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Archive for Wednesday, August 15, 2001

Summer’s heat postpones okra harvest, blister beetle debut

August 15, 2001

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At long last, I have achieved okra.

About two weeks ago, when I should have been wrapping up my okra picking, my plants finally began to set pods. The two obstacles to my okra harvest were deer, which repeatedly nibbled the leaves of my plants, and heat.

When temperatures are in the 90s for prolonged periods of time, even heat-loving vegetable plants like okra will not set fruit. Fruit that already has come on won't ripen.

I kept nursing my okra plants along, hoping to be able to cook at least one mess of okra before the summer was done. They are now about 3 feet high, somewhat shorter than usual, but they are covered with pods.

Okra doesn't hold up well after it's picked and is one vegetable that should move quickly from the garden to the stove. What's available in the produce section or at the vegetable market frequently looks raggedy a short time after picking.

Even with refrigeration, the ridges on the pods begin to turn brown a few hours after harvest. For most okra lovers, a crop failure means no okra 'til next year.

Tomatoes have been the other late-comer. Although we've had a steady stream of tomatoes during the past six or seven weeks, the heat wave that settled in during July left a lot of green tomatoes on the vine and that fruit is now turning red. The bounty that should have arrived last month now is upon us.

The ideal summer for vegetable gardening would have temperatures in the mid-80s starting about May 15 and running through the end of August. We'd get an inch of gentle rain every 10 days.

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Just as the garden began to round the final turn for the season, my old friends the blister beetles showed up for their annual feast. They, too, are about a month late.

I first found them on two eggplant plants, whose leaves they had stripped to the ribs. Now they've shown up on a couple of tomato plants, which is where they have most often done their worst in my garden.

Blister beetles are unmistakable. As they plow through the foliage on a plant, they leave behind a trail of black excrement. The fruit of an infested tomato plant will be covered with the nasty stuff.

The blister beetles in my garden are gray and have that distinctive segmented beetle body. They also are very busy insects, running to and fro with their front legs twitching around.

Blister beetles have arrived at mid- to late season every summer I have gardened south of Lawrence. Their eggs probably overwinter in the soil and hatch into some of the grubs I see when I'm working the soil earlier in the season.

Strangely, precious little is written about the blister beetle. None of the contemporary gardening bibles I use even mentions blister beetles not even "Growing Vegetables in the Great Plains," Joe Thomasson's University Press of Kansas book. This drove me nutty when I first encountered blister beetles and was unable to identify them.

Perhaps the sample of resources I tried was not representative, but I found the first reference to an insect that fit the description and habits of the one in my garden in a USDA booklet from 1961. This booklet was such a relic that its suggested weapon against the dreaded beetle was DDT.

I found more useful information about the blister beetle in a 1946 "New Garden Encyclopedia," which my grandfather purchased. Apparently the gray beetles are just one version of the blister beetle, which also can be striped or darker. This book ascribes one redeeming quality to blister beetles: Their grubs eat grasshopper eggs.

The blister beetle and other insects are active in the garden during harvest, but you need to think twice before applying poisons or chemicals to vegetables that will be picked shortly.

Removing the insects by hand is the best option. But if you consider a natural poison or synthetic insecticide, be sure to read the label carefully to make sure that the active ingredient will break down by the time you plan to harvest.




When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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