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Garden Q&A: Kale-munching harlequin bugs and protecting strawberry plants through the winter

The feeding of harlequin bugs makes white spots or, in heavy infestations, makes vegetable leaves wilt, turn brown and die.
The feeding of harlequin bugs makes white spots or, in heavy infestations, makes vegetable leaves wilt, turn brown and die. (Handout)

These colorful bugs are making a mess of my kale. What are these orange and black kale suckers that are NOT putting me in the Halloween spirit?

These are harlequin bugs whose pierce-and-suck feeding makes white spots or, in heavy infestations, makes leaves wilt, turn brown and die. There are several generations a year.

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Removing all plant residues at end of season reduces overwintering sites. Next year, try floating row cover to exclude them. Hand squashing eggs, nymphs and adults is very satisfying, too (though a little stinky since they are a type of stink bug). Eggs look like clusters of tiny white barrels with black bands found on leaf undersides.

You also can directly spray the brightly colored young nymphs (mini versions of adults) with insecticidal soap or horticultural oil. Like almost all vegetable pest insects, we have a page on the Home and Garden Information Center website that explains all you need to know about them.

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Do I need to cover my strawberries with plastic to keep them safe throughout the winter?

Don’t cover them with plastic. This could cause heat injury on warmish sunny days and also promote rots.

Strawberry plants are cold-hardy, but you can protect your plants from extreme cold and winter wind by covering them with a 3-4 inch mulch of straw or fallen tree leaves, or floating row cover material.

If you have difficulty finding row cover locally, it is easily found online. Most seed companies and garden supply companies carry it. Inspect bales of straw to be sure they are “clean”, i.e. no weed seed heads mixed in. Apply the mulch or row cover after the first hard freeze.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Maryland’s Gardening Experts” to send questions and photos.

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