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Intrepid Urban Farmer: Zucchini wars have begun (hang the vine borer) and a new chapter opened

By Ginger Dawson
Special to NKyTribune

As many of you may know, I have spent much time, sweat and emotional anguish over the simple desire to have a successful, long-lived zucchini crop.  

My fellow gardeners — is it too much to ask for?

Over the years I have tried many, many techniques that have come highly recommended as tactics to fend off that hated foe of zucchini everywhere — the SQUASH VINE BORER. Except for my grandfather’s zucchini.  For some reason, he never had any trouble with them. There’s got to a moral there, somewhere.  Perhaps it would be wise to stay in the dark on that.

I’ve tried them all. I’ve wrapped foil around the stems (doesn’t work). At the first appearance of frass (wet sawdusty stuff that announces attack), I’ve literally sliced the stems and flicked that hideous grub out (doesn’t work). I’ve planted a second, diversionary crop, in which the borers become delighted with the joy of TWO opportunities (doesn’t work). I’ve made an attempt at straw bale gardening (doesn’t work), and on and on ad infinitum.

Pop-up tents for zucchini in place and doing their job.

I’ve tried so many things that I can’t even remember some of them. This is probably a good thing. Taking a long survey of my gardening prowess over the past 25 years, I am justifiably embarrassed by many of my earlier efforts. Some of them are just SO ignorant, I can’t even rectify the logic! Needless to say, I have way too much self-regard to impart some of these gaffes to the public at large.  I do, at least, have that much self-dignity….barely.

These past efforts, with their accompanying failures, have put me where I am today. Which is to say that I am still trying and still coming up short. I am standing on the shoulders of my past efforts and they are the shoulders of a sideshow dwarf.  

Actually, it’s not quite as dire as all that. In the last two or three years, I have been on to something. Even though I still haven’t been able to have a full season of zucchini, I have had a few pretty good runs.

Little fledgling zukes!  So far, so good.

Building on a deeper look at the life cycle of the squash vine borer, I discovered that stopping this disgusting creature from having its way was going to have to be a front game. Since the cocoon of this monster overwinters in the soil, prevention had to start well before the attack. Get the cocoon! 

Here’s what I’ve done:  After configuring my soaker hose set-up, I mound up soil into a little hill and plant the seed.  After doing this, I prepare a neem oil soil drench. This is a mixture of roughly 1 1/2 tablespoons of neem to 1 gallon of water. You will need to add about a half teaspoon of dish soap to it to emulsify the oil into the mix.

Then, I completely soak the mounds of dirt that the seed is planted in. You will need to use the rose on your watering can so that you don’t disturb the seed.

Once you are done with this, erect some type of tent over the seed hill. If any adults survive your first assault (and they will!), this tent will offer a little protection. In the past, I’ve used a peony bush support, which is basically a ring with three legs on it. I drape a cover (garden fabric, old white sheet, etc..) over it and secure it with bricks.

Little Tromboncino zucchini plants at the beginning of their work.

Or, one could purchase a contraption designed for this purpose from Gardener’s Supply, a mail order company that specializes in plant supports and accessories.  I have three of their pop-up zucchini tents. I love these things. Some people get excited about new cell phones, I get worked up over garden gadgets.

Once the zucchini is too big to stay in the tents, you must remove them.  Then the hand-wringing begins.  Keep a close eye on the base of the stems of the plants. Periodically give them a little squirt of pyrethrin, particularly after a rain. The idea is to kill any eggs that the adults will lay at the base of the plant stems. If these eggs hatch, that disgusting creature, the larva, will have its way.

I’ve had pretty good luck with this system, and I hope to again this year.

However, I am always on the lookout for better ways of doing things and better plants to do them with.

During a recent garden tour, I met some new fellow gardeners. We commiserated over the state of zucchini (It is good to know that there are fellow fanatics).  

We shared our war stories, and then . . . Kismet!

Trombone zucchini. I can’t wait to see how this experiment ends up!

They told me about trombone zucchini — more specifically known as tromboncino squash!  

This is a type of zucchini that squash vine borers will have nothing to do with.  I can scarcely believe my good luck!  It also is apparently a viner and therefore will take up less space in the garden if you trellis it.

These fellow gardeners shared a few seeds with me and I have planted them.  I cannot wait to see how this plays out.  I am not going to do anything special with their planting, I am just going to watch.  It could be that I will have a full season of zucchini, albeit split between two different varieties.

I think that this tolerance to the squash vine borer is a function of the difference in species of the tromboncino.  It is curcubita moschata.  This is the same species as butternut squash, which is also tolerant to borer attack.  Most summer squash is curcubita pepo.  I love clarity!

The zucchini wars have opened a new chapter and have suddenly become more interesting!  I cannot wait to watch this unfold.


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. See her new website at intrepidurbanfarmer.com

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