About Me

My photo
I am a mother, a teacher, and a nature lover. I grew up on a mountain we called Owls' Knob in the Ozarks of Arkansas. The first seven years of my life were spent living in a log cabin, far from a store or streetlight, without electricity or running water and after twenty years of travel, I returned to the abondoned homestead. Now I live on a hill by a small lake and work at a public garden. These are stories about nature written from a women deeply influenced by place.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Creating Balance

Leaf Hopper-Pest
Balance is everything in a garden.

Praying Mantis-beneficial predator
When I first tilled and planted at my new house there were only pests in the garden, and not enough predator insects. The second year I struggled with every type of pest imaginable form aphids to squash bugs. I saw a few ladybugs and a praying mantis but the balance had not found an equilibrium. However this year, I am seeing the balance unfold. Now I am finding lace wings and hover flies, loads of lady bugs and beneficial insects all over the garden. Sure I have plenty of pests too, but the predatory insects are keeping the pests in check. There is balance and the plants are thriving.

I believe in sharing a little food with the wild creatures. I don't mind feeding a few pests. After all they are just trying to survive on this earth. A lost fruit, some damaged leaves, and a devoured brassica is not going to break my garden. I am willing to make some small sacrifices. Nevertheless, there have been times in which the squash bugs were too many and the aphids were too thick for the plants to survive. And such desperate times called for desperate measures.

Squash Bug Nymphs-Pest
More than once I have used a soapy water solution. It is a very easy to make natural insecticide. I use seventh generation soap, so not to contaminate my garden with too many unwanted chemicals. I mix up a few table spoons of soap into a two gallon garden sprayer. It is a pressurized sprayer so I can pump it up and then just let a nice continuous spray mist the infected plant's leaves. Most pesky insects hang out on the underside of the leaves. So this pressurized spray is nice because you can angle the nozzle in such a way that you are hitting the underside of the leaves. Soapy water dehydrates insects the same way it dehydrates your hands. It pulls moister out of them so quickly that they die within a minute or two of being sprayed. Such an insecticide does not pick and choose though. It kills the ladybugs as quickly as the aphids. Therefore, I have ONLY used this treatment when my plants were too infected to possibly survive.

Tomato Horn Worm-Pest
This year I have not used the soap water at all. There were a lot of aphids on my tomatoes one day and I squashed thousands of them by simply wiping each leaf with my thumb. They are soft bodied and easy to kill this way. You can usually find aphids on the bottom sides of the leaves directly above the damaged leaves. They start at the bottom of the plant and move up. A single healthy tomato plant can survive with a hundred aphids on it as long as some predator insects are eating them off effectively. Just because you see an aphid does not mean you need to run to an insecticide. Especially if there are some lacewings and ladybugs around.

Squashing insects can be a little gross. But crushing their eggs is an easier task to stomach. Pest eggs are almost always on the bottom sides of the leaves. Most eggs that you find on a leaf where laid there because that leaf is the larva's food. Why else would the parent insects lay the egg there? One of the easiest ways to deal with squash bugs is to look for their tiny brown egg clusters on the undersides of the squash leaves. Similarly, caterpillars eggs, like the cabbage whites, are easily destroyed. These eggs are little cream colored cones. But even if you don't know the individual insects eggs, if there are clusters of eggs on the undersides of your leaves, those insects are probably there because they want to eat that leaf.

Lady bug Nymph-beneficial predator  
Another important part to establishing harmony in the garden is planting flowers. You might think that flowers are just for show, but many types of flowers repel pests or even more importantly attract beneficial insects, including predatory insects. Depending on what you want to attract or repel will determine what flowers you want. In my garden I have hyssop, milkweed, and yarrow for attracting butterflies, bees, hover flies and other insects. I also have marigolds and nasturtiums for repelling bugs like aphids.
More than anything, spend a lot of time in your garden. Listen to the plants, watch how they grow, thrive, and even die. No garden is the best it will be the first year. Gardens, like the plants within them, grow and mature.

Bumble Bee on Anise Hyssop-beneficial pollinator

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Heaping Baskets

Three years ago, while working in the garden on a lovely March afternoon, my husband said to me, "I want HEAPING baskets of vegetables."

It seemed like a reasonable request and a easy goal. But that first year, we only procured a single basket of vegetables in the entire season. And it wasn't heaping!

Gardening is extremely hard work. It is tedious, strenuous, and constant. Every plant needs special treatment. Every season has its own set of chores. And every garden bed has its own pests.

It is not as simple as throwing some seeds on the soil and adding water. And it wasn't until after that first year that I realized how much I had to learn. Though my mother had always had a garden, and I knew more than the average person about gardening, if the goal was to actually feed ourselves and have "heaping baskets of vegetables," I had a lot of work to do.

Every year, I have grown more food than the last. In fact, last year I brought a few heaping baskets into the kitchen. This year I have been bringing a heaping basket or two into the kitchen every week! It is very rewarding. I will share some tips soon...