that looked lovely in the heart of a pink rose. Within 48 hours, my pink rose bushes were in shreds, and every morning after that saw more beetles winging their way into my yard. These pests emerge from the ground about the same time every year (for your area), typically during June, which means there isn't a sign of them one day and they're everywhere the next.

I've Never Had Problems with Japanese Beetles Before.  Why Now?

If you've been spared problems with Japanese beetles on you property in the past, it can be hard understand what's happening when they come calling. Often the trigger is the addition to your landscape of a plant on their culinary wish list. Japanese beetles are opportunistic feeders, but they give preference to locations containing their favorite foods. The good news is you can reduce your risk of problems by avoiding these plants. The bad news is that many of their favorites are landscaping and garden favorites, too. You can visit my post: What You Need to Know about Getting Rid of Japanese Beetles  for a list of plants they prefer. It's enlightening (scroll down to the second half of the post to access the list).

Why Is My Garden Being Targeted by Japanese Beetles?

Your property may also be getting the overflow from a neighbor's plants, or even beetles being lured into nearby gardens by beetle traps. According to information released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), commercial traps fail to catch around 25 percent of beetles attracted to them. That means those surviving bugs are going to find food nearby if they can. If you haven't been affected before, this can be a big, unhappy surprise. Japanese beetles are voracious, relentless and can do a lot of damage in a short period of time.

Once beetles are active on your property, it's a good bet their grubs will take up residence to overwinter underground in your lawn and flowerbeds in fall, making it much more likely you'll be targeted again next spring. They like to wake up next to a reliable food source.

There are measures you can take now and before winter to protect yourself.  The post referenced above explains them in detail and also recommends a few popular pesticides that can help, so I won't repeat the information here.

Help! What Can I Do Today to Combat Japanese Beetles?

In the meantime, you can still keep their numbers down by using pesticide or by far my favorite method, shaking, knocking or throwing the bugs into daily buckets of soapy water.  They don't bite, and after the first few, the ick factor all but disappears.  I wear lightweight garden gloves and have a pretty good success rate.  It's easy to develop an effective technique quickly.  All it takes is a bucket, soap, water and the will to win. Consider it an organic approach -- and a good stress reducer.

You'll also find that Japanese beetles tend to become active at about the same time every morning (mine start in at about 9:00 a.m.). If you're at home, you can get a jump on the day by eliminating as many as possible early.  I've found this can sometimes keep their numbers down and help avert a feeding frenzy.


USDA Managing Japanese Beetle: A Homeowner's Handbook http://www.aphis.usda.gov/publications/plant_health/content/printable_version/JB3-07.indd.pdf

Photo 1 - By Vmenkov (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0c/Japanese_beetle_eats_peach_leaves_P1000159.jpg http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJapanese_beetle_eats_peach_leaves_P1000159.jpg