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Empty Shelves

January 15th, 2013

What would happen if you went to your local grocery store the shelves were empty? How long would you continue to go back looking for food? Once, twice, three times or would you go back at all? The same things holds true in the garden, if you’re constantly ridding your garden of “bad” insects, the good insects will never show up because the grocery store shelves will be empty. There will is no food to sustain them and they will move on to greener pastures.
Ladybug 2
I refuse to classify insects as good, bad, pest, beneficial, etc. In my mind, they’re all beneficial because each one plays an important role in the garden. Even the insects most people classify as “pests” provide valuable food for birds as the insects we typically classify as “beneficial”. Sure some insects are a great annoyance (mosquitoes) and sometimes they decimate our crops leaving our plates bare. If we want to build a balanced ecosystem in gardens, we must learn to sit back and let nature work.
centipedeHere at Chiot’s Run, I have noticed the benefits of not stepping in. Each year there is a greater variety of insects in the garden. Those labeled as pests are starting to become less pestiferous because the predatory insect population is growing. The less I step in, the more nature can balance itself out.
Here’s a great example. Last Summer I noticed asparagus beetles on my asparagus. I could easily have picked them off, put them in soapy water and “dealt” with the problem myself “organically”. Or I could let nature run it’s course and hopefully attract the parasitic insects that feed on these “baddies”. I left nature to it’s own devices and closely monitoring the asparagus to see what happened. In a few weeks, the population of beetles exploded, they seemed to be everywhere. “Infestation” would have been the correct description for my asparagus patch.
asparagus Beetle
Not longer after the sudden increase in beetle population, I noticed a wide variety of other insects hovering about the patch: flies, yellow jackets, shield bugs, thread wasted wasps, tiny green wasps, ladybugs and a few others. I even spotted a bird or two flitting about.
thread waste wasp on asparagus
After doing some research, I found a great article detailing the life cycle of the asparagus beetle at the University of Minnesota University and it stated:

A tiny (less than 1/8-inch) metallic green wasp, Tetrastichus asparagi, parasitizes asparagus beetle eggs (Fig. 6). You may notice these wasps when working in your garden. They can sometimes provide very effective control, parasitizing up to 70% of the eggs. Lady beetle larvae and other predators may also be active, and will consume both eggs and larvae. Most insecticides, however, will also kill beneficial predators and parasites.

I was happy to see the warning about insecticide killing both beneficial and pestiferous insects!
When you notice insects you don’t want in the garden, instead of hand-picking or spraying, add a few plants that will attract the insects you need to control them. Herbs are especially beneficial for this. Oregano, dill, fennel, catmint and most herbs will attract a wide variety of those insects we like to classify as “beneficial” to our gardens. What can we do to increase the population of those insects we really want?
yellow_swallowtail_caterpillar 1
In nature there is always an ebb and flow. The population of one species will boom while their predators slowly increase in numbers. Patience is really the best pest control in the garden. The only time you should step in is if the natural predators will not control the problem. Generally that is not the case for insects but more more for rodents, deer, groundhogs and other pesky large garden creatures.
I love these two definitions of ORGANIC:
a : forming an integral element of a whole : fundamental
b : having systematic coordination of parts : organized

praying mantis
Too often in our current system, organic is not much different than conventional except they use different methods of controlling weeds and insects. What we really need to do is to become real organic or beyond organic. To see our gardens as a complex system and each thing as an integral part of a whole. You can’t remove one thing without affecting the system as a whole. The more we shift our minds toward enabling diversity and natural order and away from controlling our garden, the more beautiful and diverse our gardens will become. We can shift the time we used to spend dealing with insect to watching the intricacies of the natural web.
When I talk about this, people always ask “have you ever lost any crops entirely to pest?”. The answer is yes, but in subsequent years I noticed fewer and fewer of those insects and a higher population of those that prey on them. A year or two without a certain vegetable or fruit is worth having it on my plate for years to come. We need to realize that we are not gods in our garden, we are not in control, the more we try to control it the less power we have; we are simply there to nurture and learn.

What’s your biggest insect “pest” in the garden? What’s your favorite “beneficial” insect?

35 Comments to “Empty Shelves”
  1. Brenda on January 15, 2013 at 6:06 am

    Cabbage moth, It strips my cauliflower, broccoli cabbage etc to shreds

    Reply to Brenda's comment

  2. Maybelline on January 15, 2013 at 6:51 am

    Bad boys = grasshoppers & squash beetles
    A Team = lady bugs & praying mantis

    Reply to Maybelline's comment

  3. Adelina Anderson on January 15, 2013 at 7:10 am

    Our biggest pests are the deer and a groundhog. We really don’t have bugs eating or destroying our crops except for the tomato worm (who ate his tomato and left afterwards or the deer ate him). The groundhog was removed and the deer are a never ending battle. But I keep trying.

    Reply to Adelina Anderson's comment

  4. Corrie on January 15, 2013 at 9:02 am

    My favorite example of this is the catalpa hornworm. My parents have a huge and beautiful catalpa tree that would become infested with catalpa sphinx caterpillars, and the damage was pretty severe. Every year they would get some tree guy to spray it with who-knows-what to “save the tree”. After I began taking horticulture classes and learned about the parasitic wasps that naturally prey on the caterpillars, I convinced my parents to let nature take its course. Now we only get a severe infestation about every seven years, and we always let the wasps do their thing.

    That said, I struggle with those cucumber beetles that infect the plants with the bacterial wilt. I have only found one cucumber variety that is resistant, and it comes from Gurneys, which is a company I don’t want to patronize.

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  5. Jodiana on January 15, 2013 at 9:06 am

    I didn’t often use anything in my garden for bug killing. Reason being I never knew what I wanted to use or just plain put it off. Thankfully since I have started gardening I haven’t totally lost anything to the buggies and I have noticed more natural predators in my garden :)

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  6. Jaye on January 15, 2013 at 9:11 am

    I think you’ve communicated several good points here. You’ve talked about it before somewhat and I find that I totally agree with you.

    The only “bane” of my garden existence is the squash bug, and last year, I just dealt with them by pulling them up and having less (much) squash and over all, I was fine.

    I think that often we get in our minds what we want in the garden and if it doesn’t pan out, we’re (I am anyway) frustrated. Well, I took your words last year and just went with it.

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  7. daisy on January 15, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Couldn’t agree with you more about this. I usually just leave things be, I figure Mother Nature knows what She’s doing more than I do. We have tons of ladybugs in our yard. Frogs too. Love those critters!

    Reply to daisy's comment

  8. Melissa on January 15, 2013 at 9:49 am

    Well said! This is one of those lessons that is really hard to put into practice. As a gardener, you so want to save your plants but know it’s better long term to let nature do it’s thing! I started down this path 2 years ago and it made a big difference last summer. We had a really warm winter but the bugs weren’t half as bad as I expected and I really think it was due largely to a good beneficial insect population.

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  9. Jennifer Fisk on January 15, 2013 at 9:52 am

    Slugs are my biggest problem. I use ground egg shells and diatomaceous earth to thwart them but everytime I do it rains. I usually resort to Sluggo before the end of the season. My other bad boy is the Japenese Beetle which has no natural enemy here. I use Safer spray on them which works but I’d need to spray about every 4 hours and sometimes that just doesn’t happen. Guinea hens perhaps?

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  10. KimH on January 15, 2013 at 9:55 am

    I agree with you completely.. I’ve always planted more than I need simply to share with others & share with nature..
    People ask why in the world I would plant 10 or 12 squash plants.. thats why. I love squash and so do those annoying squash bugs.. grrr… They’re my most despised garden pest.. I dont suppose I truly have a favorite.. Any & all beneficial insects are great to me..

    Reply to KimH's comment

  11. kristin @ going country on January 15, 2013 at 10:48 am

    The biggest pest for us changes yearly–usually it’s Colorado potato beetles, though last year there weren’t any because we used the mulch method for potatoes and I guess the beetles come up from the ground? Maybe? Don’t know. But then, cabbage worms laid waste to the collards. There’s always something.

    Cabbage worms also emerge from the soil, however, so mulching would have taken care of that as well. Mulching seems to be almost always be the best solution, though also often the most work.

    We seem to have the parasitic wasps that eat tomato hornworms. We haven’t had a tomato hornworm in the garden in about ten years (according to the MiL, who has been tending this particular garden a lot longer than I have).

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  12. amber jackson on January 15, 2013 at 11:17 am

    Its nice you have a new space to play with, this sounds remarkably like permaculture which I know you have mentioned before. Have you read much on sepp holtzer, not sure on the spelling, he is a permaculture “god” from what I’ve read. I’m excited to see what you do in your new space :-)

    Reply to amber jackson's comment

    • Susy on January 15, 2013 at 11:24 am

      I have read a lot about permaculture and it’s definitely something we’re implementing here (it just makes sense). My favorite permaculture book is Gaia’s Garden, have you read that? A great resource for the home gardener who’s trying to implement permaculture into their space.

      Reply to Susy's comment

  13. Donna B. on January 15, 2013 at 11:44 am

    I used to run around the garden hunting down Squash Borer larvae/moths and maliciously killing them [or trying to, the adults are FAST]. In recent years I’ll just plant a multi-crop of zukes to ensure I’ll get fruit when another plant may be dying. Consider it my own way of letting nature do it’s thing. :D
    [although I’d love to attract whatever will eat the eggs/larvae…]
    The potato beetle is also my nemesis. Again, I squish em’ when I can, otherwise I shoo them off. Same with flea beetles – I love watching them ping away! Hehehe.

    Good guys? Anything that’ll eat said above. I’m partial to the lil’ wasps in the garden… they’re so cute!

    But yes, I do agree with nature doing it’s course, and this post is exactly the right way to put it! Except… I picture it being more like a grocery store with empty shelves and then zombies running around [that’s the predators! Muwahahaha…]

    Also: I can’t wait to listen to your newest podcast during lunch today! ♥

    Reply to Donna B.'s comment

  14. Ann on January 15, 2013 at 11:55 am

    I have several on the “bad” list. I think the worst are the Japanese Beetles. I don’t spray or use traps. But I do hand pick and feed them to the chickens because they are great protein for them. And th ey have no known natural enemies to attract and keep them in check. Our neighbor mows his grass down to the ground twice a week and offers the JB acres of prime egg laying territory according to the research I have done. And I could never afford to treat both his and our land with milky spore. So I do my hand picking off all my favorite plants. The roses, grapes, sweet potatoes, asparagus, zinnas, blueberries,ect because they could easily kill all those things in any particular year. I am going to add guineas next year in hopes that they can help to clean them up each year.

    Then I guess it would be a combo of squash bugs and cucumber beetles. I do try to find as many of the squash bugs as I can early on and rub out the eggs when ever I see them. This was our 4th gardening season here in Tennessee this last summer and I hardly ever get any squash because they get eaten and diseased before they can bear any real crop. I have lots of trouble with all my melons also. But I don’t treat, just cover when ever I can.

    I have plenty of herbs and flowers in my garden and I am sure I have tons of good bugs. I just don’t spend a lot of time figuring them out. As long as I am gardening organically and not interfering too much, then I am sure I have a decent balance going on.

    It is funny to think about not interfering now with the Japanese Beetles. Because they were imported, unknowingly, from another country where they are not even a pest. But here, without natural enemies, they are horrible and spreading across the country into new territory all the time. Other of our pests were actually imported on purpose, like the asian lady beetle which is now totally out of control. That seems to me, like it should be a lesson for those who take care of such things, the government. Just leave things alone and eventually mother nature will make it all work

    Reply to Ann's comment

    • Susy on January 15, 2013 at 4:23 pm

      At our old place in Ohio we had lots of moles that helped keep our Japanese beetles under control in their grub stage. You can also add Milky Spore to your lawn to help control them in the grub stage as well. Though I always left them for the moles to eat.

      Reply to Susy's comment

      • angie h on January 16, 2013 at 9:54 am

        Good to know about the moles! We have a ton of moles and Brian hates them!

        to angie h's comment

  15. amy on January 15, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    I would have to say cabbage moths and squash beetle.

    Reply to amy's comment

  16. Ann Marie on January 15, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    The one major pest problem I’ve had this year has been slugs. However, I like to leave it up to nature to do the hard work, and I’m sure my private garden army of pest predators will step in to do battle with my slimy nemeses!

    I agree wholeheartedly with the statement “I refuse to classify insects as good, bad, pest, beneficial, etc. In my mind, they’re all beneficial because each one plays an important role in the garden.” So true – if my garden didn’t have slugs for instance, I wouldn’t get to enjoy watching a hedgehog snuffling round the vegetable patch in the evening, or a frog peeping out from underneath a plant pot. The fact that they also act as caretakers for my edibles is a delicious bonus!

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  17. Jennelle on January 15, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    Cabbage worms! They’ve decimated two crops of kale. The only thing I could find on organic home-remedies was to sprinkle flour on the plants, which would cause the bettles to puff up and die when they ate the leaves. But this didn’t work at all because everytime there was a little bit of rain, or even dew, the flour would get washed off. I need to look into what plants will attract their natural predators. I’m not planting any more kale until I figure something out–which is a shame since its my favorite vegetable.

    Reply to Jennelle's comment

    • Susy on January 15, 2013 at 4:21 pm

      Birds like wrens and wasps are fabulous garden helpers when it comes to cabbage worms. Try putting up wren houses and leaving all wasp nests in place.

      Reply to Susy's comment

  18. Estelle on January 15, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    I am completely with you. I will always remember the day I spotted an entire colony of ants cleaning up my garden after some insects lay a ton of eggs. They did all the hard work while I was there watching! I was truly humbled by these small creatures working so hard. That said, my biggest pest is… slugs. As in baby snakes in size, so huge they make me scream when I see them. I gave up battling with them so I stopped checking on my garden at night because that is when they all come out. Don’t ask, don’t tell! Hopefully the birds will make a good feast of them in the spring.

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  19. whit on January 15, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    Well said! This is an awesome post, Susy. We are super sensitive to this here as we take a look at the larger picture: what we all do on land here ends up in the Puget Sound where our beloved orcas, seals, and salmon play. Salmon and orcas are suffering, some to the point of extinction. Chemical in the garden, not only will it affect the food source of critters in my garden habit, but run off will end up collecting in the stream beds and food sources of the animals in the watershed, and from there enter the Sound with the potential of entering the Pacific Ocean as well.

    Wonder if the people with deer have read or thought about creating a deer buffer around their property near their gardens with plants? I think it was highlighted in Gaia’s Garden book. I remember it somewhere, maybe yoj’ll know the source. The idea is to give them plants they can nibble on and plant them thickly and en masse so they are distracted from the plants that are used for human food.

    We are swamped with slugs here in the growing season, but our three ducks help control populations now. We have a little garder snake that help too. Now if something would help with the cabbage moths that attack my brassicas…may have to companion plant more zinnias and alyssums as a magnet to help draw them in.

    Reply to whit's comment

    • Susy on January 15, 2013 at 4:26 pm

      Yes, the deer boundaries, we started implementing those in Ohio with mock oranges and hawthorne bushes. I’m spending a lot of time reading about hedgerows and their benefits.

      Reply to Susy's comment

  20. Eliza J on January 15, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    My biggest garden bug problem is squash bugs and slugs, as well as something that peppered leaves last Spring with holes like the leaves in your last picture. Very frustrating. The only thing “more” frustrating is tomato blight. If you have any suggestions, please pass them on….

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  21. Joan on January 15, 2013 at 7:24 pm

    Tomato hornworms are my least favorite, because they’re so hard to find and can decimate a crop in no time. I love to watch them though – they are beautiful. And my chickens love to eat them after I pick them off my tomatoes. I also detest cabbage worms – there is no way to find them all and they make such a mess of my broccoli! This past year we had literally THOUSANDS of snails. I’d never had a problem with them before. I’m hoping that it was a one year thing, and that they go away as quickly as they came!

    Reply to Joan's comment

  22. Ngofamilyfarm on January 16, 2013 at 2:37 am

    Such a great article, and so much food for thought! We’ve been heading toward a permaculture model for our garden, and what you’ve shared about letting nature balance itself in terms of pest control really seems to fit with that same concept. For a few weeks in spring, I usually spray my garden with homemade garlic tea, which I’ve found very effective at deterring many crop-destroying bugs. What you’ve shared here is making me re-think that, though!

    Reply to Ngofamilyfarm's comment

  23. angie h on January 16, 2013 at 10:01 am

    I love this post! My favorite insect is the honey bee :) Although, I didn’t see a lot of our bees in the garden for some reason last year.

    My problem bug is slugs. I love dahlias and they seem to attract slugs so now I only plant them in pots. The last time I planted them in a flower bed, they died with in a month. I pulled them up and the holes and what was left of their roots were covered in slugs or some sluggie looking critter!

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  24. Charlotte Freeman on January 16, 2013 at 2:51 pm

    Flea beetles. As the summer temps have risen, all of us out here in my part of Montana have had a terrible time with flea beetles. I don’t spray or anything — mostly out of laziness. My tomatoes always come through, although my greens took a big hit this year. The potatoes too.

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  25. Sierra N Hampl on January 16, 2013 at 7:13 pm

    Very interesting and well written post, Susy. First of all, “pestiferous” is an awesome word, and I am going to try to say it as much as possible this week, secondly, the insect pictures are beautiful.

    Reply to Sierra N Hampl's comment

    • Susy on January 16, 2013 at 7:33 pm

      I know – I LOVE “pestiferous” too and use it as often as I can!

      Reply to Susy's comment

  26. EL on January 18, 2013 at 12:35 am

    I have never really had an insect problem. I used to get huge slugs in my garden when I lived in Pullman, WA. I called them leopard slugs because they had spots on them. They could eat a Roma Tomato at one sitting. But I noticed that they preferred the dandelions. So I let them be. Anyway I can’t stand insecticides. If any of you have pets, you might want to leave the insecticides alone. Think about it — if you had to wash your paws off with your tongue, would you be so likely to use herbicides or pesticides? That’s what your cats and dogs live with.

    Once a friend of mine stepped on a slug. The way I heard about it was she told me that she had gotten something on her shoe at my house and couldn’t get it off with a really vicious cleaner. My words were: “You stepped on one of my leopard slugs?!!! How could you?!!” I don’t think she really understood. . .

    I don’t particularly like invasives or non-native squirrels. The squirrels eat baby birds, as well as my garden. The invasives form monocultures and push out the diverse native plants. I have thought about eating the squirrels. . .

    Reply to EL's comment

  27. EL on January 18, 2013 at 12:37 am

    I forgot to mention that I love your insect photos. The one of the swallowtail caterpillar on the fennel reminds me that I need to plant some tall fennel for them this year, early (I plant the Italian after they’ve grown).

    Reply to EL's comment

  28. abby on January 18, 2013 at 12:56 am

    Wow, I really appreciate this post! I *know* this, but to truly fully practice this is tough sometimes. We currently have a pretty small garden, so when I see a pest problem arise, it’s hard not to intervene. My biggest frustrations have been with aphids, cabbage moths (the resulting root maggots have taken out whole crops), and a worm-type infestation I haven’t identified. Perhaps a further stage of the root maggot? Maybe you know what it is? When digging around late fall, to find out why my broccoli and brussels sprouts were all wilting away, I realized the roots were all infested with short, somewhat shiny, hard skinned worm-like things. Silvery gray in color. I had seen these in smaller numbers, here and there, in previous years but never like this.

    Our most notable beneficials so far, have been birds. And wasps built a nest right outside the garden last year as well.

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  29. Carolyne Thrasher on January 29, 2013 at 6:10 pm

    Slugs (Willamette Valley in Oregon), flee beetles, and cabbage moths-I’m planting Territorial Seeds Beneficial Insect Seed Mix this year. Planted it last year but too late and it didn’t do much good. We inherited a lot of English ivy (ugh) and as we take that out it helps keep the slug and rat population down. I’m a lazy gardener and when I see an infestation I tell myself I should mix up some soap spray and then I don’t and the problem seems to resolve itself. . . so thank you for permission to be lazy. I’m going to continue to “turn the other cheek,” add more herbs (planned to anyway), plant for beneficial insects and watch the show.

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This is a daily journal of my efforts to cultivate a more simple life, through local eating, gardening and so many other things. We used to live in a small suburban neighborhood Ohio but moved to 153 acres in Liberty, Maine in 2012.

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