Ask the Gardener: Battling cucumber beetles and cleaning birdbaths

Ask the Expert Gardening
. Gempler's

What to do this week Pick veggies in the morning when the sugar content is highest. Try to postpone future planting projects, like overseeding lawns, until September. But you probably should shop now for bulbs from mail-order catalogs for fall delivery; last year many sold out because of the increased number of home gardeners during the pandemic. The most important bulbs for pollinators are the earliest: tiny crocus, snowdrops, and eranthus planted in drifts. Unlike most bulbs, snowdrops can handle shade, while eranthus likes moisture. The red lily leaf beetle seems to have subsided, so you can risk ordering new lily bulbs, too. The safest bet is Black Beauty, a tall maroon Oriental lily the ravenous beetles don’t like.

Q. I love, love my garden cucumbers. In the last five-plus years, the wilt has taken over. I’ve ordered special “wilt preventative’’ seeds for this year’s crop, but they are not looking good. How do I prevent this?

MJQ, Reading

A. Most cucumber vines that die suddenly are victims of bacterial wilt. Once leaves and branches start to dry and shrivel, there is nothing you can do but remove the affected vines immediately before the carrier — ¾-inch spotted and striped cucumber beetles — spread disease to healthy vines, which can include squash, muskmelons, pumpkins, and gourds, as well as more cucumbers. However, there are protective steps you can take before wilt strikes. Check the undersides of the leaves and squish any bright yellow/orange insect egg sacks. Next spring, continue to buy wilt-resistant seed varieties. Cover the young plants with floating row covers or porous fabric fastened down until the vines flower. Then you must remove these covers to allow pollination. If you choose to use a pesticide, follow the directions carefully and spray at dusk as these beetles are more active at night. Remove all vines at the end of the season. Don’t plant cucumbers next to corn, which also can attract cucumber beetles. Next year it might be a good idea to start rotating your crops to remove cucumbers from beetles overwintering in the soil and to avoid other diseases. Make a three-year plan and change the location of your vegetable each spring until they are back where they started in the fourth year, like partners in a square dance returning to their original positions.

Q. Please do mention that folks should take in bird feeders and baths to help keep birds from getting the eye disease that is spreading in the mid-Atlantic.

P.S., Worcester

A. In my last column, I suggested readers keep their birdbaths filled, and I’m sticking with that advice. There have been no cases reported in New England of this mysterious disease that encrusts the eyes of larger birds. Many experts do not see it as a serious threat, but still they recommend removing bird feeders and birdbaths where wildlife congregate until the disease — now waning — totally disappears. I disagree. I think the best things I can do to support the bird population is to provide fresh water in hot weather and keep my cats indoors. What is this new disease? One plausible theory links it to a fungus carried by some of this summer’s billions of cicadas, which are part of the 17-year periodical Brood X in states where the new disease has appeared (but again, not in New England). Some think the birds get the fungus from eating the cicadas.

In any case, it is a good idea to protect birds from a variety of diseases by scrubbing away all solid matter on feeders and birdbaths regularly. We used soap and scalding water. Others use 10 percent vinegar or bleach. Rinse very thoroughly. We don’t put up bird feeders in the summer, anyway, because there is plenty of wild food around our garden now, especially as this is a bumper year for berries of all kinds. But for fun, we do feed hummingbirds a mix of water with one-third refined white sugar (never brown sugar or honey). Hummers have not been victims of this mystery disease, but we wash their feeders twice a week anyway in the summer with hot water and a bottle brush to prevent the sugar from fermenting.

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