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Garden Mysteries

Early summer gardens provide numerous opportunities for solving mysteries.  It’s often fun and rewarding to engage children in the careful observation, brainstorming, research, and problem solving required to keep your plants strong and healthy.  Who nibbled that lettuce?  Why didn’t those beans germinate in certain spots?

Row covers can help keep insects, rabbits, deer, and/or cats out of the garden if one specific row or crop is being targeted.
Row covers can help keep insects, rabbits, deer, and/or cats out of the garden if one specific row or crop is being targeted.

The range of possibilities – from little bugs to large mammals to disease – is often surprising.  In the past few weeks, we have had a lot of excitement as we attempt to identify a few destructive mysterious four-legged visitors to our gardens.  Continue reading to hear about this season’s garden detective work.   To learn more about controlling insect pests in your garden, check out this past post.

“Let Us Grow Lettuce!”  My attempts to grow lettuce in our school garden this spring were mysteriously challenged as the school year drew to a close.  The kid-transplanted seedlings had suffered a bit of a shock after being planted on a sunny afternoon, but they were finally looking more established with a new set of chartreuse leaves springing from the ground.

And then, one night, there was a garden visitor.  Leaves were nibbled and a swath of seedlings were completely gone in an area that looked like an hopping animal had run through.  Knowing about our local rabbit population, I spread some of the school’s domestic rabbits’ pellets around the garden hoping to discourage Nibbles, Harley, and Mother’s wild relatives from coming back.

eaten-eggs-and-holeThe next morning, I arrived to a scene of death and destruction.  A  hole had been dug in the center of the lettuce bed and dead seedlings lay unearthed on the ground.  Turtle eggshells, rolled up and dried out, were scattered among the dead plants.  With recent reports of skunk and snapping turtle sightings, I was able to more accurately identify the range of animals who had visited the garden and prevented my little lettuce babies from thriving.

eaten-eggs-and-lettuceThe night before a snapping turtle had visited our garden to lay her eggs.  After burying up her nest, she nibbled some tender young lettuce as she made her way back to the river.  The next night, a skunk had a feast.  Yummy fresh eggs were unearthed and slurped up.  Mr. Skunk even came back again the next night to make sure he had gotten all of the eggs, digging up the garden once again!  I’m hoping that our garden may now be left alone, giving new seeds a chance to sprout and thrive in our school’s vibrant backyard ecosystem.

nibbled-carrot-tops“Carrots Topped”  At my house, it turns out, rabbits were the culprits.  The tell-tale sign of nibbled carrot tops gave them away.  After discovering this clue, we realized that the rabbits may have been the reason behind our peas’ poor germination, the missing patches of beans in an otherwise perfectly germinated row, and the seemingly vast appetites of this year’s generation of cabbage loopers.

nibbled-beansKnowing what a great diet of organic greens these rabbits had been eating, my dad “harvested” two adults with his pistol!  Using YouTube videos as a resource, he gutted and skinned them.  We enjoyed a delicious rabbit stew for dinner (recipe here), thinking that our garden might finally be left alone that night.  This morning, we chased another healthy adult rabbit away.  It seems we may get a few more chances to test out that recipe!


Home Gardens School Gardens

Time to Keep Garden Pests Under Control

It’s been a great growing season.  We got an early start and have had a decent mix of rain and warm sunny days.  Now that your tender seedlings are reaching up toward the sky, it’s a crucial time to prevent pest damage.  Plants are especially vulnerable when they are young with only a few leaves to gather energy from the sun.  Unfortunately, young tender leaves are also the most desirable food for most pests.

I have found it helpful to review the life cycle of an insect with gardeners trying to keep pests out of their gardens.  Different insects are easier to control at certain stages – checking out this page may save you a lot of time and energy!

For small kitchen or container gardens, the best way to keep pests under control is daily monitoring and hand picking/squishing.  If squishing bugs, eggs, and caterpillars between your fingers feels too violent or gross, you can place critters between a leaf or tissue first.  Remember to look under leaves and along stems – pests are rarely in plain sight!

If your plants are really being attacked, use google to find organic pest solutions using words describing what you have observed, the type of plant, and the word “organic.”  In the photos below, I’ve illustrated some of the bugs bothering our vegetables:

Young cabbage worm on broccoli leaf

Can you find me?  This is a small cabbage worm on a broccoli seedling.  They are very well camouflaged and are usually found along the stem or underside of the leaves of broccoli, cabbage, kale, or collards.

Snail on broccoli seedling

Snails and slugs thrive in damp humid environments.  One down-side of mulching is the creation of snail and slug homes near your plants.  They usually come out after dark and feast at night.

Three Lined Potato Beetle laying eggs on tomatillo seedling

These little beetles love love love our tomatillo plants. They lay small bright orange eggs on the undersides of leaves. Squish eggs, and then the little brown worms that emerge, to avoid breeding the hard-to-catch and destructive adult beetles!

Beetle eggs on the underside of a tomatillo leaf
Flea Beetle damage to eggplant seedling

Flea beetles damage leaves of plants from many different families.  To keep them off your seedlings, try laying row cover cloth over the young plants and sealing the edges to the ground using rocks or stakes.  Once the plants have enough leaves to withstand these pests, remove the cloth.  This is a good preventative method for all flying pests (remember, most insects in their adult stages can fly and are hard to catch and kill).

Row covers protect young cucumber seedlings
Black netting keeps our cat out

Remember that non-insect pests also cause damage to gardens. This black netting is lightly mounded over the soil and keeps our cat from using the newly seeded carrot bed as a litter box.

Marigolds and tomatos planted side by side

Remember to use preventative methods to keep pests out.  Strong healthy plants do not attract as many pests or diseases compared to stressed ones.  Companion planting, like the tomato and marigold pairing above, will help your organic garden thrive.  Some companions actually help their friends by attracting predatory insects that will eat the pests!

As you work to keep pests away, never forget that organic gardening depends on creating an ecosystem in your garden.  That ecosystem includes pollinating and predatory insects.  Always look up the pest before squishing – it might, after all, be a garden friend.