Thursday, March 31, 2011

Time Plantings to Avoid Insect Pests

I attended the insect biocontrol session at the Georgia Organics Conference a few weeks ago. Dr. John Ruberson was one of the presenters. He brought up the topic of timing of plantings to avoid insects but had little to say about it. At the farm tour that afternoon i asked if he had published any research on the subject. His answer was that he is very interested in doing that research but has not been able to get any funding for it. We agreed that it would be a very worthwhile subject to investigate. One of my former students who attended the same session asked me if i had anything to contribute to the topic. Why yes i do. This is for Linda.

What i am about to present is based on my own observations of my garden over the years. My advice to you is to make your own observations in your gardens, keep records of when you first see pests on your plants and how long into the season you see them. From those observations you can develop a plan specific to your garden that can help you avoid some pest damage.

Zucchini and squash
Squash vine borers are a common problem here in the south. Just when the plants get big and start to flower in mid-June the borers attack. Just when you think you will be able harvest some fruit the following week the whole plant collapses. That is the result of the vine borer larvae eating the stems of the plants from the inside out.
Notice i said mid-June. That is when i usually start to see the damn things. What i do is start my seeds in pots indoors in mid-March for planting out after all danger of frost has passed, around April 15th here. That way i get 6 weeks head start in comparison to planting seeds in the ground after the soil has warmed up at the end of April. By the time the borers arrive i am already harvesting zucchini. I have been planting 2 heirloom zucchini varieties, Costata Romanesco and dark grey, that show some resistance to borer damage. Starting in early June i check the base of the plants every morning to look for signs of borers. You will see a tiny hole with "sawdust" around it at the base of the stem. At that point you can take a knife, slit the stem and kill the larvae. The borer seems to prefer yellow squash over zucchini so i do not plant it any more. It might work as a trap crop.

Eggplant likes really warm soil. Plant it early and it just sits there not growing until the soil gets really warm. Last year i planted mine about the end of April and between the flea beetles and the colorado potato beetle larvae they got eaten up and many of them died. The year before i planted in late May and had good success.
Last year is saw potato beetles in the middle of April, the earliest i have ever seen them. Flea beetles emerge from the soil at this time of year. I saw some yesterday. They complete their first generation around the end of May so i time my eggplant planting to try to get in between the generations. The soil has warmed up by then so the plants will grow faster able to resist an early onslaught of flea beetles. Again, i plant a large plant so it has a better chance of survival. Once the plants get a foot or so tall and are growing vigorously the flea beetles don't cause much damage. My friend and master gardener, Jennifer, has observed that flea beetles can only jump 2' high. ( they get their name because they jump like fleas). She plants her eggplant in pots that sit on stumps to keep them well out of reach of the jumping beetles.
A strong healthy plant is less susceptible to the potato beetle larvae but they can do a lot of damage quickly. It is important to be vigilant and pick those suckers off and kill them before their numbers multiply.

Have you experienced the tiny holes in the sides of cucumbers (squash and melons too) in the middle to late summer? That is the result of the larvae of the pickleworm moth boring into the fruit to feed. Dr. Ruberson said that they overwinter in Florida and migrate up here each year. This year i am starting my cucumbers indoors now to get a head start so i can harvest before the pickleworms arrive. I read a report recently about North Carolina farmers have good success with a late cucumber crop. This year i plant to start a new crop in August to see if i can grow a fall crop here. It would be nice to have cucumbers in October and to extend the pickling season too!

Learning the rhythms and patterns in the garden through patient observation will make you a better gardener and a better person.

The Funny Farm: Mindful Weeding- Learning From My Mistakes

The Funny Farm: Mindful Weeding- Learning From My Mistakes: "I knew i shouldn't do it but i did it anyway. Back in February we had several weeks of unseasonably warm weather and i wanted to get some..."

Mindful Weeding- Learning From My Mistakes

I knew i shouldn't do it but i did it anyway. Back in February we had several weeks of unseasonably warm weather and i wanted to get some seeds planted before i left town for a week to visit my mom. Rain was in the forecast the day before i needed to leave. I tilled in the rye grass cover crop in the morning and left the turned up plants to dry in the sun. I knew that there were rye plants buried just below the surface and i knew that the rain would encourage them to re-root. I was in a hurry to get the seeds in the ground so i raked out the bed as best i could the following day and planted Tokyo Bekana and turnip seeds.

Sure enough when i returned from my trip the seeds had germinated and the rye was starting to come back. It was not until a couple days ago that i made time to do something about it. I spent 2 hours pulling the rye grass out of the bed. I am very particular about how i pull weeds. Some people mindlessly yank at them, paying scant attention to what they are doing. I want be sure i get the whole root out of the ground because i do not want to go back later and do it again. I can tell by the sound if someone is pulling weeds correctly. If you are just tearing the tops off it makes a popping sound. If you are doing it correctly the sound is more like an extended rrriiipppping sound as the roots come loose from the soil.

What I Learned by Practicing Mindful Weeding

During those 2 hours i spent on hands and knees in intimate contact with the soil food web i learned several things by being in the moment and observing what was going on before my eyes.
  • The seedlings that looked good walking by, on close examination are showing signs of a magnesium deficiency. They have a slight interveinal chlorosis with some small necrotic (dead) spots on the leaves. I will drench them with a solution of epsom salts ( magnesium sulfate) mixed with fish fertilizer to correct the deficiency.
  • The earthworms are thriving!. Every time i pulled up a clump of rye there were happy worms wiggling around.
  • The clover i left to grow in the paths are heavily colonized by the nitrogen fixing rhizobium bacteria sharing it with the surrounding plants.
  • Baptisia australis can be propagated by root cuttings. I dug some out of the beds and moved them to another location in the fall. New plants are emerging where pieces of root were left in the ground.
  • Morning glory and potato vine (a cousin) are becoming an increasing problem in this part of the garden. I need to stay on top of it to keep it from going to seed this year.
A key permaculture principle is to observe and interact. In doing so we can learn much about our gardens and about ourselves.

Practice Mindful Weeding y'all.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Brine Challenge, Southern Style - Charcutepalooza Challence #3

Fried chicken is a big deal here in the South. Everyone thinks their grandmother makes the best. They are wrong of course because my grandmama made the best fried chicken in the world :) When the brine challenge was announced i knew right away i wanted to do fried chicken. My wife makes a decent fried chicken so she is the one who cooks it in our house. My goal was to outdo my grandmama god rest her soul.

I started with the best chicken available, a naked neck chicken bred in Alabama to thrive in the challenging conditions of the South. I got it from Little Red Hen Farm, a vendor at the farmers market i manage. They raise their birds on pasture so it had big legs and thighs and a small breast. Uh, yea, moving on. It was a big bird, weighing a little over 5 pounds, too big to fit whole in any suitable container i had so i cut it into pieces. I put the carcass into the stock pot to start simmering while i prepared my brine.

I used Ruhlman's basic brine recipe with a Funny Farm twist. The sweet component was 1/2 cup of rosemary-garlic jam my wife made. I also added bay leaves and some lemons for a little zing. I left the chicken in the brine for 8 hours. Then i removed it and let it dry uncovered in the fridge for 24 hours to develop the pellicle he describes.

I pulled it out of the fridge and let it come up to room temperature so it would cook through better. Then i set up my breading station: one bowl with an egg beaten with a little water. another bowl with whole wheat flour, salt and pepper. In the South frying chicken in a cast iron skillet is a must. I got mine out, turned the stove on medium high and melted about 1/2 cup of duck fat, that's right, duck fat in the skillet. While that was heating up i dipped the chicken in the egg and put it in a paper bag, put in some of the flour mixture and shook the bag to thoroughly coat each piece. I cooked the legs and thighs first until the outside was dark and crispy and the internal temperature was 140º. I don't like my chicken over done. Then i cooked the breast pieces and wings.

My mouth was watering like crazy, it is now too as i recall the experience. I eagerly bit into a thigh. Holy cow!!! Crispy on the outside; moist, tender, flavorful on the inside! My wife said it was the best fried chicken she ever ate by far!

Sorry grandmama, I win!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Georgia Organics Recap - The Funny Farm POV

Ok, y'all asked for it :p

The Scary:
Georgia shrimp is still sweet and delicious, unadulterated by additives courtesy of BP. However the person who served said shrimp has been totally adulterated by the Rush, Beck, Hannity, Fox cabal. When we were leaving after eating our shrimp our waitress/bartendress shouted out to the blaring TV, "look they are dragging the protesters out of the capital in Wisconson!" "Oh, no" i said. Then she said, "those damn democrats, they should kill the all!" Luckily she had not heard what i said. We dashed out of there as fast as we could.

The Absurd:
My good friend Polly Sattler is as hard-working and passionate about righting the wrongs in the world as anyone i know. Her organization Greenplate works to rid the world of plastic stuff, particularly disposable food containers and utensils. "Compostable" plates, cups, and utensils were used for the breakfast and dinners. (no comment). However vendors who were giving samples were not required to use them and mostly did not. There were receptacles around the room for recyclable stuff, compostable stuff and trash. They had little signs on them indicating which items went into which receptacles. Many times i watched people walk up to the receptacles, look at the pile of stuff in their hands, look at the signs, roll the eyes, say out loud in one case, "this is too complicated", and dump everything in the nearest one. Of course this was not Polly's fault or Georgia Organics fault or the attendees fault. It is a sign of how absurd our world has become when we cannot figure out what to do with the trash without creating a lot of frustration and, no doubt, guilt. Everyone involved wanted to do the right thing whatever that is. "The right thing" in my opinion is to wash the fucking dishes! Maybe it cost more money but what are the hidden costs of continuing on the way we are going? We will pay for it sooner or later!

The Moderately Hopeful:
Dr. John Ruberson an entymologist at UGA is doing excellent, well thought out research on biocontrol of insects in organic growing systems. I spent some time talking with him at Relinda Walker's excellent 40 acre organic vegetable farm where he is conducting research. I asked him when he would be publishing the work. He did not have an answer to that question. He said that the last thing they wanted to do was to jump the gun and get it wrong fearing that would drive people back to chemical control. His work is focused on farmscaping, planting flowering perennials that will attract beneficial insects to control pests. He is working with a few plants at a time monitoring what insects (good and bad) are attracted to the plants. He scouts the crops to see if the good are winning the battle for the crops. He also in monitoring to determine if the farmscaping plants will become pesky weeds themselves. He and his team are doing this at several farms around the state. When they feel comfortable with the work and can make recommendations we will definitely benefit. This can definitely be a lifetime project. And it requires funding. The new farm bill is coming up again soon. We must work to defend this type of research.

Even More Hopeful:
Anthony Masterson premiered their movie "GROW" at the conference. It was very enjoyable to watch. It is a celebration of young farmers in Georgia. They are smart, intelligent, passionate, and thoughtful. They understand they are running a business and it is not an easy business. They believe in community building with their customers and with other farmers. Go see it when you have an opportunity.
Mixed Feelings:
I met a lot of interesting, passionate people doing good work. I reconnected with a lot of people i see very infrequently. Holly and I went to dinner in Savannah Friday night and saw large group of bored teens hanging around a decrepit pizza joint, smoking cigarettes and scaring the crap out of the customers at Paula Deen's Restaurant across the street. We had drinks in a basement bar where everyone was preparing for the debauchery that is St. Patrick's Day in Savannah. There were about 1000 mostly smiling happy people at the conference across the river. I know i live in an insular, rather incestuous world. It is good to get a reality check once in a while. I came home excited to get back into the garden where i feel relatively safe. We are a small and growing band of warriors. We have a very long way to go.
Remember, Mother Nature does not care whether Homo sapiens continues to exist or not.

It is up to us!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Spring Organic Gardening Workshop

5 Week Intensive Organic Gardening Workshop
W/ Duane Marcus
Taking Control of Your Food!
This is a hands-on workshop. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced gardener wanting to convert from conventional to organic methods, whether you have a sunny townhouse patio or a 3 acre lot, this class will put you on the path to taking control of your food future.

Week 1 - Organic Gardening Foundations - Soil Food Web, composting, nutrient dense food and nutrient cycling
•Week 2 - Garden planning- what to plant, when to plant it and how to plant it
•Week 3 - Seed starting, soil preparation, cover crops, transplanting
•Week 4- Pest control strategies - putting Mother Nature to work to control
insects, diseases and weeds. Insect i.d., biological controls
•Week 5 -Permaculture Strategies in your garden- Food forests, growing
edible mushrooms, edible landscapes, rainwater harvesting, perennial
• The classes will be on Sundays from 1 - 4 starting Sunday April 17th and running every Sunday through Sunday May 15th. • Each class will be divided between classroom work and work in the garden • The cost for the workshop is $300.00. Class is limited to 10 students • Online registration • or mail a check payable to Robin Marcus to 4459 Allgood Springs Dr. Stone Mountain, Ga 30083 • For further information- email • or call 770-527-0395 • Classes meet at The Funny Farm 4459 Allgood Springs Dr. Stone Mountain, Ga 30083 30 minutes from downtown Atlanta

Monday, March 7, 2011

Worm Wrangling at The Funny Farm

We rarely use regular compost any more. After we build a pile we let it work for 6-8 weeks then we feed the partially decomposed ingredients to our worms to finish the job. We use the worm castings as the main ingredient in our seed starting mix and we use them as a topdressing when we move transplants into the garden.

Our worm bins are modeled on Will Allen's bins at Growing Power. They are made of non-pressure treated 2 x 12's. They measure approximately 2' x 3' x 19" deep. We have 12 of them. We place about 6" of the partially composted material in the bottom of the bin then add about 5 lbs of worms. Then we fill the bins with more compost until it is bulging up over the top of the bin. As the worms consume the material gasses are given off and the pile shrinks about 30%. It takes about 60 days for the worms to completely eat the whole pile.

After they finish a bin we lure them out and move them to a fresh bin to start the process again. When Will described how they get the worms out of the bins i could not believe it would work until i did it for myself. What we do is lay a piece of window screen over the bin and spread about 3" of fresh compost over the screen. The worms are hungry and living in their own poop so they squeeze through the tiny holes in the screen to get to the fresh food. I know, hard to believe :) As they do this the contents of their gullets get squeezed out of them leaving a very fine layer of beautiful castings on the top of the pile under the screen.

We leave the screen on for a week, dump the worms and repeat 2 more times to get all the worms out. At first i thought that the last worms to come out were probably slackers but now i am of the opinion that they must be the most hard core worms because they were able to tolerate being in the bin with little food and surrounded by poop for the longest time!

After the worms have been removed we let the castings dry out for a couple of months before we use it. We push it through a 1/4 inch screen to remove the rough stuff which makes for some mighty fine castings. We collect the bits of woody material that has not completely broken down and use them to mulch our fruit trees. It is already inoculated with fungus so continues to break down and feed the trees. From each bin we end up with about 150 lbs. of screened worm castings.

We love our little worker worms!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Gourmet Vegan Compost = The Recipe

The Vegan Part

I used to use horse manure as the primary nitrogen source in my compost. One day one of my students asked if it were possible to make vegan compost. After a minute of choking back a burst of laughter i said it probably could be done. What do horses eat? Oats, alfalfa, other types of hay... What they don't digest comes out as manure. Oats are seeds which are storehouses of nitrogen. Alfalfa is a legume so in symbiosis with rhizobium bacteria captures nitrogen from the air. I have seen analyses of alfalfa meal indicating it is about 6% nitrogen, 4% phosphorus and 2 % potassium. Yes I believed it would be possible to make vegan compost using the food horses eat! Not hay though because it could be contaminated with Grazon a powerful and dreadfully persistent herbicide used to kill broad leaf weeds in pastures.

The Gourmet Part

Funny Farm Truism #1 - Compost is only as good as the ingredients that go into it.

If you make compost from organic matter that grew in soil that is deficient in nutrients your compost will also be deficient in those same nutrients. Compost does all kinds of good things in the garden but correcting nutrient deficiencies is not one of them. Only soil testing and the addition of sources of needed nutrients as indicated by the soil test can do that. Compost does bolster the soil food web to increase nutrient availability, retain soil moisture, and improve soil structure.
We add ingredients to our compost piles to increase diversity of nutrients in the finished product. We use native granite sand, the parent material of our soils and kelp meal which contains over 70 different nutrients necessary for producing nutrient dense food (more about that in a future post). That is what makes our compost "gourmet" :)

The Recipe

Carbon Sources (brown stuff) - enough to make a 4'x4'x4' pile which is the minimum size needed to make a proper hot compost pile. Garden debris such as tomato vines, chopped okra, sunflower, pepper stalks, tree leaves, old straw (not hay).

Nitrogen Sources (green stuff) = 1 large (40lb) bag alfalfa meal, 1 large (40lb) bag whole oats. We get these from our local feed and seed store. A couple of days before i build the pile i pour the oast into a large galvanized tub and fill it with water to get the oats to begin sprouting so that they come alive. This allows the microorganisms to break them down.

Micronutrient Sources - 1- 5 lb. bag kelp meal and 25 lbs of local granite sand which we get from our nearby stone center.

Once we have all the ingredients assembled we build the pile by layering the ingredients like making lasagna. A layer of garden debris, some oats, some alfalfa, some sand, some kelp. Wet it thoroughly. Repeat until all the materials are used up. Shape the pile into a nicely formed mound.

I have done this many times and within 24 hours the pile will heat up to 140=150º. The temperature will slowly go down below 135º within a week at which time i turn the pile to re=aerate it and the temperature will go back up to 140=150º. In another week i turn it again. The goal is to get all of the parts of the pile into the middle of the pile so that they will be exposed to temperatures above 135º which kills most of the weed seeds and disease causing organisms.

After the 3rd turn, the pile should be turned about once a month until the process is complete which takes 4-6 months. We make a pile in the fall for spring use and a spring pile for fall use.

I rarely let a compost pile finish on its own. As i said in the previous post i use worm castings in our seed starter mix. After a new compost pile has worked for a couple of months i feed it to our worms who, in 60 days, turn it into the most beautiful, nutritious castings (worm poop) one can imagine. More about our vermiculture methods in the next post.