Identity Crisis?

For the past couple of months, I’m not so sure that my duck knows that she’s a duck. She and another female duck once shared a drake, and they all lived together in their own “duckingham palace.”

  Sometime after the other female and the drake were taken by a predator, probably a fox or coyote, I thought our remaining female might enjoy some company at night. So I coaxed her to take up nightly residence with our three chickens — a rooster and two hens — who have their own house (“chickingham palace?,” actually more palatial than duckingham palace).
Chicken & duck, off to work
Not only has Ms. Duck moved in with the chickens at night but she also wanders around with the flock by day. Her special companion is the rooster, especially since the two chicken hens decided to spend much of their days sitting on imaginary eggs. Neither hen has laid a real egg for over a month. So the female duck and the rooster stroll together each day, gobbling up insects, weed seeds, and some vegetation, except, of course, within the fenced confines of the vegetable gardens. I’ve even caught them in flagrante delicto.

  The duck, being a duck, enjoys water. Her idea of a pond is the 3-foot-diameter children’s sandbox repurposed with water that we’ve provided for her bathing pleasure. During the bath, the rooster stands nearby, watching and seemingly trying to figure out what’s going on with his water-loving belle.

Beetles and Vespids

This season has seen both an abundance and a lack of some other, smaller creatures here on the farmden. In July, I saw a few Japanese beetles and braced for an onslaught, ready to repel them with a spray of neem extract or kaolin clay if things got ugly. Although I heard about the beetles descending in hordes on some other gardens near and far, I’ve hardly seen any all summer since then.
Japanese beetles
This beetle-less trend has been going on here for a few years. I’m not sure exactly why. Japanese beetles do have some natural predators and diseases, including beneficial nematodes. Whatever’s helping out, I’m thankful that they’re doing their job.

  Making up for a lack of Japanese beetles has been an abundance of yellowjackets, reflecting, perhaps, good weather conditions, for them, in spring. In contrast to honeybees, yellowjacket colonies do not overwinter; only the queens do. But the bigger the colony this summer, the more young queens develop to fly off and find winter quarters to build up colonies next summer. These insects start out the season feasting on high protein foods but have now shifted to sweets.

European hornets are also in abundance, with their large size looking more frightening than the yellowjackets but, in fact, not nearly so aggressive. They do have a bigger appetite for fruits, though, often hollowing out whole apples to leave nothing but most of the skin, intact.
Apple being damaged by European hornet
Yellowjackets and European hornets have made me more cautious when berry-picking. The insects are capable of breaking through thin skins so are actually robbing a significant part of the late summer raspberries. A close eye is needed to avoid harvesting an angry yellowjacket along with a berry. Early in the morning, they are especially grumpy when wakened from their resident berry. 
Yellow jacket on raspberry
Yellowjackets and European hornets are also a problem on compost piles in progress. Fresh additions to the pile, especially sweet ones such as melon rinds, quickly need covering with a layer of hay or manure. This hides the food and gets it composting.

  Although yellow jackets are beneficial in the garden for eating plant pests, their present habits mostly outweigh the good, for me, at least. (I’m allergic to their stings.) I destroy any nests I happen upon with torch or insecticide. Insecticides with mint as their active ingredients are very effective.

A Bag for Protection

  Grapes have tougher skins than raspberries, skins that can resist yellowjackets. That is, until a bird takes a peck or a couple of diseased berries split open.

  In anticipation of problems with yellowjackets, European hornets, honeybees, birds, insects, and diseases, earlier this summer we enclosed 100 bunches of grapes in white delicatessen bags. Not that all unbagged grapes get attacked. But the bagged bunches can be left hanging the longest to develop fullest flavor. Most of the time, we tear open the bags to reveal perfect bunches of grapes.
Bagged vs unbagged grapes
For the first time, this year, I enclosed some grape bunches in organza bags. (Organza is a fine mesh fabric often used to enclose such items as wedding favors.) These bags were working really well until the European hornets got hungry enough to poke feeding holes in them. This ruined some of the berries and allowed access to fruit flies.
Organza bagged grapesThe first grapes of the season, Somerset Seedless and Glenora, started ripening towards the end of August. The first of these varieties is one of many bred by the late Wisconsin dairy farmer cum grape breeder Elmer Swenson. The fruits of his labors literally run the gamut from varieties, such as Edelweiss, having strong, foxy flavor (the characteristic flavor component of Concord grapes and many American-type grapes) to those with mild, fruity flavor reminiscent of European-type grapes. Somerset Seedless is more toward the latter end of the spectrum and, of course, it’s seedless. Swenson red and Briana, which are ripe as you read this, are more in the middle of the spectrum.

  As you might guess from Elmer’s location, all the varieties that he bred are very cold-hardy.

Thanks, Elmer.

Japanese beetles


I grabbed the dustbuster as I walked out to the garden this morning, hoping to inaugurate a new era in Japanese beetle control, who began their summer feeding early this month. The dustbuster was ineffective, the beetles passively dropping from any leaf as soon as the nozzle came within a few inches. Even beetles caught in flagrante delicto decoupled and dropped.
This year’s approach to Japanese beetle control will be laissez-faire. Spraying a chemical insecticide like Sevin is too disruptive to the ecosystem. Most organic insecticides, such as neem oil and pyrethrum, are either of limited effectiveness or require too frequent reapplication. And anyway, the beetles attack too many different kinds of plants to make spraying feasible; I’ve got over a dozen varieties of grapes, a half dozen varieties of roses, many varieties of filberts, and a dozen hardy kiwi vines scattered all over the place, and these are just a few of the beetles’ favorites in my garden.
In past years, I’ve put traps a couple of hundred feet apart at either end of the property. Each morning, the catch bags were stuffed full of beetles. But many of those trapped beetles would not have been on-site were it not for the allure (from sexual and feeding attractants) of the traps. The traps seem to work best when only a few Japanese beetles are in the area.
Japanese beetles can get sick from a fungus that attacks them while they spend late summer to late spring in the soil as white, C-shaped grubs. You can purchase the disease, milky spore disease, with which to infect them. Problem is that the disease is of limited effectiveness: Not enough grubs sicken and die and, even if effective, beetles emerging in summer can fly over from neighbors’ untreated yards.
I’ll probably do a little handpicking, knocking or dropping beetles in early morning, while they are still drowsy, into soapy water, from which an escape is too slippery. Hand to hand combat is satisfying and surely effective (for the ones killed, at least). Japanese beetles emit an aroma that attracts more beetles, so hand to hand combat is also intellectually satisfying in the knowledge that each beetle killed means fewer new ones attracted.
The laissez-faire approach has its merits. Plants tolerate a certain amount of defoliation, the remaining greenery ratcheting up photosynthesis to make up for leaf loss.  And if the plants can just hang on for a few weeks, the beetles then begin their exit anyway, their attention turning to laying of eggs in the ground to hatch into grubs for next year’s beetles. Well watered, lush lawns provide ideal conditions for egg laying and grub development; ‘nuff said.
Flea beetles, which have peppered the eggplants’ leaves full of holes, will not be emulating Japanese beetles and exiting stage left anytime soon. If you grow eggplants, you have flea beetles, except for perhaps the first year or two in a new garden, before the pests have found your site. Other favorites on flea beetles’ menu are radishes, arugula, and turnips.
Flea beetles, in contrast to Japanese beetles, can be feasibly thwarted. A dustbuster, in this case, can be effective if used frequently enough. A thick mulch might interfere with their emergence from the soil. Fine mesh fabrics, — “floating row covers” — act as barriers although I like to be able to see my plants and the cover has to be removed during bloom to allow for pollination of eggplants.
Mostly, flea beetles are a concern with young seedlings, which can be killed, and for commercial growers, because customers don’t like to buy hole-y vegetables. 
Flea beetles hop away when disturbed and my favorite way to do them in is with the “flea beetle trolley” described on page 144 of Lawrence D. Hill’s Grow Your own Vegetables (Faber and Faber, 1971). Quoting Mr. Hill, “A wire in front disturbs the beetles which jump up and stick to the greaseband [flypaper or paper coated with Tangletrap would also work well]. The large wheels prevent sideways jumping.” The trolley works best on masses of leaves of small plants, such as radishes or arugula, rather than on widely spaced, larger plants with tiers of leaves.
Hot pepper may repel flea beetles. Research suggests that commercial “hot pepper wax” reduced flea beetle damage by about a half, so it may be worth a try.
I might take the laissez-faire approach to flea beetles as well as Japanese beetles. I’ll keep in mind that established plants tolerate 10 to 30% loss of leaf area without ill effect.
Sometimes it pays to look closely at your garden plants; sometimes it doesn’t. My general tack with plant pests starts with offering my plants the best possible growing conditions. This means soil that drains adequately and is enriched with plenty of compost and other organic materials to provide nutrients and a friendly microbial environment. It means providing water, as needed. And it means allowing for adequate plant spacing and light. Still, it’s a wide world of insects, fungi, bacteria, and viruses out there, as well as capricious weather, so there’s no reason to expect perfection from each leaf and fruit. Much damage is nothing more than cosmetic and is tolerated by plants. 
One nicety of home-grown fruits and vegetables is that there’s no monetary profit needing to be optimized. So some amount of damage is, and also should be, tolerated by us home gardeners.