Thursday, June 30, 2011

Insects and controls

I saw the first Japanese beetle about two weeks ago.  I presumed these were the advance guards of the coming hordes.  But so far I see only the occasional beetle.  A possible explananation is the heavy spring and early summer rains have literally drowned the emerging beetles.  This happened in 2008, and the beetle populations were suppressed in ’08 and the following year.   2010 was a bad beetle year.  If the rains got ‘em this year, I’m not complaining.
As a former medicinal chemist who did research at a drug company, I want to add my observations about pesticides.  A lot of people think organic food means no chemicals but the fact is that living organisms and laboratories both make chemicals.  In fact everything is made of chemicals.  And just because a useful chemical is made by a plant or fungi does not mean that it is not toxic.  So if I don’t use any synthetic chemicals to control pests in the garden, what does that really mean?
First of all here’s a look at the infamous DDT, now banned in most countries.  It was made famous in Rachel Carson’s book , Silent Spring.  DDT is classified as a Persistent Organic Pollutant, meaning it doesn’t decompose, it goes into the fatty tissues of animals, it persists in the food chain and is concentrated as it travels up the food chain, which is why it was so deadly to apex predators like the Bald Eagle.  Here’s the structure: 

For those not familiar with chemical structures, every point where two or more lines intersect or a line ends represents a carbon atom, unless there is a symbol for another atom.  The lines represent chemical bonds.   Notice that DDT has five chlorine atoms.   
Here’s an insecticide made from natural products, pyrethrin.  It actually works on insects in much the same way as DDT, blocking sodium channels in neurons.  Compared to DDT, it has a more complex structure and has no chlorine atoms.  Unlike DDT, pyrethrin is quickly hydrolyzed in the stomach, rendering it nontoxic by ingestion.  Also unlike DDT, it breaks down in a few days when exposed to light or oxygen.  It’s  not completely harmless.  Pyrethrin will kill good insects like bees and bad insects alike.  It is toxic to fish which absorb it through their gills and can be absorbed through the skin if exposed to large quantities.  This is the structure.  The R represents either a methyl group or an ester group.
Synthetic derivatives of pyrethrin are more toxic.  Here’s the structure of permethrin.  Notice the chlorine atoms. 
A synthetic insecticide that’s used a lot in gardens is Sevin or carbaryl.  There’s a lot of inconclusive data about carbaryl, and in 2009 it was reclassified by the EPA as a likely human carcinogen based on tumor formation in rats that were fed large amounts.  It’s a neurotoxin and has shown mutagenic effects, as well as indications of birth defects.  It is readily absorbed by the skin and is more toxic by inhalation or skin absorption than by ingestion, where much of it is broken down in the stomach and liver.   A number of countries have banned it’s use by homeowners.  It’s a compound that appears to have nasty cumulative effects but no outright lethality, clouding the issue of regulation that runs counter to economic interests. 

Carbaryl does break down in soil, water, and air, but not especially fast, and some of the breakdown products are highly toxic.  Spraying large quantities of it has resulted in some groundwater contamination.  Can it be used safely by the home gardener?  Possibly, in small quantities, with proper precautions, as a last resort,  it can.  Does the average homeowner take those precautions? 
Which brings me to the last compound, a molecule that has been approved in California for use on strawberries – methyl iodide.  The point I made about DDT is that it has a number of chlorine atoms in it’s structure.  Chlorines are in a group of chemicals called halogens, which also include flourine, bromine, and iodine.  Most organic compounds with halogens are toxic.  Many are very toxic.  Chlorine in particular is a bad actor because organic molecules with chlorine, like DDT, are both stable and toxic.   Molecules with bromine and iodine tend to be more reactive, meaning they will break down, but they also are more toxic. 
Methyl bromide, which is very toxic, was used for years as a fungicide on strawberries, then it was shown to degrade the ozone layer.  It was found that methyl iodide does not break down the ozone layer, and it was approved for use on strawberry fields in California. 
Now I can tell you that as a synthetic chemist working in a lab with fume hoods that constantly pulled air through them, with any protective clothing I needed, that there was a short list of chemicals that I just did not want to use.  Methyl iodide was one of them.  It was always stored in the refrigerator and carefully withdrawn by syringe inside a fume hood.  And now it’s been approved to spray in quantity on fields.    
The good news for the backyard gardener is that natural insecticides like Pyrethrin and Neem are less toxic than older synthetic ones.  They break down in the environment.  Good gardening practices that minimize the need for insecticides and careful applications of the safer products when needed should not pose any hazards to the user.   You can buy all kinds of insecticides off the shelf in the US.  It’s up to the grower to make the judgement on what and what not to use.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Harvest Monday June 27, 2011

This week’s haul:  Sugar snap peas 11 oz; Summer squash 2 lbs, 14 oz (3 squash); Chard 2 oz; Cabbage 2 lbs (1 head); Catfish 15 oz
It looks like the sugar snap peas are done.  The vines aren’t showing any more flowers.  Just too much extreme weather, from very hot to cool.   I only got a few pounds, but any sugar snap peas are better than none at all.  
The Sunburst pattypan squash are producing with a vengeance.  It’s a good thing they are bright yellow since the plant has so much foliage it’s really hard to find the squash.  I found one Sunday morning when I pushed apart the leaves that I missed the day before.  I charcoal grilled one of the squash with some of the chicken that I raised this spring.  The chicken legs and thighs were soaked in Stubb's marinade.  The squash was sliced into steaks and coated with olive oil, fresh parsley, salt and pepper.  I put the squash pieces around the chicken about five minutes after the chicken pieces were set on the grill and it's all ready at the same time.

From now on I’m going to include any fish that I catch from the pond in the harvest tally.  The catfish are part of the nutrient cycle that goes through the vegetable beds.  Most of my property drains into the pond, as well as most of the adjacent lot.  I don’t fertilize the yard, but no doubt nitrogen and minerals from the watershed end up in the pond where it becomes food for fish.  I also feed the fish about two cups of catfish food daily, an external input.  When I catch and clean a catfish the head and entrails go into the compost pile, which really supercharges the pile, and the compost goes into the beds.  I’m a little concerned that the additional nutrient input from the fish food will result in an algae bloom from the increased fish population but that hasn't happened yet.  By harvesting the fish regularly and putting the entrails into the compost bin I hope that I’m removing enough nutrients from the pond to prevent that.
This fish, like the previous fish I’ve caught this year, is about two and one-half pounds (this is my best guess, I really need to get a fish scale).  I’ve gotten fast at catching and cleaning catfish after getting through the  learning curve.  Now it takes about fifteen minutes from the first cast to filets in the refrigerator.  They will strike the lure the instant it hits the water.  This fish provided two nice five oz filets and the backbone was also five oz.  I freeze the backbones, which have a lot of meat, and use them in  catfish chowder.  I’ll make chowder when fresh peppers, tomatoes, okra and sweet corn are available (not long now). 
My recent experience with raising chickens has convinced me that catfish are the ideal protein source for a small homestead with a pond.  Not only is the feed conversion ratio very good, catfish require no special housing, protection from predators, medical treatment, or feeders.  In short virtually no maintenance whatsoever.  I feed them once a day but that is hardly work.  I’d rather clean ten catfish than butcher a single chicken.  I bread and pan fry them but I want to try some other preparations this summer.  I downloaded a recipe for catfish ceviche by, who else, Alton Brown, and plan to make it soon.  Next time I get a catfish I'll post a picture.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

June 23, 2011

The vegetable plants are really hitting their stride, so it seems like a good time for an overview of where the garden is at.  What we think of as summer vegetables are in the batter’s box, excuse the baseball metaphor.  Summer squash will be ready in a few more days, and I expect beans, cucumbers and peppers in the next two weeks.  Tomatoes, eggplant and okra will take a little longer.   

Winter squash are growing fast.  That’s a Metro Butternut in the back and a Tiptop Acorn in the forefront, both from Johnny’s.   I’ve been guiding the butternut vines to fill up empty spaces and then go up the trellis.  It tends to vine and will put out tendrils and climb with a little help and guidance.  The acorn is more bushlike with a single leader that I’ve been guiding in a semicircle.  There’s also half runner beans growing up the trellis which will have to battle it out with the butternut. 
The big boy is the summer squash, Sunburst pattypan.  It’s never grown like this before.  It’s easily five feet across and four feet high.  I’ll get two squash in a few days and expect a deluge after that.  Good thing they are bright yellow as it will be real easy to lose squash in the vegetation.  I’ve been spraying the lower stems of all the squash plants with Bt twice a week, hoping that this will stop the vine borer. 
The potatoes grew quickly but are now showing some stress from disease.  The leafhoppers have been bad this season which usually spreads pathogens on the plants.  I’ve gotten after them with alternate sprayings of Neem oil and pyrethins, and also gave them a dose of fish emulsion this week since potatoes are heavy nitrogen feeders.  The caged potatoes are Red Pontiacs and Yukon Golds were planted in front (south) of the cages and held upright with bamboo stakes.  They’re a little too close for good air circulation and sunlight.  Next year I’ll plant a shorter plant in front and put all the potatoes in cages.
The tomatoes and peppers are doing well but have a way to go.  The eggplant was started a little too late and is behind.  This bed should fill out soon. 
The parsnips have covered their bed with foliage.  I’ll have to check them now and again for insect larva but they require little maintenance at this point. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

June 20 update

I’m getting more variety out of the beds.  This week’s haul:
Scallions 4 oz; Cucumber 9 oz; Sugar snap peas 7 oz; Broccoli 9 oz; Kohlrabi 11 oz; Lettuce 13 oz; Hungarian wax pepper 1 oz.
This is the second cucumber from the same plant, and very early.  I’m not sure about the variety.  The Burpee’s packet just says “Burpless”.  It sounds more like a descriptor than a variety name.  Burpee’s Burpless cucumber?  After producing two cukes that were very good the ensuing cukes withered on the vine.  Apparently the juvenile plant put too much of it’s energy into these early cukes and couldn’t support any more for awhile.
A plant doesn’t really “decide” to produce a fruit.  Plants don’t have a brain or nervous system.  They do have a complex biochemistry predetermined by its genetics that reacts to environmental conditions.  I don’t know why this particular plant set fruit too early for its own good.  It may be a trait of this variety or it may be just this particular plant responding to some micro environmental cues – an anomaly.    
The adjacent cucumber plant on the trellis, Diva, is a variety I’ve grown the past two seasons.  It’s very prolific and produces all female flowers that grow cukes without pollination.  It started slower than the Burpee’s variety but in recent days became the larger plant.  It was now setting some flowers while the Burpee’s plant had stopped.  And the Diva cukes taste better.
So I weighed my options.  The Diva can easily cover the 4’x8’ trellis.  The Burpee’s cuke will pollinate the Diva and probably change the flavor.  So do I go with the known good or the unknown maybe as good?  Not so hard - I pulled it up the Burpee’s plant, or rather cut it off at the base.  No place for sentiment guiding the decision here.
Two hungarian wax peppers were ready to pick.  They probably should have been cut off when the flowers appeared so the energy would go into the growing plant.  But they are really good in scrambled eggs and how can you refuse an early pepper?  Seems like I went through this logic earlier.
Another Major broccoli was ready to pick, with a really nice size head.  This broccoli was seeded April 3 and set out April 26, 51 days from setout to harvest.  I should stop going on but to me this is the perfect broccoli.  Because this variety is not tall I will plant more of them next year, and fewer kohlrabi.  I’m getting tired of kohlrabi although the soup was really good. 
The heat wave nearly meant the end for the sugar snap peas.  Judging by the number of burned out vines and flowers it probably cut the recent harvest in half.  Still the plants made it through and now that the weather is cooler the vines are growing and producing again.  The last of the lettuce came out – two Romaine heads. 
Both the squash bug and the Japanese beetle made their first appearance a few days ago.  I’ve found that a spraying of clove/garlic/cottonseed oil (SaferGro) drives the squash bugs up to the top of the plants.  Then a spraying of pyrethins will finish them off.  
The potatoes are getting infested with leafhoppers which are vectoring in some other diseases.  They got their first pyrethin spray Sunday night after a treatment with Neem a few days ago.  The cages have kept the potatoes upright through two vicious storms.  The potatoes in the center cage are smaller and have more leafhopper problems.  Next year I’ll space the cages about a foot apart.     

Friday, June 17, 2011

What's up doc?

And the topic of this post is bugs, but not the wascally wabbit.  What we call bugs are for the most part insects, althought the tick is an arachnid.  My place has seen a lot of bug pressure this year.  Credit the generous spring rains, followed by an early June heat wave that ended a few days ago.  The tick populations seems to have subsided a little, meaning I’m not picking ticks off myself every few hours.  The deer flies are bad.  They will follow my car down the driveway.  Apparently the car is just another big animal to them.   They can stay with the car up to about 20 mph.
The nastiest insect by far is a very small one, like a very aggressive gnat.  They first became a nuisance last year. The first infestation appeared in mid May for about a week.  The second wave started last Saturday, when I was processing chickens (great timing), and is still underway.  The thing about these gnats is that they are relentless.  They fly into one’s ears and buzz around in the ear canal until you feel like insanity is imminent unless you get away from them.  When they are like this I can’t relax on the deck for more than a few minutes without being driven indoors.
This is my back deck overlooking the pond.  The shade bed was put in last year.  It was a nice place to relax until the gnats from hell took over.  I don’t mow around the deck, just cut down any saplings once a year and scythe large weeds.  The tall grass harbors predators as well as prey, and mosquitoes don’t usually venture onto the deck until after sunset.

I’m convinced that the most important predator of flying insects around here is the dragonfly.  These insects are the most acrobatic flyers in the animal kingdom.  No bird or bat can stop, hover, and change direction like a dragonfly can, and they are very fast.  I like to sit on the back deck in the evening and watch them do their aerial manuevres over the pond, when the late day sun backlights them and their insect prey.   I think that the dragonfly is a major control of the mosquito population – the adults eat the adult mosquitos and the nymphs consume the larva.  Of course the frogs help out too.  At any rate, mosquitos have never been much of a problem here, until this year. 
But this year there haven’t been many dragonflies.  Last fall we had a severe drought and the pond dropped nearly four feet in level.  A lot of the dragonfly larva must have been left high and dry.  By now I should be seeing many more of them around the pond and I’m only seeing a few.  I hope the population will recover soon and eat up more bugs.
The worst garden pest?  For me, the Japanese beetle.  Out here in the country they will arrive in swarms.  They especially like pole beans, the higher the better, which is why I plant bush beans now.  They also go for eggplant and okra.  I set out several beetle traps then drop the beetles into the water for the catfish – a little protein supplement.  With the exception of the vine borer, most other pests don’t do enough damage to ruin the crop.  I’m a little concerned with bean beetles.  Last year they infested beans for the first time and I had to rip out some beans to stop them.

Monday, June 13, 2011

First cucumber, suckering tomato plants

I picked the first cucumber of the season this morning.  The spell of hot weather that began after Memorial Day really woke up the cucurbits and tomatoes.  The cuke was grown from 2009 seeds, a Burpee’s variety called Pepino.  After googling this I found that pepino is the Spanish term for cucumber, so I’ll have to look at that packet again.  It’s growing up the same trelllis with a Diva cucumber, a variety I’ve grown for several years and really like.   This cuke was OK, but not as good as the Diva, which has a fresher taste.  When I planted them I didn’t consider that the Diva produces only female flowers, and as long as there are no male cuke flowers around the seeds stay very small.  The Pepino has both male and female flowers so it will pollinate the Diva, which may change it’s flavor.  I’ll decide later whether or not to take one of them out.  They are sharing a 4’ wide by 8’ high trellis and one plant can easily cover the trellis. 

Harvest for the week:  Lettuce 11 oz; Sugar Snap peas 8 oz; Kohlrabi 1 lb 9 oz (2 bulbs); Cucumber 9 oz; Cabbage (1 head) 1 lb 13 oz.
I expected the week long heat wave to stop the peas in their tracks, but they made it through and now that it’s cooler they are producing again.  The lettuce surprised me too, only one plant bolted, a looseleaf variety.  There’s two romaine plants left in the bed which should continue growing now that temps are below normal– this morning it’s less than 70 outside.  After the lettuce is gone then chard will have to substitute as a leafy vegetable.  It looks like I'll get a Hungarian Wax pepper before long.

The squash and potatoes have been growing at amazing rates.  Maybe it’s the leaf compost I put into the beds this spring or maybe it’s because I cut down the nearby cherry tree and it’s roots are no longer pulling nutrients out of the nearby beds.  The Sunburst pattypan is now 4 feet across with leaves as big as dinnerplates.  Last week it produced the start of a squash but the plant sent no energy into it and it withered.  Typically squashes first produce male flowers, then female flowers a little later, so it was unusual for the first flower to be a female.  I’ve been spraying the stems near the base of the squash with Bt twice a week in the hope that it will stop the borer larva.  We’ll see.   (You can scroll down to last Monday's post to see how much this squash has grown in one week)
I haven’t tried the cabbage yet, just picked it after taking the picture.  It’s a Burpee’s variety called Earliana.  I hope it’s as good as Gonzales cabbage but probably not.  The brassica bed is opening up a lot.  After the broccoli in the back is picked I’ll seed in a patch of green beans in the open spot.  On the left is a single brussel’s sprout.  I’ve seen one cabbage butterfly and sprayed all the brassicas with Bt about a week ago.  So far no damage at all from cabbage worms.  Bt is the most effective control of the cabbage worm, and non-toxic.  But it does stink a little.  
It’s time to wax philosophical, and the subject that gets waxed today is removing tomato suckers. Suckers are like a little tomato plant that grows in the node where a leaf connects to the stem. Everyone has their own method.  Some people do not sucker at all.  Others ruthlessly remove every last sucker.   Leaving all the suckers on usually results in a thick mass of green foliage and not many tomatoes, at least in my experience.  Removing all the suckers and leaving a single leader is fine – if your cages are about 15 feet tall.  There is a middle ground, a golden mean if you will, that has worked well for me when growing tomatoes in large cages.  I leave about 3-4 suckers on the plant starting near the base, making sure the suckers balance each other around the stem, and remove the rest.  That’s how I do it and it works for me.  Here’s the German Queen plant before and after:

Finally the parsnips.  The plants will form a dense canopy soon that will shade out most of the weeds.  They require a lot of work early on – they’ve been through three thinnings and have been weeded twice.   But from here on out they take mostly care of themselves.  Last year an infestation of butterfly larva did some serious damage before it was caught, but can be controlled with Bt.  Which reminds me that the most important measure to prevent insect damage is regular inspection.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The chicken experiment

Saturday it was time to kill and process the eight Cornish cross chicks that I bought May 1.  My best guess of their age is about 7 weeks, since they were about ten days old when I got them.  They had already eaten through a 40 pound and most of a 50 pound bag of feed.  I did not want to buy another bag of feed and it just seemed like it was time.

Raising eight birds required more work than I thought, from tending the chicks in a brooder then in an outdoor pen to processing.  The unexpected hot weather was a huge problem.  After the first 90 degree day I pulled the pen a hundred feet to the shade just south of the woods, or they might have succumbed to the heat in the sun.  Being so close to the woods I was worried about predators getting them but nothing ever happened. On the hottest days I had to change their water 2-3 times a day.  Still, all eight chickens survived. 
Cornish cross chickens are eating machines that have had the brains bred out of them.  All they know is to sit around the feeder, eat and poop.  Each morning I moved the pen it’s own length then removed the feeder for about an hour so they would forage in the fresh grass.  It took them awhile, but in the last week they began to actively graze and forage like real chickens, even with the feeder in the pen.  So it took them several weeks to learn to overcome their genetics and act like chickens.
Since their pen was in the tall grass near the woods I never tried to let them out until a few days ago when I pulled the pen back onto the lawn.  After I opened the door they would not go outside for anything, even when the feeder was set just outside the door.  Curious they are not.   
These birds have a lot of negatives for the hobby farmer.  They have been bred to grow in a confined factory setting.  For the backyard hobbyist a chicken with better foraging abilities and more sense is preferred.   The options are few.  JM Hatcheries sells a meatbird called Freedom Ranger chickens which are developed from the French Label Rouge chickens and are supposed to have more chicken “sense”.  The minimum order is 25 birds, more than I want.  And you won’t find anything like that at the local farm store.
I wanted kill the chickens humanely and use proper hygiene.  I looked on YouTube for videos on processing chickens and was amazed at how many of the videos were totally useless – people with no clue about what they were doing.  Childish really.  You would think that killing an animal that you raised is something  to be taken seriously.
Not counting the startup costs of building the pen and buying feeders and waterers, I spent about thirty dollars on feed and eight dollars for the chicks.  I put in many hours hauling feed and water and moving the pen.  Then there’s the processing, which took me most of Saturday.   For that I got about 30 pounds of dressed chicken – about four pounds per bird.  At two bucks a pound that’s about sixty dollars worth of chicken.  I soaked one of the chickens in Stubb’s marinade and cooked it on the grill.  It was good allright, and tasted exactly like a storebought chicken, no better or worse.  Was it worth it?  I think so, at least for the experience.  Next year I’ll have more experience and the whole process should be less trouble.  I’m going to look for an alternative to the Cornish Cross.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Ramblin Man

For some reason I looked up Bob Seger on YouTube and listened to some of the great anthems he made in the 70’s and 80’s.  It’s a rock and roll disorder common to my generation.   And that’s the theme of my post, which rambles a bit.

There was a little bit of different things this week.  The second Major broccoli was ready, a 6 oz head, not as big as the last, but it was really good.  OK it was really really good.  Broccoli to me is the best of the cole crops.  Also a kohlrabi bulb, 12 oz (I guess they are bulbs).  I’m going to try making a kohlrabi soup with it.  A cauliflower called Silver Cup, a pathetic 2 oz, which looks more like a white broccoli but not nearly as tasty.  And mixed lettuce, 5 oz.  
The Midwest version of crazy 2011 weather has been March weather in May then a sharp break to August weather in June.  We had a storm go through here on Saturday night with some very hard wind gusts.  When I had a sailboat those kinds of gusts would knock a boat over before you could react.  The winds bent a lot of plants but a little staking got them back in the game.  It hit the onions the worst – broke a lot of stems.   One benefit – we got two inches of rain according to the gauge – just when things were drying out.
Can you believe this summer squash?  The variety is Sunburst, a pattypan squash, and it’s in a four foot wide bed.  Last year the first of this squash was ready in late June, which is pretty early.  This year it looks like I will get to pick squash in about a week.  This plant was seeded on April 20 and set into the bed on May 7.  So it’s been in the bed less than a month and is a full sized plant.  I’m hoping that it will stop growing soon and divert it’s energy into making squashes.  It’s definitely got enough leaf area at this point to produce heavily.

I’m still worried about the vine borer, the nemesis of squashes.  One caterpillar can kill a plant.  The butternut has been impervious, but all other squashes are fair game.  I was planning to make some row cover structures but I’ve got a lot of projects going on.  So I’m spraying the lower parts of the squash plants with Bt every few days.  Yes the borer adult is a moth, and any moth or butterfly larva will succumb to Bt.  I put out a trap to catch the adults, I hope, so I know when they show up.  It’s just the top of a Japanese Beetle trap in a container of water. 

I looked up some info on the vine borer.  According to the University of Kentucky, the adult emerges when 1000 degree days have accumulated with a baseline of 50 degrees F  starting at the first of the year.  And my reaction was. . huh?  A little searching on Google was a quick education in degree days. 
There are heating and cooling degree days, and there are also growing and pest degree days.  Growing and pest degree days generally use a baseline of 50 degrees.  There are small differences, but bottom line there are websites that calculate this.  And the Dep of Agriculture comes to the rescue again – with maps.  To make a long story short, this area has around 750 to 850 degree days at this point, so the borer is not far off.  A few more days in the 90’s and it’s borer time.  I found it fascinating that upper Michigan is still around 200 to 300 degree days.
Here’s the portal: and a map for the Great Lakes states, baseline 50 F: .  Finding your county can be a little tricky.