Sunday, June 28, 2009

Organic Gardening Turned Me Into a Ruthless Killer

Organic gardening has turned me into a ruthless killer.

It’s true.

Back when I used popular chemicals to ward off insect attacks, garden defense was a matter of gracefully waving my sprayer wand over my beloved plants, much in the manner of Glinda the Good gracing the Munchkins with her benevolent presence. A gentle spray drifted down over the leaves and slowly, silently, the offending insects fell to the ground. All was well. No distinction was made between “good” insects and “bad” insects, all were treated with equal dispassion. My plants were inviolate. They probably glowed – gratefully, I would have thought - in the dark. While I was never entirely comfortable with spraying, all of the accepted farming dogma insisted that a carefully followed spray schedule was necessary to produce good crops. I was a good grower, I followed the directions carefully.

Eventually, I gave up standard commercial growing and all the chemical pesticide and fungicide formulas. I couldn’t justify poisoning myself any longer, even for perfect looking food. I also couldn’t justify poisoning the frogs, toads, dragonflies, water, earth and air. The list of victims, the collateral damage, was endless. The results were becoming obvious, even on a small farm like ours. Amphibians of all sorts - frogs, toads - and many of the lovely insects we liked – bees, butterflies, fireflies- were scarce. We began creating meadow spaces across the farm, half an acre here and there, where clover, Queen Anne’s Lace and other wild flowering plants could flourish, hoping to lure back and nurture some of what had been damaged.

But let me point out that what never became scarce were the original offenders, the Japanese Beetles, the whiteflies, the hornworms – all of the munching, tearing, sucking, piercing horde that made gardeners like me take to poisons in the first place. The newly available organic sprays worked to an extent, but I was now the caretaker and defender not only of my plants but also of the beneficial insects I worked so hard to encourage. The new sprays were equally lethal to those newly beloved friends. What to do?

And so it came down to hand-to-hand combat, mano a mano with the bug world. Where I once wandered ladylike, gently wafting airborne particles across the garden, I now crept clumsily, eyes narrowed, ready to pounce. I’ve become a one-woman SWAT team for bugs. I’ve graduated from gently knocking insects into water-and-soap filled containers, flicking them down with genteel distaste, to removing them with glove covered hands (and stomping on them) and finally, now, to quickly and casually squishing them with my bare fingers as I move through watering and weeding. I squint into the leaves and I pounce. I pinch a pair of mating Japanese Beetle and feel a grim satisfaction as the shells crack. No grubs will come from that pair to destroy my plants next summer. I move a waiting mantis and flatten the nearby berry-eating stinkbug. I’d leave him for the mantis but she takes too long. She can have the ones my eyes don’t see.

All of this brings pest control down to a very personal war zone. I have to take personal, individual responsibility for every tiny life I’m taking. I don’t like it. Not only the squishy, icky parts of it, but also not the karmic, I-can’t-pretend-I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing part of it. We are locked in a fight for food, these bugs and me. This is what the natural world dictates; this is what it all boils down to. For one to eat, another may not. And it is always this way. When I buy ‘conventional’ produce at the grocery store, I know that somewhere a field has been sprayed and resprayed, like bombers spraying over the far-away jungles we heard about when I was younger. Thousands have died there. Here in my garden, death is selective. If I can move the offenders to a different plant, less desirable to me, then we share. If they are too greedy, too voracious, if the plant is suffering and my crop – the whole purpose of the endeavor – is damaged, then we move to ultimatums. They bite into a fruit; I pounce. They are ruthless in their pursuit of food. So am I.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Glorious, Overwrought Thunderstorms

It is the summer storm season, finally. The humid, hot afternoon air builds up to towering cumulonimbus thunderheads, each sailing ponderously through the skies overhead like giant ships. Most of the time the storms really are "isolated" - pushing through alone, highlighted by sunlight and casting huge shadows across the fields. Some meld together, as they did last night, to create a giant, whipping rainstorm.

Ray Bradbury described thunderstorms stalking across the landscape on lightning legs, a description that always comes to mind when I watch night-time rainstorms. The electrical power went out, darkening the house as though the storm would allow to competition for its pulsing light display. Two inches of rain, eight hours of power outage. Uncomfortable but worth suffering rather than sending any poor lineman out into that dark wind and rain.

Amazingly, the daylilies stood valiantly through the night and all blossoms were high and brave this morning. Some of the tetraploid hybrids have such huge blooms that I'd assumed all stems would be broken. A storm that snaps trees -- but the lilies survive. Brave plants! I hope the several mockingbird nests did as well. There's one in a large variegated, tree-form ligustrum that hangs over my head when I'm puttering in the daylilies and its occupant, intently mothering in the nest over my head, has been hissing and squawking at me daily. Last summer the mockingbirds were so irate and protective that walking to the barn required taking a tennis racket to wave for protection. (I never actually swatted a Mocker, of course, but the dratted bird-parents were determined to connect with my head!)

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Beetles are Coming!

photo source:

For years, I've used a weather diary to track not only the precipation and temperature but also the changes that move through our gardens. One coincidence of timing is the match between the blooming of the Chinese Chestnuts and the arrival of the Japanese Beetles. Regardless of the weather, these two have almost pefect synchronicity. The Chestnuts bloomed this weekend. The beetles should be out in noticeable numbers by mid-week. I have the diatomaceous earth and Surround kaolin spray ready to apply before the voracious coleopterans munch their way through my plantings.

This is the advantage of keeping garden records. After a while, you begin to notice how the events turn, hand in hand, throughout the season. Soon, the parade of events, how one thing heralds the appearance of another, becomes clear and expected. "How did you know that would be next?" friends inquire. "Experience and observation", the gardener replies. And she means it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

June is the Time for Desperate Measures

They are in! All the potted, purchased, seeded and forgotten plants are firmly in the ground. By the time the last poor, gasping pepper plant was carefully lifted and placed into the Pepper Patch raised bed, it was looking thoroughly disreputable. It's bad when your home grown plants, the ones you cared for so tenderly, are so straggled by the time they finally arrive in the garden that, really, had I seen these at one of the garden centers, I would not have bought them. These are the back of the pack plants, leftover from the initial, energetic garden plantings. Finally, too desperate to be given away and too dear to be discarded, they have been tucked into some corner of the garden. Watered and fed, perhaps they will find the strength to flourish again.

Catching Up to June

As always, May rushed through so quickly that I almost missed it. The quick, subtle transition from cool spring to warm days, longer days, windy spring days.... and it's June!

The "natural lawn" project has been a lovely success. Those areas we left to their own spring growing came up in white clover, long grasses and wildflowers we did not know we had. There have been hundreds of bees, ladybugs and other insects working like mad in each patch. Gradually, as the spring blooms die back, we are mowing those areas and letting some others grow up, trying to keep a balance between nature and having lawn we can no longer get a mower through. It's hard enough now, I have to mow very slowly. The bees seem to have no recognition of the lawn mower. The whipping blades can be right on top of them and they will keep working the clover blossom, as if they can't detect what, on our scale, would be a whirling, thundering tornado a few inches away. In previous years, I've always "assumed" that the bees and such made a getaway ahead of the mower. This season, watching them carefully, I am convinced that they do not do so - certainly the determined, short-sighted bumblebees don't.

In the veggie garden the last of the "early spring" crops, the sugar pod peas, continue to bloom and produce. Knowing that we are counting the days, we munch them down as we weed and water the beds. I don't think we've ever cooked this vegetable, surely it is at its best flavor - a crunchy, cool, sweet bite - straight from the vine. By next week, the last plants will be pulled, the bed turned over and the basil seeded for our summer crop of pesto.