Something was murdering my plants. Just days earlier, when I had transplanted my summer vegetables into the garden, everything was leafy green and healthy. Now everything was stunted, brown, and crispy.
The spinach was covered with long brown squiggles where the leaf cells were dying; the Swiss chard was decimated by something that kept withering its leaves, leaving them curled and dry in the mulch. Even the beet greens were dying. I’d never seen a disease like this before.
In my six years as a gardener, I’ve seen mosaic virus attack my pepper plants; I’ve witnessed the destruction of my roses and wisteria by the dreaded Japanese beetle; I’ve watched squash fail slowly from root rot. But I’d never seen anything like what was attacking my greens. Practically overnight, they were destroyed.
These were plants I’d nurtured though a long, very cold winter, incubating their little seeds in front of a sunny window, talking to them and watering them daily. I visited with them before going to bed and checked on them first thing every morning to make sure they’d made it through the night. (By contrast, I rarely checked on my actual children in the morning; I figured they could come get me if they had a problem.)
And now something was killing my little green babies. I searched every garden book, every gardener’s corner of the Web. Nothing seemed to match the symptoms of my poor plants.
I was plucking the damaged leaves from the spinach one afternoon when I noticed a pair of slimy, squirmy, translucent maggots wiggling out of the leaf. Nasty. But I finally had a clue that maybe it was a pest, not a disease killing my plants.
Armed with this new information, I searched online and found I the culprit was the spinach leafminer fly, a nasty little bug that lays its eggs on the underside of leafy greens like spinach and Swiss chard. The eggs hatch, and the little maggots crawl inside the leaves and eat the plant from the inside out. There can be four generations of flies in the garden before the hot summer weather makes them dormant.
Next year, I’ll put row covers over the young plants to keep the flies from laying their eggs, but it’s too late for that this year. I could spray them with chemicals, but having pesticide-free veggies was the whole point of growing them.
So for now, I carefully pick the eggs off the leaves every day, praying that the tiny beasties will leave my babies alone.