Saturday, July 1, 2017

Know Thy Enemy in the Garden

Cabbage White Butterflies dancing
on the blooming lavender in the garden.
     Chomp, chomp.  Some summer days it seems to echo throughout the land.  The chorus of quiet munching and nibbling on every leaf, stem, and fruit in the garden.  Somehow these pests know exactly where to go.  They avoid the weeds like the plague, and plop down on the squash, cabbage, beans, tomatoes, potatoes and corn, settling in for a good filling meal for them over the growing season, but a meal for them means less of one for us.  

     In September of 2016, the Mr. and I went to the Mother Earth News Fair in Somerset, PA, and listened to two different individuals discuss how they organically repelled, destroyed and co-habited with their garden pests.  They both had wonderful ideas that worked for their situation, but I've come to find that not all situations are the same, and as every single presenter seemed to say in answer to question after question that weekend... "it depends."  

     Those words leave me a little frustrated.  Can't there be a full proof way to get rid of these buggers, both big and small?  One that doesn't cost an arm and a leg?  One that doesn't involve laying down floating row covers, fencing the perimeter, or turning over every leaf, every day, as sunlight is waning as quickly as your sanity?  So I repeat, "it depends."  It depends on what pest you are dealing with, where you live, what your weather is, if you garden organic or pesticide friendly, and how much time and money you are willing to invest.  

     After four seasons of in-ground gardening (and in the midst of our fifth), I'm offering some of the pest prevention tips and tricks that we've used in our garden for five common pests.  Every garden is different, and maybe they won't work for you, but why not give them a try as most of these won't cost you much?

Five Common Garden Insect Pests

Caterpillar of a Swallowtail Butterfly 
Caterpillars.  I get it.  They're stunning.  They'll turn into an abundance of beautiful butterflies or moths, some of which eagerly help to pollinate the garden.  However, like it is for us, they are probably decimating your parsley, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc., depending on the species' desired buffet.  So do you kill them, or let them live?  Are they friend or foe?  We've come to the conclusion you must either hand pick them off the plants and send them to the afterlife, or to someone else.  Perhaps friends or family have butterfly gardens nearby and would be willing to take them off of your hands so they can watch the caterpillars mature, munch, and reproduce... in their garden.

Differential Grasshopper
Grasshoppers.  Anyone else grow up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie books?  Among the most memorable parts of the series for me was in On The Banks of Plum Creek when the glittering cloud of grasshoppers shaded out the sky and literally ate the fields out of house and home.  Although, they were technically the Rocky Mountain Locusts of 1874 that were commonly referred to as grasshoppers, I feel that in the summer garden, the story sure fits.  Aside from the floating row covers that many gardeners swear by, I've noticed that another animal has quite the appetite for these... farm cats!  Although they don't completely eliminate the pests entirely, they certainly keep the population, and therefore problem, down as the cats "assist" us during our morning and evening chores.  In all, our less than half a dozen farm cats do pretty well over the 8,400 square feet of garden space we maintain.

Mature Colorado Potato Beetle
Colorado Potato Beetles.  The first of the pests for us to wage full-on warfare on was the dreaded Colorado Potato Beetle who systematically devoured the leaves of the carefully mounded Red Pontiac and Yukon Gold potatoes the first year until nearly none were left in the June heat.  Once feeding on the buffalo bur of another lonesome prairie in 1859, the pioneers’ potatoes looked better to these bugs that multiplied by the millions and traveled in droves 85 miles further eastward each year, looking for new potato fields to systematically devour.  The first year, we lost the crop as the plants were defoliated.  The second year we burned all the plants with a flaming torch.  The plants and beetles both returned.  In the third year, we hand picked every blasted one off, but this past year, we finally found our solution.  The potatoes were set in late this past year at the beginning of summer, instead of being the second crop in the garden at spring.  It broke the cycle, and we didn't pick a single beetle off the plants that I can recollect!  This year we once again planted the potatoes late (two rows in May, and we're hoping to put our third row in during early July) to see if we can eliminate or greatly reduce the beetles two years in a row.  We did have one or two appear thus far this year that were quickly picked off, and have been constantly surveying the crop for any other additional damage.  

Japanese Beetle
Japanese Beetles.  Arriving in America around the time of the First World War, the Japanese Beetle plagues our berry patch each summer (fortunately it's usually towards the end of the season).  This past year their sweet tooth sent them migrating to our sweet corn crop as soon as the berry patch was picked out.  Japanese Beetles are happy to dine on over 200 plants so there's no telling where they would have ended up next in our garden in the summer heat.  Although we cannot eliminate them all together, we can minimize the amount of damage they do by planting our crops earlier in the year before they make their largest attacks on our gardens near the end of summer.  Earlier in the season, we do hand-pick the beetles from the crops in the evening hours and drop them into containers of either soapy water or old motor oil.  

Tomato Hornworms.  Notice what looks like a moving tomato stem?  Uh oh.  You might have a Tomato Hornworm that blends in amazingly well with the tomato plant itself as it's often found clinging to branches and leaves near the tomato's main stem.  Tomato Hornworms, which can go up to 4" in length, are actually caterpillars of the Five-Spotted Hawk Moth that has a 3.5-5" wingspan itself.  We generally allow Mother Nature to take its course (with some help) with the Tomato Hornworms in our own garden, although you can pick them off by hand earlier on when they are just green caterpillars.  
     If you see a green caterpillar covered in what looks like white eggs, STOP!  Braconid Wasps lay their eggs under the skin of Tomato Hornworms (and their close relative the Tobacco Hornworm).  Once the larva chews its way through the hormworm, they spin little white cocoons on its back, which many mistake for the wasp's eggs.  The larva will feed off the hornworm, and once they emerge from their cocoons, the hornworm usually has but a few days left to live.  If you want to make sure the Tomato Hornworm is not continuing to decimate your crops during this process, you can pick them off the plants and put them in a quart-size yogurt container with a branch of tomato leaf.  Make sure to cover the container with screen or punch a few holes in the top for air.  Set it outside in a covered place so rain water doesn't flood the container.  Braconid Wasps (which pose no threat to humans) are less than 1/8" long when they emerge from their cocoons so they can easily fit through the small holes punched in the top.  By doing this instead of immediately killing the hornworm, you are producing the next generation of Tomato Hornworm killers for your garden.  
     (Note: It astounds me to no end that I cannot find a picture of these annual garden pests, especially with the wasp cocoons all over their backs.  If I do find or get a picture of them this year, I will certainly update this post with one!  For now search "tomato hornworm wasp" on the internet and you'll surely pop up a lot of pictures.)

Other Ways To Help Prevent Pests

Striped Cucumber Beetle
     Sure insect pests still show up in our garden.  Sure they are just what they are called: PESTS!  However, there are other ways we've found to deal with some of the pests too that can help in the garden overall.  

     Our most important piece of pest prevention is CROP ROTATION.  Crop rotation is where you don't plant a crop in the same place in the garden for successive years.  It can be done on a small, medium, or large scale, but honestly, the bigger your garden the better this will work.  We personally use a three-year rotation so the same crop is not planted in the same place for at least three years in a row.  This makes it more difficult for pests who overwinter to find their desired food crop.  Keep in mind when you are planning crop rotation that crops in the same family may share the same pests (i.e. Colorado Potato Beetles like both potatoes and tomatoes, which are both members of the nightshade family, so for crop rotation to truly work, you shouldn't plant potatoes where tomatoes were the previous year, and vice versa.)  

The layout of the 2014 Garden (our second year of in-ground gardening here).  
     You can also go back to our 2015 garden plan and 2016 garden plan posts to see how we rearranged the garden those two years to do our best to rotate crops.  Please keep in mind we may not have been 100% successful with crop rotation year to year as our gardens grew in size, but we certainly did try!  (On all layouts, one square = one square foot.)

Radish planted as a trap crop
     Another way to help avoid pest problems on particular crops is through the use of TRAP CROPS.  A trap crop is simply a crop that is sacrificed so that another crop might live.  For example, flea beetles that commonly defoliate eggplant leaves are drawn to radishes as well.  So therefore if you plant radishes nearby the eggplants, the flea beetles may find their way to them instead and leave your eggplants alone.  

     When all prevention fails (which does occur from time to time), it's time to CHECK EARLY AND OFTEN.  By taking morning, nightly, or even bi-weekly strolls through your garden you are more likely to catch the pests early on before they cause too much damage.  Once you find a pest (or really, even if you don't find any), continue to check up on your plants to make sure you are not seeing signs of them being attacked.

Spotted Cucumber Beetle
     The most common sign of a plant being attacked is holes in the plant's leaves.  Holes (or chew marks) along the outside edges might be rabbits nibbling at a tasty treat; whereas, holes straight through a leaf is a sign of insect damage.  Once you have identified damage on a plant, the next step is to identify pests that prefer that particular plant.  In this case a simple internet search of "pests of [insert variety of crop]" will tell you a lot, along with a variety of ways people found to get rid of that particular pest.  Keep in mind not all ways work for every garden because as the presenters stated again and again at the Mother Earth News Fair, "it depends" on a number of factors.

     Always make sure to write down in a notebook or scribble on the edge of a calendar when you noticed a certain pest showing up in the garden, and next year be extra vigilant a week or two prior to the same time to see if you can catch that pest earlier on if you haven't been able to eradicate it completely.

     What pests have been eating your gardening efforts?  

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