A bit about us...

We are a modern family of three, living on less than two acres with a 3,000 square foot garden that meets our produce needs and allows us to share with friends and neighbors. Our laying flock of chickens seems to expand each year as we raise chicks each Spring to replace older hens. This blog is more of a journal, if you will, for us to chronicle and share our experiences in the yard, garden and kitchen. It is our hope that along the way a few folks might learn something, be entertained, or simply enjoy sharing in our stories and the lessons we learn on a daily basis. I named the blog after the times when I am the happiest, when I am elbow deep in earth.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Continuing education for the gardener in me

I have been focusing a lot of my attention on watching my seedlings grow (many I will need to pay extra attention to later as I started them a bit early in my zeal for spring to arrive), but I have also been reading more about the pests that affect my garden each year.  I want to learn more about which bug is which and how to combat and prevent some of the damage without using chemicals in the garden.  Learning to identify the good guys from the bad guys is the first battle.

I never knew what these ugly brown fellas were until recently.  I had seen them randomly around the garden (thankfully never in large numbers in one place or doing significant damage).  They are known as squash bugs.

Squash bugs, flea beetles, cucumber beetles, vine borers, aphids, tomato horn worms, Japanese beetles, the list of pests goes on and on.

My approach is largely a very passive one to controlling these critters.  First, I will try not to plant the same plants in the same space each year (crop rotation), making it harder for overwintering bugs in the soil to simply crawl up my young plants and begin feasting. This also helps combat diseases that can be spread in the soil. Second, careful observation is my best defense.  I watch my plants carefully, taking a stroll through the entire garden at least once every day to keep an eye on new growth, damage, and insect populations.  I use a strong stream of water to dislodge bugs, hand picking, and I do what I can to attract and maintain beneficial insects.  For example, planting sweet allysum, among other plants, can help to attract the beneficial parasitic (non-stinging) wasps that  feed on and destroy tomato worms.

If I were lucky enough to find a worm looking like this, I would leave him to munch on my tomatoes as he would soon meet his demise and is providing life to LOTS of those little worm attacking wasps. What some people are unaware of is this...these worms like peppers too.  If you are experiencing damage on your pepper plants, look for horn worms there as well!

I haven't used chemicals in my garden for some time now and have not noticed a significant decrease in yields.  However, I do have a marked increase in confidence that my produce is grown in the most healthy way I possibly can.  The bugs that do get to my produce don't eat a lot and I usually just cut out any affected areas and use the remaining fruit.  Much of what I harvest gets processed in some way and it is not important how pretty each piece is as it gets mashed for jelly or salsa.  I keep the best specimens to put on the produce stand, eat fresh or share with my loved ones.  My chickens are treated to overly damaged items (composting them and eliminating the bugs that are present as well).

I make my own compost and work lots of organic matter into the soil whenever I can.  Having a laying flock means a steady supply of compost material for aging and working into the garden.

Many gardeners recommend using something called Bt in the garden to control hornworms, cabbage "moth" caterpillars and the like.  It is a natural bacteria called Bacillus Thuringiensis that targets only caterpillars, leaving all other insects safe.  I do not choose to use it.  It will not harm the pollinators, but there are myriad of  caterpillars that I would like in my garden and it is simply not selective.  For example, I plant extra parsley and dill each year in the hopes that swallowtail butterflies will find them attractive to lay their eggs on.

As an appreciator of butterflies, I will not apply something to the garden that would kill their caterpillars.  This means I  have the opportunity to select and remove the insects that are the most harmful and preserve the ones I am willing to share some garden space with for the benefit of having the adult form present.  Many hours have been spent identifying caterpillars to determine if they are a keeper or need to be destroyed.

In my garden, patience, attentiveness and diligence are my greatest weapons.  As long as I am watching carefully and addressing problems as I see them, I can stay ahead of most issues.  As I continue to research common garden pests I continue to learn.  This year, I intend to carefully log in my garden journal which pests bother which plants/varieties so I can better plan and prepare for next year's garden.  In previous years, I logged information only on performance of varieties based on yield.  Thus, in the past, I have only captured a very small portion of the full picture in my journal.  Successful gardening is more than just stuffing seeds in the soil and waiting to harvest a bounty of fresh food.  There is a great deal of planning to be done before the soil can even be worked.  Then the real work begins.  I can't wait!

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