Welcomed Garden Guests

When it comes to deterring garden damaging insects, we can employ chemical agents, we can employ companion plants, or we can invite predatory critters. By chemical agents, I do not mean just the commercially produced poisons (which I avoid) but things like Neem oil and pepper spray made from my jalapeno and cayenne cast-offs.

This year I companion planted borage with my tomatoes.  That worked exceptionally well.  My only mistake was in planting them at the same time: I should have given the tomatoes a month’s head start.  By the time the tomatoes were bearing ripe fruit, the borage was dying off.  Shortly after it was gone, the hornworms started appearing.  But I still had help.

tomato horn wormWhen I find a hornworm that is covered by white cases, I either leave it be or move it to a sacrificial tomato plant so the pupae it carries will mature and hatch.  These are pupae cases of the Brachonid Wasp: a small, non-stinging, parasitic wasp that favors hornworms as the preferred meal for its young.  The female Brachonid deposits its eggs just under the skin of the hornworm.  When they hatch the larvae chew their way out (feeding on the worm as they go) and spin those white pupae cases.  By the time you see those, especially if there are lots of them, the hornworm is in a weakened state.  Many that I find in this condition will do little more damage, some never move from that spot.

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Fighting the Tomato Hornworm With Borage

Found hornworm

For years now I have done battle with the tomato hornworm. You know Hornworm: big, green brute with a spiky horn on his butt. Sort of a cross between a backward rhinoceros and The Hulk. He can get to be 4 inches long and will decimate a tomato plant overnight.

In the past I’ve used a number of methods to try to keep this marauder at bay.

• Sevin Powder: works pretty well but is a chemical insecticide.

• Neem oil: works pretty well and is a natural repellent, but has to be reapplied after every rainfall.

• Hand picking: It is harder than one might think to spot these well-camouflaged beasties. Even as big as they get, they can be hard to see in amongst the leaves. I look mostly for the leaf damage and poo-pellets they leave, then go hunting in that region.

An infested tomato hornworm.

• Braconid Wasp: a natural control in that these iridescent blue wasps lay their eggs on the hornworm and when the eggs hatch, they feed on the form and kill it. When I find a worm packing a load of eggs on its back I move that one to a sacrificial plant where it can live out its life and help proliferate the Braconids. I’ve never been stung by a Braconid despite having them nest in my barn eaves. I consider them good fellows and welcome them.

Bacillus thuringiensis: a naturally occurring bacterium that attacks the digestive systems of numerous leaf-feeders, including hornworms. It is available in spray or powder form under the trade names of Dipel and Thuricide.

This year I tried a new weapon: Borage.  Read More…

Fending Off Garden Pests

If you are like me, there are two main battles that I fight in growing a vegetable garden: weather and pests.

Weather, we cannot do much about. We take our best guess as to when that last frost will sneak in, and have empty containers and straw on hand to use as protection in case we’re wrong. We can water when it’s dry, use raised beds if it’s too wet, have sulfur, milk and Neem oil on hand to ward off blight and fungus. But other than growing in the controlled environment of a greenhouse, we cannot control the weather: we just deal with it.

fence boxesPests, we have a little more control over. How much control depends on how far we are willing to go. If we’re willing to saturate our food in poisons, we can achieve a high degree of efficiency against insects. I, for one, prefer to avoid poisons that can have a deleterious effect on my family and me. Fortunately, there are other ways.

Here are a few of the things I do in my garden to help ward off insects and other pests.  Read More…

Planting Time: Creating Environments

Spring has sprung, the rains have come, and now it’s time to get seed in the ground. But before planting those precious seeds into the warming earth, we want to be sure we have prepared for them a safe and healthy home.

One of the advantages of using a raised bed garden is that you can individually tailor the soil in each box to the needs of the plants you will put there. A pH meter or test kit is a handy tool to have. Sulfur and lime can be used to adjust pH up or down as needed. Compost adds organic matter and nutrients. Sand increases drainage; vermiculite retains the water. Straw, wood chips, newspaper, cardboard, and grass clippings can all be used as a mulch to retain moisture and deter weeds.Cucumber-Lettuce trellis

In addition to the soil they grow in, some plants do better with some structure to their lives.

Here I’ve put a trellis panel in the center of a garden box. In the far front is the last of my winter spinach; a new crop has been seeded and will soon be taking the place of the current plants as they lose their vitality. Just in front of the trellis I’m planting cucumbers. Behind the trellis is lettuce. Right now the sun shines through the trellis to encourage the lettuce to grow in our cool spring days. As spring turns to the heat of summer, cucumber vines will climb up the trellis and provide shade for the lettuce and extend its growing season into the summer.

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Setting Up the Garden for Spring

March is here. My buddy, Mike, who lives in Alabama, is already planting in his garden. Here in Tennessee, I’ve been spending time (now that the snow has melted off) digging out weeds and inventorying my supplies in preparation of setting up the garden for another summer.

Normally, at this time of year, I’d be closing down last year’s winter garden so I’d have space to get the early crops in for spring. But the last couple of years have been particularly cold and snowy and little has survived in my winter gardens.

setting up the garden

This year I have a row of spinach that went dormant but is now perking up, and I see a few spikes of garlic leaves poking up through the straw at long last. My rosemary, oregano and thyme look to have survived as well. Everything else was killed. I’ll look to the bright side and say, “Setting up for spring will be easier.”

Let me tell you about the things I do in setting up the garden, as far as soil preparation, seed and equipment inventory, and lay-out planning.  Read more…

Fine as Frog Hair

Here in the South, we have a saying that can be used in response to the small-talk prompt of “How are you?” when you are feeling especially good (or don’t really want to engage in small talk); it goes, “Fine as frog hair .” It’s kind of cute and makes you think a little. Just how fine IS frog hair I wonder?

frog hairI was in the garden watering. When I got to the strawberry bed, there was considerable movement in the leaves in one corner. I was not surprised by that: I often flush a toad from these beds. They are welcomed visitors because they eat the bugs and slugs that crawl around in the boxes. Usually they are pretty small: the size of a golf ball, or so. This was a much bigger toad. I could see flashes of the brown color through the leaves.

Then those flashes started moving in different directions. Several, much bigger toads.

Then one of them hopped out of the box and into the path through the berry house. It was HAIRY! Several big, hairy toads! Nah … can’t BE! I looked again. Continue reading “Fine as Frog Hair”

Gone Mater Hunting

Mater HuntingBlondie n me got up early and went mater hunting this morning. We knowed of a spot where they hang out. We got where we figured they’d be and sure enough: a whole bunch of ‘em just baskin’ in the sun an bein’ lazy.

We crept into the place real quiet like. It was still cool enough they weren’t stirring yet. Maters can be mean, sos ya gotta sneak up on em from down-wind. We’d creep up and reach out slow and easy, then – SNATCH! We’d whip one away quick, break its neck and stuff it in the bag.

Most never knew what hit ‘em, a few though; they put up a tussle. An’ one: I thought that one had me, but Blondie grabbed hold of my pant leg and pulled me back safe.

When we got a bag full we totted ‘em on home. There I fixed up a big pot of boilin water to dunk ‘em in for a short spell: that loosens their hide ya know, so yas don’t waste so much meat gittin it off’n em. We dunked ‘em in the boilin’ water then into cold water, then we could skin ‘em out easy.

Then we cut out their heart: tain’t no good to no one anyhow. An’ split open their belly to scoop out their goopy guts. They ain’t no good neither.

That left us with a good carcass of meat that we chunked up an’ put on ice. We’ll cook all that up tomorrow. We’ll make some mater soup, then can up the rest to use fer soup or stew, or it can be cooked down and used in lots of different ways.

Yessir, mater meat is good eatin’  – an thar ain’t much more fun than a day mater hunting.

Woodworking and Green Stuff

straw fedoraThis post will primarily be a gardening update.  Gardening has become very weird the past couple of years, and a bit frustrating.  But first, should you ever find yourself unable to get to sleep and out of milk to warm, you might peek into my Smoky Mountain Woodworks page on Facebook.

I’ve been detailing the woodworking projects I’m working on again: that should put you to sleep in no time.  When I’m not working on anything, I share other people’s projects that I found interesting.  Don’t look at those: They’re stimulating and will get the brain wheels cranking again.

Seriously, when I was furniture-making full time, I always posted daily updates of what I did and how I did it.  Many customers commented that they loved being able to watch their custom creation coming together, and it instilled a better appreciation for the amount of work and attention to detail it takes to build fine furniture.

Now, on to the business at hand …

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Battling the Evil Flea Beetle

The adult flea beetle is a tiny (1/10 inch long) black, brown or bronze beetle that can jump like a flea when you disturb it. You’ll know it’s around when you see the small, round “pinholes” they chew through leaves. They will attack most vegetables, flowers and weeds but are particularly fond of brassicas (cabbage family), potatoes, spinach, radishes and eggplant.

Flea Beetle

Flea Beetle Life Cycle

Flea beetles are found throughout North America. The larvae live in the soil and are thin, white, legless grubs with brown heads that feed on plant roots. Adult Flea Beetles emerge from the soil in spring to feed and lay eggs on the roots of plants. The adults die out by early July. Their eggs hatch in about a week. The larvae feed for 2 to 3 weeks then pupate in the soil. The next generation of adults emerges in 2 to 3 weeks. These voracious pests produce two to four generations per year before the final generation of adults settles down for overwintering.

These beetles are most damaging in early spring when an infestation can kill seedlings. As plants mature they are better able to survive and outgrow the damage, unless the beetles carried a plant virus.

Battling the Enemy

Prevention is often the best defense. The larvae overwinter in soil and can be destroyed with regular hoeing and cultivating. Be sure to remove all debris from previous crops and keep the area weed free. Weeds are an important early season food for flea beetle larvae. Without cover and food, the larva will starve.

Fences and Hasenpfeffer

fence needed: rabbit eating flowersToday’s adventure deals with the garden project once again.  Helpful hints received from many of you (thank you very much) included advice for dealing with produce munching vermin.  I am collecting hair from our weekly haircuts for use in nylon stocking bags that will be hung on corner posts of the garden to ward off rabbits.  We don’t have as many rabbits as we did a few years ago because Dolly Dawg developed a taste for hasenpfeffer on the hoof… or paw… and while it was heart rending to know she was devouring those cute little bunnies, the damage being done to our flower beds has been dramatically reduced.  Perhaps fear of the “horrible, bunny eating beast of 1198” has spread for I have not seen hide nor hare of one for quite some time.  But, just to be safe, I plan to hang enough hair bags to drive them out of this end of the county!

Maybe human hair bags will also help ward off raccoons, possums, and squirrels.

Oddly enough, the dogs don’t seem the least bit interested in squirrels. Personally, I think the squirrels bought them off by telling them where the road kill is before any other neighborhood dogs can get to it.  They love possum though, live or flat. And they like coon as well, but rarely get any except when one get s hit by a car.  They’re pretty ferocious when cornered, and not as stupid as possums.  Possums will fall for anything!  Continue reading “Fences and Hasenpfeffer”