Troubleshooting isn't just for computers. Sometimes questions crop up because of a new problem or situation in our garden. Just when we think we've got our bases covered, we spot a new pest on a plant or run across something odd in the garden. Today I have three answers to fairly common problems in the garden to start off a "Troubleshooting" series at Veggie Gardener. Next week there will be three more problems followed by answers and solutions.

What Are All These Grey Bugs on my Squash Plants?

I still remember clearly the first time I had an infestation of squash bugs. I had worked up a special area for pumpkins and squash plants, thrilled when everything came up nicely. Midseason I started noticing a few grey bugs, then more and suddenly they were everywhere. If I had noticed the eggs, I could have had some control over the bugs, but it was a busy summer and I didn't see them on the underside of the foliage.

These grey bugs are known as the squash bug(Anasa tristis) and they are common throughout the U.S., found mostly on squash and pumpkin plants, but sometimes cucumber plants as well. The adults overwinter, laying eggs that hatch during the next garden season. It's important to clean up all debris in the fall and leave the garden area as clean as possible. Once the bugs start hatching they can be picked off the plants, or sprayed with a mixture of soap and water. The adult bugs are very hard to kill, but can be picked off and dropped in a bucket of soapy water.

The good news about squash bugs is that if the plants are mature they won't do a lot of harm to the plants unless it's a severe infestation. The bugs suck up nutrients from the plant which may cause wilting and discoloration, but don't spread disease. Continue to pick off and discard the squash bugs as much as possible for the rest of the season.

Why are my cucumbers bitter?

The Washington State University Cooperative Extension explains the science behind the "bitterness" in cucumbers:

"Cucurbitacin B and cucurbitacin C are the names of the compounds which cause bitterness in varieties of cucumbers grown in the United States. Wild cucumbers, which are mostly extremely bitter, may contain a number of other related compounds. The cucurbitacins occur in all parts of the cucumber plant, and leaves, stems, and roots of most cultivated varieties contain varying amounts of these compounds. Only occasionally does the bitter principle spread from the vegetative parts of the plant into the cucumber fruit."

Why aren't all cucumbers bitter? There isn't an exact answer to that questions, but rather many theories. Cucumbers need to be watered regularly, on a schedule if possible, never too wet or too dry. Cucumbers need full sun, but if the days are 90 degrees and higher, a little shade will give them some needed relief. Oddly, there are often more reports of bitterness after a cool growing period than a hot one.

If you nurture your cucumbers and they still seem bitter, try peeling cutting the ends about an inch into the cucumber, then peel them rather thickly with a vegetable peeler. It doesn't matter HOW you peel the cucumber. The bitterness often is in the peel and the ends, not farther into the flesh of the cucumber.

Why Are My Tomatoes Splitting?

The skin splits near stem of the tomato for several reasons, and sometimes it can't be prevented completely, but gardeners can control some of the reasons. Make sure your tomato plants are watered on a regular basis. They shouldn't be drenched to the point of soggy soil, then left to dry out. Excess water, and the soil going from soggy to very dry will cause cracking. Temperatures that very greatly can also cause cracking also. Burning hot temperatures during the day followed by a cool evening will sometimes cause splitting. One other thing that could cause splitting is a lack of foliage to protect ripening tomatoes. Some gardeners snip off the offshoot stems, but if too many are removed the plant might be too "bare" and there won't be enough foliage to shield the tomatoes from the hot sun.

Give tomatoes space to "breathe", scheduled watering and don't over prune the plants. This will give them the chance they need for a good harvest. Cracked, scarred or split tomatoes can still be eaten if picked right away.

These three garden problems are more an annoyance than anything else, so don't become overly stressed. Try the different tips for solving the problems at hand, and learn from the experience.