Showing posts with label Organic Gardening - Pest Control. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Organic Gardening - Pest Control. Show all posts

Friday, 8 June 2012


The ravening hoards are at the gate!
by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
They say the most beautiful garden, the most wonderous landscape, is to be seen in the dead of winter. That's the one you see in your mind's eye, sitting inside by the fire looking over the seed catalogs and other dream books.

But now, here it is, late spring flowing into early summer. Most of the seeds and plants are finally in the dirt; the fruit trees all have leaves and what fruit the capricious whims of weather have allowed to set are starting to swell. Let the battle begin!

Since I'm an organic gardener, most weapons of mass destruction aren't available to me. No scorched earth policies allowed in my yard. Although, I must admit, I'm not above introducing a species-specific disease. Nosema locustae was my last resort against a veritable plague of grasshoppers - used once and forever after their numbers have been reduced to tolerable levels.

Insects, for the most part, I can deal with. Thorough clean-up and composting in the fall can reduce many villians, and my chickens do a pretty good job eliminating others, "on the wing" so to speak. Strong blasts of water are an effective weapon against others, and vigilant patrolling of the grounds allows the removal of many others before their numbers can swell to devastating levels. I also employ decoys and guardians - interspersing herbs and other companion plants within susceptible populations. One last weapon is my mindset. I don't have to have market-perfect specimens in my kitchen. I don't mind a bit of trimming or judicious scrubbing in the preparation of my produce. It just means more goodies for the chickens.

I'm at war with the bigger fauna. And if I'm to taste any of the fruit of my labors, I must resort to fortifying my defenses and trickery (magic, if you will).

Last summer, deer discovered my garden. We wired rebar to the fence posts and added five more feet to the height of the fence. So far, no more deer in the garden. They've moved on to the orchard. The leaves have been stripped from the lower limbs of my fruit trees, but as long as they leave the mid-level limbs for me we're ok.

The robins and bluejays get the fruit on the upper limbs. They can clean-pick the top third of my cherry tree in a day - usually half a week before the cherries are suitable to my taste. Flapping shiny tape tied to the outer branches, and a few mirrors and junk CD's hung within can usually buy me enough time to get some of that mid-level harvest.

Since I prune my grapevine annually and it's supported by the sturdy fence of the dog run, it's of a manageable size to net. I have to wait until the vines have grown out quite a bit though, so they'll hold the netting away from the grape clusters within. I might have to wait a bit longer to get the netting up this year, however. Last week, the vines on the lower branches were stripped back to only stems and fruit clusters. It appears Bambi likes grape leaves too. I laid a mat of hog wire underneath the vine, and it seems to be working. The deer are too afraid of a hoof being snared, and the vines are now putting out plenty of new leaves.

Out in the vegetable garden, it's the sparrows and quail. I wouldn't mind sharing. But they just don't understand the concept. With *them* it's all or nothing. So I do my best to make sure it's nothing. Meh - sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. They've learned that little germinating leaves mean a tasty sprouted seed below - pulling up my corn and peas as soon as they break ground. So I plant those crops in trenches, arching chicken wire over the top. Filling in the trenches as the plants grow gives me the bonus of cooler roots for the peas, thus extending my harvest season, and a better grip by the feeder roots of the corn, so it's better able to withstand our afternoon winds. By the time the plants are big enough to be growing through the wire, they're usually strong and tall enough to survive.

Other seeded crops get wire boxes over them until they're big enough, and some I just plant thicker so the bird depredation provides the necessary thinning. I've saved up some little plastic berry boxes to put over the cucumber seedlings; and use the bigger plastic trays from the now rapidly emptying cellar over the winter squash and zucchini. Once a plant has 3 - 4 leaves, it's ok to uncover it. It was snowing here the last week of May, so the frost-tender plants stay stay warm and protected within their Wall-o-Waters until July. By then, they usually have enough leaves to hide the fruit so damage to those crops is minimal.

Another problem, later in the summer, is one no one else seems to have. When the corn sends up the top tassels - the pollen-bearing ones that fertilize the silks of the ears down below - the sparrows attack! They try to eat those tops, and in doing so their weight is enough to break them. Broken tops don't provide enough pollen, my ears of corn have no kernels. I've found hanging mirrors from a couple of shepherds hooks, so they can swing and turn in the wind, helps chase away those little vermin. After seeing robins hopping about in the strawberry bed, I need to gather up some small rocks and red paint. I'm hoping pecking at rocks now will deter them once the real thing shows up. Can't hurt, anyway.

I'm worried about the beans though. Last summer, they were up and doing well, and then just before they started to flower, I came out and found a forest of bare stalks. The birds had stripped every leaf! I'm thinking I'll have to make a bigger box or rig some kind of arching cover for them - something bird-proof yet also that won't turn into a sail in the wind. Stay tuned.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Wildlife That Bites

by Linda from The Witches Kitchen

It's been a wet wet wet summer, second La Nina year in a row, and all the dams and tanks are full. There are puddles in every hollow and anything left out fills up with water. I swore during the decade and a half of severe drought that we've just been through that I would never complain about rain ever again, and I'm not. The upside - flowing creeks, green hills, no catastrophic bushfire risk - is definitely worth it. But there is a downside.

It's a great year for mozzies.  

This week they seem to have all metamorphosed from wrigglers at once, and for the first time we have had to start putting the mosquito net over our bed down of a night. It's nice sleeping under a mosquito net, specially now the nights are a little cooler. But it is interesting that it is only now that they've managed to outbreed the predators, and I wonder why.

Up until now, the control measures for mozzies have consisted of what we don't do. We don't use glyphosate, anywhere.  There is still a lot of vigorous debate around the internet about the safety of glyphosate for humans. The Agrarian Urbanites had a great post a little while ago. My own opinion is that it is not just unsafe but evil in the same vein as Phillip Morris and James Hardie. But there is no debate, hasn't been for a long while, that it is deadly to frogs in minute minute quantities. The frogs around our place are very happy, very amorously noisily happy. We get used to it, but visitors remark about the cacophony. For a small creature, they make a lot of noise, and they eat a lot of mosquitos and wrigglers.

We don't spray or whack spiders, and only destroy their webs if they really are pushing the friendship by building across the doorway or the garden path. I know many people hate spiders - maybe it is a genetic, primal thing designed to stop our ancestors trying to eat them. But the feeling is mutual, and spiders have a lot more rational a fear. I took this photo a while ago. Once you realise what you are looking at, you can see literally hundreds of webs in the trees below our house. I defy a mozzie to make it's way unscathed through that lot!
We don't do anything at all about the microbats. Years ago, a pair used to live in my son's closet, hanging upside down from the hanging rail in the darkest back corner during the day. I took the photo at the top of this post one time when I found them sleeping in some doonas I had hung on the verandah line to air. Mostly I don't know where they live, but sometimes we hear them swooping around the bedroom, scoffing mozzies. I know there are bat-bourne diseases, but I figure I'm in way more danger from mosquito bourne diseases.

But now the mozzies have broken through the predator protection barrier, we shall sleep under a mosquito net at night, and use my lemon oil spray around dusk when they come out. It's very easy to make. In lemon season, I use a vegetable peeler to peel the outer layer of skin from a lot of lemons, enough to pack a glass jar full, and cover with rubbing alcohol.  After a couple of weeks, the peels all go white, the oil in them dissolved out into the spirits. It makes a great massage oil, and a small amount in a spray bottle full of water makes a nice smelling, lemony mozzie repellent.  

It's just coming into lemon season now, but I still have a jar full left from last year.  And I figure with the amount of noise those frogs are making, there should be lots of baby frogs to catch up before I run out.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The Vermin Dilemma

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Living in an urban/wildland interface zone, we see (or see evidence of) many wild creatures around our home. I'm a live-and-let-live kinda person. I prefer to fence them out or otherwise protect my home, livestock, and garden over killing of predators and pests if I can.

Sure, I have mousetraps set inside the house and garage, especially this time of year. But if I find a live mouse in the bathtub I'm more likely to trap it with an upended trash basket, sliding a magazine underneath, and toss it outside. This year, the little cottontail rabbits are thick out in the yard every evening. But I've dug trenches down, then out, 'round the chicken pen and garden, and buried 1" chicken wire to keep them out. Likewise, my little orchard (now, after losing a few young trees to wintertime bark stripping years ago) has 3' tall wire cages around every trunk. If we get a snowfall deeper than that, I'll stomp the snow down around each tree so they can't get to the branches by walking atop the snow.

But this fall, I've come up against something different. Caveat: there's always something new - last summer, when Bambi discovered the garden, we had to raise the height of the fence; earlier this summer we had to build a top over the chicken pen, after a bobcat family moved in nearby; luckily, still no bears or mountain lions - knock on wood, we know they're out there.

Rats! A few weeks ago, I started hearing spooky bumping and thumping on the roof a few times in the night. One late night, sitting at the computer, I heard a bunch of thumping and scratching right outside the open window. I shone a light out through the screen just in time to see a rat! a pointy-nosed, naked-tail rat! run across the window sill outside. Ok, that was new! Mice, ground squirrels, the occasional kangaroo rat, even chipmunks, but I've never seen a rat around here before.

And then, about a week later, we were awakened about 3 a.m. by something scratching about in the ceiling above our bed. Oh no, it had somehow gotten into the attic. We checked the roof, vents, and eaves a few times before finally finding a hole scratched into a spot under a soffit where an addition had been made to the original building. We patched that up, stopping anything else from getting in, but still had something scratching above our heads every night.

Our attic is merely a crawlspace, with some areas we can't really get into. No luck with a snap-trap, nor with the box trap. Rats are too smart, I guess. What to do? Besides the creepy feeling and loss of sleep, we can't have it up there chewing wires or destroying insulation. I don't like using it, and never would anywhere other animals can get to it, but we finally resorted to putting poison up there. Luckily, we live in a desert climate where a dead animal dessicates and mummifies instead of rotting. After a couple more nights, peace returned to our house.

But wait, there's more! We have an outside, underground cellar. In the fall, we open it up nightly to start cooling it down, and store quite a bit of our harvest. The cold air sinks down the cellar steps, and then there's a vent pipe in the opposite corner ceiling for the warm air to rise. We have a screen framework we put over the top of the stairs when we open up the door below, to keep critters and falling leaves out. Always before, it's worked very well.

But this year, a couple of weeks ago, I noticed gnaw marks on my fruit down there - rat-sized teeth marks. Now the whole idea of a rat in my cellar is a bit icky, but I wouldn't mind quite so much if he took one whole apple and ate on that night after night. But he had to gnaw bits out of four or five different pieces every night. Nothing was safe, either. He sampled my Asian pears, apples, the tomatoes and peppers, even an onion and the end of one of the big zucchini. He could either climb or jump even onto the highest wire racks. And the screen didn't stop him. The lower cellar door did. On nights I didn't open it up, I'd find rat poop outside the lower door, so I knew he was managing to get under the upper slanted door, but the fruit inside was untouched.

But I couldn't just keep the cellar door closed - it's still too warm inside right now for keeping stuff, and later in the season it'll be too cold outside at night to open the door. This is the time of year I have to open it up at night if I want to have my winter stores last until spring. So, we tried snap-traps - they were tripped, with the bait gone. The box trap tripped but empty, night after night. I put a couple of rat-sized glue traps along the edges of the floor. And one morning last week, we found half a bushy tail, along with quite a bit of gray fur, on one. This guy had chewed off his own tail to escape! You have to admire that kind of survival instinct, but that's my food you're messing with!

Hmmm. That's not the tail of a pointy-nosed rat rat. Onto the internet, to see what kind of nocturnal beast we're dealing with. And came up with the bushy-tailed woodrat - a kind of packrat. Ok, something different yet again, but I still want him out of my food supply. And then, just this morning, we got him, in the box trap up by the garage.

Oh, damn! Does he have to be so cute? Those big, nocturnal eyes (and obviously, he's our guy, with only half a tail). And damn you Disney! I've seen Ratatouille - you would have to animate rats into something sympathetic. So now, what to do? It's hard to drown something so cute, especially after he's sacrificed his own tail to live. Even though I haven't seen one around here before, they're not endangered. How far would I have to take it before it wouldn't make its way back? Is it illegal to transport rodents? Transporting him probably dooms him to a winter without food and shelter, or a quick death from an owl or coyote. Ah, what to do?

Monday, 25 July 2011

Making Peace with Tomato Horn Worms

When I first started growing tomatoes I used to pick off the tomato or tobacco hornworms and squish them with a rock. Then one year I missed one and spotted it with the tiny white eggs from a parasitic wasp on it's back. Ever since then I've made peace with the hornworms in my garden. I never pick them off or do anything to get rid of them. They get to eat some tomatoes leaves and a tomato here and there in complete peace. Why the change of heart? Making Peace with Horn WormsI don't want to get rid of them and risk the parasitic wasp not having a host for it's eggs. I also don't want the birds to go hungry, as they seem to find these giant juicy worms a complete breakfast. The truth is they're not that damaging to tomato plants and I can plant extra plants just for them. Perhaps a little defoliation is good for tomatoes this time of year and I don't mind losing a couple tomatoes, I have plenty to go around. The truth is that often when we step in we upset the balance of nature and make our problems worse down the line. If we squish or kill all the hornworms we'll never have the braconid wasps in our gardens. Without the wasps we'll end up with more hornworms, aphids and other insects. We may also inadvertently kill a hornworm that has already been parasitized by a wasp since it takes a few days before the white worms appear on their backs. Making Peace with Horn WormsI'm convinced that I'm encouraging biodiversity in my garden by making peace with hornworms and other things viewed as "pests". I have noticed that the less I interfere with nature the more balanced things become, even in my small quarter acre garden. I encourage you to let the hornworms and other pests live and see how everything balances out in a few years!

Do you have any pests that you've made peace with?

Here's an interesting article from the BBC about how plants can send out SOS signals to predatory insects when they sense they're being attacked by caterpillars & other insects. And the specifically studies hornworms.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Slugs: the Nemesis of My Garden

Warning, pictures of slugs coming up! Since they're so ugly, I just thought I would share a flower photo to butter you up.  

Hello everyone, I'm a new writer here and so I thought I would give you a short introduction about myself.

I was originally a city (Portland, OR) and career girl. Since I've had a child, become a stay-at-home mom and the economic recession, I've moved outside the city and am trying my best to raise my own food and become a modern homesteader. I started out not knowing much much about the subject, and am learning as I go. As I learn, I write about it on my blog at: And I'm honored to be writing here, a blog that has provided much inspiration to me.

This first blog post is about one of my most frustrating experiences as a gardener: slugs.

I live in the Pacific Northwest, where the weather is mild, but rainy about 9 months out of the year. Since slugs love wet ground, this means that slugs here survive and proliferate throughout the winter, and are giant in size: many slugs here reach 4" long!

Cabbage seedling devoured by slugs. Many times I go out in the morning and there is only a little stump on the plant left, not even enough to take a picture of. 
I'm doing my best to live off my garden, and since the slugs here are so prolific and can eat their weight in plant material daily, slugs have shattered my plan more than once. This year I've lost all eggplant seedlings, at least half of my tomato fruits, countless sowings of lettuce and all my pickling cucumbers... the list goes on and on.

When I went outside a couple of months ago to discover that every one of my beautiful fall broccoli seedlings were devoured, I declared war on the slugs living in my garden.

Over the years I've read many different strategies to control slugs, but I've never noticed much of a difference in the slug population. So the first thing I've done is set up experiments to see how each "remedy" affects the slugs in my garden. Here is a list of the experiments I've conducted:

Copper: many sources will recommend using copper as a barrier around the gardens to deter slugs. I wanted to determine first whether or not copper really works. Since copper is very expensive, so I ordered a small amount of "copper slug tape" and adhered it to a piece of cardboard. I then put the copper with lettuce leaves placed on top in a box, added a slug, and put a lid on top. Here's what I found about an hour later.

A really ugly slug, munching away on the lettuce regardless of the copper. Thankfully I didn't spend much money! 

There are more "slug deterrents" that are popular. To determine their efficacy, I then set up very similar experiments with: wood ashes, diatomaceous earth, crushed eggshells and coffee grounds. I've photographed each one of my experiments on my blog, but I'll save you the agony: slugs could care less about any one of these so-called deterrents. 

I then attempted to find out just how affective it would be to use trap and destroy slugs. I placed as many boards (about thirty) and tiles that I could find in one area of my garden, thinking that I could trap the slugs the next day or two and then move them to a different area of my garden. But that also didn't work! After about two weeks, there were still slugs gathering underneath, and slugs were proliferating out of control in the other areas of my gardens.

So then I turned to beer traps. Oh people love those beer traps! The thinking is that slugs like to drink beer so much that they will crawl in and drown. And yes, some slugs do drown, but check out these photos:

A slug dunking its head over the side of my trap, drinking beer. 
These slugs have been in this box for two days. Notice many of them are fine, and that another slug is drinking out of the trap. That big slug never did drown, even a couple of days later! 

I think that most people assume that the beer trap method works very well because they observe slugs drowned in the traps. But what I don't think people realize is that not all of them drown, and beer can actually be food for some of the slugs!

Perhaps the beer traps work better in locations where slugs don't grow so large. But considering the expense of beer traps (the least expensive beer locally is .71 cents/pint) I've determined that my effort and money is probably best spent elsewhere.

My latest efforts are twofold: cultural control and baits.

By cultural control, I mean reducing the things in your garden that allow slugs to proliferate. Obviously, slugs don't care for light, so they hide during the day. They hide and lay eggs under rocks, weeds, boards, debris, pots, etc., and so I am doing my best to remove hiding places as much as possible. Unfortunately, this also applies to mulch. I know lasagne gardening and sheetmulcing are very popular methods, but unfortunately the mulch provides slugs habitat, and in the case of leaves, provides them with food. So all leaves, straw, etc., goes into my compost pile before it goes out into the garden.

Since slugs do like to feed at night, I frequently go out with a flashlight or headlamp and a pair of scissors. It's disgusting and laborious but free and effective.

This year I attempted allowing my tomatoes to sprawl on the ground, rather than propping them up. I've read that this works just fine for most, but did you know that slugs love tomatoes? I didn't until this year.
These were the tomatoes that were salvageable if you cut off the bad parts.  I never took pictures of the tomatoes that weren't salvageable, but I think you get the picture! 

My least favorite slug control method is slug bait. There are three main types of bait. Two of which are fatally toxic to pets and wildlife, so I've never used them. The other one, called iron phosphate, is reportedly least toxic and breaks down into fertilizer for your soil. Locally, the most popular product is called sluggo.

The problem for me is that sluggo is ridiculously expensive, which is why I've always avoided using them until now. Sluggo is most commonly available in small, 2.5 pound bottles. One pound costs around $8 and covers 100 square feet and needs to be reapplied every two weeks. You can probably imagine that this cost would add up pretty quickly.

A few days ago I called around find out the price differences. I'm pleasantly surprised to find out that there are huge variations in prices, but in order to get the best price (close to $3/pound) you will need to buy larger quantities. If you live in the States you can check out my post on least expensive sources of iron phosphate. There are also some sources local to Portland, OR.

My thinking now is that if I keep my gardens heavily baited throughout the next couple of rainy seasons that the slug population will drop then I can focus on just baiting the perimeter of the gardens.

So for anyone out there suffering a slug infestation such as mine, here's what I can recommend: keep the garden as weed free as possible (invest in a good, wide hoe), remove rocks, stray boards, mulch, etc. It you have the energy, go out at night to search and destroy. Seek out the least expensive environmentally-friendly slug bait. Protect seedlings as best as you can since they are the least vulnerable. And get those tomatoes up off the ground!

Do you have a pest that is particularly bad in your area? How have you handled the situation?

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Time to Plant the Garlic

by Kate
Living the Frugal Life

I'm re-running this post from the archives of my personal blog.  It's garlic planting time again.  There are a few tips in this post that have given us good harvests of this indispensable seasoning, even in two back-to-back years of opposite weather extremes.  If you've never grown garlic before, it's probably not too late in the northern hemisphere.  If you can't get planting stock at such late notice from a seed catalog, check your local farmer's market for untreated garlic and use the largest cloves you can find for planting.

We finally got our garlic planted yesterday. We aim for a week after first frost, and that event was rather late this year. It's both counter-intuitive and oddly reassuring to plant things this late in the year. I've had excellent results in growing hardneck heirloom garlics in my zone 6 garden. So I thought I would describe my method.

First things first: I prepare a bed that I have not used to grow garlic in the past three years. This helps protect garlic from just about the only thing that threatens it: fungus that attacks the roots. I scrape down any weeds, leaving them in place on the soil. To them I add a few leaves from my comfrey plants to act as a green manure, albeit not a living one. Comfrey is a deep-mining bioaccumulator of many nutrients, bringing these minerals to the surface where they can be made accessible to other plants. I make sure the comfrey leaves wilt for several hours in the sun before burying them. The plant has astonishing powers to root itself from cuttings. After that I work the ground over with the broadfork and then apply the lasagna/sheet mulching method. So much for the bed.

The night before I plant my garlic bulbs, I break down the heads of each different type of garlic into individual bulbs, leaving as many of their papery coverings intact as possible. The wrappings protect the bulb from viruses and other unwelcome intruders. Given the damage to this year's garlic crop from our incredibly wet June, I looked over the planting candidates with a very careful eye, rejecting any that showed signs of damage or rot. Those that made the cut got my standard pre-planting treatment. This consists of a soak in a mixture that is both anti-fungal as well as nutritive. It's a mixture of 1 tablespoon of liquid seaweed fertilizer and 1 heaping tablespoon of baking soda mixed into one gallon of water. The bulbs soak in this mixture overnight, with each garlic variety I plant in a separate mason jar. They soak for 16 to 20 hours altogether.

The day of planting, I pour about two cups of flour into a container and then rummage around in the garage until I locate my planting template. I made this template from a piece of scrap particle board I fished out of a dumpster. The template has 18 holes, each spaced 8" apart, which is slightly generous spacing for garlic. Originally I had intended to plant the garlic directly through the template, but that didn't work out when I saw how large the bulbs of some heirloom hardneck varieties are. Instead, I lay the template down over a well prepared bed, and dust the flour down every hole. When I take the template away, I can easily see where the bulbs should be planted.

Just before it's time to plant, the bulbs come out of their seaweed and baking soda soak, and go into a much briefer soak in rubbing alcohol. This additional disinfectant soak lasts for just 3-5 minutes. We've used 70% rubbing alcohol in the past, but this year it was 91% pure. While the cloves soaked, my husband did the hard work of making a deep narrow hole at each of the floured spots, punching straight through the newspaper in the lasagna mulch. I try to get the cloves about 4" deep, but sometimes it's difficult to tell exactly how deep they are when I have a lot of mulch on top of the ground. This year I added good compost down each hole dug for the cloves. This year's bed was built in late summer over lawn, so I figure the garlic could use some extra help. That's pretty much it. I don't even water the bed usually. We have enough rainfall in our area that it's not needed, and the bed is pretty well protected from drying out. It's raining today.

The garlic shoots have no trouble making their way through the lasagna mulching. They just come straight up through the hole I punch in the thick newspaper layer with the dibble. The key is to avoid walking on the bed after planting, even though it looks like an empty space in the garden.

Garlic requires more advanced planning and a longer time in the ground than other annual plants. But the payoff is that we eat homegrown garlic from July to December at least. This year we planted a softneck variety too, which should store better after harvest, in hopes of extending our homegrown supply into the spring months, or at least late winter. So here I am in October 2009, thinking about whether or not we'll have homegrown garlic to eat in February or March 2011. Although I started growing garlic in 2007, we're now eating from our second harvest of this crop and wondering how long we can manage to store it. No wonder it takes so long to feel like I know anything about gardening.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Chickens Weed My Garden

by Kate
Living the Frugal Life

Over the summer we built a highly mobile pen to house poultry with the help of our first WWOOF volunteer.  It was intended for the turkey poult we ended up with, without much planning.  When I designed what we now call the poultry schooner, it was with multiple uses in mind.  It wasn't to be just a place to keep our poult, but also a means of allowing our laying hens to do a great deal of our fall garden cleanup.  This year we reorganized the garden so that all our beds are three feet wide.  The poultry schooner is also exactly three feet wide.

This means that it fits neatly over the beds where we've been ripping out our tomato plants as the first frost approaches.  The growing turkey was moved to the pen normally occupied by the hens, and the hens were set to work under the schooner in the garden.  Scratching through soil, tearing small seedlings from the ground, and eating insects in every stage of development is what chickens want to do.  The poultry schooner facilitates them doing it to our benefit.

Not only do the hens perform the service of weeding the beds, but they also add their manure to each bed at the same time.  I wouldn't be keen to add manure to a bed in the spring, when I was about to plant my crops.  But now, in October, planting is at least five months away, and longer for most crops, and we also have months of sub-freezing temperatures to look forward to.  I can't refer you to any science on pathogens in chicken manure, nor their breakdown.  I know I have healthy living soils in the garden, and I trust the hugely diverse microbial populations there to process a light topping of raw manure by the time I'm ready to plant.  The hens only occupy any part of the garden for two days, so we're not talking about an excessive build up of manure.

On the first day the chickens decimate any seedlings, and work the top few inches of soil.  This light and superficial working of the soil would pass muster with living soil enthusiasts as no harm is done to the structure of the soil, mycelium, or (many) earthworms.  The chickens also are eager and happy to help me with the work of breaking down half finished compost.  I don't turn my compost pile but once per year. This year about ten gallons of the stuff from the bottom of the pile was tossed in to the hens on their second day of occupation on each garden bed.  Their excitement with this material was abundantly clear. They showed more interest in the half-finished compost than in their morning grain ration.

The plan was to lasagna mulch over each bed as the chickens were moved on to the next newly cleared area.  But through procrastination I discovered yet another benefit of using my hens in the schooner.  Just days after the hens were removed from a bed, a whole new crop of seedlings sprang up in the lovely, loose soil.  Of course most of them were weeds.  When I was finally ready to do the lasagna mulching, it occurred to me that I could make the hens happy, save myself some work, and deplete the store of weed seeds in my garden by placing the hens back on the beds they'd already worked for just an hour or two.  I was able to rotate the hens over four beds in the course of a day's work, and they cleared all of them of weed seedlings with chilling efficiency.

It seems to me that this technique could be used to great effect to combat the worst weeds.  Even if chickens have no interest in eating a particular plant in the seedling stage, their scratching will decimate the seedlings anyway.  The fact that four hens can clear a 30 square foot area of such seedlings in a matter of hours suggests that the process could be repeated several times in the weeks of waning sunlight in autumn.  Come springtime there would be far fewer seeds left near the surface capable of germination.  Add in a good lasagna mulching job, and the weed pressure is bound to be minimal.

I'm looking forward to spring 2011.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Natural Insect & Disease Control - an ebook (and some local wisdom)

by Francesca

stink bug 2

The other day, I noticed that my chard patch got infested by some bugs. Several leaves had turned yellow, and many others had large brown spots. Looking closely at my chard, it wasn't difficult to find the likely culprit: hiding right among the stems I could spot many good-sized brown bugs!

When disease or insects attack my vegetable garden, I often simply uproot and destroy the affected plants for fear that they might spread to the rest of the garden. But there are exceptions, and my poor chard was one of them: it's one of the few crops that survived my summer travels (here), and moreover it will continue producing for several months, until springtime. I needed to treat my chard. So I turned to the Internet.

After a little research, I found the best book on natural insect and disease control I've ever come across, entirely published online in Google books. What an amazing resource! The Organic Gardener's Handbook of Natural Disease and Insect Control edited by Barbara W Ellis and Fern Marshall Bradley, allowed me first of all to determine that the “brown bugs” in my garden were “brown stink bugs”. This book also suggested ways to prevent them, or - as last resort - to control them by dusting the affected plants with pyrethrin powder, a natural organic compound with potent insecticidal properties. I happened to have pyrethrin powder, but because this book is mainly about North American insects and diseases, I wanted to be sure that my bugs were definitely stink bugs. So I asked my neighbors.

stink bugs

Farmers for generations, my neighbors have taught me most of what I know about gardening, and always have the answer to my gardening troubles. In the rare cases when they don't, they have at least a couple of suggestions, which normally solve the problem. My 86 year old neighbor unhesitatingly confirmed the diagnosis I'd made with the help of the ebook, but didn't agree with the treatment. “Oh, no! You just remove them one by one, and squish them dead.” he said. “They are very prolific, you know” he added to make his statement more urgent.

And so I went to find my gardening gloves. And my pyrethrin.

What steps to you take when insects or disease infest your garden?

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Adding Diversity to the Garden

by Chiot's Run

I'm always trying find ways to increase the biodiversity in our gardens and to broaden my knowledge of the benefits of of biodiversity, even in the small scale garden. Every year we add a few more native/local plants, especially ones that are beneficial for insects (like milkweed, queen anne's lace & goldenrod). We also garden without the use of any kind of sprays or dusts, even the organic ones, which still be hard on or kill beneficial insects. Our methods of pest control are limited to luring beneficial insects/birds/animals to our property and companion planting. If our cabbages get decimated by cabbage loopers we try companion planting or we try to lure beneficial birds to the garden. One of the reasons I don't spray or do anything to limit the insect population of any kind is because I believe the "bad" insects are around for a reason. If we didn't have them, we wouldn't have the good ones either, or the birds/animals that rely on them for food.

What got me thinking about this was something I read a long time ago about some trees in one state. This particular type of tree was plagued by web worms (which we have a lot of around here). The state started a spraying program to control the worms, but then they noticed the trees started dying off. After further study they found out that the worms defoliated the trees right at the time the dry season started. The defoliation allowed the trees to lose less water and thus survive the dry season. When they killed off the worms, they inadvertently weakened or killed the trees. We have such a limited view of the natural world, what we often see as a "pest" if often doing a specific job, if we interrupt that natural cycle we often do more damage.

Adhering to these self-imposed rules hasn't always been easy. We've had times when we've been overrun with earwigs, HUGE wolf spiders, and slugs and I've lost crops to insect damage. But we have noticed that each and every year we have a greater variety of insects, birds and other creatures in our gardens. Along with all these new species comes a healthier ecosystem and fewer problems with overpopulation of one species. I've noticed that we don't get overrun any more. When the cabbage worms start getting out of hand, the wrens eggs hatch and mama goes to work collecting all those big juicy fat green worms to feed their young. At that moment I'm thankful that I didn't dust the cabbage or those little wren babies might not have enough to eat. The more I pay attention to these natural cycles the more thankful I am that I read that article so long ago. I love spotting a wasp patrolling a broccoli plant in search of a caterpillar or birds flitting around the tomatoes looking for giant hornworms.

My newest attempt to add biodiversity to my gardens is in the way of a small pond. We've been wanting to add some water for the insects, frogs, toads, birds and other wildlife. I have small saucers of water I around the garden (change water frequently to avoid breeding mosquitoes), but I have been wanting to add something larger. My parents gave us their old pond when they upgraded to a larger one. We installed it a couple weeks ago and 2 days later we found a few toads in it already. We bought some fish to help with mosquito control and it looks like we're on the way to even great diversity on our small 1/4 acre lot. I've noticed bees and wasps drinking from the pond and the birds love it as well. I'll keep thinking of new ways to make my little slice of the world a refuge for the insects and animals of all shapes.

Any great tips and ideas on increasing the biodiversity in the garden? Have you noticed a greater abundance and variety of insects, birds, and other wildlife in your gardens?

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Not Dabbling in Normal and you can follow me on Twitter.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Organic Pest and Weed Control

written by Gavin from The Greening of Gavin

As I attempt to grow my vegetables in line with organic farming principles, without artificial fertilisers and petrochemical pesticides or herbicides, sometimes after a really hot day my broccoli and other brassica get attached by cabbage moth caterpillars. You see, the heat makes the usually strong plants wilt and I don't know if they have an immune system like up, but I do know that this is when the beasties are more likely to attack.

I started picking off the caterpillars at night with a torch by hand and throw them over the fence for the magpies (they love them). That works for a few days and then it is out with the torch again for another caterpillar throwing contest.

There had to be a better way, I thought. There must be some friendly way of deterring the little buggers (no pun intended). I performed a little research and there were only a few products on the market that are organically certified. I went to our local Hardware store to check out the pesticide section. I was gob smacked with the so many types of poisonous products on the markets just to grow vegetables. I can just imagine all of the harmful chemicals that you would ingest if you used these sprays and powders. 

I found only two organically certified pest control products out of about 60 that were available. Some people must not understand the issues with using these type of poisons, or they wouldn't buy them and the chemical companies would stop making them. Anyway, the two type available were Derris Dust and a product called Beat-A-Bug. Derris Dust is made from the Derris root which is native to Central and South America and contains a compound called Rotenone. It is long lasting and relatively safe for humans. It is a poison in large quantities, so follow the instructions on the label. I have found it very effective on brassica and silverbeet. It stops the caterpillars in their tracks. Just make sure that you don't use it if rain is expected as it is water soluble.

Even though Derris Dust is a good deterrent, it is not very good for sorting out aphids which is another pest I have to deal with. Aphids suck the life out of the new growth and they stunt the growth of just about all the plants they attack.  They are usually moved around by ants, so watch for them as well. This is where the Beat-A-Bug would come in handy, but it is quite expensive for a 1 litre bottle, so I make my own version. It is called the "All purpose onion, garlic and, chilli pest spray", and I found the recipe in a gardening book called "The Organic Garden" by Jeffrey Hodges. The spray is also a mild fungicide, antiseptic and antibiotic and has a very strong odour, just like someone opening their lunch box on a hot day that contained onion & garlic sandwiches! Here are the preparation directions;

"Combine 2 finely chopped onions and 6 cloves of freshly crushed garlic with 1 tablespoon of hot chilli powder (or 6 finely chopped red chillies), cover with 2 cm of water, stir well and allow to steep for 24 hours. Dissolve 1 cup of pure soap flakes in 5 litres of warm water, and then add the strained onion, garlic and chilli mixture and stir well. Use within 24 hours."

Now with most things there are some safety tips.

  • Always use gloves and wear a long sleeved shirt and trousers, as the chilli in the spray really stings on bare skin.
  • Make sure that if you do get some spray on your skin to wash it off immediately with soapy water.
  • Don't spray in windy, rainy, or very hot conditions. The best time to spray is early in the morning as the bugs are less active.
  • Don't harvest sprayed plants for about 2 days. Natural sprays will breakdown after about 12 hours unlike petroleum based sprays. And of course you don't want you fresh vege to stink of garlic and onions.
I make the pest spray up whenever I need it and spray the next day. I have also found that the plants go through a growth spurt a few days after spraying for pests, so the plants must absorb some of the nutrients in the spray! An beneficial side effect in the best possible way. I use the spray about once a month to keep things under control and hand pick caterpillars or aphid damaged vegetation in between sprays. If you really don't want to mix up this potent natural pest spray, try Beat-A-Bug instead. I think that the only extra ingredient it has is pyrethrum so it is a good alternative if you can afford it.

Now that you know about organic pest sprays and powders, the weed control is so much easier. Mulch is the answer to all organic gardeners problems. Mulch thickly in spring and summer and the weeds hardly get a chance to germinate. Any of the few that do get through, I pull by hand and throw in the compost bin. Any grasses that manage to pop through the weed matting under my paths are simply killed off by pouring boiling water on them. They die within a week as their cell walls bust and the plant wither and expires. I use left over cooking water or boil up a kettle of water. It works well and beats having to pull them out by hand. It is also very friendly on the garden and is so much better than using glyphosate (roundup and zero manufactured by Monsanto) which is harmful to all life and causes cancer in humans.

By using these easy tips, I hope you avoid the poisons and switch to organic pest sprays, and that you have a successful and healthy organically grown garden just like mine!

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Tomato Troubleshooting

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Tomatoes are the most popular vegetables grown in home gardens. And no wonder - one plant bears many fruits over a long period of time, and there are varieties to fit every location from patio pots to trellises 15' high. Plus nothing beats the flavor of a vine-ripened tomato still warm from the sun, whether it's a tiny grape tomato popped right into your mouth or giant slices filling a sandwich.

More and more gardeners are returning to growing heirloom tomatoes. Growing heirlooms provides a much greater variety of flavors and colors, and allows the growers to select and save seeds according to individual tastes, uses, and climate. But in doing so, they also risk losing the disease protection bred into today's hybrids. Keeping a watchful eye on your tomato patch is especially necessary when growing heirloom tomatoes organically - to catch pests early and to remove diseased plants before the entire crop is infected.

But sometimes even the most attentive gardener will find something wrong in the tomato patch. Here are a few of the more common tomato problems and some solutions:

Blossom End Rot
Darkened area on blossom end of the fruit, that eventually becomes sunken, black and leathery. Caused by either inconsistent or uneven watering or a calcium deficiency (that's why I add the eggshells at planting time, or you can also use limestone). The fruit is still ok to eat after slicing off the damaged portion.

Fruits, especially the earliest ones, misshaped with darkened crevices and scars on the blossom end. Caused by environmental stress during bloom - usually temperatures below 55F (13C) or above 85F (30C), but also by drought, high winds, or fertilizers high in ammonia (such as insufficiently composted poultry manure). Wait to set out plants until weather has warmed sufficiently or provide protection such as row covers or Wall-o-waters.

Tomato skin cracks, either in concentric curves around the stem or by splitting radially from the stem. Caused by wide fluctuations in temperature or water (especially when a heavy rain follows hot, dry weather) during fruit growth. Excessive nitrogen can also cause cracking. Even watering and balanced fertilizer use lessens cracking.

White or light tan discoloration of the skin, especially on the top of the tomato. Caused by too much sunlight during hot weather - the tomato version of sunburn. If pruning tomato plants to a trellis, try leaving two stems instead of one to increase amount of foliage (plus, that can increase your yield too).

Tomatoes like between 1 and 1½ inches of water per week, and it's critical that the supply is on a regular and even basis. They're considered heavy feeders, so like both applications of compost or other slow-acting fertilizer in the spring at planting time, plus supplemental light side-dressing or foliar sprays periodically throughout the season. Besides the compost dug into their planting area before setting out my plants, I also add a heaping tablespoon of crushed eggshells, heaping teaspoon of Epsom salts, and a heaping tablespoon of my fertilizer mix - equal parts blood meal, bone meal, and greensand - to each planting hole (for my peppers and eggplants too). Tomatoes grow roots from stems buried at planting time, so I always dig my planting holes extra-deep and set the plants in so that only the top few leaves are above the soil line (removing any leaves below). The extra root area makes for much stronger plants later in the season, and better able to withstand our hot, dry summer weather.

Nitrogen Deficiency
Pale leaves, turning yellow, especially the lower leaves. Plants grow slowly and leaves are small. Flower buds turn yellow and drop off. For a quick remedy, spray your plants with a diluted fish emulsion or other liquid fertilizer.

Phosphorus Deficiency
Reddish, purple leaves, especially the underside veins and stems. Most often occurs in acid soil, and temporarily in cold, wet soils. Spray with diluted fish emulsion or liquid fertilizer, and add some wood ashes to the soil.

Potassium Deficiency
Slow growth and low yields. Leaves develop a yellowish-green color on the edges, bronze spots appear between the veins, that eventually turn brown and brittle. Spray with diluted fish emulsion or liquid fertilizer, and add some wood ashes to the soil.

Foliage curls, puckers, turns yellow
Aphids. Look for ants - they are a good sign that your plants have aphids. For light infestations, spray the plants vigorously in the early mornings every other day. For heavier infestations, spray with an insecticidal soap solution every few days until the aphids are under control.

Seedling Stems Severed at Soil Level
Cutworms - 1-inch dull-colored plump larvae that curl up when disturbed. They feed at night, and hide under the surface during the day. Protect individual plants with paper collars around stem at ground level and a bit below, or sprinkle cornmeal or bran around each plant.

Leaves Stippled Yellow
Mites. Spray plants forcefully with water, or a insecticidal soap solution, every few days until under control.

Large Holes in Leaves, or Leaves Completely Gone
Tomato Hornworm - a large (3 to 5-inch) caterpillar, green with white stripes and a pointed horn projecting from its rear. They start eating near the top of the plant, leaving entire stems without leaves. Also, look for dark colored droppings on the leaves below. Look for them alongside larger stems during the daytime (spraying the plant with water can make them thrash about, making them easier to see), and handpick from the plants (chickens just LOVE hornworms thrown into their pen - yum yum!). If you can't find the pests in the foliage, dust the plants with BT (Bacillus thuringiensis - a biological control that only affects caterpillars).

or Slugs. They work their way from the bottom of the plant up. Look for trails of slime on leaves or soil beneath plants. Handpick, create barriers with sand, ashes or hardware cloth, or make slug traps by creating shaded places under old boards, carpet pieces, cabbage leaves, grapefruit or melon rinds and then remove slugs daily.

Weakened Plants with Yellow Leaves
Whiteflies. When an infected plant is shaken, it looks like dandruff flying from the leaves. Honeydew secreted by the whiteflies encourages fungus and mold on the plant. Use insecticidal soap sprays to both prevent and treat whitefly infestations.

Damping Off - caused by a fungus in the soil. Seedlings with damping off just topple over at the soil line and die, cold soil can increase the potential for damping off. It can be prevented by using commercial potting soil to start seeds, or by heat-pasteurizing your own soil in an oven or under plastic in the sun before using. Using a fan for better air circulation around seedlings can both prevent damping off and make the stems grow stronger. I've found that watering just-sprouted tomato seedlings with a strong chamomile tea, and then bottom-watering after that can also stop damping off.

Most tomato diseases cannot be cured. If you think you have an infected plant, pull it out to prevent the disease from spreading to the rest of your plants. Wash hands and tools in a bleach solution before touching other plants. Better to lose the yield of just one plant than your entire crop. Many hybrids have been developed with resistance to some diseases - it may be better to buy seeds or plants and grow them instead of saving seeds from heirlooms if disease is common in your garden.

Curly Top - foliage yellows, curls, and twists to roll upward, exposing the undersides of the leaf. Veins in leaves turn purple and foliage becomes stiff and leathery. Plant growth stunted and fruit ripens prematurely.

Bacterial Wilt - plant wilts rapidly, and dies. Usually wilt from environmental problems occurs more slowly. If conditions in your garden are good and a plant wilts suddenly, remove it.

Fusarium Wilt - leaves yellow from base of plant upwards, sometimes only on one side of the plant or one half of the leaf. Leaves wilt noticeably before the plant dies.

Mosaic - Stunted, yellow, bushy plants with shoestring leaves. Aphids spread mosaic, so control aphids as soon as they appear, with strong water spray or insecticidal soap.

Many other diseases can be prevented by good fall clean-up practices in your garden, not working around the plants when they are wet, and keeping tobacco users away from your tomato plants. Your local garden center or Co-operative Extension office can tell you more about diseases and pests specific to your region. Once gardens in my area are up and growing, I'll try to add photos of specific problems to this post.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Organic Pest Control

Posted by: Paul Gardener
A posse ad esse (From possibility to reality)

Last year at this time, we made a special trip down to Salt Lake City (Utah) to go to a particular nursery, MillCreek Gardens. The reason that we went out of our way to go to that particular nursery, was to pick up, oh, eighteen hundred or so workers to help around the garden and yard.
There are approximately 1500 ladybugs in this package. It cost me $9.99 and I feel will be worth every penny. These little guys were released at dusk (as per instructions on the package.) around our 4 fruit trees, near the raspberries and strawberries, and some in the flower beds.There is some evidence that when large numbers of "imported" lady bugs are released that they don't all hang around. I will say however, that I had lots of lady bugs visiting me last year while I worked in the garden and had very little problem with aphids, a prime food source for these carnivorous little ladies.
I also picked up a cocoon of praying mantis that should carry in the neighborhood of three hundred manti. Between these two I should be able to make a pretty good dent in the aphid population around here. I've done this before in a previous home and loved the surprise of finding a mantis or lady bug every once and a while.My wife was the lucky lady that got to find this big fella crawling around our beans last year. They can kind of freak you out when you notice that the stick is moving, but it's nice to know that they're hard at work for me and are happy to be doing it!

Now granted, this kind of gardening is a little slower, and not 100% effective, but it will make a big difference. It makes a lot more sense to me and it helps to build a healthy ecosystem in our yard. If you've not tried this before I encourage you to take a look around to see if you can find them where you are. But even if you can't, you can really make a big difference by just letting the ecosystem in your garden develop naturally and keep an eye out for what's going on. Nature wants to work with us, it's up to us though to take her up on it

Grow on!