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Urban Farmer: ‘Tis the season — let the annual zucchini battle begin; me against the rotten borers

By Ginger Dawson
NKyTribune Columnist

My annual battle with that most tenacious of foes, the Squash Vine Borer, has begun again for 2015. This cunning monster is AT THIS MOMENT positioning itself to do fatal damage to my zucchini. I have spent many years and much emotional and mental effort trying to vanquish this hideous creature.

It is a battle that started many years ago, and those rotten Borers are the ones that threw down the gauntlet. They have started this war and I have no choice but to retaliate. It is MY garden, not theirs (this sounds like a religious war!). They lay low, undetected, in the previous year’s carnage of infested vegetation, and in early spring, the adult moths spring forth from their hiding places like heathen ninjas and dispatch their lethal little eggs near my newly emerging zucchini plants.


Around the end of June, and through July, these eggs hatch and the larvae immediately start their assault on the zucchini. This attack is acute and brutal. In a covert mission, they come up through the ground into the main stems of the plants. With bullseye precision they take out the entire plant.

One day, I admire the health and beauty of my zucchini, anticipating an enormous harvest. The next day, I notice wet, sawdusty-looking stuff around the main stems of the plants. This stuff has an official term— Frass. I have another four-letter word for it. This is the sign that an assault (actually a point-blank MURDER), has occurred and those damn borers have frass on their hands.

It took me a few years to figure this out. I tried many different techniques to address the problem, but most of these efforts are designed to address the problem after the fact. After the fact is too late. I’ve tried them all. They do not work.

The time to ward off a Borer attack is well before the zucchini seed germinates. Stopping the adult moths from laying their eggs in the soil is the only tactic that works.

How do you prevent this? Well, a couple of years ago, I covered my plants with a sheer white curtain draped over a wire support and anchored the edges with bricks. This held off the attack a little. But, the eggs had already been laid—just not as many. I got at least three or four zucchini before SZDS (sudden zucchini death syndrome).

Last year, in an attempt to further refine my approach, I made a deal with the devil and used BUG SPRAY. After I planted my seed and erected the little tent, I sprayed the ground inside with it. There are many types of insecticide that are approved for organic use. Or, you can pursue better living through chemistry and use an insecticide that is not sanctioned for organic use. The great thing about gardening is that your garden is your kingdom. If you want to take a walk on the wild side and use organophosphates, you go on with your bad self.


As always, when using any chemicals, organically sanctioned or not, it is your responsibility to educate yourself thoroughly about safety and use. I have spent a lot of time researching all of the available fungicides and pesticides on the market and I’m pretty comfortable with using whatever works.

Be aware that organic pesticides and fungicides require just as much careful use and understanding as non-organic.

Utilizing this system last year; tent and bug spray, I managed to have a very good harvest. It was best year I have ever had. The Borers ultimately got to them, but it was a fabulous run!

However, I am never content. There is always room for improvement. I want borer-proof zucchini; zucchini that never succumbs to the assault. Being the mad scientist/gardener that I am, tweaking and refining is in my DNA.

This has lead me to that most recent and provocative of horticultural trends—Straw Bale Gardening. Tony Works, of Jackson Florist and Garden Center in Latonia, introduced me to this. He is a great source of gardening knowledge and enthusiasm.

Straw bale gardening is a technique whereby you condition a bale of straw with fertilizer and water to provide a fertile medium for plants to grow in. It is basically a bale-contained compost pile. In order to accomplish this, the bale conditioning has to start a couple of weeks before you intend to plant (remember, this is right after Mother’s Day in zone six).

Any plant can be raised with this method. There is a very good, easy to use book on this topic, “Straw Bale Gardens Complete” by Joel Karsten. It answers every question a person could have.

My interest in this method is, of course, for my zucchini, and in it, I saw a technique of trickery. What if the adult Squash Vine Borers are caught off guard by my plan and lay their hideous spawn in the dirt and don’t go near the bale? I had to try it.

Here’s what I’ve done:

First, I conditioned the bale in the prescribed manner outlined in the book. It is basically a technique of applying fertilizer in an every other day pattern, and watering it into the bale. Slowly, the bale will break down inside. Using a trowel to open channels for the fertilizer to sink in is advised. I did that.

When the bale was ready, I ran a soaker hose across the top of it, and put a band of potting soil across the top for the zucchini seed to germinate in. Just in case, after I planted, I sprayed the top of soil with bug spray. I wasn’t planning on doing that, but I didn’t wrap the bale with screen as per my original plan, because if was too difficult to do the conditioning of the bale with that obstruction.

Next, I put in place a wire teepee covered with a garden fabric cover. I don’t want to leave anything to chance. Just maybe those borers aren’t as dumb as I am hoping they are.

Now, I just watch and wait. Soon, the zucchini plants will be too big to leave the teepee in place. I will remove it and begin my hand-wringing. Will it work? Have I done all of this for nothing? Well, I have certainly done more work for greater disappointment than this, so I am resolved to that.


Each year, I always make mistakes. I learn from them, and there have been some doozies. But, over the years I have had my little victories, too. I take those and build on them.

If this works, I will feel as though the holy war for zucchini in my back yard has been won….for this year. But, like any holy war, the parties never change their stripes and the struggle will begin anew in 2016. But, maybe I will have a new weapon—a straw bale.


Ginger Dawson has resided in Covington, Kentucky since 1988. Raised on a farm in South Central Ohio, she has enjoyed a very eclectic and enriching life. She loves her Italianate Victorian Townhouse and particularly the garden behind it.

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