30 June 2009

A Cutworm Fence: protecting row crops from cutworm damage

Putting physical barriers, such as tin-foil or paper collars, around transplants is a common method of controlling cutworm damage. As immature larvae, especially in large numbers, the cutworms prefer small emerging seedlings, the kinds of row crops usually directly seeded into the garden. As the cutworms grow larger, they correspondingly prefer larger stems, including transplants which can easily be protected with collars or other physical barriers such as toothpicks or small nails stuck into the soil next to the stem.

To protect our emerging seedlings, such as carrots, parsnips, beets, greens and herbs, we built a cutworm fence as a physical barrier. We dug a 4 inch trench around the area, and drove small posts into the ground every 10-15 feet. A number of different materials could be used for the fence: plastic, feed bags, fabric, anything that will not let the cutworm pass through. We happen to have a large roll of woven fabric, similar to row cover, but in the future we would prefer heavy plastic (like the kind mini-homes are wrapped in, and can be diverted from the waste stream) because it is slick and more durable in the soil. The fabric was stapled to the posts, holding it taut to keep from sagging. It stretches 4 inches below the soil, and 6 inches above.

The cutworms can climb a short way onto the plant, but after observing them in our tin collection can, they cannot climb a vertical surface above 2-3 inches. And although they do burrow in the soil to feed, we have not seen any below 2-3 inches deep, and they do not travel below the soil.

We have observed that the cutworms quickly move from crop to crop within the garden. After we tilled under a heavily damaged crop of beet seedlings infested with cutworms, we noticed, only days later, that no cutworms could be found in the soil where no food was present. Therefore, we can easily exclude them from ground where we intend to sow direct seeded row crops by fallowing the ground in the spring, and constructing a cutworm fence prior to planting.

Since this barrier was erected after planting, we carefully cultivated the area and removed any cutworms we found, including disturbing the soil around the base of each plant by hand. We had been doing this regularly to control the population of cutworms in the garden, but this time, we can be sure that more will not move in from other areas of the garden. Most of the rest of the garden crops are either too large to cut (such as the beans and peas), or protected by nails along the stems (such as the transplants).

Cutworms travel above ground, mostly during the night, and can cover some distance searching for food. Though it does make them vulnerable to predators such as our fat and happy American Toad. We are currently building a small toad pool in the garden to encourage them to breed here.
The morning after we put up the cutworm fence, we were happy to discover very little damage overnight. The herbs were untouched, and only a few carrot and parsnip leaves had been cut, exposing the location of the remaining cutworms. Thank goodness, it seems that my war with the cutworms is drawing to an end. Practicing organic and ecological gardening means out-smarting, and out-maneuvering pests and diseases. I tend to be of the disposition to lock horns and butt heads directly with my pest-sized opponent, but this time it was simply wearing me down. So I learned an important lesson in gardening: to be nimble and adaptable in technique and method, to use my intellect instead of sheer determination and will-power. Determination got me through the steep beginner's learning curve, but now that I've got a few seasons under my belt, it's time to sharpen my tools and think like a gardener!
Other-where's in the garden, the perennial herb garden is flourishing, providing my first cut of Oregano, Thyme, Catnip and Alfalfa to dry for winter use.
We are also welcoming the butterflies back to the North. Including this White Admiral,

and a Monarch look-a-like: the Eastern Viceroy.

26 June 2009

Garden Tour

My how the garden grows! Rainbow after a thunder shower only 10 days ago...

The view from the kitchen table this morning. There's a lot of bare ground in the foreground, that's where the cutworms have done the most damage, even getting into the herb beds. I was pretty surprised to see them cut herbs like savory, dill, cilantro, parsley, fennel, anise, basil, calendula, and poppy flowers seem to be a favorite treat of theirs. I removed all of the onion seedlings from the middle bed and will transplant them back into clean ground. We are working on constructing cutworm fences around the seed beds. They can climb, but not very high on slick vertical surfaces. I'll post more on the fences when we have them constructed and tested.
Here's another angle of the herb, greens and roots beds. We lost all of the beets, turnips, chard, spinach, direct seeded lettuce/mesculun, and a few plantings of carrots and parsnips are still struggling along. I scout the mature lettuce bed regularly, they only cut of the outer leaves of the larger lettuces, revealing their presence. Thank goodness there is only one cycle of cutworms per year, and it is coming to an end in a few weeks. So we will still have time for some later plantings of carrots, beets, greens and herbs.
On the left is the first planting of carrots and parsnips, they emerged before the cutworms, and got a bit of a head start. Still, the patches show the damage they have done. To the right, is the potato patch, and they are doing great this year, just starting to flower. The Potato Beetle damage is down to a minimum this year, we are finding only about 5 adults a day, up to 20 on windy days when they blow in from potato farms. To the right of the potatoes, the mulched area, a row of cukes, zukes, and winter squash beginning to flower. And to the right of the vines, my plot of small grains and seeds: popcorn, sunflower, amaranth, millet, quinoa, poppy seed, hulless oats. The cutworms have been working their way down the grains as well, and we are just starting to weed in there, so I'm self-consciously omitting a picture of them! I plan to do a post on these small grains and seeds as they mature.

This is my wild, overgrown perennial/biennial herb bed. I underestimated the amount of room the perennials would need in their second year. I left some biennials (caraway, parsley, mullein and chicory) to go to seed in the same bed, so next year the nettle, alfalfa and comfrey will have enough room to expand.
A quarter acre plot of Hard Red Spring Wheat for bread baking, and about 1500 row feet of dry peas, to harvest for the chicken's winter feed. On the right you can just see the newly worked ground, 3/4 acre, for planting grains next year, with the market peas and beans moving into this grain plot. To the left of this picture is about 2000 sq ft of millet (not worth picturing as it is just emerging), to be harvested for chicken feed.

In the lower garden, our green beans and baking beans, as well as our dry peas and shelling peas. As well as a row of Naked Seeded Pumpkins between the peas. We got a few inches of rain this week, warm nights, and a hot sunny day today, so everything is growing by inches.

Next to them, the brassicas and ground cherries. The Flea Beetles never did make it down to the transplants, after giving my turnips and radishes a hard time. And now I can hardly find a Flea Beetle in the garden, I'm pretty sure the Soldier Beetles finished them off, their population exploded around the time the Flea Beetles' declined. The cutworms were beginning damage some of the brassicas, so we stuck small nails along side the stems to prevent them cutting the entire stem off, they still climb up and take a leaf here and there, but we scout these areas too, and dig them up.

My first promising tomato on an early ripening Latah variety. These are bare, spindly plants, but they produce plenty of fruit, and always ripen earliest. The bushier Cherry Fox and Roma tomatoes are twice the size, but just starting to produce green fruits.

Hungarian Hot Wax and Carmen Peppers just starting to flower. We spike them with nails as well, to prevent any cutworm damage. We've been babying these peppers along for nearly 4 months now, I don't think I could stand to see one of them toppled.

And our first crop of snow peas in the market garden is about a week away, they started to flower a few days ago. The succession of peas and beans stretches out to the millet and wheat crop. We spaced our successional plantings by 10 days, and in the early spring, those 10 days make a big difference, but our last two plantings are nearly identical in size. It's amazing what a little heat and rain will do!

23 June 2009

Going Crackers

All winter long I have the luxury of baking and cooking throughout the day, since we spend more of our time indoors, than out. Come summer, it's the opposite, and I flee from the house as quickly as I can get the morning chores done (as long as it's not raining, then it's a home-cookin', house-cleanin' laundry day, yes, I do laundry when it rains). It's a good thing then, that our diet changes with summer, and we enjoy simple, fresh meals instead of the heavier winter fare.

And by this time of year, the house get's too unbearably hot (with our wood cookstove still chugging), to bake much yeasted bread. So we go crackers instead. Crackers make great snack food, and pair well with light meals or soups. And of course, like everything else, homemade crackers pop the lid off of the store bought kind.

There are as many cracker recipes as there are ways to enjoy them. You can try almost anything, as long as you end up with a rollable ball of dough. Try some basics, then improvise your own family favorites. There are yeasted crackers that turn out soft and flaky. We tend to like the crisp crackers, either sweet or salty.

Here's my two favorite basic recipes.

Salty Whole Wheat Cracker
2 cups whole wheat (or rye) flour
optional 1/2 cup wheat germ, bran or rolled oats
1/4 cup oil, ghee or softened butter
yogurt, buttermilk or soured milk (add tbsp vinegar to milk to sour)

Mix dry ingredients in bowl (here's where you can add your own flavors like caraway, sesame seed, herbs...)
Blend oil or butter into flour
Add 1/2 cup of yogurt or buttermilk, stir until blended, then knead with your hand, adding extra liquid if needed. You want a medium stiffness, rather like pie crust, something that does not crack when kneaded, or stick to the bowl or hands.

Grease 2 medium cookie sheets. I roll my cracker dough right in the cookie sheet, but you can also roll out on a floured surface. Roll out a 1/4 inch at the thickest, again, you may prefer thin or thicker crackers. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Use a pizza cutter (or knife) to slice the sheet of dough into desired shape, or cut shapes out and transfer to cookie sheet.

Bake at 375 in the middle of the oven until golden brown and crisp, baking time will vary by thickness of dough. If the outside crackers are browning, remove baked crackers and return the rest to the oven.

Graham Cracker
2 cups whole wheat or graham flour
Optional, if using whole wheat add 1/2 cup wheat germ, bran or rolled oats
1-2 Tbsp brown sugar (sugar to taste)
medium to heavy cream (Half and Half or Whipping Cream)

Mix sugar into flour.
Add 1/2 cup cream, blend with spoon, then knead with hand, adding cream until reaching desired consistency (see recipe above).

Roll out directly in greased cookie sheets, or on floured surface, 1/4 inch thick. Optional: sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar. Cut to desired shape.

Bake at 375 until golden brown. Remove any crackers on the edges that brown before the rest.

22 June 2009

Makin' hay while the sun shines

That's the trick around here, in a humid climate there are short weather windows. The best quality hay, and the highest protein hay, is made from pastures in the pre-bloom and early heading stages. For us that means that we can make the best hay from mid to late June. But typically, the weather is difficult to predict, with thunder showers blowing through that may, or may not, go around us. So we have developed a strategy for making good hay in a short weather window, a strategy that also helps us to improve our tired pastures.
The north hay field, which is not grazed, is primarily Timothy grass. The Clovers don't compete well in this field because it is low-lying and floods in the spring melt. Goldenrod is invading, and slowly out-competing the Timothy, and this field will need to be turned and re-sown to completely revitalize it. When our weather window broke this year, the Timothy was in the early heading stages. Actually the animals pick the Timothy heads out of the hay, the seeds would be high in protein. But there is still a high percentage of leaf compared to stalk in this early heading stage. About 20% of this field is scattered with clover, dandelion and vetch, making it a decent hay, but not high enough in protein to carry a lactating animal or weanlings.

We have two acres in this north field that were planted to grain last year. The grain came up with a self-sown understory of clover. After harvesting the grain, we left the clover to establish itself, and these two acres will provide us with the kind of high-protein hay we need for our lactating does. Again, the clover is at it's highest quality in the pre-bloom stage (meaning that the flower buds are just beginning to form), and fortunately, that is exactly when we were able to cut it.

Our strategy for making hay in short weather windows is to cut it early, while the crop is still light, but high quality, and to cut it high. We cut 6 to 8 inches above the ground, instead of the traditional 1 or 2 inches. What's left in the field is mostly stalk, the least palatable or nutritious portion of the plant, and the young growth. The stubble holds the cut hay above the ground, away from moisture, and allowing air flow underneath the windrow. The combination of a light crop and the added air-flow can cut a day or even two off of the drying period.

The benefit of leaving the stalk and young growth is earlier recovery of the fields. Since practicing this method we have noticed our pastures recover earlier and faster in the spring. The also recover quickly after haying, allowing the possibility of a light grazing, or even a second cut of hay in late July.

Actually the practice of cutting and drying herbs has taught me a lot about making good hay. When harvesting a herb, generally the practice is to cut no more than two-thirds of the plant. Similarly, herbs are harvested before flowering. And the highest quality dried herbs are dried quickly and exposed to as little moisture as possible.
We cut on Wednesday afternoon, there were warnings of thunder showers on Wednesday, but the sky cleared and the forecast was for a hot, windy day Thursday, Friday and Saturday were a bit cooler with part cloud, and Sunday called for a chance of showers with rain on Monday. If we got two good drying days in a row, we could comfortably bale Friday afternoon, but if the humidity rose, or with heavy dews, we would bale Saturday. The forecast looked promising, but when is the forecast ever right?

Well, we lucked out with no dew Wednesday night, and Thursday was a perfect drying day, 28C/82F, sunny and breezy. We let the top dry out Thursday, and again no dew Thursdays night. Although Friday morning dawned with a heavy cloud cover and forecast for showers Friday night, rain on Saturday. Oh the fickle spring weather! We raked the hay Friday morning, flipping the windrows to expose damp underside to the drying breezes, and hoped for a break in the clouds. It did break long enough to dry out the hay, but JUST dry enough to save. After a few hours of sun, the clouds once again advanced and we paced the field, testing the hay here and there, finding a few damp clumps, but overall, it was ready.

Hay that is ready to bale should be dry enough to hear it crinkle when you twist it. But it need not be so dry that the leaf crumbles at the touch, not oven dry. If it is too dry, the nutritious leaf will shatter in the baler and you will be left with stalk.

Another way to test the hay is to scrape the stalk. The field pictures didn't come out, so I took this one of some Alfalfa I'm drying for the tea cabinet. If the skin of the stalk peels back, it is dry enough to bale.

We baled Friday afternoon, only 48 hours after cutting, when the typical drying period for a heavy cut of hay is 3 to 4 or more days, a weather window impossible to find in our early summer. And as you can see, as we finished up, the clouds were thick, and it began to spit on us as we unloaded the wagon. Just in time. But it is some of the best hay we have ever made, and worlds apart from any hay we have been able to buy. We harvested 130 (40lb) bales from 4 acres, which is a pretty poor crop when compared to improved pastures. But each one of our bales compares in nutrition to two or three bales of the kind of hay we can buy locally, which are cut in late July and consist primarily of stalk, and only weigh about 25lbs.

We are certainly the talk of the town in the farming circle, they think we are crazy cutting so early and leaving so much stalk in the field! But we would also need twice the barn to store all that poor-quality hay. Most of the local square bales are cut for sale, not for use, and the primary reason for baling in late July or early August is to get as many bales off the field, therefore as much money off the field, as possible. Our hay is cut with a different motivation, and therefore uses different techniques. It would be nice if there were more out-of-the-box thinkers in rural areas to reintroduce fresh ideas and approaches to agrarian life.

18 June 2009

If only I had known the trouble I had sown...

Organic and Ecological gardening relies heavily on an intact bio-sphere of pests and their natural predators. There are literally hundreds of insects and natural allies to become familiar with, and not just identify, but to learn their habitats and provide the conditions to attract these beneficials. In my first potato patch, while hunting down potato beetles and their voracious larvae, I squished anything that looked remotely like the larvae, only to realize later I had been destroying Lady Beetle larvae as well. The next year I saw with new eyes that every new bug I encountered was a potential ally, and began a practice of keeping a digital camera in my pocket so that I could snap a picture of unknown insects and identify them at my favorite site http://www.bugguide.net/.

I had read about the importance of keeping a wild or overgrown areas around the garden to provide habitat for beneficial insects, birds, toads and snakes. And yes, this is true, but I have learned, only in moderation, and only with specific habitat plants. I left a large strip of weeds grow up along the garden last summer, and with the worst characteristic of an organic gardener, I lazily called "habitat", and left standing. This spring, we are over-run with cutworms, and I know why. The Dart Moth, the adult form of the Cutworm, is a night flying moth that prefers to lay it's eggs in dense stands of weeds, like Lamb's Quarters, and I provided the perfect habitat.

I have not yet discovered a single beneficial that requires a habitat of standing weeds, but many are attracted by the other "real" habitat stands that we leave around the garden, consisting of Tansy, Goldenrod, and Evening Primrose. And of course, most of the flowering plants in the garden attract beneficials, like Dill or Carrot flowers. So don't let that lazy voice get the best of you and call any overgrown area of your garden that you haven't gotten around to, a "habitat".

The Cutworms are not the type I have read about, toppling Tomatoes and Beans like tiny trees. These ones prefer Onions, Carrots, Parsnips, Beets, Chard, Spinach, Lettuce, and even some Radish and Turnips and one Cabbage. I have had to re-plant many of these crops, and I am blown away by the number of Cutworms in the garden this year. They hide just below the surface, and I have found and hand picked no less than 500 Cutworms from a 3,000 square foot area this spring.

Every morning I look for damage, either wilted seedlings or leaves, as they tend to take off stems above ground.

Nine times out of ten, I find one of these an inch or so below the surface near the root of the damaged plant.

I collect them, and take a rough count, to keep track of the population curve so that I know whether I am getting on top of them.

And then they are breakfast for the hens. What takes me an half-hour to collect, disappears in a matter of seconds. And then they look up for more. We let the chickens scratch over the garden in the fall, but we are looking into building chicken runs, and moving them over the garden in the spring, before planting.I'm not the only one searching out the Cutworms. Fortunately we have most of the natural enemies of the Cutworm in the garden this spring.

The Soldier Beetles are breeding like crazy (they are attracted by Comfrey and Mullein), and are a welcome site. They prey on a number of pest larvae in the soil, including Cutworms and the larval stages of Potato, Cucumber and Flea Beetles when they go under ground to pupate. In fact, there are more Soldier Beetles in the potato patch than Potato Beetles this year. Hooray!

Ground Beetles provide a similar service as the Soldier Beetles, but they are less conspicuous and often go unnoticed.

Firefly larvae also eat Cutworms, and I'm sure they are in the soil because the adults reliably emerge and light up the pasture with their flickering lights in July.

Stink bugs, another Natural Enemy, are just emerging. They also prey upon Potato Beetle larvae and were in abundance in the potato patch last year.

Tachinid Flies and Braconid Wasps are also present in the garden. Just this morning I spotted a cutworm inching along the surface of the garden, a rare occurrence in the daytime. But before I could get to it I noticed a beautiful Ichneumonid wasp (of the Braconid family) swoop down to parasitize the worm. The Cutworm curled defensively and the wasp leaped away, touching down momentarily twice. I don't know how quickly they can deliver their eggs into the worm, but it was definitely on the look out for vulnerable Cutworms such as this one.

This friendly toad was spotted earlier in the spring, most have probably retreated to the cool cover of the mulched areas of the garden by now. But they come out at night and feed on nearly anything that moves, including the night flying Dart Moth.

I hope this Garter Snake, also spotted earlier in the spring, has made a nest in the pile of logs atop a mound of sawdust next to the garden that we leave for snake habitat. Last year we hosted an Eastern Smooth Green Snake, a voracious insect eater.

And last, but not least, our garden is visited by Northern Short Tailed Shews, they also, are insect eaters, and feed on earthworms, as well as other invertebrates. And our tireless kitty prefers to feed on them.

So we have plenty of allies to help control our Cutworm infestation, but as usual, there is a lag between the population bloom of pests and the appearance of predators in sufficient numbers to control the pest. And that's where we, as gardeners, come into the picture. So for now, I will continue to scour the soil, around the problem areas, and keep counts of the number of Cutworms found in 100 square feet, and when I begin to see the numbers decreasing, I will know that my allies have found the feast.

16 June 2009

What to do when things go wrong?

Good planning, preparation and preventative measures are the best insurance of good health and success in the garden and in the barn. But, especially in the first years when the learning curve is steep, things do go wrong and disease, pests or parasites can spread quickly and reach a critical level surprisingly fast. The ability to assess the symptoms and diagnose the problem is crucial to being able to react within time to save the crop, flock or herd.

So what elements are necessary to being able to diagnose a problem or illness, especially when encountering it for the first time? An observant and knowledgeable gardener or animal husbander is generally the most qualified to diagnose a problem because that individual knows the history of the soil or animal, and is familiar with the expected state of health in her garden or herd. The subtle first symptoms of dis-ease provide the best opportunity to address a developing issue before it gets out of hand. In the garden, these symptoms will include discoloration, spots, holes, wilt, etc, and usually accompany a period of stress, including temperature extremes, dry soil, wet soil, mineral deficiency or other soil imbalance. With animals the first symptoms include lack of appetite, listlessness, dull eyes or coat, runny nose or eyes, change in stool consistency, drop in production, etc, and again usually accompany an external stressor such as change in diet, transportation or change of location within the farm (i.e. barn to pasture), temperature extremes, exposure, lack of access to fresh, clean water, isolation from the herd/flock, or introduction of un-quarantined animal to herd/flock. As with our own health, stress decreases immunity to disease or infestation.

When I observe one of these primary symptoms, my first priority is to apply a first-aid measure where appropriate, to relieve the immediate stress. These responses can range anywhere from watering a wilting crop to giving an animal a homeopathic treatment for fever. (Remember to take notes of the treatments you give, the quantity and the time applied so that you can assess the responses to treatments, and more importantly, repeat your successes in the future.) Once I have contained the situation as best as possible, and this may include removing diseased plants from the garden or isolating an animal from the herd/flock, I then begin to investigate the originating cause of these symptoms. This is where observation, knowledge and health records are put to the test. If you are an absolute novice then you will be particularly dependent on books, forums, websites and more experienced individuals to help you diagnose the problem, but every one of these situations is an opportunity to increase your knowledge, so pay attention and keep records.

Begin by making notes, in detail, of anything you notice as "out of the ordinary", and use all of your senses. In the garden this will mean noting not only the condition of the crop/plant, but also the condition of the soil, the condition of surrounding plants (including weeds), any insects you see in close proximity to the affected crop (don't forget to look at the insects at ground level or just below the soil), even a nearby soil disturbance can be a clue. I find a digital camera useful in identifying diseases or pests in the garden. In the herd or flock, these kinds of observations can be somewhat subjective, and not nearly as obvious. But from daily interaction with domestic animals you get to know each individual's particular habits, appetites and behaviors. An animal who usually meets you at the gate, but stays in the barn that morning, is not feeling well. When an animal lays down more than usual, or doesn't eat or drink quite as much or as readily, or doesn't vocalize as much as usual, or stays a bit apart from the other animals, that animal is more than likely showing primary symptoms of illness. The more obvious symptoms will include quantifiable differences in temperature, bodily fluids, discharges, loss of hair, skin eruptions, or drop in production levels. Again, use all of your senses, listen, smell, feel and watch (well, maybe not taste!), and take notes or pictures. And be sure to look for anything out of the ordinary in the yard, pasture or barn, anything the animal may have eaten or been exposed to.

Now that you have all of this observational data, it's time to hit the books, forums, your own records, or experienced individuals who are familiar with your own bio-regional conditions. Sometimes the cause of disease or infestation is obvious, and sometimes it takes a bit of investigation. More often than not, the problem is compound, not just a simple or primary cause, so I will give a few examples of conditions we have experienced this spring, one in the garden and one in the herd.

I chose this example, of diagnosing a problem in the garden, because it begins with generic symptoms that could point to any number of causes, and shows our process of elimination to reveal the root causes of the issue. About a week ago we noticed that our bush beans were a bit discolored. There was some yellowing along the veins of the leaf, and around the edges, and a few speckles of brown that we recognized as insect damage (which would be a secondary symptom, the insects being attracted to the plants sending out chemical signals of stress). The plants had slowed their growth, but were not wilting, curling or browning. This kind of discoloring usually points to a few possibilities: mineral deficiency (perhaps as result of pH imbalance), or some kind of leaf burn (UV, chemical, acid rain, frost). We could rule out a chemical burn and frost, but suspected acid rain and/or UV burn. We are in an area that receives a lot of acid rain, and we have been noticing more frequent warnings of high UVs in the weather forecasts. Three days prior to the appearance of the discolored bean leaves, we had a sunny day that rated 8 on the UV index, followed by two days of rain. After this, the beans did not look so good. There's not much we can do to protect against UV damage, but like a frost, if the plants survived the burn, they would recover. And we already do what we can to prevent over-acidification in our soil due to acid rain by applying limestone and adding humus. Calcium is also necessary for the soil to be able to maintain a neutral pH, and to prevent the soil nutrients from becoming chemically locked up as happens in acidic soil.

It seemed clear to us that our bean crop was suffering from a mineral deficiency, but the cause was still unclear. A mineral deficiency can be a problem inherent in the soil, meaning that a mineral is actually missing. Certain crops are more susceptible to certain deficiencies, but most likely, other legume crops would show similar symptoms, and the peas were unaffected. Or it can be a result of a pH imbalance, essentially making necessary minerals inaccessible to the plants. Or it can be a problem of the plant's metabolism, not being able to absorb the minerals in the soil, due to stressors such as temperature extremes or wet/dry soil. So besides the possible causes of UV burn and acid rain, (both of which, beans are sensitive to) we had also been experiencing a cool spring with overnight temperatures remaining below 10C (50F). Tropical plants like beans do not grow/metabolize below this temperature, so it could also be possible that the plants are simply too cold. But more than likely, the true cause is a combination of these factors.

As we watched the crop over the next few days, we also watched for similar signs in nearby crops, and other legumes. None appeared, and a section of the bean crop started to recover. We had put a hay-bale wind break around our transplanted tomatoes and peppers, as it had been cool. The row of beans on the other side of this wind break were looking green and beginning to grow again, before the rest of the crop. This was a sure sign that the cool overnight temperatures had played a major role in the slowed growth and discoloration of our bush beans. And as the temperatures finally begin to warm, the rest of the crop shows signs of recovery. Had we not taken the precautions of protecting our soil from acidification, a simple stressor such as cool nights could have been compounded, possibly causing a crop failure. This is why it is so important not to spare your efforts in keeping your soil healthy and balanced, much like your own immune system, so that your crops will be able to withstand the inevitable environmental stressors that occur throughout the growing season.

Again, I will choose an example of diagnosing a problem in the herd that is difficult to diagnose because of the vague symptoms and the range of possibilities they point to. Our goat herd consists of one milking doe, one meat doe (not lactating or pregnant), and two bucklings. Each of these animals has different dietary requirements, the lactating doe requiring the highest amount and quality of proteins and minerals, the bucklings requiring moderate levels to support growth, and the meat doe requiring the least, but a sufficient amount to put on weight. Likewise, our milking doe will be the animal in the herd to show signs of illness first, the bucklings second, and the meat doe being the most resistant because of the fewer demands placed on her system.

When spring broke and the goats were out on pasture, our milker started to put on more condition and began also to increase her production of milk. The whole herd showed signs of vigor and health, frisking about in the pasture. One fine spring day, while out in the garden, I watched Juniper (the meat doe), bleat and gallop, three-legged, back to the barn. She held up one of her hind legs as if it had been injured. Of course, the rest of the herd followed her in. I followed to the barn to investigate, but could not find anything wrong with her leg or foot, and she was walking just fine. Then I heard it, the drone of a Horsefly. Juniper heard it too, and again, raced for the barn. She had apparently been bit by one of these inch-and-a-half long prehistoric nightmares (which, by the way, may have been one of the contributing factors to the extinction of the dinosaurs). They take a pretty good chunk out, and it does hurt.

Penelope, who had already been spending more time in the barn to escape the blackflies and the mosquitoes, simply went on strike. She would not graze, at least not much, and not in the daytime. I assumed that she would be grazing at night, as this is what the horse and our milk cow always did. But she began to loose some of that condition, and dropped back down in milk production. So we cut some tree branches and picked buckets of raspberry leaves and evening primrose, some of her favorites that are not available in the pasture. She wasn't picking up, but she wasn't getting poorer, for two days. Then on the morning of the third day, she looked absolutely hollow, had not eaten any of the hay or forages brought into the barn, and her milk was nearly half of normal. She was listless, lethargic, breathing faster, stools were firmer and pelleted (instead of the normal softer stool of lactating animals on pasture), she was laying down in the sun, and had no appetite for grains or her favorite treats of raspberry leaves. Her lack of appetite, and absence of chewing cud told me that a good first-aid response would be to give her a homeopathic treatment for colic (it has a blend of a few ingredients used in digestive disorders). And to make sure that she has enough liquids, as dehydration would compound the issue. She responded well to a mixture of warm water, molasses and apple cider vinegar, about a tablespoon of molasses and 2 tablespoons cider vinegar for every Quart of water. I gave her as much as she would drink.

Next I hit the books, most useful to me are my homeopathic veterinary books. They give very good clinical descriptions of the illness and help me to accurately diagnose. Her symptoms matched up well with simple indigestion. Rapid breathing, sub-normal temperature (hence laying down in the sun on a hot day, when normally she would be laying in the shade), lack of appetite, listless, and the rumen would feel doughy and be inactive. I went back to the barn, and felt her rumen. It was indeed doughy, feeling like an under-kneeded ball of dough that does not spring back. There was no accumulation of gas, or tympany, which would make the rumen distended and sound hollow like a drum. This was at least good. Simple Indigestion, untreated, can compound into Acute Indigestion with toxemia (blood poisoning), or Bloat. I now had two priorities, to get Penelope's digestion working properly again, and to figure out what caused the indigestion so as not to repeat the conditions.

I felt the rumens in the rest of the herd, each feeling slightly doughy, but still somewhat active (meaning noticeable rumbling and movement in the digestive system). We watched them closely, and noticed one of the bucklings laying down, often in the sun, the next day. At noon, he was laying with his head on the ground, not a good sign. We got him up, gave him a half dose of the Colic remedy, and as much molasses, apple cider vinegar water as he would drink. He too responded well, but we were at the tipping point. If we did not get on top of this, it could easily develop into a critical stage and as I've learned from watching a healthy cow go down with milk fever, animals can deteriorate rapidly.

Penelope's appetite had responded to the treatments we gave her as a first-aid response, so we made sure she had high quality forages in front of her, in the barn, at all times. She was still on strike as to going out in the pasture, terrified by every buzzing insect (granted, she had a huge welt on one teat where a horsefly had bitten her, nasty buggers!). We scythed pasture, brambles, comfrey and primrose, and fed her in the manger. And kept up the molasses and apple cider vinegar. But we were also cautious as to what we fed her, as to avoid compounding the indigestion into bloat. Rich pastures heavy in clover can cause bloat, so we scythed mostly grassy pasture. And we were suspicious of the tree leaves, causing the indigestion. Earlier this spring, we had given them plenty of poplar, and some maple, but brought down some birch leaves on the day the horseflies came out. Was there something in the birch leaves, or something in young spring birch leaves, that is indigestible? Or was it the fact that they ate too many of the birch leaves, prefering the convenience of eating them, over going out on pasture amongst the bugs, therefore getting a high concentration of a chemical or toxin in the birch leaves, that would otherwise be harmless in small amounts?

This seemed to us the most likely cause of indigestion. So our next trip to the Internet Access Center included a session researching the toxicity of birch leaves, and indeed, there is a concentration of phenolic compounds in winter growth. These phenolic compounds have been found to depress or inhibit digestion in ruminants. See study here.

It is important to watch for signs of recovery in sick animals, if they are not responding to treatments, do not simply wait and hope they will get better eventually. If they do not respond, then most likely, the problem is not diagnosed properly, or the treatment is not being applied at the right level and frequency. Both Penelope and the buckling showed a quick response to treatments. Every dose of molasses, and apple cider vinegar, would stimulate their appetite, readily taking mouthfuls of forages instead of nibbling and nudging at the feed. The buckling's rumen was back to normal the next day, and he was resting in a cool corner of the barn at noon, chewing his cud. Penelope took a few days to recover, but each day looked less hollow, more active, had a more active appetite and rumen, and began to recover her milk production as well. On the third day since the illness she went out for a bit of a graze on the pasture, and a strong morning breeze blew the bugs away long enough for her to get a belly full. Now, a week since, the herd is back on pasture, but we still bring buckets of pasture, primrose and raspberry when the bugs are particularly thick, to the point of harassing the herd. Penelope is back up to a normal level of milk production, and putting condition back on. And we are keeping young birch leaves out of reach from now on.

It is much easier to research an appropriate treatment for a problem in the garden or the herd/flock once you understand the cause, or at the very least, can identify the symptoms. With these clues and bits of observation you can begin to diagnose the problem. Many remedies and treatments are easy to find and easy to apply, and most conditions, if not all, can be prevented in some measure. Do not neglect to research the preventative measure to avoid repeating the conditions in the future. But if you suspect or have identified a virulent pathogen or disease in your garden or herd/flock, do not hesitate to contact a professional (farmer, vet, agronomist), and maintain good hygiene to prevent spreading the disease.

08 June 2009

The market garden

We are growing a 1/4 acre market garden this year, specializing in peas and beans. It is a good crop for us to grow in new ground, with limited compost. And it is a crop that fits well into our local food system. We met with the one local vegetable farmer, who goes to a few Farmer's Markets and transports a lot of produce in a hundred mile radius. He does not grow peas and beans, but they are always a good seller at a market stall, and he would be more than happy to buy as much as we can grow and sell them at the market. Mutually beneficial.

The Snow Peas, Shelling Peas and Green Beans are planted in new ground, turned from pasture last fall. We rock picked the field, then marked out our rows and laid down a light layer of well rotted compost, the peas in rows 30 inches apart,
and the beans in beds, with rows 12 inches apart. We tilled the compost in, and planted succession crops 10 days apart, with the first harvest coinciding with the opening of the market in the first week of July.
We till the rows a few times to work up the weed seeds and grass rhizomes, and allow the crops to get about 4 inches tall before mulching.
The beans were spaced to allow us to run the tiller over the row. The gap between the two sets of rotating tines is 4 inches wide, and these tines are well worn. With new tines, we would take the two inside tines off for cultivation. There is enough clearance below the tiller to do a few close cultivations while the beans are in 2 and 4 leaf stage. After that, we mulch and the beans are off to a good start. The other benefit of cultivating legumes in early growth, instead of smothering with mulch, is that cultivation aerates the soil, and legumes fix nitrogen from the air. We always notice an inch of growth after cultivating.

For mulch, we are using leftover green leafy hay. We are not too worried about spreading weed seeds, as they are easy to cultivate out of the soil, and the majority of the seeds will rot as the mulch decomposes this summer. The benefit of using hay, over using straw, is the protein contained in the clover, dandelion, vetch and grass leaves. Protein is broken down into nitrogen, enriching our soil, and at the same time adding humus. When we lay down the hay, we shake out the "flakes" to spread it evenly, and the protein rich, fine leaf chaff settles against the soil, while the stalky stems stay on top, retaining moisture and smothering weeds. When I lifted the mulch to check the moisture retention, I found lots of worms already working on the mulch, as you can see the worm casting in the middle of the picture below.

04 June 2009

Hand Weeding

Hand weeding can be a big chore in the early garden. In my first few gardens, the weeds always got away on me, and I have since learned that weeding is more effective when done at the right times. Slow germinating seeds like carrots, parsnips, onions and herbs need the most hands-on weeding to give the crop a good start. Once they are up and going, they will out-grow and shade out the competing weeds, requiring only a minimum of maintenance through the season.

The first between-row weeding should be done after the crops emerge from the soil, especially with carrots and other root crops, they do not like to be disturbed or buried when they are just emerging. I use a blade hoe and run down the rows, just to knock back the majority of the weeds, careful not to cultivate out the crops.

The first hand weeding should be done when the crops are established, and if the weed pressure is not too bad, wait until the root crops have their first true leaves. This bed of parsnips had some established grasses the previous year, so I did my best to cultivate out all of the rhizomes and established weeds like clover, daisy and chickweed, before planting. But there's always some left behind. I waited for a good rain to soften the soil and hand picked the grasses, pulling up rhizome and all. This is the only kind of hand weeding I do in wet soil, or on cloudy damp days.

In a well cultivated bed of humus rich, moist soil, you can sink your hand right down, next to the grass, and pull up the rhizome without disturbing the crop.
Collect the rhizomes in a bucket, or something similar, and remove them from the garden. If they are left on the pathways they will re-root themselves, at least in our climate, we don't get enough dry, hot days in a row to kill grass rhizomes. The annual weeds are still small and can wait a week or so before hand weeding, but the rhizomes were just beginning to establish themselves, and would have been more difficult to remove completely a week later. So I went through and quickly pulled all the rhizomes while they still come easily out of the soil. Weeding at the right time, saves time.

This bed of onions was picked for rhizomes a week earlier, and the between-row cultivation done just after emergence of the crop. It is time for hand-weeding the annuals, so I waited for a sunny, warm, windy day. Annual weeds will wilt and be killed by exposure to a few hours of hot sun, and will not be able to re-root themselves on the surface of dry soil. Also, if you pull annual weeds from wet soil, you will notice that the soil sticks to the root ball, potentially disturbing your crop. This will happen less in dry soil.
I work down one row at a time, using both hands, looking ahead for the next onion in the row, pulling weeds to either side around it, and clearing the weeds between the next onion "blind" while my eyes scan for the next onion... In this way, I can move down a row quickly, and make short work of a job usually done in the height of mosquito season.

While weeding, I kept noticing these cut onion stems. I couldn't think of a cut-worm that would bother onions, so I speculated that I had somehow sliced them in cultivation, or that they had gotten a light frost in emergence and the frosted part died back. But it certainly did look like cut-worm damage to me, as there would be many in a row cut, and then none. Then I started to find the culprits.

It's a little guy, only 1/2 inch long. Our usual cutworms are much bigger, June beetle larvae, and they would not bother with onions, going for the bigger stems like beans or tomato transplants. But again and again, when disturbing the soil around cut onions, I would find these small caterpillars. Fortunately, the onions mostly recover from the cut, unlike beans and tomatoes, so they only set the crop back a bit.

The only moth I can remember seeing in any number in the garden yet are these small iridescent purple moths. And while I was weeding, one flew right down at my feet, allowing me to get a good look at it. Still hunting down it's name.

Ed: The cutworm is of the family Lepidoptera Noctuinae, cutworm or Dart moths. The moth below is not the culprit after all, but instead a rather plain looking moth that we have just recently begun to see. The cutworm larvae overwinter in the soil, emerge in spring as cutworms, then transform into the first generation of adult moths of the season. They can produce up to 3 generations in our climate. Cultivating the garden in the fall will disturb the larvae, but would also disturb the beneficial insect larvae such as Soldier Beetles. Allowing the chickens into the fall garden would help reduce the numbers, but we would need a much larger flock of chickens to do the job properly in a garden our size. The most promising predator of the cutworm looks to be Beneficial Nematodes which infest and feed on cutworms, killing them within 2 days. They can be purchased and applied, but we are looking into the conditions required in the soil to encourage our own native beneficial Nematodes such as Steinernema carpocapsae and Steinernema feltiae. Beneficial Nematodes also prey upon Flea Beetles (among many other insects).

Just a pretty little butterfly, anyone know it's name or family?