Friday, July 4, 2008

Ecological balance in the garden

Happily, we don't have many insect pests in our garden, at least bothersome ones -- maybe milkweed bugs on milkweed pods (quite cool -- they're only on the pods), localized aphids occasionally, squash vine borers on summer squash, and an occasional Japanese beetle. And I don't mind occasional small munches taken from leaves, actually (although big herbivores are in another category).

I'm thinking that diversity of plantings is probably the key, since we have so many different species of trees, shrubs, and herbs, no big beds of one thing, lots of natives, and hardy non-natives. We also don't ever fertilize anything, except for the vegetables, only adding leaf mulch and other organic mulches. So, there's not extra succulent nitrogen-rich foliage to attract leaf-chomping insects.

As we've created our woodland and shrub borders, layers of vegetation have developed, just like in a 'natural' forest, providing cover for MANY more bird species over the years. (When it was primarily lawn, we didn't see much activity!) But, with a variety of birds, many are actively foraging for insects at different times of the year, sometimes just when they're supporting nestlings and fledglings.

In the vegetable garden, I mix up the blocks for both attractiveness and diversity, and figure that helps, too.

More problematic are some of the common problems that afflict less-resistant sorts of tomatoes, peppers, and beans. In the original main garden, rotation was pretty haphazard, and not really possible not to repeat tomatoes, peppers, and brassicas in the same space, especially since I'm doing intensive successional change-outs, even when adding lots of compost each time (often a recommendation for disease suppression). By adding the satellite garden as a permanent bed area, I have a bit more scope, so I'm trying to be a better record keeper about what's been planted where and when.

It doesn't seem like a huge garden area, although I suppose it's relative. The main vegetable garden is made up of 5 blocks roughly 4' X 5' each, with a long strip along the fence (1 1/2' X 20'). The satellite garden has 7 beds of varying sizes, ranging from 3' X 4' to 3' X 7' to 2 1/2' X 8'. Obviously, I wasn't very methodical with these as I made them 'permanent' -- although I've evened them out a bit, as I've amended them each season and added mulched paths and stone edging.

So I spent some time this afternoon mapping out the vegetables in each of the beds, and nicely labeled each on my garden map. I've seen some pretty elaborate schemes for tracking rotations (using Excel files, charting programs, etc.), all of which sound like more work than fun to me, but again, some people like to keep detailed records more than others. But the basics of plant rotation are simple -- not planting members of the same plant families in the same place in successive years. By mixing up what's planted in each bed, it's more complicated to figure out the rotations, too, but maybe mixes up the pests and diseases as well.


  1. Thanks for writing about the rotation dilemma. Glad to know I'm not the only one who probably could have planned a little better early on. And like with yours, intensity of planting in a small space hasn't helped mine either. My one insect problem is due to this I'm sure-- even rotating beds I'm seeing more vine borers and squash bugs. I've recently decided I have to start a "satellite" garden myself. In the meantime (severe drought and 90+ temps make this hardly the time) I'm trying something new to me to fight the borers. On a weekly basis, I'm injecting the vines of the most susceptible squash (thank goodness for butternut!) with liquid Bt. It's just too hard to try to find and cut out vine borers once a plant gets some size on it. I'm hoping if they're in there, the Bt will get 'em before they do irreparable damage. So far, I've saved one plant for sure and haven't lost any. Of course, I'm talking four or five plants. Takes me maybe half an hour and less than 1/2 teaspoon of Thuricide in some water. There's something a little cathartic (as well as maybe a little crazed) about injecting squash vines. Whoever made up those stories about zucchini taking over neighborhoods doesn't know mine. Embarrassing to admit, but I have to pamper my plants to keep them producing all the fruit and blossoms I want.

    I'm also finding the need to fertilize more this year, even though my soil has been well amended. Drought-related? I'm wondering if the plants are having trouble taking up nutrients without rain (even though I'm watering deeply). Regular foliar feeding seems to be helping.

  2. I've found squash vine borers to be really challenging, too -- I have NEVER had a bumper crop of zucchini or summer squash either, and am delighted to harvest a few patty pan or eight-ball squashes before the vines succumb. The squash vine borer's life cycle is so cryptic, until you see the evidence!

    I've had limited success piling soil over the bases of the vines (digging them out of the vine hasn't worked for me). I'm growing a different sort of C. moschata this year, a 'Summer Squash mix', which when harvested young is quite tasty and similar to yellow squash. And the tromboncino squash (also C. moschata) that I've been growing for a couple of years is fabulous. Injecting Bt sounds like a satisfying enterprise!

    I'm thinking that even with watering, the heat and drought stress is taking its toll on many plants, suffering from heat check as they stop transpiring in afternoon (and stop taking up nutrients through their roots). Interesting to think about. I have a red yard-long bean plant that looks downright frail, quite usual -- I'll see how the green ones do.


I enjoy hearing from fellow nature lovers and gardeners. Let me know your thoughts.

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