Thoughts on Organic Insect Control

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Nobody in the South decides to grow using organic and sustainable strategies because it seems trendy. From all quarters you hear it is impossible, costly, and no better than conventional approaches. Of course, none of this is true. With good planning and smart strategies you can do the so-called impossible task of growing without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The price of conventional products has been increasing steadily over the last decade while alternative products have secured an affordable foothold in the market. That may be why we are under increasing scrutiny! Why This Matters Naturalists look at what grows and praise it and some who are uninformed think that is what we do. In truth, sustainable and organic growers do not stand by idly but take daily actions to grow crops; the Type A personalities among us check smartphones for weather conditions like day traders monitor stocks. Investments of time and money are required, but strategies of reuse and repurposing allay those costs over a short period of time. In spite of recent reports that no nutritional differences exist, you taste the difference even if you never heard the expression ‘you are what you eat’. Philosophy does play a role here since concerns for what we eat, the local ecosystem, and the planet often motivate choices. But these practical strategies are effective, not foolhardy, and a proactive way of doing what is right, practical, and worth bragging about as you share or sell the harvest. The truth is that we live and grow where the ground never freezes and the bugs don’t die. That makes effective insect control of paramount importance and a strong action plan essential to success. Strategy 1: Stay ahead of the insects. Just as you calendar the planting and sketch out what will grow where, record the likely insects that will accompany the plants you grow. Some can be avoided with good timing, such as early planting of sweet corn to avoid earworms. But if you know aphids will be an issue for young tomato plants or that squash borers always find your plants, plan to address them early while the aphids are clustered on the first flower cluster or the borers are still amber egg masses on the stem. At the same time you are setting up the planting calendar and plan, put in space for trap crops like squash at the edges of watermelon and yes, marigolds under tomatoes. Go for the tall, fragrant African marigolds for this purpose and sow them between the tomatoes as you do basil. This crazy quilt m ethod of interplanting and basic block planting works on the theory that insects, like teenage drivers, are easily distracted. Monocrop fields are targets, highlighted on the insect GPS and by diversifying you can identify and contain them more readily. While you are at it, plan further ahead so each successive planting has time in between to control weeds that may harbor insects and to make plans for crop rotation. These processes as well as cover crops and green manure plantings keep the soil healthy and the space clean, and deter insects. I also use vermicompost tea as a spray to provide nutrition through the leaves and appreciate its insect deterrent effects. Strategy 2: Exclude and physically control them. Exclusion devices may include frames, fencing, screen, floating row cover, or your own version of a cloche. Its purpose is to camouflage the plants and/or put them out of the insects’ reach. If the notion of enclosing vast swaths of a field in screen sounds outlandish, I refer your attention to the entire movement of growing under hoops. They are not just for protection against the cold and wind in our part of the world. Your version of excluders may be row high and removable or tall enough to walk around in but make your plans for exclusion long before the need arises. Whether you grow in hoops or in the open, insect traps are a great way to monitor and identify the critters. Yellow and blue are colors that attract particular insects and traps take advantage of this with a sticky surface that catches them. By monitoring the population daily you catch the initial buildup before too much damage is done. Shake the bushes over sheets in the early morning to disturb sleepy beetles. Of course, weed control in the plantings goes hand in hand with pest control. And remove potential pest harbors, especially those plants frequented by the insects that vector viruses, by keeping the area around plantings mowed clean. Strategy 3: Watch and learn. Some insects are simply passing through while others will assist you in controlling the truly bad guys. Video cameras cannot replace the ritual of the daily walk through the plantings to observe growth and thwart threats as they appear. I keep my grandfather’s hoe to remind me of the way he walked the property. Long handled as he was tall, the hoe was his constant companion, tool, and weapon. I saw him slice the heads off dandelions, lift hornworms off tomato leaves, and relocate more than one garter snake with its blade. He let me stomp and squish stinkbugs and bean beetles; I was glad to pay my children to pluck cabbage worms and drop them into a bucket for me. However you do it, don’t miss a trick or the insects will get ahead of you. Strategy 4: Use pesticides seldom and wisely. There are more on the market each year, but a few notes apply to the category. Understand that to be effective a pesticide must be lethal to its target regardless of its source. If the damage will ruin the crop, sprays and dusts made from organic sources are effective. The myths that organic products do not work seem to come from misunderstanding and misuse. In general, they work on contact and have little residual impact so must be applied in a targeted manner and repeated in the context of the insect’s life cycle. The exception to the short term impact rule is oil sprays, most useful on woody plants from fall to spring and capable of smothering insects and their eggs for months. Keep good records in your calendar to know what was used and its effects and to maintain certification data. Keep Your Sunny Side Up! When you choose the path of organic and sustainable practices, people will talk about you, then smile and ask if you like granola and tie dyed t-shirts, too. Good humor will get you through those encounters. Your bigger rewards will come in taste and confidence you are using effective strategies to control the insects that can keep you awake at night.

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