What is making those little holes in your plants

Hi folks,

integrated pest management is how to mitigate various pest problems If you identify the pest that is munching down some plant in your garden, then you can create an Integrated Pest Management Strategy to deal with that pest.

Have you noticed that it seems each year we learn to handle one type of pest and then a new pest crops up, seemingly in its place? I call this the ‘pest of the year’.  Each year I’ll notice one certain pest seems to overtake every other, one that seems to munch on more than I would expect it to.garden pest of the year

I tend to do what many of us do at first – ignore it and hope it will go away. Occasionally this works. Occasionally it runs out of food (and maybe I’ve lost my plants), or its cycle has run out, or some other critter had found it super tasty and handled it for me, without my intervention.  Yet, this is not what usually happens with an infestation of a critter that has gone crazy where it had not before.

Sometimes we’ll use something to help us ID the critter and then?  Well, most folks I know, contact me, but for all those out there who don’t, they are doing what many of us do when trying to find the answer to their pest problem.  They try and find, or remember, something to do from any source they come across or heard was good, and hope it will work.  Granted, there is an element of ‘hope it works’ in most cases when dealing with many pests, but we can mitigate this to a higher success rate when, as I say “You seek professional gardening advise and get training, you overcome the blindspots to your gardening success”.

Pest Management Plan Workshop Webinar – Saturday March 6, 2021 – Attend Live or watch the recording and get the worksheets. 

flea beetle holes on eggplant leaves
Flea Beetle damage on an eggplant.

This year, I have gotten several emails, texts and photos from students and clients asking, “What is making these little holes in my plants?” And, this indeed is the ‘pest of the year’ in my gardens also, hence this post.  So this pest is Flea Beetles.

Their favorite is eggplant.  Can’t remember a year when I didn’t have at least a little flea beetle damage on my eggplants, but his year, wow! They also seem to be heading on to some folks tomatoes and peppers too, which is not what I normally see.

So here are my top three recommendations for dealing with flea beetles. All three of these are available from my favorite organic pest control company, Arbico Organics. These folks are awesome.

closeup of flea beetles damage on eggplants leaves
Flea beetles holes in eggplant leaves
  1. Beneficial Nematodes – Many of you have heard me talk about how important healthy living soil is, how we don’t want to use chemical pesticides and fertilizers to keep those soil critters alive and working for us. Well, we can bring in even more little beneficial critters to our soil that will handle all kinds of critters that want to eat our food. Check out Arbico’s “Triple Threat” Beneficial Nematodes as they are a better bang for your buck than the one type that includes flea beetles.

2. Surround®, or Kaolin Clay – This product is literally a clay. The cool thing about this product is that is can be used for all kinds of critters and even to cool down plant leaves.  When you add it to water and spray it, it makes the leaves white, and experience shows, that among other things the product touts, such as the coating seriously messing with various insect critter, it works on four legged critters too.  Many animals won’t eat the leaves because they look white and not green. Pretty cool and it is, as I said, just a clay.

3. Monetery Garden Insect Spray – For someone wanting to use a spray, I recommend this one. This tends to be my last choice when the infestation has stripped my plants of all their leaves and I am still trying to save the plant. It will kill lots of types of critters though, which always gives me pause because I like to keep my garden diverse.

Most years, flea beetles only do a bit of damage, the plants have some holes, but it does not hinder fruit production. We’ll see how this year goes.  If you found this useful, remember what I say, “If you seek professional gardening advise and get training, you overcome the blind spots to your gardening success”.  – Debby 

Pest Management Plan Workshop Webinar – Saturday March 6, 2021 – Attend Live or watch the recording and get the worksheet. 

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Concurring Cucumber Beetles – Organically

Had a client ask me yesterday about Cucumber Beetles so thought I’d write up this post so you can all benefit form the information too.

I admit, of all the bug type critters I have dealt with in my gardening endeavors, these little buggers have been the hardest to deal with and some of the most prolific. I also admit, I have stopped growing cucumbers because of them.   With those caveats, let look at why these critters are such a challenge.

First, there are two types, striped (Acalymma vittatum/A. trivittatum) and spotted (Diabrotica undecimpunctata howardi Barber).  This can be confusing, with some folks thinking they are dealing with something other than cucumber beetles.  So, yes, both of these are cucumber beetles:

Spotted and striped cucubmer beetles.

Cucumber beetles attack, yes, cucumbers, but also other members of the Cucurbit plant family that includes summer squash (and zucchini), winter squash and melons.  I have also found that they love, I mean LOVE, Amaranth, both the ornamental and grain type, so we strictly avoid growing all types of Amaranth.  They will really love to eat your Cleome, so we have stopped growing those beauties as well.  They have also been known to munch on beets, beans, peas, sweet potatoes, okra, corn, lettuce, onions, and various cabbages although, gratefully, I have not had them go for these other crops.

These little critters do munch on your plant leaves, but the main issues is that they transmit bacteria that cause Fusarium or Bacterial Wilt and this is what will often kill the plant first.  Adult cucumber beetles can severely defoliate plants and scar fruit. Adults generally reach their peak activity in morning and late afternoon and are fast and pretty hard to catch.  If you do catch them, they have very hard shells so are hard to squish. Don’t try and put them down to step on them like you might a worm, as they’ll fly before you can get them.  If you are able to catch them, put them in soapy water.  All that said, this is not the best way to deal with them.

Cucumber beetle damage

As with handling any pest predation, a good Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategy that includes more than one option works best. All the products on this list are OMRI rated for organic use. Not sure what that means, check out this video.

Ways to concur cucumber beetles:

  1. Row cover or growing in completely protected culture in a high tunnel or greenhouse.  I recommend this at the beginning of the season to give your plants a good head start. This client, Kathleen, did this and I am sure this is why her plants have done as well as they have. She also used..
  2. Neem oil spray. Neem can be effective here as it is a wide spectrum killer.  It is also effective against fungal diseases, which is an added benefit. When sprayed on garden plants, it does not leave a lasting residue because it washes away with rain and is broken down by ultraviolet rays. It can kill some beneficial bugs if they are directly sprayed. Most of Neem’s action is from critters biting leaves that have been sprayed with it. Your beneficial insects are carnivores, eating those other bugs who are eating your food.  
  3. Kaolin Clay, or Surround. We love this stuff and use it often. The product name is Surround, which is made from a specially modified Kaolin clay. This forms a barrier that protects plants from many pests. We spray it on and it makes a white barrier not only repels bugs, but causes them irritation, confusion, and is an obstacle for feeding and egg-laying. We have found it very effective against deer too!  The deer look at those ‘white plants’ and don’t think are food.  Like the Neem, you have to keep applying it after rains and as new green growth appears.
  4. Cleaning up. Cucumber beetles will overwinter eggs in the mulch under your plants.  If you have had an infestation, remove all the mulch from the area and don’t even compost it.  Dispose of it off property or burn it, depending on your location. Then you can apply ..
  5. A spray containing Spinosad, like Monterey Garden Insect Spray used to drenchto the soil tokill the larvae before they pupate in the soil can be effective to avoid further infestation in following seasons.  I should mention here, I only see these critters in the warm summer months.
  6. Beneficial insects. Ladybugs, Green Lacewing, Spined Soldier Bugs and Assassin Bugs will all feed on various life stages of cucumber beetles. Attracting and keeping these garden helpers in your garden will not only help keep the cucumber beetle population down, but many other less desirables from eating your food. A few good plants to start with are: yarrow, sunflowers, dill, cilantro and parsley. Makes sure you let the dill, cilantro and parsley go to flower.  
Assassan bug eating a spotted cucumber beetle

7. You can also buy cucumber beetle lures and use these with yellow sticky traps. The lure is effective for 45 days. If the trap becomes covered with insects or other debris before that time, remove the lure and attach it to a fresh trap. One advantage is that these are not a spray and therefore you run less risk of killing other critters you would rather not kill. I confess I have not tried these although it seems a reasonable thing to try and I might get some for the cucumber beetle population currently in my garden. If anyone uses these, let me know how they worked for you.

8. The last option in this article is adding a Heterorhabditis bacteriophora beneficial nematodes to your soil. Nematodes occur naturally in our soil, but we might not have the ones that really like beetle, and specifically cucumber beetle larvae.

So to wrap up, here is my recommended IMP strategy if you have a cucumber beetle infestation:

  1. Spray Neem to get the population down.
  2. Put out lures and traps for adults you have missed or that continue to hatch.
  3. Depending on how diseased and chewed up your plants are, remove them off site or burn them.
  4. Remove all the mulch under where the plants were and spray Monterey Garden Spray heavily into the soil.

Next spring:

  1. Apply beneficial nematodes to your soil.
  2. Use row covers for young plants.
  3. Apply Surround as your plants grow.
  4. Put in plants that attract beneficial insects.

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Have an awesome day and good luck with those cuke beetles! – Debby

Dealing with Squash Vine Borers

Hey folks,

Have had a bunch of questions about dealing with squash vine borers.  Here are my 5 ways to deal with them:

  1. Resistant varieties

Debby with two Upper Ground Sweet Potato Squashes she grew
Debby with two Upper Ground Sweet Potato Squashes she grew

You can look for squash vine borer resistant varieties. The only zucchini I grow anymore is Raven, which is a hybrid I get from Territorial Seed Company. It might eventually succumb to the bug pressure, but I at least get a few weeks of zucchini from it before that happens and I take it out. I cannot recommend Black Beauty as it is a real bug magnet.

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has come varieties you might want to try that are more resistant: for summer squash: Lemon Squash. For winter squash: Green-Striped Cushaw may do well for you. Last year, we did very well with the Upper Ground Sweet Potato Squash (see pic of two Debby grew) which looks like a big tan pumpkin and was a big hit.. that was what was in the photo of me near the end of the presentation. Waltham Butternut is also good at borer resistance and has grown well for me.

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  1. Hand removal

Checking daily, or every other day goes along way!  Look at the base of the main stem,  about 4” from the ground up.

If you see a bulge in the stem, there is likely a squash vine borer worm in that bulge.

To remove the worm:

  • make a vertical slit, along the stem:
  • carefully open the stem to find the worm
  • remove the worm and give it a new incarnation
  • carefully close the wound and gently wrap it with tape (the tape is optional, but helps the wound heal and keeps out dirt, etc.)
  1. Crop Rotation

Rotating crops works best if you have a large garden, say at least a couple hundred square feet, or have beds that are on opposite sides of your property.  If you have a smaler garden, say two beds, switch back and forth.  If you have one bed, switch ends.  You want to rotate all members of the cucurbit family as one rotation.  This includes not only winter and summer squash (and zucchini), but also cucumbers and melons (including watermelons).

If you do not have enough space for this, or if you have a major infestation, don’t grow this family of crops for a year or two. I have done this a couple times with good results and got to experiment with new varieties of other crops in the meantime.

  1. Nematodes

One organic way to deal with these critters is by adding certain benificial nematodes to your soil.  My go-to company for these is Arbico Organics.

  1. Pheromone Lures & Traps

Another purchased option, again from Arbico Organics, are traps with pheromone lures specifically for squash vine borers.

A Final note is that Blue Hubbard squash is known to be a squash vine borer trap crop.  Which admittedly bums us out because we love Blue Hubbard.

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Grow More Kale !


Red Russian Kale
Red Russian Kale

Several years ago we planted open pollinated Red Kale seed we bought from Territorial Seed Company.  In the years since, this kale; and none of the others we grow, have naturalized at Prior Unity Garden.  We started allowing some of the plants to go to seed, after having overwintered.    Spring planted, we harvest leaves all spring, summer and fall.  After letting these same plants rest over the winter, we harvest a little in very early spring before allowing them to go to seed.  The resulting seed has proven to be extremely hardy.

Starting Seed

We start kale indoors in flats in February and August.  The February started plants will be hardened off to be transplanted out in March.  The August started plants will be hardened off to go out in September or October.

Seed can also be direct sown in spring and late summer to early fall and germinates best between 55º & 75º F.  Plant ¼ and inch deep.

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Spring vs Fall planting

Spring planting gives you luscious greens in spring and early summer.  Late summer or early fall sowing will give you greens until the plants go dormant for the cold of winter. Some traditionally say, plant fall crops after the 4th of July, although we find there are still too many bugs around and it is too hot to start them outdoors then.  Starting them indoors where it is cool and bug free works best for plants you want to plant in fall. The beauty of fall crops is you have less bugs trying to eat your kale before you do.  Like some other cole crops; think collards, their leaves will sweeten up with light frost, because the various types of sugars in the plants increase the plant’s tolerance to freezing.  Producing sugar is the plant’s natural freeze protection.

Winter & Overwintered plants

Kale will overwinter naturally here without protection, although they will not continue to grow.  Plants grown with the protection of a hoop house, cold frame or greenhouse can continue to grow during the winter months due to warmer temps of the enclosed environment.

Overwintered plants will tend to bolt sooner in the warmth of spring than spring sown plants.  This is why overwintered plants are good to use to save your own seed.


We prefer to transplant seedlings when they have four or five true leaves that are at least two inches long.  If your seedlings have stretched for light indoors, and have really long stems, you can bury part of the stem when transplanting.  Do not bury as deep as you would tomatoes, but bury up to a half of the stem to give you a bit stronger stemmed plant.

We companion plant our kale, giving each kale plant about a one foot area.

What Kales Like & Where to put them in your garden

Kale are cool weather crops that like lots of nitrogen in the soil.  If you have an area you have built up with so much green matter, manure or compost,  it grows huge tomato plants with hardly any tomatoes, it is a good candidate location for kale and other leaf crops.

If you are growing kale in cold months, give it a place with sun.  If you want your kale to hang in there year round, plant them in a place what they get shade in the hot part of a day in summer.  We plant some of our kales in areas that are completely shady in summer.  The baby plants get plenty of early spring sun before the leaves are full on the trees, and again as the leaves fall in autumn.

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Saving Your Own Seed

To save your own kale seed, let the plants go to flower.  They will look beautiful in your garden with tall spires of little bright yellow flowers.  Allow the seed heads to form and begin to dry on the plant.  When the seedpods are almost dry, but not yet busting open scattering their little round black seeds, carefully cut the stalks and put them, seed heads down, into a paper bag.  Place them in a cool dry place and allow them to continue to dry and lets the seeds fall into the bag.  Keep seed refrigerated until you are ready to plant them.  If you want your kale to naturalize, allow the plants to go to seed and fall from the plants wherever the wind takes them around your garden.

Red Russian Kale in Bloom at Prior Unity Garden
Red Russian Kale in Bloom at Prior Unity Garden


Cabbage Moth on Kale
Cabbage Moth on Kale

The two main pests we have had are cabbage moths and harlequin bugs.  If you go out one day and literally overnight your kales are almost gone, look for green caterpillars, the color of green kale leaves, or for tell tail black poop near the center of the plant where the tender newest leaves used to be.  These are the larve of the cabbage moth, the little white moths that flit so harmless looking around your garden as spring warms the days.  The most used organic control is keeping your baby plants under row covers to keep the moths off your baby plants. The months want to lay their eggs on your kale (and other cole crops).  The other most used organic control is Bacillus thuringiensis, found in a product called Dipel® DF, which is OMRI listed for organic use.  Crop rotation helps to some degree, although in small home scale gardens, this helps to a smaller degree than on a larger farm, garden or homestead.

Small Cabbage Caterpiller
Small Cabbage Caterpiller

Cabbage worm and cabbage worm poop
Cabbage worm and cabbage worm poop

Harlequin bugs are a type of stink bug.  They may be beautiful, but they will literally suck the life out of your kale.  Hand picking them as soon as you see them is the best natural control.  We keep buckets of slightly soapy water around the kales to put the harlequin bugs and green caterpillars in as we hand pick them.

Harlequin Bugs infesting Kale
Harlequin Bugs infesting Kale

Harlequin bugs mating
Harlequin bugs mating

Harlequin bug eggs
Harlequin bug eggs

Harlequin eggs close up
Harlequin eggs close up

One other pest occasionally shows up on our kale – white flies.  They started to show up when we started getting unusually hot springs with little air flow.  The best way to control is with Safer’s® Insecticidal Soap soon as you see the very first ones. If you catch them early, you can get rid of them, miss them and all your kale with have a little white cloud of them when you touch the plants.

The good news ? Deer, squirrels and chipmunks do not eat kale or other cole crops !

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Eating Kale

Green Smoothie
Green Smoothie

Kale is extremely high in Vitamins A and C.  It also has vitamins B6 and K, and several minerals including magnesium and high amounts of calcium.  It is also a good source of copper, potassium, iron, manganese, and phosphorus.  Kale is low in calories, has no fat and is high fiber, making it good for everyone.

Most people think of kale is one of those savory crops you cook a long time, like collards.  We think of it as the ultimate raw energy food and love them as a staple in raw green smoothies.

To make a green smoothie, put some fresh filtered water in a strong blender, such as a Vitamix® or Blendtec.  Add your favorite fruit and a few leaves of kale and enjoy an energy and nutrient packed lunch !   You can make them ahead of time and take them anywhere, to work, hiking etc. Use bananas, mango or avocado to make your smoothie creamy.  We love Banana/Mango/Pineapple in summer.  Berry rich ones include blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, gooseberries and a few currents for tartness and high vitamin C content.  In the fall, apples and pears make super sweet smoothies and we found that peach/nectarine and blackberry combos are divine in summer !  A strong blender is needed to break down those strong kale leaves and the reward is getting your dark green leafy veggies in a yummy sweet way !

Bon apatite and happy growing !

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