Friday, June 12, 2009

SAITA Seminar with Mike McGrath on Beneficial Creatures

This June 10th seminar, graciously hosted by Sebastian Kretschmer at Camphill Kimberton, was highly entertaining and well attended. We had by my count, about 40 people in attendance, but only 24 signed the sign-in sheet. Please remember to sign in so we can track our attendance, it's important for our future educational offerings. 

Mike McGrath is the host of the nationally syndicated NPR radio show 'You Bet Your Garden' which airs locally every Saturday morning at 11AM on WHYY, and is as irreverently passionate about organic growing in person as he is over the airwaves. Check out his website for great research at your fingertips. You can also listen to podcasts of the shows on the site.

Mike was also editor-in-chief of Organic Gardening magazine from 1991-97 and once an editor of Marvel Comics. I was lucky enough to pick up an autographed copy of his 'You Bet Your Tomatoes'endorsed by none other than 'Michael Jardin, tall guy' and 'Garrison Keelover, A Prairie Home Tomato'.

'In the natural world there are no pests'That set the tone for Mike's talk and that should be your mantra when you're out on the farm wondering how to control those aphids and slugs. One point he made about hybridization and garlic is worth mentioning; most of all the processed garlic is coming from China where there are few regulations for anything, including food products. Mike saves the biggest cloves from garlic he plants himself and replants these. After doing this for a few years, you've culled the best and strongest strain of the bulbs.  

'Do no harm' is the second of Mike's mantras that you should remember. There are 3 major types of pest control that exist in the natural world.

Number one beneficial creatures: Amphibians. Toads eat from 50-100 insects every night. They need an absolute lack of pesticides to flourish and are highly susceptible because of their porous skin. Toads need a water source early in the season to be able to breed well. They and frogs can live for many years, hibernating by burrowing down into soil during the winter. In spring they'll come out of hibernation and will look for a body of water to breed in. It should not be permanent, but temporary. Don't have fish in the water, they'll eat the eggs and tadpoles of frogs.

Toads leave the water as adults and won't live in ponds, but frogs live in water all their lives. Frogs are endangered because of so much runoff from pesticides and agricultural waste accumulating into water. They need vernal ponds that form in the spring or that you can make yourself. When they emerge in spring, they're ravenous and need a safe place to hide. For frogs and toads, build a small temporary pond with a birdbath saucer sunk into the ground.

Since mosquitos take 10 days from larva stage to become adults, you can control the whole population by washing out your saucers every week- frogs and toads won't eat the larvae or the adults, but you can add BTI as an added mosquito control to the pond without harming the amphibians. 

More on mosquitoes: usually found in old springhouses, gutters or damp basements. The last generation of females can sense winter coming, but not the males, who 'are as useless as their human counterparts'.  They need to find blood on the first day they wake up from hibernation and don't travel, so any population you see in early January or February are the same guys from either the previous spring, or even from 100 generations before them. They breed within 200-300 feet of their birth, and female mosquitoes need standing water in which to lay eggs. Usually in your gutters, so if you clean these on a regular basis, you're knocking out 90% of the population before they can breed.

You can also help amphibians flourish by building small shelters for them out of bricks with boards placed over them to shade and create cool, dark areas. Once you've established a breeding population of frogs and toads, it will only expand and your resources to control the bad insects exponentially increased as well.

Fireflies or lightning bugs- does everyone know that these guys are ferocious predators of slugs and snails, but only in their larval form? The glowworm is actually this larvae and amazingly their bioluminescence, used to attract the opposite sex, is already developed at this stage. The adult form doesn't eat much except for water and nectar from flowers for their sugar/energy rush. But the larvae consume a huge amount of bad bugs. They love moisture and are worth 5 times more in the early season of your farming than later on. To encourage adults to breed nearby, turn off outdoor lights at night, allow a small area of your garden to stay moist and a little weedy, and don’t use pesticides.

Number two big bad pest eater: Birds. 90% of what a bird eats is insect pests. We want full-time carnivores in our yards and farms, like the titmouse, nuthatch, woodpecker or the chickadee. Those cute fat little chickadees with their incredibly high metabolisms, eat the most meat of any of the birds and are the most beneficial. Instead of feeding his birds seeds, Mike hangs suet from his peach trees early in the winter to keep them in his garden all year long. He stops feeding in the spring, so that they'll scour his garden during the time they're raising their young, when their food intake dramatically increases. If you work with the natural cycles of birds and insects, you can control a lot of plant eating insects this way.

Never take down a dead tree if it isn't threatening your house, car or a walkway. This is a bird's prime territory for finding insects, and woodpeckers especially need the trees for survival.  Again, birds need a water source and 'wild' water in the heat of mid summer can be increasingly hard to find in developed areas. You can help birds out and keep them around by putting a traditional birdbath on a pedestal in the center of your garden. Keep it filled with fresh water and hose it out every week.

Number three good guys: Beneficial Insects. Water is life to all beneficial insects and they need a safe and easy source to thrive. You can help by filling chipped dishes with little pebbles or stones and placing them in the garden, so that they can get to the water without drowning. Ladybugs are everyone's idea of the best beneficial insect, but only at the larval stage are they voracious eaters. Know how to identify this stage, as it can be a frightening insect to discover and many people mistake it for a bad insect. Another great aphid eating insect is the green lacewing, both its larvae and the ladybug's will eat tons of mealy bugs and aphids. These insects need a safe water source and love small flowers full of pollen. Mike brought in a sample of what most people consider weeds in their yards, small daisies that are the 'candy of choice' for these beneficial insects.

He tries to have something in bloom in his garden very early in the season and uses witch hazel, pussywillow and pansies. As an added benefit, Mike suggests that rutin in pansies will strengthen capillary walls and can reverse varicose veins - just by eating 5 pansy flowers a day in a brightly colored salad! 

Bees: There are 250 different species of native bees in Pennsylvania. By having something in bloom over the winter and understanding the life cycle of plants, you can attract and keep bees on your property.

While yellow jackets may be dangerous to us, depending on where they nest in your particular environment, I've resisting spraying them. They congregated underneath a pussywillow I had near my house in the midwest and one spring ate all the bad insect larvae threatening its demise. Mike suggests that all bees, including carpenter bees, are worth protecting. Contrary to most pesticide company information, carpenter bees don't cause much structural damage and can be deterred by almond oil sprayed on the wood. Make sure you offer them an alternative by drilling holes in blocks of cheap wood and placing them on the borders of your property.

Those little cocoons you see on tomato hornworms' backs are the parasitic Braconid wasp's eggs, which will eventually destroy the caterpillars and seek out others to feast on, so leave them in the garden. The adult wasps like to get their energy from tiny flowers on Queen Anne's Lace, dill, parsley, fennel and carrots left to go to seed.

Spiders: Black widows and brown recluse spiders are often feared for no rational reason. The brown recluse especially, is usually found only in central midwest states and fatalities are rare. People often don't even know they've been bitten. Hey, why do you think it's called a 'recluse'? Spiders are the most beneficial insects; they eat ticks, mosquitoes, flies, fleas, biting midges...they're one of the few creatures (besides man) that kill more than they need to eat. So let them hang out in those dusty corners of your house and hope for them in your garden. I'm lucky to have a huge population of wolf spiders in my garden - they jump all over the place catching pests that would otherwise be eating everything in sight.

In China, spiders are venerated and have been a part of farmers' integrated pest management scenarios for hundreds of years. Those wise farmers create 1 to 1.5 foot tall miniature haystacks in their fields for spiders to hide in. Unlike other insects and beneficial creatures, they don't need much water and get a lot from the creatures they ingest.

If you're using a greenhouse, Mike suggests using a sharp water stream to kill 90-95% of aphids. Ladybugs and Lacewings are great predators, but most companies won't ship them to you in the winter. You'll need a fridge and will need to keep them in raffia, spritzing with water. You also want to have sealed junction boxes if you're releasing ladybugs in the greenhouse; they're attracted to the zap of electricity. 

Sticky traps are a good, cheap way to control insects in the greenhouse and you can reuse them. He suggests using sand for fungus gnats.

Ticks. Fowl are the best control, but you can control ticks by controlling your white footed field mouse population. You can make or buy cardboard tubes with permethrin soaked cotton balls in them. Spread these at the margins of your problem area and watch the tick population decrease. See Mike's description and where to purchase here. Do not ever use Deet, Mike says it doesn't deter ticks and may attract them. You can buy a permethrin spray for your clothing in hunting and fishing stores, that you spray every six weeks. Be careful about the dosage because this has been found to be a carcinogen.

Stinkbugs can be controlled by using boards propped up on bricks again, and you simply scrape them off into soapy water when you find them the next morning. The Korean stinkbugs that overwinter have only been here four years or so. You can try garlic oil spray on the south side of the house as a deterrent.

Biting flies have the same life cycle as a mosquito and can be controlled with permethrin spray or treating standing water with BTI. There will be no effect on other creatures, but the black and green flies and gnats will be controlled in the spring this way. Flea beetles can be controlled by using a covering like Remay early in the season.

Mike's last words were that when you do find an egg cocoon or an insect you aren't sure about, look it up before destroying it. The vast majority of insects are neutral and only 2-3% are agriculturally damaging. 90% of the rest are beneficial. 

We very much appreciate Mike taking the time to come out to Camphill Kimberton, the talk was a great learning experience coupled with his unique and witty brand of repartee.

Stay tuned for this weekend's SAITA workshops with Shane LaBrake. Saturday June 13th is a Spanish speaking 'Intro to Organic Vegetable Production' at Maysie's Farm. Sunday June 14th he'll be at Charlestown Cooperative Farm for 'Equipment Maintenance and Safety'. Public invited as always!

Happy growing! See schedule for workshops here.


SAITA Coordinator

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