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Pests in the Garden

An insect is only a "pest" if its numbers are out of balance and it harms a crop one is marketing. We have observed that weeds and insects are best managed by timing and less interference rather than more. For example, the artichoke plume moth (Platyptilia carduidactyla) is a native insect that has adapted on the imported artichoke plant. If the preferred native habitat-Cirsium spp. thistle-is provided, the "pest" (perhaps, more aptly called the Cirsium thistle stem moth) moves off the artichoke plant and back into its place in the food chain on the thistle plant, providing a food source for a wide variety of beneficial insects.

A weed is only a plant out of place. Timing and an ecological understanding can help control "weeds"-also called pioneer species. (In nature, pioneer species have the ecological responsibility to cover the soil with plant material when natural disasters occur, to prepare the soil for future successions of plants.) The soil is denuded in modern agriculture, predisposing the pioneering activity of "weeds". At Knoll Farms, we try to understand and design systems where we either plant the pioneer species or live with lower yields associated with some polycultures. We believe the overall long-term benefits outweigh the short-term loss of income.

These strategies work best on small-scale production systems in which the farmer receives a premium for his/her production labor. Unfortunately, large-scale monoculture designed for high yield and low price are inherently flawed-both ecologically and sustainably. Therefore, at Knoll Farms, we have proven small-scale, unique products work best in the long term, both for improving soil fertility and improving the economic return of labor. An added serendipitous result: as the soil is nurtured, it produces novel characteristics which become trademarks for the farm in unique flavors, textures or shelf life. Thus terroir-or Tairwį as we prefer to call it-is eventually created and "the essence of place" shines through.

 Establishing Perennial Habitats for Insects and Birds

In order to have a barrage of hard working insects and birds, you must first INVITE them! Okay. So HOW do you extend an invitation to birds and bugs? The easy way is to establish "homes" for the species you wish to encourage. Set up the camp-ground, so to speak, and the happy campers will fly in on the breeze and set up camp.

At this point, I will cite Good Neighbors: Companion Planting for Gardeners; by Anna Carr, Published by Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA 1985. "Ground beetles, lady beetles... blister beetles, fireflies, soldier beetles, tiger beetles, and rove beetles are good bug eaters. Ground beetles like the shade of low vegetation such as clovers and low growing weeds. They are also associated with nightshade and amaranth. Lady beetles like to lay their eggs on tansy and yarrow..."

"Hover flies or syrphids are the brightly colored flies we see flitting about the garden. Their larvae parasitize aphids and other small, soft bodied pests. They need the pollen provided by flat, open flowers such as daisies or marigolds."

"Tachinid flies are important parasites of European corn borers, Mexican bean beetles, gypsy moths and other caterpillar pests. Sweet white clover and most flowering plants in the carrot family attract them..."

"Lacewings... are lovely light green creatures that, as larvae and adults, prey upon small, soft-bodied insects such as aphids and mealybugs. Tree of heaven (Ailanthus spp.), sorghum and various evergreens are favorite shelters for lacewings..."

"Wasps and bees are beneficial garden creatures, for they are pollinators as well as parasites. Braconid wasps are small (half an inch or less) wasps that attack corn borers, sawflies and all sorts of larval pests. The tiny white cocoons you find on the back of a tomato hornworm were laid there by a braconid wasp. Flowering carrot family plants such as Queen Anne's lace and yarrow attract these insects..."

"The even smaller chalcid wasps (less than a quarter inch long) parasitize lots of caterpillar pests. The Trichogramma egg parasite you can buy for biological control is a type of chalcid wasp. Like most other wasps, it can be encouraged to stay around the garden if you provide a border of yarrow, wild carrot and other flowering plants. Wasps also seem to benefit from nearby evergreens..."

"Ichneumonid wasps are varied in their size and appearance, but most species are important parasites of larval pests. Fennel, rye, wild mustard and some evergreens feed and shelter ichneumonids during part of their life cycle..."

"To encourage bees... plant clovers, fennel, buckwheat and all sorts of flowering carrot family plants." (pp. 30-31) If you don't have a copy of this informative book, you would be wise to add (along with a copy of a good insect identification book) to your library.

We would like to reemphasize the importance of California Buckwheat (Eriogonum Fasiculatum), yarrow, anise, caraway, fennel, dill, Queen Anne's Lace, and cilantro for attracting a wide variety of beneficial wasps and predatory critters.

You may remember this article was also to address insects and birds, so here comes the bird part- Birds can be a tad pesky at times, especially if they happen to be enjoying your favorite fruit. A diversionary tactic will work well here, as birds are very beneficial on the whole, and should be encouraged into your garden. Not only are they great insectivores, they gladden the heart with their a capella contributions. To divert them from your favorite fruit tree, try planting the following to keep them busy; a domestic cherry or fruiting mullberry will provide fruit for June and July, an elderberry tree or sunflowers will keep them eating from August through October, and holly and juniper fruit from September to April and May. Mosquitoes are a delicacy for Purple Martins, so maybe you want to erect a house for them (the Martins NOT the mosquitoes).

Okay... have we elicited ideas and gotten your right-brain working on "the garden system"? Then get busy and send your "invitations" out! It's time to exponentially raise your critter quotient and let the wildlife in your area know you run an equal opportunity garden!!

More Insect and Pest Information

Spiders, Guardians of the Garden