I don’t know what time it is. Midnight? Four? What I do know is that this is the time. Yes, I will be less than sparkly at the Fourth of July party tomorrow, but social lameness is a small price to pay. I want cucumbers. I want watermelon. I want zucchini, pumpkins and butternut squash. I haul myself out of bed, glance at the clock on the oven – 2 a.m. – grab a headlamp and slip on my Crocks.
The middle of the night on the hottest summer nights is when the cucumber beetles come out to mate. You might find one nestled in a squash blossom during the day, and maybe you’d think it looked pretty with its yellow and black stripes against the yellow flower. Soon you’d find your squash stunted, tips brown and rotten. A week or two later the whole tropical looking plant would wilt and die like a sea creature washed ashore. You’d laugh halfheartedly when other gardeners complained about their baseball bat sized zucchini they just couldn’t keep up with. By you, of course, I mean me.
Every garden has its pests. At my first, shady corner of a suburban yard it was slugs. At the next, a half-acre farm field, groundhogs. Now it’s these slender quarter-inch long mofos. Three years’ reconnaissance have taught me a few things about my current rival, like that at night, the odds turn in my favor. This is when the swarms come out from wherever they’ve been hiding and dance around defenseless. By the light of a headlamp I might find 40 on a plant, crawling over the youngest, most tender leaves, tightrope-walking along the spiraling tendrils, one atop the other piggyback style, making more cucumber beetles. I’ve read they can make four new generations in a season. Sometimes they fly like kamikazes into my chest, forehead, neck, meeting their end between palm and flesh.
This is the only way I know to control their numbers. If I can get out here three times in a summer, each time, the beetles’ numbers are fewer, and my cucurbits – that’s the gourd family of plants – are happier. I’m pretty sure there’s no plant family that provide more food value than the gourds. Think about how much sustenance is in one pumpkin. Enough for a whole pie or a pot of soup. If we’re going to feed our growing family for real, these plants need protecting. Leaving them to the beetles is not an option.
It’s not like I jump out of bed to get squishing. But once I’m out here, I’m never in any hurry to go back inside. It’s blissfully quiet, after the ducklings have gotten over their alarm at my approach and settled down. Just the occasional crickets and some sort of intermittent large-bird call from the mountain I embarrassingly can’t place: turkey? That’s not an owl.
The moon has risen high over the treetops, and it’s mercifully cool. I make my rounds, my mind on nothing but what’s in the beam of my headlamp. The nocturnal cast of insects is out, including some unfamiliar ones, like a slinky black guy that moves like a silverfish. Any bugs I find in low numbers, I’ll leave. A diverse ecosystem is what I’m going for, and hey, maybe they eat cucumber beetles. But once I start finding a bug en masse, or they look like they’re doing real damage, I’ll squish.
I find a handful of mating cucumber beetle pairs at each of my stops, but not clouds of them like last time – whether that’s a sign of success or some quirk of the weather, I don’t know. I am still a novice entomologist. I make quick work of the piggybacking pairs, and then, not ready to go back in yet, do a little weeding.
At seven months pregnant, I am all about energy conservation. I’ve completely cast aside my old motto – “never let the weather dictate your plans” – and now, like an old lady, I’ve been organizing my life around comfortable temperatures. I take the kids to the library or the movies just so I can sit in the air conditioning. I’m extra attentive to friends who have pools. And suddenly it’s so obvious that gardening at this hour, with no sun beating down, is just common sense, beetles or no.
I tiptoe inside – waking the little one would end my garden session pronto – for some seeds I’ve been wanting to plant. I pull up a bed of radishes that have flowered, and in their place plant beets, beans and some flowers: asters, which I’m hoping will attract good bugs. I munch a couple young carrots that accidentally came up with the radishes. They’re sweet, none of that soapy taste they take on when you leave them too long. But I’ve been dallying. I can see without my headlamp now. Like a vampire, I am immediately exhausted by the sight of the lightening world. Back inside I go, snuggling in with my two-year-old for my second sleep.
I will wake in a few hours to the smell of coffee percolating. “Iced or hot?,” husband Joe will ask. Maybe I will mention my 2 a.m. session to him, but he will be in the middle of his own morning chores, so probably not. I will shower, using the nail brush on my greenish fingertips, and the memory will recede like a dream.