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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?

Hello Little Friend

May 5th, 2012

Ever since we moved in here I’ve been hoping to spot a snake or two in the garden. A few years ago I found a dead baby black rat snake laying on the back deck, but I haven’t spotted a live snake until now. Yesterday, I rescued this little beauty from the outdoor cat.

I grew up around snakes and don’t fear them. We had pet boa constrictors almost my entire youth. Here you can see my dad when he was in high school with a big snake. We even had a pet snake that laid an egg once, which was super exciting for us kids.

I’m very excited to see this little guy in the garden. Sadly, many people are scared of snakes and kill them if they see them. Snakes are very beneficial to have around because they control pests. If they’re small they eat insects, slugs and other small prey, if they’re larger they can be of great help in controlling rodents. It’s important to learn about the snakes in your particular area, any that are venomous and the ones that are harmless. You should also find out if there are endangered snakes in your area. Educating yourself will go a long way in doing away with some of the fear you may have of them.

For years I’ve been building snake habitat in my garden. I figured I had snakes around and just hadn’t spotted one. I’m happy that I spotted this little guy and rescued him from the cat, luckily it wasn’t injured. Hopefully he/she will live a long healthy life here at Chiot’s Run!

How do you feel about snakes in the garden?

Tiny Toads

June 9th, 2011

I’ve been watching the pond daily and keeping track of the growth of the toad poles. There are hundreds if not thousands in there. There may be some frogs as well, I haven’t been able to tell yet if any of the tadpoles are frogs. It truly is amazing how a small 70 gallon pond will increase the biodiversity in your garden and capture your interest as well.

I’ve been watching these little guys since they were about the size of a grain of rice. Now they’re the size of a very large pea. About a week ago I noticed that they started getting legs and yesterday I noticed a few of them had started to lose their tails and were crawling out of the water.

Soon my garden will be overrun with tiny toads. Many of them will become food for birds but a few will survive to wage war on the slugs and other insects in the garden.

Any interesting thing in your garden you’re keeping an eye on? rabbit or bird nest? insect eggs?

Checking our Beehives after a Long Winter

March 16th, 2010

Every couple weeks throughout the winter, we put our ears up the side of our beehives and listening for that humming sounds that bees make keeping warm. There are a few steps you can take to help them survive the winter; you make sure you don’t take too much honey from the hive so they have enough to eat throughout the winter and you try to keep them dry. We didn’t take any honey from our hives last fall, trying to give them the best chance for survival.

If you were reading the blog last summer, you’ll remember that we split our hive. We were worried that the new hive, which was the smaller of the two, might not make it through the winter because of their lower population and less honey stored. Oddly enough all winter long they were the strongest hive, buzzing away quite loudly. When the weather warmed up they were the first bees to leave the hive.

Last week on a warm day (it was almost 70) we decided to check on the old hive, which we were worried hadn’t survived. We found a small cluster of bees and spotted the queen so they seem to have survived the winter, although they appear to be weak (although since this is the first time we’ve overwintered bees, we’re not sure). They still have a ton of honey left, so we’re hoping they make it through any more cold spells we have.

It’s good to see activity at the hives again and see bees flying around the garden on warm days. We noticed that they’re already bringing in pollen, most likely from the crocuses that are blooming and the pussywillows. We’re considering moving our hives to a different location where they’ll get more winter sun. That’s something we’ll be doing soon before they get too big this spring. We also found a great new resource with tips on overwintering bees and beekeeping in general, for those of you interested here’s the link. We’ll be ventilating our hives better this year and wrapping them in tar paper next winter.

Hopefully we’ll have a nice harvest of honey this summer from our hives. We may end up splitting one of our hives again if they’re both strong by early summer. It wasn’t much later than this last year that we got our first package of bees. If you’re interested in getting a hive now is the time to buy. Make sure you ask around to find a good reputable source.

Have you ever thought about getting bees for your gardens?

Feed the Birds

January 31st, 2010

We have a bird oasis in our side yard. We love feeding the birds because it gives us something interesting to look at all winter long. We have 3 bird feeders and a heated birdbath.

I buy big 50 lb bags of birdseed and black oil sunflower seeds at the local farm store to keep our feathered friends fed all winter long. We also put out suet for all the woodpeckers and clinging birds.

We enjoy seeing all the different kinds of birds that come to our feeders. We have a bird identification book that we use to identify any new birds we see. Here are a few of them.

We also have blue jays, mourning doves, black-capped chickadees, house wrens, house sparrows, rufous-sided towhees, goldfinches, purple finches, downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, and the occasional pileated woodpecker. And of course we have tons of the Ohio State bird, the cardinal.

Feeding the birds not only gives us something interesting to do during the winter, but it helps the birds stay strong and healthy through the cold winter months. We’ve noticed that since we started feeding them, we have more birds in the gardens in the summer. I had more wrens last year than any previous year and they keep all the cabbage worms off of my brassicas. I’ll keep feeding my little feathered friends and providing them with nice homes to keep them happy.

Do you feed the birds during the winter?

Reading & Watching

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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.