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A Few Thoughts on Organic Gardening

Table of Contents

1: Soil Care Basics2: Increasing Humus3: Maximizing Use of Cover Crops4: Avoid Bare Ground, Minimize Tillage5: Plant Care6: Beneficial Insects7: Habitat Plantings8: Other Strategies for Insects9: Yet More Insect Strategies10: Gardening Through All Four Seasons11: Eating Fresh

9. Dealing with the Competition: Yet More Strategies

Trap crops

Sometimes it is possible to protect favored crops by offering problem insects dinner elsewhere. Eggplants are a great favorite of flea beetles, so are sometimes planted to draw the local flea beetles from other crops. Dill and borage can draw tomato hornworm away from tomatoes.

Levels of priority

Sometimes we can resolve a difficult insect problem by simply not planting a crop that it’s particularly fond of. It’s a matter of priorities. If a particular crop, say eggplants, is extremely difficult to grow in your conditions but you are extremely fond of eggplant, then it makes sense to try the whole gamut of possible strategies to bring in a crop despite flea beetles or other insects who feed on it. If eggplant is something you’re inclined to eat only once a year, why get into a big fight over it?

I find squash bugs and cucumber beetles difficult to control, and as a result all members of the cucurbit family can be difficult to grow. Melons of all sorts are not easy to grow in my conditions; and I’ve found through experience that, even when I can bring some to harvest, the quality is mediocre. I’ve concluded that I have better things to do with my time than struggle to bring in a crop that is of marginal interest to me—so I no longer even try to grow the melons.

Winter squash is another matter. They are a most important crop to us—a crop that stores well, is highly nutritious, and is delicious cooked in a variety of ways. Since control of squash bug is so difficult, it’s important to be willing to think outside the box.

Guinea power!

I place a small pasture shelter in the middle of the winter squash plot and surround the plot with electric net fencing. I plant my winter squashes in “hills” of three plants each, about five feet apart, and allow them to grow, monitoring daily for squash bugs. Usually about the time the plants start flowering, I see the first squash bug. I immediately put in three to five guineas that until then have been with the chicken flock, and there they remain until the first frost brings on the squash harvest. That first squash bug I saw—is also the last. 100 percent organic. 100 percent control. Guaranteed.

Brix, again

As said above, I have been reading about using Brix as a measure of plant health and vigor. It is a well-documented fact that insects feed on weak, sickly plants in preference to stronger, healthier ones. I have read reports I believe are reliable, that higher-Brix plants will not be preyed upon by insects at all. This year, I will be monitoring Brix levels throughout the growing season, and adjusting for the growing plants’ needs with foliar sprays. It will be interesting to see whether insect damage does indeed have an inverse relationship with Brix readings.

Final thoughts on dealing with the bad guys

I can imagine my reader might be quite frustrated at this point, needing as she does more specific information on which beneficial insects are enabled by which particular plants to feed on which problem insects. The subject is huge, and certainly open to endless additional research on your own. But the short answer is: diversity. Ensure that there is a variety of plants of all species flowering in and around your garden throughout the growing season. Ensure as great a diversity of habitat in your homestead—hedgerow, woods edge, wildflower meadow, etc.—as you have room and creativity for. The more diversity, even absent your comprehension of the nitty-gritty details, the more the communities in the web of life in, under, around, and over your garden will establish a harmonious balance that will take care of the majority of your insect problems.

And relax! I think really that many a pound of insecticide—“organically approved” or not—is sold to our basic competitiveness rather than to our good sense: We go out into our gardens and see a potential threat to our good efforts, and our competitive instincts are aroused. We gnash our teeth and swear, “I am not going to lose!” and grab any touted solution no matter how toxic and go out in our gardens blasting away, heedless of the consequences. Perhaps a little more humility is in order, a little less anxiety to win at all costs.

I hope you will be encouraged to forego all the expensive “insect control” offerings in the marketplace when you remember our own experience, having not used insecticides of any sort for well over a decade. The great lie of the poison merchants is that their products will solve the insect problems in your garden. They will not. Even though their use will sometimes yield a suppression of a target insect population, other times that population will surge despite an assault by insecticide. In other words, use the insecticide as much as you like, and you will have damaging levels of insect feeding in some seasons anyway. And the more you use them, the more you will ensure that the whole beautiful system of balance that wants to blossom in your garden is crippled and torn.

I am absolutely sincere when I assure you that, since I stopped using all insecticides and started encouraging balance and harmony, I have far fewer and milder insect problems than I ever did before. Has insect damage disappeared in all crops, all seasons? No. Are some insects more difficult to control for some crops in some seasons? Yes. Am I willing to sacrifice a given crop rather than assaulting the web of life on which I depend to keep the overall system in balance? Absolutely.

And guess what: Every season, without fail, we harvest from our garden more than we can eat.