Navigating the World of Gardening

I consider myself a novice gardener. For the past 2 years, from the spring through the fall, my fiancée and I have rented a plot in our town’s community garden, a nice 10×10 space that offers the opportunity to plant various fruit and vegetable seeds with the hope that with enough weeding, just the right amount of water, and a little bit of luck, we’ll have some local farm-to-table foods.

With the help of a good friend and his green thumb, we’ve successfully grown tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, lettuce, parsley, basil, and we’ve tried to grow a dozen other herbs, vegetables, and fruits. From our friend and from our garden plot neighbors, we’ve learned how to put cages around tomato plants, how to prune basil, when to harvest zucchini, and much more. Though we’ve learned a lot, we remain novice gardeners, and I’m reminded of that every time my fiancée leaves for a teaching program for the month of July and I’m left to tend to the garden by myself.

It Only Looks Cute

This July: I came face-to-face with the harlequin beetle. I had seen these little beetles clinging to the leaves of a broccoli plant in our plot, and I remember thinking, oh, little beetles, how cute. I liked how they were so colorful, noticing the flecks of yellow, red, and orange on their bodies, and considered them harmless, thus ignoring them every time I watered or weeded. One day, as a stood in the late afternoon heat, directing the stream of water from the gardening hose to fall on that broccoli plant, I wondered why the plant wasn’t producing any flowers, yet its billowy leaves seemed to be growing by the minute, nearly taking over one corner of the plot. As the community garden manager walked by in a hurry, I asked her.

She stepped in close, turning over one of the leaves, and then said, “This plant needs to go.”

I looked at her, not understanding.

“Do you see these beetles?” she said, pointing to the cute little beetles. “These are harlequin beetles. Once they land on a plant, they multiply, and take over.”

“What should I do?” I asked her.

“You have to kill them,” she said.

An Unwelcome Host

Kill them? Ok, whoa, this was not what I had signed up for. I was not in the business of killing animals, especially cute little beetles.

“Here,” she said, showing me. “Pick them up and smash them, one by one. Do this to as many as you can, to every beetle you can find.”

She must have noticed the shock on my face, because then she said, “I know, it’s hard. But you have to do this. You have to kill them because every one of them lays eggs and multiplies quickly.”

“Why are they so bad?” I asked.

“They prevent plants from blooming. They will pick a plant that is weak, one that hasn’t flowered yet, to host, and they will take it down,” she said, her eyes growing wide and her words quickening. “Then they’ll pick another plant, and another. They will literally take down this entire plot. And when they’re done, they’ll find another plot.”

She grabbed a large brown paper bag from the plot behind her and placed it in front of me.

“Smash every beetle you can see on that plant,” she instructed. “Then, when you can’t find anymore, pull the entire plant and put it in this bag.” She told me to close the bag tight in case of the chance that a lone beetle or two remained alive.

“Then go back to the spot where the plant was and check and see if there are any beetles in the soil,” she continued. “Smash them, too. You do not want a single beetle in your plot.”

She offered me gloves, which I gladly accepted, and then continued her work, which I now realized was pulling a large cabbage plant that had also fallen victim to harlequin beetles.

Smashing with a Purpose

I spent what felt like hours smashing bugs and digging in the soil for any escapees, and after a while, I was numb to the act of it. I became determined to hunt down every last beetle, searching quickly for flecks of color and for movement on the leaves of the broccoli plant. When I’d triple-checked the plant and its corner of the plot, I uprooted it.

Later, I learned that we’d planted the broccoli too late for the spring season and too early for the fall season, thus placing it in no man’s land and making it a prime target for harlequin beetles.

As a novice gardener, I’m proud to be able to offer this piece of advice: if you garden, and you see a harlequin beetle on the leaves of one of your plants, that plant and its inhabitants need to go.