Sunday, December 18, 2011

Organic Pest Management

The farm is asleep for the winter so I thought I'd take some time to gather my thoughts.

When people hear that I grow organically I often hear the same comment, "Oh, you must have a LOT of bug problems." Well actually, no I don't.

There is more to organic food production than simply switching to a different spray. Growing successfully without chemicals means changing how we thing about growing.

Plants are like children, you teach them as best you can but then you send them off to Middle School to deal with the bullies. Building good soil is vital to pest management. Your kids can't defend themselves if they live on a diet of junk food. Natural manures contain important macronutrients, dry leaves contain many important micronutrients, all those creepy crawlies that live in the soil process compost and manures and create a lovely environment for plants to grow.

The next step is to raise tougher plants.  No sissies in my garden. I want plants that will shrug off minor infestations and keep producing yummy food. I start most of my plants from seed. I find that seedlings I start myself make stronger, more vigorous plants. Sure, the transplants at the store look bigger but they've been coddled in greenhouses with artificial fertilizers. The ones you grow at home are simply stronger.

The next thing I do is to interrupt the life cycle of the bugs that would nosh on my plants. Many of them winter in the soil as larvae. Part of my routine is to confine the chickens to the dormant growing areas. The chickens will dig up those naughty larvae and feast on them while depositing more lovely manure and giving you eggs as well. Once the chickens have cleaned up a bed, I dump in a lot of leaves and let them shred and scratch until the leaves are incorporated into the top layer of soil.

Another trick I keep up my sleeve is to confuse pests that want to move in. Planting one wide swath of a single plant is like ringing the dinner bell for bugs. I mix up my planting in a sort of Permaculture way. Each bed contains something tall, something medium, and something short. Like Starbuck's. Venti plants include anything you can trellis, like green beans or things that will grow outrageously tall, like sunflowers. Grande plants are tomatoes, peppers, bush get the idea. Tall plants live close to the ground like sweet potatoes and creeping thyme. Mixing plants from different families means they are susceptible to different pests and pathogens. The bugs don't get established in a bed like this.

Inevitably a few undesirable critters try to move in on my plants. That's when I send in the troops. Chickens eat everything above the ground so the garden is off limits to them all season long. Turkeys, on the other hand, prefer bugs and won't eat plants until all the bugs are gone. Okay, mature turkeys will nosh on tomatoes but young ones just love bugs. This year I kept juvenile turkeys in the garden. It was open season on bugs.

assasin bug - one of the good guys

Then there are the bugs that eat bad bugs. I spent some time learning to identify insects so I could tell which ones to get rid of and which ones to welcome. Hoverfly larvae are great helpers as are assassin bugs. When you spray, even with an organic spray, you run off all the bugs, even the good ones.
                                                       cabbage worms AKA chicken snacks

At some point you'll probably have to remove bugs by hand. Cabbage worms come to mind. Don't drop them in soapy water or squish them under your shoes. Feed them to your chickens, they'll love you for it (did I mention they'll give you eggs in return?)

The most important thing to remember is to have a buffer between your garden and other areas where chemicals are applied. Pesticides can drift a very long way. If your neighbor insists on spraying everything in sight you may need a privacy fence and a dense row of shrubs to keep that stuff out of your yard. Lucky for me, my neighbors are way to cheap to spend a dime on their yards.

I wanted to write all this out, hoping it would prove useful for others. There's no fun in knowing stuff unless I get to share it. Take care friends.


  1. Japanese beetles have been the bane of our existence here in western Kentucky. during the summer they decimated the leaves on our fruit trees. always next year. congrats on winning over on Crunchy Chicken!

  2. They're awful here, too. That's why I let the chickens hang out under the fruit trees as well. Every larva they eat is one less beetle. Thanks for the good wishes. It's like Christmas came early.