Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Snowball Effect of Successful Gardening

Why is it that success in one thing often leads to some further problem that has to be solved? My latest run-in with this conundrum has to do with finally learning how to produce fruits and vegetables reasonably successfully in our garden.

For years I "gardened" as a biologist. If biodiversity was good, as I was taught in biology classes, then it made sense to me that leaving weeds in the garden would create more biodiversity among the vegetables and thus minimize pest problems. The problem insects would have a harder time finding the food crops and it would be harder for disease to move directly from one plant to the next.

Needless to say, it didn't quite work out that way. (Yes, you true gardeners can quit laughing and rolling your eyes now!) The insects and diseases had no problem finding my poor garden plants, which were probably sending out major distress signals from being overcrowded and outcompeted. Crops, such as they were, tended to be small...if the plants even lived long enough to produce anything.

Slowly (sometimes I'm REALLY dense), I learned that removing competition from weeds was not just a good thing, but an absolutely necessary thing. Eventually I even learned that mulching kept weeds down with a minimum of effort on my part. In fact, mulching even kept the roots cooler and moister so I didn't have to water as much. Watering regularly, if rain wasn't coming consistently, was a good thing too.

I'm finally learning how to harness biological principles to garden successfully. Besides weeding, mulching, and watering regularly, I still garden organically. When black blister beetles attacked my tomatoes last year, I picked them off by hand each morning and dropped them in soapy water to kill them. I removed all of the squash bug egg clusters I could find, as well as giving the adult squash bugs and their nymphs the same treatment as the blister beetles. We use raised beds, lots of composted horse manure and shredded leaves by the wheelbarrowful. It's not a perfect system, but it works for us.

In fact, it's working well enough that we're now producing reasonable amounts of the fruits and vegetables we were aiming for. And that's where the new problem has arisen: I find that I'm not very good at using my produce when it's ready to be used. "Spinach tonight? Oh, I'm too tired to make dinner. Let's just eat leftovers." By the time I'm in the mood to make the fresh spinach salad, the leaves are big and old and bitter.

I'm better at utilizing our fruit crops. After all, left in a bowl on the counter, the blueberries make a great snack every time I walk through the kitchen. Strawberries worked that way, too. The peas just haven't got the same snack appeal, though.

I'm getting better, but it's a slow process of changing how I plan and fix dinner, as well as how I garden. Who knew that growing a few edibles would lead to such self examination and changes in my lifestyle? Before I know it, it's going to be time to try chickens again!


Paul D. said...

Got any tips for growing egg plants? Flea beetles always get them and they are really too small to pick off like the bigger things.

Anonymous said...

Do NOT get chickens again. That's crazy talk.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Paul, I've not tried to grow eggplant, nor have I had problems (yet) with flea beetles. However, here are a few ideas from references I have. I'd be curious to know if you've tried any of them and, if so, what success you have or haven't had.

1) Set yellow sticky traps. (Flea beetles, like many other insects seem to be attracted to the color yellow.) If you like to watch flea beetles being trapped, arrange sticky "paddles" that you can carefully hold on either side of the plant, then jiggle the plant with your foot. As the beetles jump off the plant, they should land on the sticky paddles.

2) Flea beetles are attracted to the scent of beer, so sometimes shallow pans of beer attract and drown them.

3) Diatomaceous earth

4) Trap crops: try radishes or Chinese cabbage to attract the flea beetles away from other plants.

5) Surround or interplant your eggplants with collards, marigolds, wormwood, mint and/or catnip. All of these are plants that flea beetles apparently avoid.

6) Try interplanting generally - mixing your eggplant with other vegetable crops, rather than putting them all together in one place.

7) Use Safer soap...carefully, so as not to burn your plant leaves. Be sure to rinse soap residue off leaves after several hours.

8) Keep young plants indoors until early summer.

9) Cover young plants with cheesecloth or a floating row cover.

10) If all else fails, try rotenone, pyrethrins, or sabadilla.

Good luck!!!

Marcy said...

Your frankness has made me feel a little less guilty. There are also just the two of us here and as we're getting older we're just not eating as much so I'm not really doing justice to my garden produce. Also I grow stuff not everyone enjoys like cima de rapa and cardoons so there's that.

The flea beetles have been worse than usual on my eggplants. I tried neem oil but finally resorted to a pyrethrin this week.

Marcy said...

Oh god, I'm such a lame blogger; I just noticed that you've left comments on my blog! Grazie!

Paul D. said...

Hey I like the beer idea. I am from New England and one big cultural difference between Kansas and the North East is how we kill slugs. It would never have occurred to us to kill them with salt-that would be cruel. We preferred the beer in a pan method. At the very least you could drink the rest of the beer while watching for any slugs. Now the idea that the same thing might work on flea beetles gives me new hope!

Gaia Gardener: said...

While you're finishing the beer, be sure to observe how well it attracts flea beetles and let me know! Since flea beetles are so much smaller than slugs, you might even be able to get an extra big "leftover" portion of the beer.

I am anxiously (and seriously) awaiting news on how well the beer trap works.