Saturday, May 28, 2016

Learning to be an Organic Gardener

When I was growing up, penicillin was considered  a wonder drug. It was widely prescribed to save lives and reduce morbidity.  Similarly, pesticides were considered to be a farmers friend, widely used to reduce loss of food to insects and improve quality.  I'm painting with a broad stroke here, but suffice it to say that the benefits of pesticides in improving the food supply were considered to outweigh the negative aspects associated with their use.

In my earliest memories of gardening, DDT was still in use. After it was banned due to its harmful effects on the environment, my family switched to using sevin and malathion. We considered it a blessing to have food unblemished by the ravages of insects and grubs. We were always careful, however, to use the recommended concentrations for each plant and also not to eat the plants until the appropriate time had elapsed since the last time the point was sprayed. Knowledge of the application schedule of the pesticide enabled us to refrain from eating the food while it still had pesticide residue in it. 

Monitoring pesticide use is not something one can do in when foods are purchased from a market. Any market, not just a large commercial one.  Just as an example, I went to a farmers market last week and purchased beautiful, yellow squash from a farmer who had grown them himself, locally. I told him that squash vine borers had attacked my squash. I asked him what he used against them. He replied that he has never had a problem with vine borers, because he sprays with sevin.  How much sevin?  When?  If he's spraying the stems down where vine borers get, that means he's also spraying the fruit!  Anytime we purchase food from a third-party, we are relying on everyone in that chain of distribution to have engaged in safe practices, which we must largely accept on faith. Sometimes that faith is warranted, and sometimes it is not.

This has been a long and winding way of explaining that I was not raised as an organic gardener.  Even if one is not organic, the benefits of knowing what and when has been sprayed are significant.  However, there are a lot of other reasons to go organic, and I've tried over the years.  I haven't always known what I was doing, and so I've had mixed success.  For example, a memorable moment was the time I invited my grandparents for a meal of veggies all cooked fresh from my garden.  I don't remember everything I cooked, but I remember how proud I was, the care I took in preparation and presentation, and then "the moment."  My grandfather pointed out to me the worms that were in the carefully grown, washed, and prepared broccoli.  In spite of my care to search the broccoli for worms, they had been the same color as the plant, and I had not seen them.  During cooking, they grew lighter and were now clearly visible!!!  I'm glad we could laugh about it, and it was indeed a learning experience!!    The techniques of organic gardening are something I've had to learn on my own, gradually and through trial and error.

Insects seem to love the plants in my garden as much as I do!  When one is gardening on a very small scale, one simple measure is to take the time to inspect each plant daily. It is somewhat yucky, but when a caterpillar, grub, or insect is found on each plant, take it off and destroy it. Sometimes caterpillars are very well camouflaged. A close inspection is needed, including looking for telltale signs of their presence. For example, look underneath leaves for eggs and squish the eggs, and also watch out for little black specks on the plants, which can be a sign of caterpillar poop. The larger one's garden, or the less time one has, the more bothersome this daily chore becomes.  One wishes for a bit more efficient method .... especially when there is a full scale, frontal attack as has happened this year to me. 

The first assault on my garden this year was the attack of the flea beatles on all of my brassicas (bok choi, broccolini, etc.), as shown in the photo below.  I learned, too late, that the best way to protect my crop from them was by using netting that lets sun and water in but keeps insects out.  Once they were on my plants, it was too late. to stop the assault from the air.  Some other plan of action was needed. 

My first move was to go to the store and purchase some Insecticidal Soap.  Marketed as safe for organic gardeners, it worked like a charm.   I later learned there are also sticky traps that catch the beetles when they jump or move from plant to plant, but I didn't pursue that because the soap had already done the trick.  (After these dudes do their nasty work above ground, another part of their life cycle apparently involves becoming grubs and eating the roots of plants!)  Then, aphids attacked my sugar snap peas.  Cabbage worms attacked my broccolini some more.  Various bugs began chomping on other plants.  It looked like I was going to be needing a lot of the stuff!  After purchasing and using up three small spray bottles of insecticidal soap, I began looking for a recipe I could make from home and reuse the spray bottles. 

The Internet is such a great resource. I use it all the time to look up information about gardening. I just happened upon this webpage, for instance, which has 12 recipes that are helpful for a home organic gardener: 

The recipe I followed this morning for insecticidal soap is from a different webpage, slightly different from the webpage above. The key ingredient in both is a small amount of liquid soap mixed into a quart or gallon of water (depending on quantity needed). The ingredient must be soap, and not detergent. This is because the fatty acid in the soap is what kills the insect. Detergent does not have the same ingredient.

Insecticidal soap is safe for humans, plants, animals and the ecosystem.  Using ingredients that are found in an ordinary household, it kills bugs by dissolving their outside covering and entering their vulnerable cells. Insecticidal soap works best on small insects with soft bodies.

If you have a small garden, you can re-use a hand pump spray bottle.  If you have a large garden, I recommend a pump sprayer devoted to your garden "chemicals."  (Be sure to label your chemicals appropriately,  as well, include a yucky face picture so small children will know not to drink it!)

Here is one recipe for insecticidal soap.  I am thinking that because it makes the plant taste like hot pepper and soap, it might also be a deterrent for other critters like rabbits or deer, but I can't make a guarantee of that! 

Measure four cups of water into a container.  (I suggest using a container you can pour from, like a pitcher.)  Then, add the following:
  • 1 teaspoon liquid Murphy's Oil Soap
  • 4 Tablespoons of ground cayenne pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons of vegetable oil
 Mix well.  Use a funnel to pour it into a spray bottle.  

Anything that's not good for one biological creature is likely not to be beneficial to another.  Meaning, the chemicals contained in the soap are not particularly friendly to the leaves on your plants.   As you can see, nothing in the soap itself is inherently poisonous, but your body would not be too happy if you drank it.  Similarly, your plants may thank you if it protects them from getting eaten alive, but the chemicals in the soap is not what a plant would naturally choose to be bathed in!   If insecticidal soap is put on plants that are stressed, or if it is mixed in a form that is too concentrated, it can damage the leaves of your plants!

Before applying insecticidal soap, it would be wise to test it on a small area of a plant to make sure it doesn't burn the leaves of your particular plants.  Additionally, time of day of application can make a difference.  Apply insecticidal soap after plants have been well watered, during a cool time of day, when the plants are not stressed by sun, heat, or drought.  

Also, don't spray insecticidal soap on flowers or on the good insects that you are relying on as pollenators for your garden.  Bees and other pollenators are most active in mid-morning.  Spray insecticidal soap either very early, or late in the afternoon after the bees have gone to bed.  This will also coincide with the time of day when your plants will not be stressed by intense sun.

A bee on a cucumber blossom in my garden

Insecticidal soap will be washed off in a rain or every time you water your plants.  Use this information to your advantage.  If it rains, you may need to reapply.  Similarly, once it does its job of killing bugs, you may choose to wash it off the plants.  

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