It may seem like another bunk year for gardening, but the weather is better than last year. It has been warmer and less wet – but we got measurable rain once it did ‘dry out’. It seemed like the rain stayed through June, but in fact we only received 0.75 inches of rain in last month (it was unusually cloudy and misted some days so it seemed like a lot more) and have gotten 1.23 inches so far this month. So we are still needing to water frequently to keep veggies happy – some need an inch a week or more. If your lettuce and greens bolted a while ago, that is why.
It seems that the weather each year creates conditions for different types of pests. Last year, with the long, wet spring, was an epic year for slugs. This year the grey aphids on brassicas seem to be thriving.
I’ve seen a lot of leaf miners this year on beets, spinach and chard. The most serious infestations have been in new gardens (unstable systems) or small-space raised bed gardens where opportunities for crop rotation are limited. Here are some strategies to deal with this and other pests with a system approach:
- Break the life cycle by excluding the adult. In this case, a small grey fly comes out when the veggies are seedlings, and lays eggs on the tender first leaves. Using row cover (a thin sheet that lets in rain and sunlight) will prevent this. Unless the flies are hatching from the soil right under your seedlings – this is why crop rotation is key. Plant these three plants in even a slightly different location to give them an edge.
- Be vigilant. Whether you use row cover or not, keep an eye on young plants and remove eggs or infected leaves as soon as possible.
- Follow-up. Continue to pick off eggs and infected leaves as the plants grow. It may seem like you are taking off a lot of leafs but the plant will compensate. And every patchy leaf you cut off means removing a maggot (or 5) that won’t be laying more eggs after hatching into an adult. With a bad infestation, you might considering cutting your losses and tossing the whole crop in the compost heap (chop off roots or let it dry out a bit in the sun first.) With beets, think of it as a gourmet harvest of baby beets and celebrate with a blue cheese and walnut salad.
- Stress is the underlying factor in all insect and disease scenarios. Adequate water (preferably rain water) and soil enriched with organic matter (compost) will give best results.
- Plant to attract beneficial insects. In permaculture jargon, this is an example of intervening in the right place in the system to get the most effect for the least effort: let the insects do the work for you. To go even further, set it up so you don’t even have to plant them each year. Just let parsley-family plants flower and reseed themselves and edit them if they are in the way. Parsley, angelica, cilantro and all of the small flowered herbs attract lots of tiny wasps and friendly critters that will gobble up pests (or poke a hole in them, lay an egg and let their young eat out their insides – again, stand back and let the beneficials do the work for you, their way.)
- Provide habitat. While sparrows nesting in my eaves is not optimal, I have never had a cleaner garden. This year we have at least three nests within 20 feet of the garden, and the concerned parents spend every hour of the day collecting food for their young. In fact, they are gathering it right off the kale and tomato plants. I have watched the female lovingly (my anthropomorphic interpretation) pick each cabbage butterfly larvae off of a kale plant and fly up to the nest. I’ve hardly had to use the badminton racket on the adult butterflies after an initial population control measure where I killed about 20 of them in two days this spring. I felt bad about it, but it was them or all of my brassicas. Last year I couldn’t bear to do it and liked having the butterflies flitting about, but I spent hours picking hundreds of eggs and caterpillars off every cabbage, brussels sprout, kale, broccoli and bok choy plant. Again: intervene at the best leverage point in the system. Let me be clear too, that the cabbage butterfly is not a native animal, and I wouldn’t use chemical controls or kill them all. The sparrows love their juicy thorax and how super easy they are to catch when they get trapped in the greenhouse. As for how to specifically create habitat (aside from punching holes in your eaves), plant layers of shrubs and trees and let them grow bushy. Then create a lot of perches in your garden so small birds can get to the pests easily. A bunch of sticks or stakes placed around does the trick. I discovered this inadvertently when I made a cat deterrent system this spring by arming any bare soil with stakes spaced 8 inches apart. It worked, and the birds took advantage of it.
- Have tolerance. Just as a weed is a plant growing in the ‘wrong’ place, a pest is just an animal that has a different objective than we do as they go about trying to make a living. A few chew marks or lost veggies is just part of the scheme of things.