Sunday, July 6, 2008

Putting the "pest" in pesto

I really don't have enough light to grow anything. I live in an apartment, and there are a lot of shade trees, probably to give residents the illusion of privacy. It's nice to look out the window and see a nice, leafy, tree, rather than into your neighbor's bathroom...but it makes it tough to grow things.

Nevertheless, I usually try to grow some herbs in the summer. I buy them from the local farmer's market, and they usually live a few weeks at least, before turning yellow and leggy from the lack of light.

This year, though, my pot of basil had been out on the deck only a few days before it was attacked by a plague of beetles. Japanese beetles, Popillia japonica, to be precise. And not just few. The poor plant was covered with them.

When I was kid, I had a big pot of strawberry plants. I don't remember how I got it. It's not the kind of thing I would spend my allowance money on. Someone must have given it to me, or left it behind at a house we moved into. Alas, my dreams of home-grown strawberries were dashed when I went out to water it one morning, and found my carefully-nurtured plants nearly leafless. Something had devoured the leaves, leaving little behind. There was no evidence of the culprit, but my dad, who is an agonomist, took one look and said, "Japanese beetles." He dusted what remained of the plants with some kind of pesticide, but it was too late. They were done for.

I was heartbroken, but Dad had little sympathy. He said, "Farming is a tough life. Stay in school."

Unlike the hapless strawberries of my childhood, my basil plant may yet be saved. (The beetles seem utterly uninterested in my pot of parsley.) A friend has promised to give me a pot of chives from her garden. Chives supposedly repel Japanese beetles. A quick Google suggested that the best method of beetle control in my situation is to pick them off by hand. Some suggest crushing the beetles and leaving them around the plants. One, it may train birds to eat them, and two, the beetles are supposedly repelled by the corpses of their brethren.

The first day, I tried crushing the beetles and leaving them around the plant. There were so many that it got pretty disgusting fast. And it didn't seem to work. The next day, there were more beetles than ever. The plant was alive with them. I crushed those, too, but it was so gross I just about gave up. I was leaning toward just throwing the plant away and giving up on fresh herbs this summer. But gardening web sites said even the worst Japanese beetle infestation is hand-cleared much faster than you think, so I kept at it. Though I gave up on leaving the crushed bodies around as beetle repellent, and instead dropped the beetles into a container of soapy water to drown. Much neater that way.

And sure enough, the gardening web sites were right. The next day there were only a few beetles, and the next day, fewer still. I think I'm winning the beetle wars. For now.

Though I must say, seeing the poor plant literally covered in beetles doesn't exactly make me want to eat pesto.

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