With the very warm weather we’re having, the farm has really come to life over the past two weeks. The vegetables are growing, the birds are singing and the bugs are crawling - on everything! We've seen a lot of pest including the Cabbage Moth, Common Garden Snail, Slugs, Colorado Potato Beetle, Cucumber Beetle and the Flea Beetle.
Step one to pest management is to know thy enemy! Not every insect is the enemy and not every enemy needs to be removed. For example, the alien looking creature shown below is actually a ladybug larvae. Ladybugs will consume many insect pest (including aphids) and therefore are beneficial insects on the farm. Many gardeners and farmers will actually purchase lady bugs for use on their crops.
Image source: http://cipm.ncsu.edu/ent/biocontrol/lookalikes/ladybeetlelarvae.htm
Typically, when people think of pest management, they think of chemical pesticides that require hazmat suits, crop dusting and total eradication of all insect life in the field. However, there are many alternative sustainable approaches to insect management that do not include the use of synthetic pesticides and sprays (or frumpy hazmat suits).
At Open Door Farm, we look to natural systems for farm management, (particularly pest control) as a means of achieving balance on the farm. The three main pest control methods we use are: high crop diversity, planting "trap crops" and low tunnels.
When we talk about diversity of crops we mean that we plant a wide variety of vegetables and fruit. This is opposite of what many large growers do when they plant huge fields of one crop (often referred to as a monocrop or monoculture). This type of field is very vulnerable to diseases and pest, and once they show up it can be very hard to keep them in check. Monocrops give insects a "promise land" to feed themselves and their offspring. By growing a lot of different crops, we shrink our lost if one crop is heavily under attack and completely lost to pest damage.
We also use what are known as "trap crops" as a way of managing pest. Similar to the way that brightly colored flowers attract bees, trap crops are particular plants that heavily attract certain pest insects. For example, radishes can be planted as a trap crop for flea beetles. Radish greens attract flea beetles, which helps prevent the pest from attacking other plants we are trying to sell (like eggplant). Depending on the severity of pest damage, most trap crops are still ok to harvest and consume.
Finally we use insect barriers as a mean of controlling pest damage. This is best done by understanding the lifecycle and behavior of certain pest. Take vine borers. Adult vine borers can destroy squash plants just when they start to deliver fruit. But the egg (AKA seed of destruction) of this little guy is laid much earlier in the life of the squash plant. Vine borers are actually daytime moths that lay their eggs in the soil near the base of young squash plants. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae finds its way to the squash plant and begins to dine. Insect barriers (in our case, low tunnels) are one of the easiest ways to prevent the vine borer from accessing the plant and thus preventing them from laying their eggs. Our low tunnels are constructed of EMT conduit (for structural support) and light weight insect barrier (Agribon - 19). The great thing about the low tunnel is that we'll be able to reuse it in the winter to create an "in field" greenhouse that will help with season extension.
Ross bending EMT pipe for the low tunnel.
This post may be titled "Battle of the Bugs", but in reality it’s more about interacting with nature then fighting against it. It's essential to gain a better understanding of the complexity of nature and and learning new ways of utilizing natural systems to help with day-to-day farm life (especially pest management).
Ross and Jillian Mickens are the owners and operators of Open Door Farm located in the North Carolina Piedmont.