The triumph of man over bug

September 21, 1997|By Rob Kasper

I STUBBED MY TOE on a garden cucumber and found myself in a lather. Part of my excitation was that I was startled. Cucumbers sneak up on you. They are stealth vegetables, seemingly coming to fruition under cover of dark green leaves.

Yet for me this cucumber was more than a mere surprise. It was an exclusive. It was a one-and-only. This 7 inches of cellulose represented a victory, of sorts, of man over bug, in this case the wily cucumber beetle. And this cucumber was the only one I had been able to get past the beetle in the past two years.

The cucumber beetle has a yellow and black body the size of your fingernail and a head the size of an apostrophe. It may not look imposing, but this bug is one clever critter.

No matter what manner of attack -- chemical, animal or emotional -- I have employed against it, the bug has prevailed. I have planted cucumbers early in the season hoping the beetles were still on winter vacation. I have planted them late in the season, hoping the beetles had already buzzed off to more inviting climes. I have fed the soil. I have sprayed the plants. I have dusted. I have exterminated some of the beetles with my own hands and left their carcasses on the ground as a warning to kinfolk. The beetles, it seems, do not scare easily.

I did not try the defense of the seven veils, covering the plants with a piece of polyester fabric called a floating row cover. The theory of this defense is that once the plants are wrapped in gauze, they are inviolate. It seems to me, however, that if you employ the seven veils, you have to peel back the gauze each time you want to get your hands on a cucumber. The idea of undressing the plant each time I visit it makes me uneasy.

Not only have I been outwitted by a bug whose brain -- if it has one -- is about the size of that of your stereotypical councilman, the bug's humiliation of me has been cruel. It taunted me.

It let me plant cucumbers. It let the vines sprawl. It let the yellow flowers bloom, and it allowed the cucumbers to go into their secretive stage -- hiding in the darkness while their bodies fill out.

It let me think that life was moving along the way it should, that supper would soon be on the table. Then faster than I could say, "Well, hush my cellulose!" the beetle attacked, the plant wilted, and everything went limp.

This has happened to me so many times that I vowed to change my habits. This year I told myself I would abstain from planting cucumbers. No more would I let the beetle string me along, toying with me until harvest time. I reminded myself there were other vegetables to plant.

I kept this vow until midsummer, when, weakened by the sun and an end-of-season sale at the local nursery, I bought a cucumber plant.

It spent its early days in the shadow of the zucchini. Later it curled around the mint. Maybe this time will be different, I told myself. But then I went out of town for a few days, and when my back was turned, the cucumber beetle ravaged.

The scene was familiar: the limp vines, the curling leaves, the air of disappointment. I was cleaning up the debris when I stubbed my toe on something, long and dark and green.

An outsider might describe it as simply a cucumber. But to someone in the heat of garden battle, it was a trophy. It was one small defeat for bugs, one glorious gourd for mankind.

Pub Date: 9/21/97

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