Archive for July, 2009

Hand-to-Hand Combat

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Funnel Collector

Japanese Beetles On A Grape Leaf

Japanese beetles only became a pest in my garden four years ago. When they first appeared their numbers were so overwhelming that I pretty much had no choice but to let them go unchecked. They nearly defoliated my raspberries, but I still got an okay harvest. They loved the asparagus fronds, but they did not seem to be doing severe damage there. Their favorite food was the leaves of the wild grapes that grow all over my property, especially along the fence lines. Many grape leaves were skeletonized, but the vines survived the onslaught.

Three years ago, I saw that the beetles also were doing damage to the raspberry fruit. I decided to fight back. I knew that hand-picking against some insects can be effective, and since, as an organic grower, I either had to hand pick, cover the crops (very unlikely with the berries or the asparagus); or use inoculants like a Bt or milky spore. I read that inoculants, as well as traps, were of limited success, so I decided killing the little buggers with my bare hands would be the best approach.

I’ve been able to do an effective control for asparagus beetles by hand picking. I’ve also been able to keep potato beetles in check and kill off squash vine borers. Hand picking doesn’t work for everything, though. I’ve had no good luck with cabbage moths and their cabbage looper caterpillar. I now totally cover my cole crops with ag fabric to keep the moths off. Cucumber beetles and squash bugs are very difficult to control, as well.

Beetles on An Asparagus Frond

The Japanese beetle is easy to see and slow. Its usual defense is to just let go of whatever it is hanging onto and drop down. The typical hand picking methods cited in gardening literature are to grab the bug with your fingers and squash it, or drop it into a dish of soapy water, where the surfactant properties of the soap drown the bug very quickly; or hold the dish under the beetle(s) and let them drop to their deaths in the soapy water.

I was employing both the pick and squash method and the drop into soapy water method with only limited success. In trying to grab the beetles, they often drop before you can get to them. They react to even a shadow of movement, or, if it’s quite warm, they just fly away. Like houseflies and many other insects, the beetles have much better reflexes when its hot. They are difficult to pick in the heat of the day. That’s why I wait until the sun is no longer overhead and heating up their wings before I do most of my picking. The morning is not good as the plants are usually still wet with dew.

While the drop-into-soapy-water method was delivering a higher success rate than direct picking, it was extremely difficult to use in the asparagus. Trying to slide a bowl, or even a yogurt cup of water under a beetle in the dense fronds was almost impossible. Very often the fronds would fall into the water and a half dozen not-yet-drowned beetles would be clinging to them when I pulled the cup back. I’m not sure what turned on the light, but I realized there had to be a better way, and there was.

I now give the beetles a funnel ride to their deaths with a very simple, cheap, and extremely effective home made device. My material list is a plastic funnel – I’m using one that is about 7″ across the top and with about a half inch opening at the bottom, a gallon plastic juice jug with a screw on top – I’m sure a milk jug would work, and masking tape.

Funnel Taped to Screw-on Cap

When I first put the contraption together, I just taped the funnel to the top of the jug, but I’ve since drilled a 1 1/4″ hole into the screw top and pushed the funnel firmly into the hole and taped it up tightly. This allows me to unscrew the funnel to clean out the bugs rather than having to un-tape the funnel every time the bottle needs to be cleaned out. It also makes the funnel much more stable. I’ve had no problem with it working loose.

Several Days Kill

To say this thing works well is an understatement. My kill ratio versus the hand pick and soapy water methods, has way more than doubled. It is easier and faster. In most instances I just position the funnel under the enemy, wave my hand above the beetle and let it fall. I’ll still hand pick them when they don’t want to let go. But then it’s just a matter of coaxing them to their final ride. I could put some soapy water in the jug, but I don’t. The bugs have never flown back out. I’ll run a little water into the jug when I’m ready to clean it out. I dump the mass of dead bodies into the compost pile and give the jug a good rinsing.

I’m not saying I’ve solved the Japanese beetle problem, but I know I’ve reduced their populations significantly in both the asparagus and the raspberries, as well in my domestic grapes. Those are my only crops where they do damage. The beetles swarm, and if you leave them alone they develop huge masses and will clean the leaves bare. You have to pick just about daily to prevent the swarming from occurring. I don’t know how long the season will last. I’m still picking the plants clean each day, but the funnel trap certainly has made the job a lot easier.

Back to Kickapoo

Monday, July 27th, 2009

Judy and I returned to the Kickapoo Country Fair in La Farge, Wisconsin for another show Saturday and yesterday. We did our first show there, last year, which you can read about here. The fair is about farming and smaller organic family farms, versus the corporate factory farms that now dominate world agriculture.

The show was noticeably bigger this year than last. More exhibits, more workshops, more vendors and bigger crowds. I think, if they stay on track, Kickapoo will become a major event for promoting the ideals of organic farming and sustainable living. A large field of sunflowers greeted us when we entered the grounds of Organic Valley Headquarters. The sunflowers are part of an experiment in bio-diesel fuel.

Wisconsin has lots of old-time tractor enthusiasts. Quite a few older vehicles were on display. In the front of the picture is a tractor I would try to buy if I were doing a small organic farm, the famous Allis-Chalmers “G”. $850 new in 1955.

One of the better family events we attend, Kickapoo has lots of things for kids including very kid-friendly animal exhibits.

Both the kids and adults were entertained and enlightened by musicians, poets, storytellers, and educators. All for fun was Nanda, – half of the act pictured above – jugglers, acrobats, dancers, and kung-fu artists that put on a great show.

Home and farm-craft exhibits were plentiful. This is Jan Rasikas at the spinning wheel.

The man with the hat demonstrated working with his Suffolk Punch draft horses. Next to him is Robert Schultz, a blacksmith, who demonstrated hand forging of useful farm implements.

Judy relaxing in the tent.

Bummed Out Bumble Bees

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

A couple days ago I blogged about flowering edibles in the garden. It was quite hot when I was taking the pictures which included some shots of the multitude of pollinators that collect around the flowers. I commented on how hard it was to photograph the bumblebees because they would not stay still long enough for me to get a good shot.

Yesterday and today have been very cold. A high of about 66 both days. For the middle of July, it is not normal. I came home from a trip to Minneapolis late yesterday afternoon and noticed bumblebees working the coneflowers by the driveway. They were moving quite slowly, and working the flowers very deliberately. I thought it would be easy to get some pictures. It was. The flowers are well past their sell by date, but they still have excellent color and obviously enough pollen to keep the bumblebees interested.

As I was finishing up shooting, I came upon a dying bee. I had already found a dead one. I don’t know if the cold weather was killing them or if they were just running out of gas after their natural life cycle, but I was able to put the camera right up on the bee without any worry about having it get mad at me.

Pretty Flowers From Plants You Can Eat

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

Long ago I used to have a bad attitude about ornamentals. I looked at flower gardening as an indulgence, without the necessity attached to growing plants to eat. That has changed and I now not only admire beautiful gardens, but I have great respect for the gardeners who create them. Nevertheless, I’m a hungry man, so it’s mainly the vegetable garden for me. If I had more time, I would dabble in the artsy, but now I barely have time to secure the harvest.

Edible plants almost all produce flowers to attract pollinators. Some of these flowers are tiny or not even recognizable as a flower, but many can be every bit as gorgeous as the wildest exotics of the flower garden.

I took a walk through the garden today and shot these:

Bolted and flowering cilantro and dill bordering a strawberry bed. These plants attract dozens of different pollinators.

A wasp on cilantro flowers with a bee in the background.

Bumblebees don’t rest long enough to make it easy to get a shot. The big farms are complaining of the loss of pollinators. It’s the lack of biodiversity, that and the use of pesticides. If they started farming the right way the bees would come.

A potato plant in bloom.

A trellised melon plant

Waltham Butternut Squash


Corn tassels, the male pollinator of corn flowers.

Arugula bolted and flowering in the garlic bed.

A little zuke, with the flower showing us where the next one is coming from.

Get close to a tomato blossom and it looks like a little sunflower.

Pepper blossoms mostly droop down and stay out of the sun.

Eggplant blooms truly rival ornamentals in beauty.

Buried in Berries!

Monday, July 13th, 2009

The strawberries are dwindling. I believe we just had our last handful of extra sweet ones on our garden fresh greens topped with a little bit of Hook’s Blue Cheese.

We’ve surpassed our previous best of 44 quarts with over 50 this year! We have 3 beds that are 20 feet by 4 feet. We try to rotate the strawberry beds through the garden by transplanting new runners from the oldest bed into a new bed so we always have one, two and three year old beds.

I say ‘try’ because it doesn’t always happen & we have some off years on our pickings. This happens to be a good year so there will be jam and lots of strawberries in the freezer for those special treats this winter. Even mashed a cupful into some banana bread when I was short a banana!

On to the raspberries!!

Corn Corrals

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

When I returned from Chicago yesterday afternoon, Judy let me know that a morning thunderstorm had taken the fabric off the hoop tunnel and had knocked down the corn. Fixing the tunnel was easy. The corn took a little more work.

Corn does very well in my raised beds, but it is easily blown over by strong winds. The soil is soft and the corn is sitting up high and exposed to gusts. I’ve read corn will right itself after being blown over, but I don’t find that to be true at all. In the past I tried to straighten up the stalks and mound dirt around the roots, but that was not a good solution.

As I began using more and more fence T-posts for trellising and fencing, I started making corn corrals, which have proved to be totally effective. I almost never install them until I have to, as with a minor catastrophe like this, but after I fence up the corn it eventually stands up tall and seems to set even stronger root.

I use 6 posts per bed. I use one strand of jute which I run around the perimeter at about 24″ high. I tie off the jute at every post so their is some ridgidity to the bracing strands. I tie off cross strands between every other row and I straighten the corn as I string the cross strands. The hard work is pounding the T-posts, but it only takes an hour and a half to fix both beds, and I will not have to worry about the wind any more.