Aphid Agony

foodiesfeed.com_romanesco-broccoli-in-grocery-storeContrary to all those jibes about the cobbler’s children going barefoot and mechanic’s cars being in terrible condition, my garden isn’t in too bad shape.  The veggie garden certainly isn’t in bad shape and this year, I put in plenty of nice, healthy broccoli.  This required all the usual preparation; you don’t just pop your veggie plants or seeds in the ground and hope that they grow.  This meant that a raised garden bed had to go in – after some fairly heavy-duty landscaping going on, including ripping out unwanted shrubs and levelling off the ground.  The raised garden bed was filled, first with some gravel for proper drainage, then with good topsoil and compost mix.  Then the broccoli went in, along with a ton of other veggies, some rhubarb and the strawberries.

The nutritional experts tell us that broccoli is one of the superfoods that’s absolutely brilliant for you because of all the nutrients in it. I probably don’t need a nutritionist to tell me this.  It’s obvious that broccoli has tons of nutritional value because that’s the plant that all the pests, large and small, go for first.  The white cabbage butterflies go for the broccoli.  When we had goats, they went for the broccoli if they broke loose (and that’s another story!).  And this year, the aphids went for the broccoli. The conditions in Southland must have been just right because there were heaps of them.

Oddly enough, all the other delicious plants that tend to get singled out by pests, such as roses, didn’t get touched by the aphids this year.  I did notice that the aphids on the brassicas weren’t the same colour as the ones that turn up on roses: they’re grey, rather than green.  A quick bit of research revealed that aphids aren’t a single species.  Far from it: there is a whole aphid family and yes, there is a species that specialises in brassicas and it does all the annoying things that aphids do that make them into a right royal pain.

Attack Of The Aphid Clones

Aphids breed at a rate that makes rabbits look like they’re on the Pill.  This is partly because aphids are capable of producing hundreds and hundreds of offspring and they mature even more quickly than rabbits do (they have a lifespan of 20–40 days on average).  In addition, a rabbit needs another rabbit to breed. Aphids don’t.  They can reproduce by parthenogenesis or virgin birth, where one single female aphid can produce dozens – hundreds – of clones of herself.

This means that if you attempt to deal with the Attack of the Clones, you have to get them all.  Otherwise, attempts to ensure that your broccoli is pest-free become like those impossible to win computer games or some particularly bad sci-fi plot.

You may ask why on earth you need to bother about killing aphids on your broccoli and other brassicas.  What harm do they do to your plants anyway?

Aphids are like little vegetarian vampires, sucking the nutrients out of the plants that you would rather eat yourself, thank you very much.  What’s more, they leave a sticky residue all over the leaves and stalks that provides lots of nutrients for mould and bacteria to grow in. The end result is a sticky, sickly plant covered with mould instead of the burgeoning brassica you hoped to add to your stir-fry.  Aphids will even start in on any caterpillars that try to establish themselves on the brassicas, with rather dire results for the caterpillar.

Even if the aphids haven’t got to the stage of damaging a plant because they didn’t start their invasion until the plant in question was well developed, they’re still a nuisance. This is because they are extremely difficult to remove when you want to eat that particular vegetable.  In the case of cabbages and kale, the situation is relatively easy: you sluice those nice wide leaves under running water and the aphids go down the gurgler, especially if you help the process with a finger or a dishcloth. However, broccoli and cauliflower have all sorts of little nooks and crannies where aphids lurk and the ordinary rinse doesn’t remove them.

There is no simple method of removing aphids from broccoli once they’ve established themselves.  At one point, I tried soaking the florets in warm soapy water, then triple rinsing them before storage then rinsing them before boiling, then one final rinse before serving and I’m sure that I still saw a few very dead, very clean aphids still clinging to my broccoli.  Your only hope is to pinch out the young growth tips of the broccoli florets where aphids congregate and hope that there’s enough like you, or reconcile yourself to “extra protein” and realise that you can be a vegetarian or you can eat organic broccoli but you can’t do both.

Attempts At Organic Control

“Why,” you may be asking, “is a professional gardener like you not doing something about the pests?” Well, we did.

One of the many reasons why people like to grow their own vegetables and establish a vegetable garden is because they want to eat organic.  I thoroughly agree with this.  After all, as a professional gardener, I have to deal with garden sprays and I know all the safety precautions and equipment and conditions that using them requires.  So when we spotted those aphids on the broccoli, the battle began.

We tried the finger-and-thumb method of squishing and scraping them off.  This removed a lot of them during the early stages, but obviously missed a few, because in a few days, those grey little horrors were back in force.

We doused the brassicas in derris dust.  This certainly dealt with all the white cabbage butterflies and most of the aphids, but there were a few that managed to hide where they didn’t get touched.  Then one of Southland’s rainy summer days came and the derris dust washed away, leaving some aphids still alive…

Out came the neem tree oil, which usually does the trick on the roses.  Again, this mostly worked and killed most of the aphids, as well as leaving a distinct taste on the broccoli that blended nicely with a curry (if you haven’t tried dressing steamed broccoli with a little grated cheese, oil, salt and curry powder, you’re missing out on a treat).  But there must have been a few that escaped because sure enough, they were back again three days later…

It was time to bring out the big guns in the form of Conqueror Oil.  Although Conqueror Oil is a branded product put out by gardening giants Yates, it is technically an organic control method, although its active ingredient is mineral oil.  As this is a petrol derivative, it’s debateable as to exactly how organic this is.  It doesn’t leave lingering toxins in the soil or on the plants, but I certainly wouldn’t want to eat the stuff.

The Conqueror Oil worked well enough.  The last few brassica plants were free enough from aphids, which was a huge relief. After that, the weather started turning and we had a few small early frosts, like we do in Southland.  The weather plus the Conqueror Oil seemed to do the trick.

However, it left me wondering: you know all those commercially grown broccoli you see in the supermarket? There’s not an aphid to be seen on them.  What on earth do they spray on them?  They must be using something pretty potent…

All in all, I think I’ll stick with home grown organic vegetables, even if it does mean a bit more hard work and the occasional bit of “extra protein”.  If you’d like to grow your own and need some help setting up your garden beds but aren’t sure how, then get in touch and ask us to do this for you.



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