7.01.2008

Pests and a predator

Despite possible appearances to the contrary things are not always rosy on our suburban North Carolina homestead. Just when we think the garden looks great and all the plants seem healthy and happy along come the pests.

Aphids are always an issue with our tomato plants and this year has been no different. How they find us and how they manage to get to the plants I do not know but they always appear, multiply, and suck the juice out of our plants. A couple seasons ago they were so bad that we had to try something more extreme than the normal dousing in insecticidal soap, which seemed to have no effect on the creatures other than to make them slippery. After some web searching we decided to give lacewing larvae a shot so we ordered some from Planet Natural. They arrived as eggs that we set out in the garden just before a week-long beach trip. When we got back the aphids were gone. These dainty insects are of course harmless to humans but they spell doom for aphids.

This year I have seen several adult lacewings flitting about the garden so I'm hopeful that our initial planting of eggs has resulted in a thriving colony of these aphid munchers.

Another encouraging sign of aphid control is the increased number of ladybugs we're seeing on our tomatoes this year. We're trying to teach our three-year old son that ladybugs are a beneficial insect so any that we find in other parts of the yard get transported to the garden.

Unfortunately the aphids aren't the only things that have harrassed the tomatoes. A few weeks back I was finding small caterpillars - maybe 3/8" to 3/4" long - on several of the plants. I'm not sure what these were but they had almost black bodies with two parallel yellow/green lines running the length of the body. They weren't doing extensive damage but were eating some leaves. We collected these caterpillars by hand and offered them to the chickens who eagerly scarfed them up.

Of course we've also had a few hornworms but thankfully these were found, plucked, and also turned into chicken food before they destroyed an entire plant. It's amazing what these things can do to a tomato plant in no time. The best way I've found to spot these guys is to look for their droppings, which are also apparently called, "frass". Their droppings are dark brown to black and have a sort of kernel-like texture. The dark color helps the frass show up easily against the green of tomato leaves. Once you see the droppings look for the hornworm to be somewhere close by - usually a few inches higher up on the plant.

Here's a shot of a new pest that I think might be a strawberry leaf roller. Anyone have any experience with these? This is our first year with strawberries so I'm not as familiar with their pest species.

While these pests are certainly doing no good to their host plants our chickens have benefitted from their presence in the form of tasty snacks. However, the chickens have invited a pest of their own, a predator really, in the form of a black rat snake who has been stealing eggs. This is gardening related because the chickens eat scrap produce and turn it into droppings that get mixed with their bedding and turned into compost that goes in the garden where the whole process starts over.

Here's the snake making his getaway after an egg run:

I trapped him once and released him deep in our woods. No good. He came back the next day and ate everything laid that day. The next time I found him he was actually camped out inside the chicken coop digesting the day's eggs. I trapped him again and this time drove him to a natural area next to a county park about three miles from our house and released him. We've had no egg stealing since.

3 comments:

Mox said...

Very interesting post. Your snake photo makes me glad that I live in Alaska -- no snakes, none, zip!

Joshua McNichols said...

Have you considered applying a finer mesh? i don't know what tolerances are required to keep out snakes, but up here, we use 1/2 inch mesh to keep the rats out. We don't have snakes big enough to eat eggs. I buy it off a giant spool at the hardware store. It's more expensive than chicken wire, but I've been told raccoons can still get chickens through chickens wire (their arms fit through).

Brian and Dianne said...

I used 1/2 inch hardware cloth on three of the four sides of the coop. On the fourth side I used chicken wire over wooden lattice. I've since put 1/2 inch hardware cloth over the chicken wire and fill in some small cracks in the framing with expanding foam. I didn't have as much nailing surface as I wanted for putting the hardware cloth on so I had to "sew" the chicken wire to the hardware cloth in some spots using loose wire. This wasn't the best solution so I suspect this is where the snake got back in. No reappearance of any snakes though since the relocation. So far so good.