In the last article I shared a few interesting gardening tips for growing heirloom eggplants in the backyard garden.
Today I wanted to discuss a common headache that you’re more than likely to encounter anytime that you raise eggplants in the home garden.
If You Plant Them, They Will Come
One thing that has always been a constant for me is that if I plant a single eggplant, flea beetles are guaranteed to make an appearance. For some reason these difficult to control pests are especially fond of eggplants and if left unattended will quickly chew hundreds of holes through the plant’s leaves.
The damage may not kill the eggplants outright, but will undoubtedly stunt the plants and put an end to any hopes of harvesting a bumper crop of colorful and tasty fruits. I’ve seen eggplants totally covered with flea beetles, which leave the plant’s leaves looking like Swiss cheese.
Organic Flea Beetle Controls
Flea Beetles are tiny (smaller than the size of a pin head), dark colored, and very much flea-like in the way that they can jump up and disappear from the plant when disturbed. Left unchecked they can quickly multiply and create havoc with crops such as potatoes and eggplants.
The traditional organic approach to controlling flea beetles has been to resort to the application of an organic pesticide such as pyrethrins or rotenone. While organic, this is still a pesticide that has to be handled carefully and can kill non-targeted insects including the beneficial ones that we want to keep around the garden.
As much as I resist applying any type of pesticide spray in the garden I have resorted to using organic pesticides to control pesky flea beetles on eggplants. Even with this deterrent the flea beetles will eventually return and require monitoring for additional follow-up applications.
Hands-On Approach to Eliminating Flea Beetles
A determined organic gardener with a little time on his or her hands can sometimes manage a small infestation of flea beetles in the home garden by stalking the pests and crushing the beetles before they have a chance to jump up and escape.
As a kid I lived next door to a family of Cuban immigrants that grew a fantastic garden, including the best and biggest eggplants that I have ever seen. They were also pretty much organic because they never sprayed chemicals and relied on wheelbarrow loads of aged horse manure from a local stable for their annual dose of fertilizer.
I still recall how someone would venture outside as the opportunity arose to walk through the garden and literally beat the bugs off of the vegetable plants by lightly tapping them with slender, flexible sticks. I never tried this technique out for myself, but they never seemed to suffer with flea beetle damage to their eggplants.
Other Ideas for Controlling Flea Beetles
If you can’t beat them then feed them… One trick to keep flea beetles at bay is to grow a trap crop that they prefer to eat, which will keep them occupied and away from your prized vegetable plants. For example, flea beetles will leave eggplants alone in preference to feeding on radish leaves or Southern Giant Mustard plants that are growing nearby.
Some gardeners have had success attracting and controlling flea beetles with yellow or white colored sticky traps that are suspended near the vegetable plants being attacked. You can even try homemade sprays made from pureed garlic diluted in water, or a combination of garlic and hot peppers. There are also species of nematodes that can be applied to the soil to control flea beetle larvae.
The critical time for controlling and preventing flea beetle damage is when the plants are young and during the early stages of the plant’s development. Older eggplants and mature vegetables can tolerate a little more flea beetle activity without becoming stressed or stunted.
A Flea Beetle Mystery
So far this season I’ve been looking and waiting for the appearance of sufficient numbers or damage from flea beetles to justify spraying, and surprisingly I just haven’t seen enough of either to be concerned about.
Not that I’m unhappy about the unusual lack of troublesome flea beetles, but it raises a big question of WHY, and exactly what has prevented their usual assault upon my heirloom eggplants?
Have the flea beetles wised up and moved on to another garden where they can feast upon eggplants undisturbed? I don’t think so! Have my eggplants developed some kind of immunity? Not hardly… so what happened?
New Remedy for Flea Beetles on Eggplants?
The only thing that I can possibly attribute to the decline in flea beetle populations is the fact that I’m using a red plastic mulch in the beds containing my peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants for the first time this season, so maybe that has something to do with the reduced presence of flea beetles.
I recall hearing that flea beetles like a dry crusted soil, which the red plastic will help prevent. The red plastic may also disrupt the reproduction cycle of the flea beetles which lay eggs in the soil where the larvae develop underground and feed on plant roots.
I’ll keep an eye on this one. There are some flea beetles present, but no where near the normal levels and not enough to warrant much concern. For now I’ll resort to the hands on approach to control the flea beetles that I see or can catch on the eggplants.
If this luck continues you will definitely find a plastic mulch covering my eggplant beds from now on. If you have experiences with successful organic solutions for controlling flea beetles on eggplants or potatoes I’d be very interested in learning about your techniques.
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