Putting the “Ugh” in an Ugly Garden

I want to tell you all about my lovely  June garden… I want to post beautifully composed photos of the peas going gangbusters, of the fresh strawberries we pick to sweeten our morning cereal,  the lovely  green beans  in full flower,  and the prairie forbes  just opening their petals to the sky.


But tell the truth and shame the Devil, my Grandma Juanita used to say. I’m a sho’ nuff knotty-headed organic gardener and I’ve got to tell it like it is.  Something is going on in my garden this year, something that puts the “ugh” in an ugly garden.   Brace yourselves.

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Organic Pest Control Series: Links & Synopses

Friends and supporters have requested that I complete a series I began last year on Organic Pest Control.  Prior to doing so, I thought I would provide a link to the series so that new readers can familiarize themselves with my approach to the subject.  Check out:

Organic Pest Control Series: Links & Synopses.

Looking forward to the gardening season!



7-26 Garden Progress Report on Fertilizer Friday

By late July, the perennial ornamentals are gorgeous — and surely in need of continued care — but they grab my attention only briefly as indistinct flashes of color, as bobbing forms choked with buzzing or fluttering pollinators.

I am captive to the summer harvest, instead.

It takes all of my concentration and care to find  the pole beans, the bush beans, the wax beans, and cucumbers while they remain young and tender.  Zucchinis the size of my thigh appear overnight.  Before I can say “boo,” pole beans long as licorice ropes, pods fat as a thumbnail, dangle smug and inedible before my near-sighted, bi-focal’d geek’s face.

Every harvest season, the cleverness of our hunter and gatherer ancestors strikes me anew.

The children have long since locked their jaws against green beans and against cucumber salads.  This means I don’t have time to spend among the flowers.  I am locked in the kitchen with the canning kettle and the vacuum packer, shuttling back and forth between the stove, the herb bed, the oven, and the garage freezer.  My cupboards are beginning to jam with jam and are slowly populating with pickles because I’ll be damned and dining with the Devil before I let half a year’s work go to the pill bugs and beetles.

I worry about the tomatoes, all of which are late ripening varieties.   Whether or not I harvest a dozen sorry-looking fruits, or a bumper crop big enough to put up sauce depends on the next 30 days of weather that will invite every disease known to man.

I’ve Japanese pumpkins forming on vines, but have lost one whole plant to insect-vectored bacterial wilt.  I’m blue in the face holding my breath, hoping against hope that I can hold off the pests long enough for the fruits on the remaining plants to ripen.  I know prayer is useless.  I consider voodoo, but the new chicken tractor my husband and I are working on isn’t quite ready for feathered inhabitants.

Why have my potatoes not died back to the ground yet?  What are they doing under the straw?  Maybe I should dig them up now, immature tubers notwithstanding…  Perhaps I should leave them in the ground to develop the fat starchy tubers I love.  But if I roll that set of dice, will I crap out with Snake Eyes?  Will Late Blight wipe out a crop never intended to be in the ground late enough to catch it?

Nightly, now, a raccoon interloper breaks off a single stalk of corn… warning me that s/he and I are in a waiting game for that perfect moment of ripeness.  I know I’m going to lose: I’ve planted an heirloom variety that surprisingly, marvelously, unexpectedly, has cranberry colored corn silk.  How am I supposed to tell if the corn is ripe if the tassels don’t turn brown?

What I want to know… what I really want to know… is who ate my gooseberries?

Now, mosey on over to Fertilizer Friday at Tootsie Time’s place.  Find out how other July gardeners are managing their harvests.

The Organic Purity Test

Brace yourself, gentle reader.  The time for confession is at hand.  I am coming out of the organic garden closet.

I have used Round-Up.

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Japanese Beetles MIA?

The pole beans have reached the top of their towers.  The roses have gone hardcore hussy, decked out in perfume and pastels.

Where are the Japanese Beetles?

I prowl the yard peeking down the throats of flowers, like some deranged gum-booted doctor checking patients for tonsillitis.  Say Ahh.

Gingerly slipping my hand into the razor-lined maw of the rugosa, I finger leaves that by rights should show some sign of incipient skeletonization.  I tap and shake the flowers of the twice-blooming gladioli.  Twice.

It isn’t that I want to find Japanese Beetles.  It’s that the only way I know – as an organic gardener – to control these jewel-toned, love-drunk, six-legged chewing monstrosities is to stay three steps ahead of them.  It’s mid-July; I’m going blue in the face holding my breath, waiting for the beetle plague to begin.

I’m beginning to think that it just might be okay to inhale, however…

Could it be that last year’s drought and heat wave suppressed the Japanese beetle larvae population in my ecosystem’s soil?  Plausible.  But we’ve suffered such conditions in the past, and it had no appreciable effect on beetle damage as far as I can recall.

Could it be that the heavy spring rains drowned the developing larvae beneath the sod?  I suppose.  But wet springs have never, in the past, stopped beetles from feasting on my flowers.

Big Red -- the alpha

Big Red — the alpha– stares me down through the egg-door

The most dramatic ecosystemic difference I can think of that might account for Japanese Beetles Missing in Action is the four free range hens I raised in my backyard from July 2011 to October 2012.

The chicken is the closest living relative of the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex, and as such is an inquisitive, problem-solving, terrifyingly efficient predator.  Those hens watched me knock a couple of Japanese beetles out of a rose once, and by the next day were checking for beetles by leaping into the air and whacking flowers with their beaks.  Within a few days, they had knocked every Japanese beetle in the yard to the ground, where they gobbled them up like popcorn.  Last summer was the first season in all of my years gardening in the mid-west that no plant in my yard suffered appreciable Japanese beetle damage.

Pretty girls exploring the brand new run...

Pretty girls exploring the brand new run…

The trick to controlling Japanese beetles organically is to interrupt their feeding before your plants begin to emit distress chemicals and before the beetles begin to emit sex hormones.  Both chemical markers draw every beetle in Creation to your yard.  I am beginning to suspect that the hens got the jump on the early beetles, and interrupted their feeding and reproductive cycle.  They also spent the previous winter and spring feeding on larvae overwintering in the sod.  Four chickens, two seasons with no appreciable Japanese beetle damage.

We’re not out of the woods yet.  It’s too soon to pat myself on the back for engineering our family experiment with backyard chickens.  On the other hand, it is not too soon for me to use the rest of the summer to redesign, repair and rebuild our chicken coop and run so that we will be ready to bring four brand new layers to our yard this coming autumn.

<photo credit:  www.arbordoctor.net>

Ecological Pest Control II: Soil Biodiversity

Where We Have Been

New readers  following my philosophy of organic pest control can click here for links to the entire series as well as for a brief synopsis of the argument as it has evolved in the four previous installments.


Friends, we have to talk about weeds.  Soberly.  Perhaps even tenderly.

Weeds can bring the hardiest of gardeners to tears; they can turn a reasonable adult into a tantrum-tossing two year old.  They can make a sanctified granny take the Lord’s name in vain.  Brace yourselves, because I’ve got to tell it straight-from-the-hip the way I see it: weeds are an integral part of a functional, maximally biodiverse ecosystem.  As such, they are also part of the organic gardener’s ecological pest-control tool-kit.

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Ecological Pest Control I: Soil Biodiversity

Where We Have Been:

In Organic Pest Control III: Acts of Gardening Violence, Petty and Profound, I suggested a conceptual framework for organic pest control based on the notion that labor intensive interventions are ecologically harmful.  This  framework is intended to help organic ecosystem-ers decide when, whether and how to deploy ecological, mechanical, and chemical pest interventions in a selective rather than reactive manner, based upon the peculiar ecologies in which they are working, and based upon their gardening goals and personal resources.

We will explore each intervention — ecological, mechanical, and chemical — in more detail as we progress over the next several installments.  I want to begin with ecological intervention, the very chassis of organic pest control.

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