Living with Pests

The question we get asked more than any other is “How do you stop the (insert name of pest) from eating your (insert name of vegetable)?” Often we’re asked this by people who are just starting out, are trying to grow their food organically, and who are distressed because their plants are being eaten by bugs. Sometimes we’re asked this by people who have been gardening with pesticides for many years. Either way, they usually find our answer hard to believe.

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Japanese beetle eating an okra blossom

We’ve never used any pesticide of any type, whether organically approved or not. Aside from rotating our gardens, trying to keep our soil as healthy as possible, and squishing bad bugs when we find them, we don’t do anything to keep pests off our plants. We rely on nature to keep pest populations under control. I suppose I can’t rule out the possibility that we’ll have to change our ways someday, but after 13 years here we’re feeling pretty confident that our chemical-free method works.

Sure we’ve had problems with bugs. This year for example the Mexican bean beetles were the worst we’ve ever had. They did a lot of damage to our beans. In other years we’ve had terrible infestations of aphids, Japanese beetles, Colorado potato beetles, cabbage worms, etc. But we’ve discovered that if we take our lumps for a season, nature will react to the imbalance and the pest problem will cure itself.

For example, one year pea aphids suddenly appeared on our peas, for the first time ever. They’re very difficult to remove by hand and they seemed to be decimating our garden. But after a couple of weeks ladybugs started showing up. Before too long the garden was crawling with ladybugs and the aphid problem was solved.

Just about every year flea beetles descend on our eggplant seedlings, skeletonizing the leaves. To all appearances it seems the plants are doomed unless we spray something to kill the flea beetles. But what we’ve learned is that the plants always survive the onslaught, grow through it, and end up just as healthy (perhaps healthier) than if nothing had happened.

Last year we had a terrible problem with potato bugs. This year, despite no chemical intervention, we had hardly any. I don’t know how that problem was corrected naturally, but it was.

So I’m predicting that next year we won’t have much trouble with bean beetles.

Sure organic pesticides are preferable to the more sinister poisons. But we can’t kill the bad bugs without killing the good bugs too. And we don’t want to do that. We prefer to try to live in harmony with nature and trust her to work things out.

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Pollinators on an okra blossom

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21 comments on “Living with Pests

  1. So true.
    I’ve found that now, 7 years in to it, that I usually have ONE bad bug infestation a year and it seems to rotate. I just lost my zucchini plant to squash vine borer–first time I’ve ever been bothered with that. But all the other stuff—perfect. I have plenty of birds in the garden and they seem to take care of a lot of things. I also noticed that planting natives like milkweed and goldenrod attracts a lot of the bad guys and they leave my food alone. I like that you don’t use anything either. I figure if I can’t drink it out of the bottle, I’m sure not pouring it on my garden!!
    Have a great weekend

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    • Bill says:

      That’s been our experience too. Every year there seems to be an imbalance favoring some pest, such as bean beetles this year, but every year nature seems to adjust and deal with it. We’ve never had back to back years with the same pest problem, despite never having used any pesticides. I just wish we could say that about deer. 🙂

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  2. Excellent piece Bill!!
    There are a lot of people asking these same questions on our Edible Ottawa Gardens Group on FB. Would you mind if I shared this post with them?

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    • Bill says:

      Sure Deb. I certainly don’t claim to be any kind of expert on pest management but this has been our experience. It’s counter-intuitive in some ways, but I’m convinced it is better than trying manage nature with chemicals.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. karenhumpage says:

    How right you are, Bill! Nature will, in most cases, right itself if we can just be a little more patient. I’m not a farmer but I see this ‘reach for the bottle’ mentality all too often with gardeners. The urge to blast aphids off MY roses without a thought to what it does to the rest of the fauna. Clever marketing by the pharmaceutical companies ensure pesticide labels selectively highlight only the bad bugs the product kills, it’s only when you scrutinise the back of the label you read, in the smallest letters the legend: “harmful to bees”. And the rest.
    Fortunately there are more enlightened gardeners about than there were, say 20 years ago who are prepared to ditch the bottle, but there are still a lot of weekend gardeners who want a quick fix to a perennial problem.
    Keep spreading the word, Bill!

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks Karen. I’m a big fan of your beautiful posts. It’s nice to hear from you.

      I’m encouraged that so many people are returning to our chemical-free past. Unfortunately we do still have a lot of people who came up in the generation that was taught to solve all problems with sprays and dust.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. shoreacres says:

    I laughed at your title, and I laughed at your first sentence, which could be so easily revised to, “How do you stop (insert name of person) from eating your lunch?” Using less toxic means could work in that instance, too, but that’s a different post.

    I’m getting involved as a volunteer at our local Armand Bayou Nature Center, and attended a meeting Thursday night where the master gardener from Galveston County addressed just this issue. The subject was beneficial insects — those which will munch away happily on a variety of pests, from aphids to caterpillars. He wasn’t opposed to the thoughtful use of certain pesticides, but did make quite a point that nature will keep herself in balance far better than we imagine, if given a chance.

    Just the point you’re making.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      When I was a boy my mother would sometimes send me to “dust” the garden. I would carry a five gallon bucket of Sevin dust, scoop out a hand full and drop it in a piece of panty house tied at the bottom. Then I’d walk along the row “popping” it over the plant, to “dust” it. There’s no telling how much of that dust I breathed in. That was just a normal part of gardening. But we never had any bugs in the garden.

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  5. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, good for you and your bad bug opinion. I’ve been very fortunate with Terra Nova Gardens that there hasn’t been a bug issue since I started gardening there which has been five seasons. I contribute that to the flock of wild turkeys that roam through the neighborhood. Since I have the natural spring water source, they pass by my garden area at least a couple times a day. I am surrounded by wild untamed land with weeds, brush, and trees on three sides of the garden so the balance of nature is all around my garden. My issue has been critters, as you know, but I’ve finally completed the fence barriers which do keep most of them at bay. I still see a rabbit or two within the confines of the fencing but not inside the sweet corn fortress. I’m learning how to manage wild life, if that is even possible.

    City gardeners expect their backyard garden plants to look like store vegetables which is blemish free. So when a bug appears on their precious plant, chemicals come out not knowing whether it’s a good or a bad bug. They just assume it’s bad and dowse it with bug killer. With all the chemicals that go on lawns in the urban areas, there is no balance of nature. Every year bugs finally do my backyard garden in but if the plants start off healthy they can with stand the onslaught for long enough to get a fairly good harvest. It’s just sad to see the demise of the strong plants and their struggle to the end. Plants are survivors. If every thing is done to keep them healthy, they can take a pretty good hit and still recover.

    Have a great balance of nature on White Flint Farm day.

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    • Bill says:

      You’re right. I’ve seen people freak out over some blemishes on the leaves of plants, assuming the plant was dying, so they run out and buy poison to put on the plants. They never stop to ask whether the bugs are just natural and aren’t creating any real risk or problem for the plants. I’ve even heard that some bug pressure increases the nutrient density in the vegetables as it triggers the defensive mechanisms of the plant which improves the quality of the veggies. Most of our customers know what we know–that is a bug won’t eat the plant then we shouldn’t want to eat it either. But some folks will refuse to eat anything that isn’t pristine like the stuff in the grocery store. Of course there is a reason that grocery store produce doesn’t have any evidence of bugs on it.

      Glad you’re fortress is working. We’ve been very fortunate not to have any deer damage in our gardens this year. I’m amazed. Hoping our luck holds out.

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  6. valbjerke says:

    We do the same….rotate, try and keep the soil healthy – and yes – the plants generally survive the attacks. This year, we are in the middle of an incomprehensible slug fest (ick!). Not much to fix that in raised beds except toss some diatomaceous earth around – it helps. Several years ago the slugs took up residence in my potatoes – I simply let the ducks run loose in the patch – they love slugs! Happy duck, happy gardener. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      We rarely have slugs here and when we do they’re a very minor nuisance. I think they must be more of a northern problem. I like the duck solution. Dave has wild turkeys doing the work for him. I’ve heard guineas are good for keeping bugs out the garden but we couldn’t keep them alive here, as they insisted on roosting in trees at night and serving themselves up as owl food.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. avwalters says:

    My old landlord on the farm used to say, “Plant a third for you, a third to sell, and a third for the pests.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I’ve heard a similar saying but I can’t recall it exactly right now. The point is that it’s unreasonable to expect to not share any with the wildlife and pests. We’re willing to share (grudgingly) but we sometimes have disagreements over what constitutes a fair share. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Joanna says:

    We use garden fleece (row cover?) to keep the flea beetle off our cabbages. We got reasonable cauliflowers for the first time ever, but I am guessing that I will have to do a caterpillar (cabbage worms? 😀 ) hunt tomorrow. And as for snails after our 9 weeks of rain just about every day…. I am seriously thinking of escargot! 😀

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    • Bill says:

      I hope you keep them under control Joanna. Fortunately we don’t have to worry much about snails and slugs here. Of course we have plenty else to annoy us.

      I’ve never used row covers. Because of our long growing season we’ve found that we can grow cabbage in the fall without having to worry about cabbage worms and flea beetles, for example. We don’t even bother trying to grow it in the spring any more, although we could, especially if we used row covers.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I am impressed, Bill. We have been sold such a bill of goods from the chemical industry in our country. And it has done ever so much harm, such as DDT almost wiping out the Brown Pelicans before it was banned. “Better life through chemicals.” Yeah, right… –Curt

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    • Bill says:

      So true. But I have to admit that if we were mono-crop farmers the temptation to use pesticides would be very strong. On a farm like ours we can afford to lose one crop, safe in the knowledge that we have many others and that taking the loss will help us the next year. But if you’re only growing one thing, and if paying the bills depends upon that crop coming in, maybe that’s a risk you can’t take. And thus another important reason to diversify crops.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely Bill. The importance of diversity in nature seems to a lesson that has to be learned over and over. The same thing happens a lot in clear cutting. Yes, they replant trees, but the trees are usually all the same kind, ones that are most commercial, and more susceptible. A diverse forest is a healthy forest. –Curt

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