Category Archives: Insect control

Beneficial Insects and the Garden

February 12th, I’m teaching a short class on insects in the garden at the Carondelet Branch of the St. Louis Public Library.  Right now I’m working away at the handout and boy have I learned a lot putting this class together!

One of the main things I’ve learned is that to be a successful organic gardener, you need to do more than just stop using chemicals.  There are several things that come up again and again to create a healthy garden that doesn’t need chemicals.

According to Wikipedia, “Ecosystem restoration is the return of a damaged ecological system to a stable, healthy, and sustainable state, often together with associated ecosystem services.”

Our yards are a small ecosystem.  Chemical agriculture upsets the healthy functioning of that ecosystem on the promise of making our jobs easier.  The sterilization of that ecosystem actually takes away the benefits of it’s healthy functioning.

Steps to Good Garden Management:

1.  Choose the right plant.  Each cultivar of plant responds to the environment in it’s own way.  Save seeds, and swap seeds with neighbors.  Seed saving allows us to grow plants that are specially in tune with our neighborhoods.  Ordering seeds with special resistance may also help.  After several generations of saving that seed, the seed will be even more attuned to your yard.

2.  Rotate Crops.  Insects go through a life cycle.  Generally this means, egg, larvae, pupae, and adult.  Each of these stages require different places to live and grow.  By rotating crops, you break the insect life cycle by disrupting their tidy circle.  Additionally, if you have a serious infestation in a season, insects that overwinter in the soil may be stopped by tilling that soil before planting a different crop in it in the spring.

3.  Plant and harvest at the right time.  By planning the planting and harvesting at the optimal time, you allow the plant to be healthier.  Healthier plants resist diseases and predators more efficiently.  Some plants may be planted in timing with the expected hatching of an insect to allow them to gain as much growth as possible before they descend upon the plant.

4.  Remove plant residues.  Plant residues harbor parts of the insect life cycle.  They may also harbor pathogens.  Remove these residues and compost them.  Keep dead leaves cleaned from beds.  Composting will raise the temperature during the decomposition process and kill many of the organisms in there.

5.  Use proper amount of food and water.  Don’t over water or over feed.  Too much water can create an environment that allows pathogens to breed and multiply.  Too much water also increases the salt deposited in the soil negatively impacting the soil health.  Soil amendments may also impact the ability of the plants to grow effectively.

6.  Preventative devices.  Sticky traps, Foil Rings, Row Covers, and other innovative devices can work to your benefit.  Things that crawl need paths to crawl on, by understanding your insect, you can help deter them from filling their needs to thrive.

7.  Improve the soil.  Healthy soil is the foundation for plants to grow and thrive. Test your soil.  Use compost.  Soil needs not just good organic matter, but a replacement of what has been taken from it by the plants.  Compost your garden waste, kitchen waste, animal waste, etc.

8.  Mulch Mulch is an amazing thing to increase water retention and over all soil quality.  I use straw.  This has radically changed the strata in which I grow my food.  Mulch cuts down on my need to water and weed.  It is a double edge sword however.  While it allows beneficial insects to complete their life cycle, it also allows pests to as well.  I tend to turn it under every other year and that seems to be a good solution for me.

9.  Understand the insect life cycle.  Know your enemy!  Know your friends!  If you know what they need, you can break the life cycle or encourage it.  Also, if you know what all the stages of an insect look like, you can help yourself not eliminate something beneficial.  A couple of years ago I found a fascinating bug in the garden.  I had no idea what it was and I thought it was a spider.  Come to find out it was a stage in the lady bug life cycle.  Thank heavens I left it where it was.

10.  Plant Borders   Borders allow insects to complete their life cycles as well.  Beneficial insects like flowers with spikes, umbrells, and daisy like heads.  Because they are omnivorous, they lack the long mouthparts needed for large deep flowers.  By inter-planting mints, queen anne’s lace, and echinacia like plants, you can keep the beneficial insects near your crops and increase the likelihood that they will be there to stop your pest.

11.  Keep your landscape plants in good shape.  Keep your landscape healthy and cleaned up.  This will allow your insects that need it to utilize it to complete their life cycle.  This will also allow other creatures to use your landscape as well.  Native plantings will work better in your little ecosystem than exotic ornamentals.

12.  Monitor for insect damage.  Know when you have an infestation.  Know what is in your yard.  Use IPM to tweak everthing to your advantage.

13.  Keep bird feeders in the garden.  Feed your local birds.  Build birdhouses, anything to attract them.  Birds will not only eat the seeds, but come into the garden and help you clean it of insects.  Between plantings, I allow my chickens to go through and clean in the garden.  They aren’t allowed there all the time because they also love greens, but they do a great job getting grubs.  Your native wild birds will also pick those pests off and help you just the same.

14.  Try to encourage amphibians and reptiles.  If you see a snake, leave it.  If you see toads, leave them.  These will also diminish your populations.


Try to keep things natural.  Don’t give into marketing tactics that promise an easier time of it.  Many of them are short term solutions and not long term.  If you are going to do one thing from the list first, my recommendation would be to mulch, mulch, mulch.  It has made it possible for me to garden without going crazy.  I hate cultivating.  I hate weeding.  Good luck!



Trichogramma Wasps

I was pleasantly surprised by my friend Marcail from Carondelet Garden today at lunchtime.  He was enlisting me to be a “general” in the war on squash vine borer.  I was intrigued.  Recently, while filming the show “Green Time” on KNLC Channel 24, the host asked me what I do about these horrible pests.  I didn’t really have a good answer.  I have planted them in a new location that hasn’t had a garden in a while is this years trial plan.  My side yard always gets them, some years sooner than others.  Rodale says to inject Bt into the stems to control the infestation, but it seems Bt may not be a good solution either.  Click here for an abstract on researching showing Bt in the blood of pregnant women.  Organic gardening is complicated and seems to have some slippery slope options available to it.  I’ve held off on Bt since reading that research.  Is it bad?  I don’t know, I have to think about it for a while.

So I decided the wasps would be worth a try.  Will it imbalance the other caterpillars in the neighborhood?  I don’t know.  I have some unanswered questions about that, but I think rebugging will always be my preferred solution to chemicals.  I went to meet Marcail and picked up the wasps.

The wasps come 5000 eggs on a little sheet of paper.  They are little grey specks.  My husband immediately opened the container to look and I couldn’t get him stopped, so there a four or five microscopic wasps buzzing about my house.  They had already started to hatch.  The instructions say to place in shade where ants can’t get them.  I decided for now I would put them on the sill on the south side of the garden.  They will get a little sun in the morning but not much.  I may go set some pebbles in the bottom of the container and set it in a cup of water to keep the ants out later.

Marcail ordered these in and passed them out to some urban farmers in our area.  This way the whole neighborhood is inoculated.  Brilliant.  Hope it works I will let you know as the summer goes on if I notice a change.  The squash always get infested the first week of June so I should see a difference soon.  I have some volunteers coming up in the garden I have chosen to leave in place to see what they do and I will be able to monitor those.  I’m tempted to order a package for garden “D” where all the zuchinni are planted.  That garden is squash heavy this year.


Orcon TR-C3SQ Live Trichogramma, 3 Squares/12,000 Eggs

Recommended Reading:

Rebugging Your Home & Garden: A Step-By-Step Guide to Modern Pest Control

Rodale’s Garden Problem Solver: Vegetables, Fruits, and Herbs

Red Cap Chickens and the Whole New Lot of Them

I am raising chickens for a few people and was surprised one day while counting each breed to make sure they were all there that one of the combs was looking incredibly funny.  We have Lakenvelters, Turkens, White  Cochins, Black Minorcas, White Rocks, and Red Caps.  So, the white cochins belong to my next door neighbor and will move as soon as their coop is up.  The Red Caps belong to my dear friend Heather and will move as soon as THEIR coop is up.  We are selling some of the rest.  I had a hard time last spring getting them raised so I thought there would be attrition, but so far we have had none other than the hatchery we used mailing them on the weekend.  Not cool.  Not cool at all.

The first thing I noticed while they were still in the house was that the Red Caps are really loud as baby chicks.  REALLY LOUD.  Fortunately, baby chicks are too cute to be annoying and Red Cap chicks have a pattern on them that is even cuter than most to me.   They are also more wild than the rest.  Turkens are the hippy chicks of the bunch.  Very laid back.  While I’m transplanting, any worms I find in the soil mix I take over and give to the chicks.  The Turkens know what I’m doing, but they won’t fight for it.  The White Rocks see me coming and are the first to the drop zone.  They seem to be the most clever of the bunch.  The Cochins are in as soon as they can but the Rocks are twice their size.  They are a little more cautious so they don’t get trampled.

Every time I feed them I try to check the ones that already belong to other people for health issues and general appearance.  I don’t want to hand off any pecked chickens or deformed chickens either.   I live in fear of egg binding, but they are a little young yet to worry about that.  One of the Red Caps had a wider comb than the rest and I started to get worried.  I was thinking to myself, I have no idea what these chickens are supposed to look like, is that CANCER?????  The things I think of crack me up, so I came inside and actually looked them up for the first time and lo, and behold, they are a rose comb breed!  They are apparently wonderful foragers, but not great for confinement.  Hopefully, no one reading this is keeping chickens in a little two foot square cage anyway.  I read somewhere that their meat stays more tender than other breeds as they age so they make a better table bird than most after retired from laying.  They certainly are spirited.

When Heather first ordered them, I thought, “Why would you want a chicken named after a murderous sprite?”  I didn’t tell her, because my nerd knowledge of such things sometimes embarrasses me.  Seeing the rose comb and it’s similarity to a gnome hat though makes it make more sense in my brain.  Probably just a visual thing and not really because they are murderous chickens.  Also, I have no idea why those chickens were named that, may have nothing to do with fairies what so ever.

Here she is with her beautifully forming comb.  Right behind her is one of my new turkens and behind them are the lankenvelters.   Sorry about the focus, I’m using my cell this week to take pictures.

My brother has converted me to nipple watering the chickens.  That is what you see with the PVC pipe in the picture.  On top of the chicken tractor, there is a five gallon bucket that feeds into the pipes.  Very easy to maintain and there is always clean water for the chickens.  The chickens like to sit on them and swing.  We have them wired up and raise them higher as the chickens grow.  We did not get the nipples from the link above.  My brother bought them in bulk and handed me two tubes with the nipples in them.  He’s an awfully awesome sibling to have.  He also writes a very interesting blog on sustainable farming, check it out.  He comes up with different solutions and different ideas for making the most of his 20 acres.  He also works full time and manages to keep it all going.

The red one is another of my turkens.  I worked an information booth yesterday at an Earth Day event in Kirkwood, MO for the Sustainable Backyard Tour I help organize.  We shared a booth with Living Green and a chicken keeper from Kirkwood who unfortunately I don’t have contact information for.  I will correct that.  He had his chicken “Mizzou” on the table.  She is an Easter Egger chicken and had a green egg there in the cage for people to see.  What a hit with the kids!  Back behind us he had a collection of other breeds for people to see.  One Buff Orpington named “Buffy” figured out early in the day how to escape the enclosure and spent the day being held by either Bill, her owner, or myself.  I should have brought some of my hideous little guys for people to see.   Really, I think Turkens are the best for city living.  But I’m not one to judge a chicken on looks I guess.  It was a fantastic day.  I’m so grateful to have been a part of that and meet such wonderful people.  It’s a really nice little Farmer’s Market out there and next to the train station so it’s a great place to go if you have kids.

Peach Trees

The last two weeks I have been thinning the fruit on the peach tree.  It’s really difficult for me not to be greedy and leave all those lovely little peaches on the tree, but it’s not worth the risk.  Last year was the first year this particular tree really set fruit and I didn’t think about it and ended up pinned to the chicken coop under half a tree with my favorite rooster fluttering about trying to save me.  The trees have the ability to set much more fruit than their wood can bear.  My husbands grandmother always said to pinch off one out of every three.  The idea is to give them enough room to grow and to reduce the weight on the tree.  There are advanced ways to optimize market price and crop using this, but I’m writing a backyard blog and that can be a drawn out dry topic that doesn’t really help hobby growers.

Some people pinch the flower buds ahead of the bloom, I wait until fruit sets.  There is an argument that this can reduce the amount of fruit that sets next year, but I haven’t found it to be a problem.  My rationale is that the weather here is highly volatile.  If I pinch the blooms and we get a frost (which we almost always do), the frost may kill off more of my remaining blooms than I want.  If I wait until fruit sets, I generally don’t have to worry about the frost any more.  This year is an anomaly and the fruit set very, very heavy.  I have read that you don’t want to wait more than 60 days from flowering to finish pinching the fruit.  If I wait that long, I’ve forgotten and it’s not going to get done.

before thinning, example 1

After thinning, example 1

I thinned them pretty hard this year.  I probably did three out of four since we didn’t have a frost in my yard to knock off the blooms.  We had a cool enough spell it bit the pear tree, but not the peaches.

Now, I didn’t take it down to the amount I would like to eat or process because I’m going to loose about a third to birds and a few more to tarnish beetles.  I had some problems with the tarnish beetles last year, and suspect with the mild winter I will again.  Here’s to hoping the chickens are getting them.  This year’s flock is much more interested in foraging than last year’s was.  They were all too young.

Tarnish beetle control might be an interesting thing to touch on.  I picked them off and killed them last year as soon as I saw them.  I also have fed birds to the point where there is a ton of birds in my yard all the time, including a hawk that checks for vulnerable chickens early in the morning.  Rodale’s “Garden Problem Solver” suggests sticky traps, pyrethrum, rotenone, or sabadilla for control. (Today you can get one for 50 cents on Amazon!)  I’m on the fence about even organic chemicals for the most part, so I tend not to use them unless it’s really bad.    White sticky boards seem to be the thing to use.  You can take white poster board and coat it with sticky glue as an inexpensive solution.  I wonder if the mouse traps would work since they are white and sticky.  I would watch these and make sure that you aren’t catching beneficial insects.  As always, keeping your garden clean goes a long, long way for control also.

Even though I’ve thinned this so hard, I still have branches touching the ground all ready.  I have to think on that.  Makes it hard to mow the grass.  After a year of chickens in the orchard area though, I’ve been surprised to see what weeds are growing back there.  We hate mowing grass and have been discussing just mulching the backyard instead of trying to have any lawn.  It would entertain the chickens more anyway.  We’ve never had grass back there to begin with and were using the chickens to build soil for a year before planting grass seed.  I even have the bag of seed ready to go.  But look what the orchard is full of, lol…

The orchard area weeds.

I believe it’s wheat!  I’m not even aware of feeding the chickens any wheat, but there you go.  I feed them oats and varied layer feeds depending upon what I can get, but most of that is ground in some way.   Which ever feed this was must not have ground the wheat.  (I bet Chism Heritage Farm will post in the notes and remind me about the wheat I fed them that I’ve totally forgotten about and should probably be feeding them.) They are kind of pretty and I’m inclined to leave them.  It does make the yard look like a mess though and we will be doing some filming in a couple of weeks so I need to make a decision.  I’m inclined to put in mulch, my husband has already torn out a bunch of the wheat where he was trying to level out a weird place in the yard.