Josna Rege

281. Invasion of the Potato Beetles

In 1980s, Family, Food, Nature, places, Work on August 14, 2014 at 9:19 pm
fresh-picked Yukon Golds (from restlesschipotle.com)

fresh-picked Yukon Golds (from restlesschipotle.com)

In my experience, potatoes and potato beetles go together as love is said to go with marriage in the old song: you can’t have the pleasures of one without the travails of the other. And potato beetle warfare is hellish; so much so that since that summer in Winchendon, circa 1987, when the Colorado potato beetles invaded, we have ventured to grow potatoes only twice. This year, the second time, the results have been wonderful, and—so far, anyway—consequence-free.

I hadn’t realized how much that summer had affected me until a city friend of mine, recently returned from a rejuvenating weekend visit to a friend’s farm, mentioned innocently in an email message that he had spent some pleasant hours “picking potato beetles off plants and picking the world’s biggest blueberries.” On the first readthrough, my eyes must have skipped right over the former activity to the pleasing image of the gigantic blueberries; on the second, I was filled with revulsion. I realized then how deep I must have buried my own memories of potato beetle-picking, a chore about as far from the idyll of blueberry-picking as one could possibly imagine.

At the time, Andrew and I were living on the farm with Maureen, Rudy, and Charlie, and Nikhil and Eric were babies. We maintained a large home garden together, and in addition Maureen and Rudy grew perennials and enough vegetables to support a small, all-organic CSA, mostly for friends in the city. To this end they had planted a large number of tomato plants, followed by a smaller number of eggplants, and, behind them, what we hoped would be a modest crop of potatoes. The previous year we had had some trouble with Colorado potato beetles, but I don’t remember having had much difficulty keeping them in check, even with organic pest control. This year, it was an altogether different story.

Colorado Potatoes Beetle larvae, munching (from livingwithinsects.wordpress.com)

Colorado Potatoes Beetle larvae, munching (from livingwithinsects.wordpress.com)

The glistening salmon-pink larvae munched their way through the potato crop like squat, squelchy locusts, growing steadily all the while, and moved right on to the eggplant. Eggplant was hard to cultivate to maturation in Winchendon because of the short growing season, and we knew that we had to up our game. We issued a desperate call for reinforcements, friends from the city to come out and participate in an all-out campaign. But they were now slow to respond, though they had been initially charmed by the opportunity to spend a working weekend on our organic farm. It was not for nothing that our friend Harvey had dubbed it the Gulag, and only partly in jest; meanwhile, the mature beetles were laying eggs, and the situation was about to get out of control.

Mature beetles at work. (Photo by David Cappaert, Michigan State University, www.insectimages.org)

Mature beetles at work. (Photo by David Cappaert, Michigan State University, http://www.insectimages.org)

The population exploded on the weekend that our intrepid friend Reva answered the call for help. Reva, then in medical school, had always been an immensely capable person for whom no difficulty was too great to be overcome. As soon as she had stepped into our mud-trodden farm kitchen, she stepped up to the sinkful of breakfast dishes and began working her way through them with a speed and determination not unlike the potato beetles themselves. Then, sink and dish-drainer cleared, she drew up a plan of action over a large mug of coffee. First, we were to set out into the field en masse, working our way toward the eggplant from the tomatoes, so as to head the enemy off before they got to our prize crop. Reva would come in and make lunch for all the hungry workers, and then, after the babies were tucked into bed, perhaps we could take in a movie or have a relaxing evening after a job well done. No one contradicted her, but farmers are a pessimistic lot; and not without good reason.

We duly set out with our waxed cardboard milk cartons half-filled with water. I’ve forgotten whose ingenious idea this had been, but for me, the most repulsive part of the job had always been crushing the beetles, whether it was the sticky yellow mass of eggs, the shiny soft-skinned larvae, or the fully-formed adults with hard, crunchy exoskeletons. This system simply called for us to drop the creatures into the water and close the lid back up: out of sight, out of mind—sort of. We set out in a close phalanx, aiming to move systematically through the tomato crop, scooping up any of the advance guard, until we reached the eggplants, where the work would get fast and furious. But we had reckoned without those tens of thousands of mindlessly-masticating jaws. We started finding them only a few rows into the precious tomato plants, and soon realized that we were fighting a losing battle; the potato plants were devastated, the eggplants were already a write-off, and we would have to fight for our lives if we wanted to salvage any tomatoes at all.

Devastation (Photograph by Lyle J. Buss, University of Florida)

Devastation (Photograph by Lyle J. Buss, University of Florida)

I can’t tell you how traumatic the next few hours were, as we embarked on an orgy of killing under the unforgiving summer sun. We worked until our hands were stinking and stained yellow and we were ready to drop from heat exhaustion. When we dragged ourselves back into the house, dear Reva was drying and clearing away the dishes and had a spread laid out ready for us on the kitchen table. After scrubbing the evidence off our hands, we fell upon the food like locusts. As we ate, despite Reva’s best efforts to keep the conversation on current affairs, new and recommended reading, even the state of the nuclear industry—anything but potato beetles—the talk inevitably turned to the gloomy subject of the state of the crops and the diminishing prospects for a viable harvest. The verdict from the die-hards was that there would be no harvest unless we went out for a second stint in the fields and finished the job. How long might that last, someone ventured to ask? Until dark or the mosquitoes descended, whichever came first, came the grim reply.

I could see Reva’s visions of a civilized Saturday evening watching a movie or engaging in quiet conversation becoming a distant dream. Fiercely loyal friend that she was, this was the way she had chosen to spend a rare 36 hours off from her punishing residency at Harlem hospital. Dismissing her disappointment, she offered to babysit the boys, so as allow the rest of us go back out for a second stint. But then she turned around and saw the kitchen sink, which had been empty and polished clean just a few minutes before. It was yet again as full of dirty dishes as it had been when she had waded into the job first thing that morning. It was only then, when she realized that the work was truly never-ending, that our fearless friend gave way to despair, broken at last by the Gulag.

roasted Yukon Gold potatoes (from urbancookery.com)

roasted Yukon Gold potatoes (from urbancookery.com)

This year, I tried not to think about the fact that Andrew had taken some old, sprouting potatoes out back and put them in the ground. Last week he astounded and delighted me when he came in with two big bags of beautifully formed Russets and Yukon Golds, heavenly when we roasted them in olive oil and garlic. Discovering all over again the incomparable taste of home-grown new potatoes, I dared to hope that we were finally out from under the Curse of the Potato Beetles. More likely, though, it’ll only mean the beginning of a new population cycle, especially when the word gets out among them that we had a good Solanum harvest this year.

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  1. Josna – you write with such descriptive words and phrases and emotions. Farming and gardening are back-breaking work with fickle weather and lots of uncontrollable challenges. But it makes for some great stories like yours.

    I was utterly repulsed by the potato beetles. Potatoes are one of the few veggies Dad never grew, but I’ve gagged over green tomato worms while picking them off the plants, and cringed at close looks to see aphids sucking the life out of my roses.

    I will definitely be thinking of you (but not the beetles) the next time I eat potatoes. Thanks for a well- written vibrant read.

    • Thank you, Sammy. If you were repulsed, then I guess I did my job! If you want to see a super-cute close-up I took of a tomato hornworm, then check out this story, “Hollyhocks and Hornworms” (https://josna.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/147-hollyhocks-and-hornworms/) But glad too that I didn’t turn you off potatoes, Now that would have been a sin!

      • Ohhhh noooo; I hate those worms! This is a testament to the exceptional quality of your writing that I am actually going to grit my teeth and click on that link!

        Ugh!!! Be Brave, Sammy 🙂

        Oh ick !!!

        • I hope you’ll like it, Sammy. It might, just might, even allow you to see them in a new light.

        • Nope, still get creeped out, although I loved your post. I think it’s the combination of how cleverly disguised they are so you practically have your nose in the leaves smelling those luscious red tomatoes and then the slinky green worm with those strange “eyes” comes into view. And they are just way to plump and squishy looking.

          Enjoyed your fascination with seed pods. I share that, and am always coming to a halt on walks to see what one looks like or whether it’s about to burst. I enjoy dead-heading my perennials through the summer and finally letting them go to seed.

          Did you ever come across snake grass? A thin reedy stalk near swampy places in Michigan. It grew in sections that fit into the next section of the stalk like a puzzle. We use to coax the sections apart and try to fit them back together, but it was harder than it looked.

        • Okay, Sammy, maybe you’re not likely to vibrate in sympathy with the lowly tomato hornworm, who is what it eats. To tell you the truth, neither am I. Snake grass sounds amazing, though. I will look for it. I love your description of “coaxing the sections apart and trying to fit them back together” When I was ten, I once “plaited mats of rushes” that I found by a rive; such a satisfying thing to do.

  2. WOW! That was an epic Lord of the Rings type battle scene! It’s a wonder you can eat potatoes at all…. 🙂

    • Yes, it felt epic even at the time, also endless. And it’s taken me more than 25 years to get over it. But it would take more than a beetle to turn me off potatoes.

      • Yes, potatoes are the foundation.. 🙂

        I’d never heard of potato beetles and me the grandson of a farmer! In my defence I’ve never really seen the family farmstead and none of the genes have been passed down.

  3. Josna, I can understand why you buried the memory. It must have been a nightmare. I can’t imagine seeing your crop being “chomped” up in that way. It must be absolutely heartbreaking. I hope that the results continue to be wonderful for you now..

    • It was a bit of a nightmare, Don, though days like that are par for the course on a farm, and I must admit that I waxed rather melodramatic for maximum effect! Thanks for the good wishes. I haven’t actually done the gardening for a while–my husband is the farmer in the family, but I do help eat the produce!

  4. UGH! Thank you for reminding me what the full life cycle of the potato beetle looks like! I had completely repressed it. We never had a season like yours. I’d recommend rotating the crop, don’t plant tomatoes, potatoes or egg plant near each other or where you grew those great potatoes this year! I have picked them off, but never any sort of infestation like you had. My dismal memory of potatoes is digging them to find a slimy mess of rotted potatoes. That is what made me give up growing them.

    • No doubt you’re being ironic when you thank me, Kristin! You might thank me for skipping a frightening photograph of the eggs. That was an early disaster, though I think they did succeed in saving the tomatoes–I’ll have to ask Maureen. I’m sure that she and Rudy, who were running the CSA and were pretty experienced organic growers, did something different in succeeding years. You’re right that rotation is key. And I must remind andrew not to grown anything in the potato-egglant-tomato family in that spot next year. That is a sad image. Here’s a lovely one to replace it with. One year Andrew was digging up potatoes with Nikhil and a couple of his friends, when they must have been 6-1/2 or 7. They came upon a nest of newborn baby moles, all curled up, shiny pink, eyes tightly closed. What a wonderful sight! They covered them up again gently and reverently and made sure not to use the shovel in that vicinity again.I hope their mother returned soon.

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