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The Martha's Vineyard Times

The Martha's Vineyard Times is a weekly publication.
August 18 - 24, 2005 Edition
Web Comments - Email Submissions

Garden Notes: Late-season thoughts at Fairtime
August 18, 2005


By Abigail Higgins


Blister beetles (Epicauta pestifera) are beneficial as larvae, destructive as adults.


Fresh mint, available in many varieties, adds zest and flavor to a cooling glass of iced tea.

Photo by Susan Safford

I have just spent the whole afternoon and early evening tending our vegetable garden. I would rather work in it, with plenty of time and no need to rush or shortchange it, than almost anything. It reinforces my feeling that it is a wonderful privilege, to be able to have a garden and grow for the table. I was casting a critical eye over vegetables and flowers for possible Fair entries. (A month without rain and a very weak well in the Christiantown terminal moraine — I am not overly optimistic.) When I came in after dark I found the following e-mail (unsolicited) from my daughter in Charlottesville:

"So, I had a real moment of missing home last weekend. G_____ and I went to the Albemarle County Fair, and I must admit, I had high hopes. After all, this is like a real agricultural region; people are real farmers here. I was sadly disappointed, and reminded of just how awesome our fair is. From all the culinary variety, to the neat events (the horse pull and the shucking contest being some of my favorites), to the extensive and creative entries housed in the beautiful Hall and Livestock Barn, our Fair is the best. In contrast, the ACF is nice, but all "indoor” events (including animal housing) take place under big white wedding tents. Huge fans have to be installed to keep animals and humans cool. The food is sad, mostly mass-produced corndogs and funnel cake, and no local vendors. And hardly anyone entered anything! The entries were scarce, and made me think that I should have entered something, anything. I’m sure I would have ribboned! To its credit, there were some interesting events, including pig- and husband-calling contests (please note, these are not the same event, and no swearing allowed). And, while I was not there to see it, I am certain that the fiddle contest was pretty hot. So, please enjoy the fair this year, for me. I will miss it. Love, G.”

Visit the 144th annual fair of the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, today, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It is one of the events that "Children of the Island” truly miss when they live away and make special trips home for, and it is something that makes our Island special.

But let us return to the fray, the garden. Some sort of horticultural public service announcement is in order for those who have not previously encountered blister beetles. We encountered a swarm of the margined blister beetle (Epicauta pestifera, image courtesy of entomology.umn.edu) this past week in a garden we take care of. According to "Garden Insects of North America,” (Whitney Cranshaw, Princeton University Press, Princeton N.J., 2004), these insects are called blister beetles due to their unpleasant ability to release a skin irritant if they come in contact with a human or animal. When concentrated as contaminants in alfalfa hay, blister beetles can be a serious poisoning threat to horses. Blister beetles usually over-winter as full-fed larvae in the soil and transform to the pupal stage in late winter. Adults begin to emerge in late spring.

Where there’s one…

They are strong fliers. They appear numerously and rather suddenly, and do considerable damage to the plant or plants they infest, messily chewing foliage and flowers and leaving behind squiggles of black beetle poop. If you see an individual, look for more; they congregate in an area or on a group of plants. In their larval stage blister beetles are actually beneficial, in that they feed almost exclusively on the egg pods of another destructive insect group, grasshoppers. Adult beetles lay eggs near ground depressions, and the newly emerged larvae actively dig to the shallowly buried grasshopper eggs. We physically destroyed some beetles and sprayed the rest, plus the sweet autumn clematis vine they were feeding on, with rotenone/pyrethrin spray.

After working in the vegetable garden, contending with heat, drought, weeds and insects, gardeners are encouraged to take themselves off to a comfortable seat for a nice cool drink. Perhaps there is a shady arbor or pergola to sit under, furnished with a little table, upon which sits a frosty pitcher of iced tea, flavored with mint from the garden? A recent discussion of mints (Mentha spp.) while we weeded a mint patch gave me a renewed appreciation for their flavor and cooling qualities.

Checking with the Random House Book of Herbs (Roger Phillips & Nicky Foy, Random House, New York, 1990) I confirmed that peppermint (M. x piperita) is the one with strong-flavored, lance-shaped, rough-textured leaves and dark stems topped with reddish-lilac flowers; spearmint (M. spicata) is the one that is green all over, with smooth-textured leaves that have no stem and a particularly penetrating (= spear?) flavor. The flower color is greyish-lilac. I would probably want a sprig of spearmint in my iced tea or water bottle.

Others, in addition to these Big Two, are readily available and identifiable, and would round out a mint collection. Apple mint (M. rotundifolia) is the taller-growing one with light green, fuzzy furry leaves. Pineapple mint (M. suaveolens) is variegated, a little less minty, but with overtones of pineapple. It is of unreliable hardiness here, but that could have something to do with its being a mint that likes a slightly drier environment than most mints, which thrive in moist soil. Corsican mint (M. requienii) has tiny leaves and is a groundcover plant, with a strong mint fragrance, which is released when stepped upon. There are numerous other specialty mints.

Mint gets aggressive

Mint has an invasive tendency and easily over-steps its bounds. We always quip when ripping it out, enveloped in a menthol cloud, "a little mint goes a long way….” Some of the stoloniferous roots come up intact at two and half to three feet long! I often think that, preferable to planting a mint bed, it makes more sense to plant a mint collection in an assortment of attractive individual pots. They can be cut back and over-wintered; or one can simply start over again the next year with purchased plants or pieces rooted in a glass of water. The only mint I grow is chocolate mint (whose botanical name I have not discovered), which originally arrived at my house garnishing a bowl of fruit salad prepared by my friend Carol. The herb books I have checked to write these paragraphs all emphasize how easily mints in close proximity to each other hybridize. Therefore, if specialist mint varieties are your goal, keep them separated.

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