Playing in the dirt.

Garden Nemeses

Content note: This post contains images of insects.

My turnips have fleas.

Well, they looked like fleas, and they jumped like fleas, but they were eating my turnip greens, which is very unlike fleas.  It is, however, very like some species of flea beetles, which adore brassicas.  There’s even a variety called the “turnip flea beetle” though those have a yellow stripe on each wing carapace, and the ones in my garden appear to be all black.  Other varieties prefer nightshades, such as tobacco, tomato, or potato plants, and still other species have other preferences.

A young turnip plant damaged by flea beetles.

Someone’s been snacking my greens!

They’re also rather difficult to deal with unless one is willing to use chemical pesticides, which I am not.  I’ve been exercising my patience by picking the tiny beetles off by hand when I can catch them.  It’s pretty easy, as long as I remember to keep from casting a shadow over them as I reach in, and don’t jostle the plant too much in the process.  Sometimes, they jump away and land on the wooden edge of the garden bed, and they’re really easy to squash there, because I don’t have to worry about damaging a plant!

A flea beetle on the cotyledon of a young turnip plant.

This tiny critter posted “Party at Teaspoon’s Garden” to Twitter. About a thousand of its followers showed up.

The other method I’m using is to dust the dry plants and surrounding soil every couple of days with diatomaceous earth and letting that sit for at least several hours before watering.  Diatomaceous earth, or “DE,” for anyone unfamiliar with it, is composed of fossilized diatoms, a kind of algae.  It’s mostly silica, and it works by virtue of its sharp abrasive surfaces, which scratch or penetrate the exoskeletons of insects, causing injuries that leave them susceptible to fungus or bacteria.  As a result, most insects will avoid surfaces sprinkled with the powder.  Food grade or garden grade DE is usually marked that no particular safety precautions are necessary, but some people prefer to wear a simple breathing mask and/or safety goggles, to prevent inhaling the fine particles or getting them in their eyes.  I just make sure to stand upwind before shaking it over the garden.  DE unfortunately looks like a “mysterious white powder,” so while it is readily available through many gardening or food service suppliers, it’s probably a good idea to keep the original packaging with the material, even when transferring it to a resealable container, like a lidded bucket or a large plastic container.  (It’s usually most economical to purchase it in larger quantities, usually 10 pounds or so.)

Young turnip plants dusted with diatomaceous earth.

Party’s over!
You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!

Another nemesis I’m having to be on the lookout for are grasshoppers.  Little green ones like the one below are kind of cute, when they’re not eating my lettuce, but I had to chase a big brown one the size of my finger out a few mornings ago.  It didn’t want to be chased, so I ended up having to pick it up.  I flung it in the direction of some tall grass, well within their usual jumping ability, so I figure it probably was fine and will end up back in the lettuce after telling all of its popper buddies its alien abduction story.

A small green grasshopper sits on a white garden hose reinforcer.

Don’t I look harmless?

And a brief followup about the skunk, though I don’t consider her (yes, “her”) a nemesis — she can’t get to the garden plants, and she’ll eat grasshoppers.  I surprised her the next morning, and she politely scrambled back beneath an old shed.  I happened to catch the movement out of the corner of my eye, and when I looked over, her tail was just disappearing, and four baby skunks were lined up to follow her back into the den!


I am not ashamed to admit that I squealed with delight.  Sadly, that old shed is not a terribly desirable place for a family of skunks, especially with a perfectly serviceable old shed on the vacant property next door.  Still, they’re not hurting anything, they’re just being skunks, and they’re healthy animals with no sign of disease.  We ended up putting a radio inside the shed on high volume for a few days, to give the skunks the impression that an annoying neighbor had moved in upstairs.

A couple of evenings later, I did see Mama Skunk out and about, but no babies along this time.  The original photo is really dark, but we have the technology (Colors->Auto->Stretch Contrast in GIMP, in case of interest), to lighten it up a bit…


A female striped skunk at dusk.

Mama Skunk is not interested in making new friends.



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