Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

October 26, 2017
Squash bugs can’t be eliminated, but they can be controlled

There’s a lot of things in the garden that you can easily grow. It’s never taken me much effort to grow binder weed — also known as “morning glory.” This type of morning glory is not to be confused with the decorative and desirable kind. I’ve never had to work hard at creating a bumper crop of prickly lettuce or pigweed either. Those both do just fine on their own, without fail, every season.

Another “crop” that’s easy to grow is goatheads. Known by various names (including a few that are not printable), these delightful yard additions make themselves at home in neglected or scraped off areas of soil. In fact, they seem to thrive by being ignored. They do their best work in secret, and are an unpleasant surprise when discovered. They aren’t called “puncture vine” or “caltrop” (an ancient warrior device used to cripple the horses of the opposing army) for nothing.

While I’m vigilant to keep this visitor off our property, it finds its way in from time to time — usually carried in on the surface of a tire or the sole of a shoe. If discovered, it needs to be removed carefully, at the center of the plant, and gently lifted to keep all of the thorns and stems intact. The only place to “plant” this treasure is in the trash can or in the burn barrel. It’s too risky to compost.

There’s more “not-so-friendlies” around our place that require constant monitoring and appropriate action. Pocket gophers and skunks are opportunists who will take advantage if food sources are available and they are allowed to take up residence unhindered.

Just this afternoon, I was on the hunt for a couple of persistent and resilient pocket gophers who have decided to make forays into my garden plot. A dozen mounds have shown up and an extensive tunnel system has been developed that would allow ongoing access to all of the growing spaces, as well as giving shelter from the weather and a breeding ground. Not on my watch! Like you, we work too hard to grow our crops to have them killed off in this manner.

Call me cavalier or stone-hearted, but I’ve developed a method of locating the main tunnels and inserting a smoke bomb that exterminates them. It’s not fool-proof, and may take more than one application to control the situation.

Skunks like to eat pet food, and will kill chickens and damage bee hives if left to their own devices. While traps can be used, they can be a messy and stinky business. Deterrence is a good strategy, which includes being sure food sources and shelter is not readily available. If you have outside dogs and cats, be sure their food bowls are not easily accessed. Keep poultry safe, as skunks will hunt them down at night. Chickens don’t have night vision and are an easy target.

If you’re a beekeeper, notice scratches on the front of your hives, and if your bees are easily agitated or seem defensive when anyone gets within several feet of the hive, it’s likely you have skunk problems. Bees can’t readily sting a skunk due to its fur. As guard bees come to the entrance to investigate, the skunk eats them. A skunk will return over and over until a majority of the hive is depleted. Not good.

One approach to stop this behavior is to place spiked boards on the ground in front of the hive. This is simply a piece of wood as wide as the hive, and wide and thick enough to securely hold several nails that have been hammered through it. The points are placed in the up position. A skunk then needs to stand on its back legs and stretch over the spikes. Doing so exposes the skunk’s vulnerable belly, allowing the bees to defend themselves.

And, that brings me to squash bugs. Like weeds and the critters listed above (and I didn’t even mention squirrels, grasshoppers, earwigs, slugs and snails), squash bugs can be quite a problem in a Tooele Valley garden.

But suppose that squash bugs were desirable and there was a market for them? There’s not, but go along with me for a moment. If you wanted to get more squash bugs next growing season, what would you need to do? If you’ll entertain this approach for a moment, it becomes easy to see that if we don’t do what I’m about ready to tell you, then you will be able to greatly diminish the squash bug population in next year’s garden. With that, here’s some best practices to assure a bumper crop of squash bugs.

To give them a strong and early start next year, be sure to leave all the dead plant material from your squash-family plants on top of the soil where the plants grew. That will give the bugs more cover so they can surface when it warms again to lay plenty of eggs on your newly planted or emerging squash plants. It’s a sure-fire way to give them the help they need to overwhelm your crop next year.

While you’re at it, let’s keep the host plants that squash bugs need to survive in the same place year after year. Be sure not to rotate crops. That way, the bugs don’t have to be inconvenienced or travel far to enjoy the growing season. Anything you can do to get eggs laid on the plants faster and earlier in the year will give them more time to create an overwhelming population. This is just like earning compound interest.

When they do appear next year and you see eggs being deposited and hatching on the undersides of your plant’s leaves, ignore them. They don’t need your help, and inattention greatly aids them in rapidly increasing their numbers. Allow any “ickiness” you have about direct contact with squash bugs to guide your decisions. What’s a few clusters of eggs, anyways? And, the few bugs that you do see, that’s all there is, right?

OK, let’s be serious. While squash bugs can’t be eliminated, they can be controlled. The most damage is usually with young or stressed plants. If you can keep the bugs away during early growth, and keep your plants healthy with good irrigation and fertilization, damage by squash bugs will be greatly minimized.

So, clean up your yard now. Don’t provide overwintering sites. In the spring, any surviving bugs will fly to your plants to feed and mate and start laying eggs on the undersides of the leaves, in clusters of approximately 20. Those eggs will hatch about 10 days later.

The hatchlings will mature in four to six weeks. All stages of development can be seen during the growing season. So, when you see the egg clusters, destroy them. You can use a utility knife to precisely cut them out. Because both adults and nymphs are shy and run for cover when approached, you can put flat pieces of wood or newspaper under the plant on the surface of the soil. They will collect under them overnight and you can capture and destroy them (soapy water works fine) in the morning. If all else fails, you can apply carbaryl (Sevin).

Until there’s a viable market for squash bugs, you’ll need to be diligent if you’re going to grow squash. If you are, you’ll get a lot more of your crop and the bugs will get a lot less.

Jay Cooper can be contacted at jay@dirtfarmerjay.com, or you can visit his channel at  for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.

Jay Cooper

Garden Spot Columnist at Tooele Transcript Bulletin
Jay Cooper is a new contributing writer for the Garden Spot column. He replaced Diane Sagers, who retired in November 2013 after writing the column for 27 years. Also known as Dirt Farmer Jay, Cooper and his wife have been residents of Erda since 2001 after moving to Utah from Tucson, AZ. A passionate gardener and avid reader of horticultural topics, for several years he has been a member of Utah State University’s Master Gardeners Program, and served as chapter president in 2013. Cooper says Tooele County has an active and vibrant gardening community, and the Garden Spot column will continue to share a wide range of gardening, landscaping, home skills and rural living themes.

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