Ah, the growing season. My absolute favorite time of year. It is the time of year I spend all Winter and half the Spring thinking about and planning for. The birds wake you up before the sun comes up at around five a.m. You stumble out of bed, down a cup of coffee or two, put on your work clothes, and are outside in time to greet the sun peeking over the mountains.
You mosey on down to your little garden plot, drinking in the sights and smells around you, and then BAM! Fantasy over. No sooner do you open the gate than you see what has happened since yesterday morning when you last visited. Those weeds over there in the carrots that were only JUST out of the ground 24 hours ago are now 2 inches high… and thick. Like you can’t even see the carrots anymore.
Oh, and over there, you realize the rabbits have been snacking on your squash blossoms.
The ants are eating holes in your radishes, the potato beetles have eaten your potato plants down to nubs and laid a quadrillion eggs on what remains, and oh, now I see a groundhog over in the blueberries eating what is left of one plant.
Yep, if you have ever had a garden, you well know the pleasures and pains of trying to work alongside nature while simultaneously fighting elements of it.
This is not meant to discourage anyone from gardening, because despite the picture I just painted for you, growing your own food is incredible! But as with just about any endeavor, there is almost always a need for damage control. Gardening is no exception.
Let’s talk about weeds first. If you are new to gardening, weeding can be daunting. There is the fear of pulling seedlings instead of weeds and vice versa. Thank goodness for Google and Siri. You can literally ask, “What does a carrot seedling look like?” And you have 20 million pictures of carrot seedlings. So it really cuts down on the mistakes.
I tell you what, in between hating weeds I actually find time to marvel at them… for a moment. How do weeds know to grow near plants they resemble? This blows my mind! This year I planted, among other things, okra and corn. They were planted in two separate spots in the garden. Yet in the corn section, individual grass sprouts came up that very closely resembled corn seedlings! Only by paying close attention to the lines of the rows could I differentiate between the two! In the row of okra, little weeds that had the exact same leaf shape and formation as okra came up. I could tell them apart only because of the color of the stems. The weeds had reddish stems while the okra stems were green. But still! The similarities really wowed me. I’m not gonna say weeds have brains, BUT…
A final word on weeding, and I think it’s a good final word: consistency is key. I read in a book this Winter (I referred to it in my first or second post) about how it’s more preferable to spend an hour or so each day maintaining your garden as opposed to spending 5 hours in it once a week. You can weed, inspect plants, identify pest problems, and address diseases or deficiencies in your plants early on if you visit your garden often. I have really tried to put this into practice this season. Though it is still early in our growing season, I have definitely seen proof of the wisdom of these words. It takes a little more self discipline than I would like, but I’ve stuck with it and I’ve already benefited , just in the weed control department alone.
Now let’s get to pest control. This is the part that really tests my sanity! I think I have mentioned before that I don’t use herbicides or pesticides in my garden. I used to, because that’s what most people around me did, and when in Rome… However, after I started having kids, it dawned on me how much more kid friendly an organic garden would be. Well, let’s face it, it’s more human friendly all around. But in my mind, I pictured my kids running around outside, getting hungry for a snack, and being able to pick a tomato to eat, or a cob of corn, without having to worry about washing off harmful chemicals. Plus, having used both forms of pest control, I know that chemical means often do not eradicate the pest problem any better than natural means.
I knew it would be hard in Louisiana. We have bugs, bugs, bugs all year round. In fact, it’s almost futile to try to grow greens in the warm months, partially because they will bolt quickly in the heat but mostly because the insects will devour them and all you will have left are the holes in the ground where your beloved greens once stood. But you learn. You learn how to work with the bugs, the heat, the rain, and so forth. So we plants green leafy vegetables in the late Fall or very late Winter, both of which may occur in the same week. Just kidding, but Louisianians will understand. We monitored our warm weather plants in the Spring and Summer for the first signs of bug attack, and sprayed the leaves with soapy water, which really worked! We checked our tomatoes ever so closely for signs of tomato horn worm eggs on the backs of the tomato leaves in late Spring and then again for the larva at the first signs of leaf destruction. We would then remove each and every one by hand and feed them to our chickens. Apparently they are like chicken M&Ms or something because they were treated like candy! If you aren’t familiar with hornworms, they are nasty little boogers! They are caterpillars that will make a meal of an entire tomato plant overnight, no joke. When I first started gardening, our plants were attacked and all that was left of one was a chewed stem coming out of the ground. Talk about depressing!
After 10 years of becoming pretty adept at handling pest problems in Louisiana, we decided to move to Maryland to be closer to my husband’s aging parents. When I think about the naive woman who moved here, I laugh. I remember seeing rabbits and groundhogs in our yard and remarking how cute they were, and don’t get me wrong, they are.
But now I know them as Destroyers of Squash Plants, and Diggers of Warrens (thank you, Watership Down, for teaching me that term) In The Corn. So we fenced in our garden. Baby rabbits still get in from time to time I must admit, and they eat the bottom halves of our green beans. This year, the adult rabbits have discovered a way to get in and I didn’t have time to repair it before we left for the weekend. So I sprinkled shredded Irish Spring around the perimeter of the garden to keep them out. It really does work! I have tried it once before and stayed outside to watch the rabbits’ response. It was hilarious to see them hop away as fast as their little legs could take them when they got a whiff of the soap!
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate rabbits. I still think they are adorable. But now I am also aware of the damage they do to the garden and take steps to prevent it. When I watched Peter Rabbit with the kids, I found myself half siding with McGregor. I mean, the guy was a jerk, but if Peter can put on clothing, can’t he plant his own garden? 🤣 And that, my friend, is why you put the “gardener mentality” on the shelf before watching that movie.
Groundhogs are a bit different, and much harder to keep at bay. Once they get established in a location, they will dig tunnels all over the place, be fruitful, and multiply. Their burrows can undermine structures like houses and sheds, which was our problem. The house we moved into had been vacant for well over a year, and the groundhogs had really taken advantage. It took us four years to get rid of them all, I think. I haven’t seen any this year yet. In our experience, the only way to get rid of them is to either trap and relocate them far far away from your house in the woods somewhere, or (and I hate to say this) relocate them to a errr… quieter, more permanent housing situation under your apple tree.
Now let’s talk bugs. I think it’s safe to say problems with bugs in the garden are universal. Crop rotation can really help. If you don’t plant things in the same place year after year, the bugs will have to work a little harder to find them and feast.
Beneficial nematodes are also an option, though they can be pricey, which is why I am saving them as a last resort option. They are microscopic creatures that attack the larva of pest insects in the soil. Different nematodes attack different insects, so do your research. To my knowledge, they don’t attack the larva of useful insects.
Every Spring, when we till up our garden and prepare the soil, we pull any larva we find there out and “do away” with them. In our area, the Japanese beetles like to lay their eggs in our garden, so anything I can do to cut down their population, I do.
However, I think our most successful method of insect control is simply rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty. Usually the kids and I go out early in the morning before the heat wakes up, armed with buckets of soapy water. We then scoop, pull, and shake potato beetles, Japanese beetles, and June beetles into the soapy water. Once the leaves are clean, we can spray the leaves with soapy water to hinder more insect traffic to those plants.
In conclusion, pest and weed control can test the limits of your sanity. However, some relief can be brought by tending your garden often, so as to spot signs of attack early. The earlier you address it, the easier it will be to combat it. Know what your seedlings look like so you don’t mistakenly pull them as weeds.
Do your research. Know what pests are common in your area, talk to fellow gardeners, and proceed with the plan of action that works best for you.
In these ways, you can make the gardening step in homesteading a little easier, a little less stressful, and a lot more enjoyable.
Till next time,