Tag Archives: insects

Digging In: Maintaining a small garden

This is my battle gear: Gloves, water, a hand hoe, a regular hoe and a wheel hoe. All effective tools depending on the space you have.

Love is a battlefield, so is growing food. Every inch of every corner in a garden there is something that helps your future food to fail. The ground isn’t full of Charles Manson bugs that are stuck in kill mode but nature is a vicious place and even on the smallest levels competition is fierce.
Your favorite tomato plant isn’t the only green life looking for precious sunlight, water and soil nutrients. Weeds in all shapes and sizes will try to hoard the nutrients that you may have worked so diligently to put in place.
Even if you manage to keep a weed free garden, bugs and small animals will be more than willing to pillage your fresh food source without giving thought to the fact that you have poured days into the planning, preparation and maintenance of this small patch of earth.
Bugs and weeds seem like small obstacles compared to the 6 foot tall 170 pound enemy they have found in me but they are not. Already this year I have had one garden nearly devoured by slugs. I had pledged to not use harmful chemicals and, as if they had overheard me make this comment, they attacked in hoards. Eventually I found a way of fighting back the bastards with beer baths but not before they had taken out over half of my transplants, leaving a stunted food supply and a lot of wasted energy.

I was lucky enough to stay on top of weeding in that garden but I have seen the results of what unwanted suneaters can do.  The first year I was working on the farm, the weeds that were growing around our asparagus became so tall that while I was chopping down a “weed” taller than myself, I accidently leveled a birds nest.  We hid the birds nest in a nearby blackberry patch, giving them protection and hoping that the mother would come back to her crying children.  We pretended the story ended happy when after three days we found the site was abandoned.

Luckily in my past few years I have gained some knowledge to stave off the advancing hoards out to attack the best laid plans or gardeners.

Keep plants Hydrated

I admittedly don’t know too much about watering plants, I just know that they need it.  My strategy is to make sure the soil never gets too dry.  To do this I dig underground about an inch and see if it’s moist. If it is I consider the plants to be well hydrated (transplants are an exception, they need immediate watering after being planted and routine watering for the next few days until its positive that they’ve taken to the new spot). If the spot is dry I’ll usually use a hose with a sprayer attachment to dampen the ground.  The best times for watering are in the morning and evenings when evaporation is less likely to occur.

This is a harlequin beetle. After teaming up with a group of squash bugs and caterpillars, these critters managed to keep our cabbage heads about the size of a fist. Crushing them gives a satisfying crunch though.

Controlling garden pests

Usually I don’t see the world in terms of black and white but when it comes to garden creatures I separate them into two categories, good and evil.

The good inhabitants like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds I will go through great lengths to maintain.  The evil critters such as squash bugs, harlequin beetles and slugs I will do everything in my power to destroy.

The method of attack depends on the enemy.  For a lot of insects I have found insecticidal soap to be extremely effective while having a minimum impact on the soil and planet in general.  The recipe I use for this is simple combination of dish soap, vegetable oil and water. The proportions are as fallows.

4 tablespoons of non-antibacterial dish soap

1 tablespoon of oil

1 gallon of water.

Mix these all and pour into a spray bottle.  When applying the “pesticide” keep in mind that it only kills what it comes in contact with.  Avoid spraying good insects and cover all parts of the plant.  I have found that many foes like to hide on the underside of leaves or around the root so these parts of the plant deserve special attention.

Slugs are plant predators that take advantage of the gardeners weaknesses.  Where most animals attack during the day when it’s dry, slugs prefer night raids and rainy days, times when most people aren’t really wanting to be out in the yard.  In order to take out these particular pests a change of strategy is in order.  I have heard of some people vigilantly searching under rocks and in other moist places carrying out seek and destroy missions.  They will hunt and kill every slug or snail they can find in the hopes that their attacks will reduce populations enough for the plants to outlive the assaults.  My favorite strategy is much less hands on.

I cut the bottoms off of 20 oz bottles, about two inches, and burry them in the dirt to where they are level with the ground.  After that, I fill them about half full with beer.  Slugs can’t resist the yeasty goodness that comes with a cold one.  After that I cover the beer traps with plastic strips cut from milk jugs, propping them up with small sticks to give the greedy creatures a way in.  Once they discover the beer they will find a way in, get drunk and drown.

Pest management is never a matter of total war.  You will never kill all of the enemies unless you move to less sustainable methods that impact both your food and your soil.  The conflict isn’t about total evisceration anyways. The war against insects only needs to be carried out to the point where the plants can survive their attackers.

This is a wheel hoe. With an 8 inch blade attached, this tool makes weeding in between rows easier than dropping the blade on a guillotine.

Weeds and the territory battle

Since plants are stationary, they are stuck in a bitter struggle for survival. When weeds get out of control they steal necessary resources from everything planted around them.  This theft of nutrients may help support one form of life but it won’t help anyone put food on the table.  If you actually want to preserve some of the investments of time and money that have been put into a garden I find that frequent weeding is essential.

My favorite tool for fighting weeds is a hand hoe.  Light and sharp, this tool cuts the heads of anything trying to pop up into the garden, but care should be taken. I can’t count the number of friendlies I have decapitated on the war against weeds.

Another essential is a good hoe.  Hoes save both your back and free-time.  There are literally dozens of hoe variations and which is best depends on what type of space your working on.  Mother Earth News came out with a great article about hoe varieties and use’s that did more justice to the subject than I ever could.  The link to that article is at the bottom of this post.

If you have your garden planned out with plenty of space between rows than I would suggest using a wheel hoe.  After one day testing this tool out in the field I was hooked on it like a bad drug.  It didn’t take much effort and even when the soil was moist it uprooted more weeds than I could have imagined, all without being gas powered.  A bonus to this tool is that you can get a cultivator attachment (I just learned about this from a comment on the cultivating section of the Digging In series).  When the next season rolls around you just take the weeding head off and attach a cultivator for a sturdy multipurpose tool.

Gardens do a lot of work on their own but when outside forces start landing on the breaches and working their way to the interior, good maintenance initially can save you a world of frustration and swearing later on.

Mother Earth News article on hoes

Another article on wheel hoes

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Organic farmed foods; the reason behind the price

This is cabbage that has been devasted by the unfortunately adept Harlequin Bug. Clemson university suggests taking care of these bugs by dousing the plants in cyfluthrin, bifenthrin or permethrin. Our method is smashing the little bastards and praying that the plants can fight them off. Crops lost to pest invasions are one of the reasons many farmers have to charge more for their sustainable products.

 

The 55 acre farm I’m currently living and working on is opperating upon the philosophy that food should be as natural as possible.  My aunt April and uncle Bill, the farm owners, have given up the Southern California suburban crawl to live out the Tennessee life, for them a slower and healthier existence.  The catalyst for the relocation according to my uncle was  my cousin Caitlin.

As a result I’ve been gifted the unique opportunity of continuously working on one of America’s family owned farms from the early start-up days, when we would carry 50 lb boxes of cucumbers to the house, wash them in buckets of water and store them in a fridge bought on craiglist, to where now we use a 4 wheel drive “mule” for transporting product and clean our vegetables in an indoor processing facility.

This is our egg processing and vegitable storage building, The White Barn. In it is the farms most powerful chemicle, bleach.

The farm still isn’t high-tech and although Bill refuses to use pesticides and chemical fertilizers, we still cannot be coined organic.  The certification process involves paying over a thousands dollars for an inspector to come from out of state and give us the golden O.  Organic is now nothing more than a status symbol for many.  I’ve had a friend who work on a sustainable farm go to market and have customers refuse to buy their products because they didn’t have the necessary title.

“Are you guys Organic?”

“No, because we haven’t become certified we cannot claim to be organic.  We do practice sustainable agriculture, however, we don’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides but the certification is too expensive for us to …””

“Oh,” cutting her off, “if you’re not organic then never mind.”

The title only means that someone paid the extra cash in order to raise the price of their product.  To many organic means expensive and therefore not worth the buy.  Farmers markets nationwide are full of food that is truly organic but without the government issued “O” and the prices that come with it. The best advice I’ve been given is to just talk to the people who make the food.  At the markets almost every vendor is willing to talk about the way that they produce what they sell.  Usually the issue isn’t getting them to explain how they farm, it’s getting them to shut up.  If someone isn’t willing to spill the beans on their food it probably means they should be avoided.

The bag to the right is a freshly hung beatle catch. In the background our orchard is struggling to survive the constant assault that bugs deal to the leaves and fruit of the trees.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to be talking to different farm owners and exploring what goes into to the new generation of food and why organic food can be more expensive, how it can be cheaper and ways that you can it for almost free.

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