A healthy, balanced oasis in the midst of agribiz?

owiebrain(5 MO)July 26, 2011

As most of you know, I'm surrounded in this new place by fields and fields of corn & soybeans, all farmed in the normal agribiz way. Most of you also know that I garden in the most natural (read: LAZY) way possible. I know it takes time/work to get a new place up & running, to get it balanced with all of the things needed to be its own little ecosystem with checks & balances needed to keep things going smoothly. But I'm wondering if such a balanced, healthy little ecosystem is even possible here, surrounded by regular spraying of whatever-cides, large-scale.

I assume that there will always be problems keeping a balance but I'm hopeful I can achieve something here. I loved that, in the old place, we were surrounded by wilderness and that healthy ecosystem was pretty much a given. Here, as I learn about the new battles I'll have, I begin to wonder if I'll have to give up certain crops or just admit defeat & the necessity of spraying things I don't want to. I know that even minimal spraying can upset the balance and make for more work in the long run but if I can never achieve that balance fully anyway...

Gah. Does anyone know what I'm saying? I can't seem to form a clear thought today, let along a coherent paragraph. LOL


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Diane, I know exactly what you are saying. I have been trying to not spray also. Last year we had an invasion of Army worms and had to spray to try to save the pasture for hay and cattle. I eventually lost my tomatoes to pin worms last year. I pulled and burned the plants and much of the mulch. Also I had to spray one of DW's Clematis because of Blister beetles.

I will continue to work toward a no till, no spray environment, but I want bust my butt just to have fat insects.


    Bookmark   July 26, 2011 at 12:16PM
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Diane, I do know just exactly what you're saying. I lived for several years in a major agri-business area where the spraying was done by cropdusters. Nothing I like better than to have my entire house reeking for days from malathion dropped by an aerial spray. Yecccchhhh!!

But, I don't think there's anything like that going on here, and yes, I do think you can create at least a partial oasis where you are. Let me give this some thought and then maybe we can go into it a bit more.


    Bookmark   July 26, 2011 at 12:30PM
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Diane, When we were at Baker Creek the other day, they had yards and yards of garden covered by row cover. I could see rows of tomatoes that didn't have covers but it looked like most everything else was growing under cover. I was just looking from the road but it appeared to be 10 foot wide cover over a wide arch.

I have told Al for a couple of years that I am afraid that is what we are going to need to do as well and I really hate to do it because I enjoy looking at the plants growing in the garden. Flea beetles have always made it difficult to grow eggplant without cover, but if I can get them through the Spring then they can make it. Then the Japanese Beetles come and they eat the grapes, hollyhocks, okra, and the last two years have eaten the pole beans.
This year the grasshoppers are starting to move in and I don't normally have a problem with them.

I don't live in an agricultural area and the closest real field crops are a few miles away. I know they plant pestacide treated field corn seed.

I hate to deflate anyones dream of growing naturally but each year I find that it is harder and harder for me to do. Since I refuse to spray dangerous pesticides, I have been trying to think of other ways.

In addition to the bug problem, our weather seems to have changed and the line between the seasons is much more jagged than it once was. Some winters we have weeks of good growing weather when we shouldn't have, then it is followed by more winter weather. In the fall, we may have a freeze then 3 more weeks of fall or summer temps.

I think we may all have to garden undercover soon to protect our crops. It means we will have to re-think what we grow. I like pole beans much better than bush beans, but how do you keep a 8 foot tall bean plant under cover? I like big rambling vines, but will be taking a careful look at more compact variaties in the future.

I have had a new pest this year that I haven't seen before. It is a huge green beetle and I see one almost everytime I walk through my garden. I have also seen several dead ones on the ground which has made me wonder if someone close to me is spraying for them and it doesn't kill them immediately, because I'm not spraying them.

I guess my mind has been looking toward, hoophouses, greenhouses, screenhouses, fruit cages, and row covers lately because I think the time is almost here when they are required. Good soil and sunshine may not be enough.

    Bookmark   July 26, 2011 at 12:32PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7


I think you're wondering if you can maintain a healthy, viable ecosystem in your own little piece of paradise even though you're surrounded by commercial farmers that we assume probably are farming conventionally with the use of chemical pesticides and fungicides, and probably chemical fertilizers as well?

I think you can do it, although a lot depends on what pesticides the commercial producers are using and on how often they use them. In the best possible scenario, you're surrounded by organic or mostly organic farmers which I know probably is unlikely. In the next best possible scenario, your farming neighbors are using more narrow-spectrum types of pesticides as opposed to broad-spectrum ones. I don't think that's very likely either. All those ag-related chemical products are expensive though, and I don't think anyone overuses them anymore because it just increases their input costs. They probably use them carefully, and don't overspray and don't use them if they don't need them.

If I were you and I were gardening in similar circumstances, my biggest worry would be that pesticide drift would kill all the beneficial insects. As a beekeeper, I am sure that is a huge concern for you as well. This year, I'd just watch and see what sort of insects are around the garden. For example, are you seeing green lacewings, honey bees (other than your own) or bumblebees, hornets, wasps, moths, butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies, assasin beetles, lady bugs or tiny predatory wasps? Ground beetles? Got birds? Lizards? Frogs? Toads? Bunnies? Deer? Their presence or absence could provide clues about the general heath of the ecosystem in which you live.

Remember that beneficial insects will move to wherever their food sources can be found. So, if you don't have enough pest insects to feed the beneficials, the beneficials will depart for greener pastures.

In our early years here, we had tons and tons and tons of green lacewings and I was thrilled to have them because they are pest-devouring machines. One year I noticed their population was down a great deal, and then the next year I hardly saw any at all. I felt concerned (panicky!) about their absence at first. Upon further reflection, I realized they had existed in huge numbers because our ecosystem was out of balance in those early years and the pests were present in epic numbers. As the soil improved and the plant health improved, the ecosystem came into balance and there weren't as many pest insects so, consequently, there weren't as many beneficials. Once I realized that, I calmed down. The green lacewing population never really has become very large again, so I assume my ecosystem remains fairly well-balanced. That first year or two after they "disappeared", though, I wasn't sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing.

You might find that your natural population of beneficial insects is low intially. I believe you could attempt to overcome that by purchasing and releasing beneficials from an insectary in a year or two from now if you don't see a natural population of beneficials appearing on its own. From that point forward, you'd just have to watch and see if their population thrives, or if it goes away. If it goes away, then I'd conclude that either pesticide drift is killing the beneficials or that there's not enough pest insects to feed a population of beneficials. It may be that your population of beneficials will be wonderful because your organic place will be like a refuge for them in a world of conventionally-farmed land.

I don't think you'll have to give up any specific crop. In fact, you may find your farming neighbors' use of pesticides does keep your own pest population low. The pests may have a hard time traveling through thousands of acres of sprayed fields in order to find your garden.

So, I think all you can do is watch and wait, and do things the way you've always done them, and evaluate the effectiveness of your growing management techniques as well as your crop performance. Don't forget to factor in the weather, and the learning curve that comes with gardening in a new area.

I believe everything will be fine.


    Bookmark   July 26, 2011 at 12:38PM
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Although I live a long way from you, I live in a similar situation. I have a 120 acres of either never plowed grassland or grassland in the process of restoration surrounded by cotton and wheat fields.

Here are my suggestions, although I know nothing about your place:

1) Get to know your farmer neighbors. Farmers are usually very nice people and have families and live on their land. They really don't want to do anything that hurts their land and especially their families. While they use very different techniques in large scale agricultural production because of the demands of the marketplace, they nearly all have a love for the land. This will reduce your anxiety.

2) In a related vein, get to know what they do and when they do it. It then won't be as mysterious to you or as anxiety provoking.

3) See your place as an oasis in a farmland desert. Do some research. Plant a butterfly and/or pollinator garden with plants native to your ecoregion. Find out what the native vegetation was on your site before it was originally cleared for agricultural production and try to replace some of it, even if it is only in a very small area. If you're lucky there may be a fragment of original prairie or woodland on your place; if so, treasure it and expand it. You will be pleasantly surprised by the increase in insect and other wildlife diversity that results.

Fortunately, I grew up on this farm and the the man who farms my fields is a relative and life-long friend. So points 1 and 2 are moot to me, but they have helped my partner overcome her anxiety about big agribiz. And habitat restoration and seeing life come back is an ongoing pleasure for us.

Texas Panhandle

    Bookmark   July 26, 2011 at 11:43PM
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owiebrain(5 MO)

Oh, my sinuses.... *groan* I don't expect to make any more sense today. LOL

Being constantly buzzed by crop dusting planes the past couple of weeks brought this to the front of my mind. I'm not worried about any particular crop or season, I'm trying to form my long-term plan. I'm not panicked or anything, I'm just kind of a weirdo about always having a big-picture plan in mind as I go through my days.

I went to our beekeeping association meeting last night and one of the fellas there said a neighboring farmer called him to inform that they'd be crop dusting the next day. (I think Illinois law requires farmers to notify beekeepers but Missouri has nothing like that.) They were spraying a fungicide and insecticide. The neighboring farmer is also a beekeeper and both he and the fella at the meeting expected this to affect their bees -- as in death. But what else is there to do? It's not like they could ground their bees for the day. LOL So they take some losses as part of doing business.

I'm wondering exactly how much area is needed for a sustainable population of beneficials. I know each insect will have its own space requirements, its own threshold of plant population, overwintering space, some will not be able to cross acres of pesticide-coated fields to get/stay established in my spot, etc, etc. I'm just thinking out loud here, by the way, and don't expect anyone to spell all of these details out for me. ;-) I think, when I'm terribly bored over the winter, I'll do some reading up on that sort of thing. I'll make a list of the basic beneficials and see what their needs are. Maybe by the time I'm 102, I'll have half of the things figure out. LOL

By the way, We are not at all a barren wasteland here as far as insect populations go but I do notice a huge difference between here and the old place. There's not nearly the diversity here that I'm used to.

(I do thrive on this sort of challenge, by the way! It's sick but true. LOL)


    Bookmark   July 27, 2011 at 10:26AM
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I guess we're fairly lucky in that we live out in the country with mostly natural woods around. There are no big farming operations within miles, so I don't have to contend with the pesticide/herbicide situation, and I'm pretty selective about anything I do use.

The awful place I spoke about earlier was a huge rice farm in the Sacramento Valley, and if the farmers around us weren't growing rice, then the fields were in production for corn. The cropdusters were in the air all the time. The stuff was unavoidable, and there was even a landing strip for the planes right behind my house. By "right behind" in mean as in less than 50' from the house. Sometimes it sounded like they'd land on the roof!

But, I did talk to the ranch manager and the owner of the cropdusting service about the chemicals, and I learned a few things. Stuff like the nasty, smelly malathion for mosquito control is not nearly as dangerous as the non-smelly agricultural grade of Sevin, for instance. The spraying and chemical use in that area was so intense that a lot of people said they wouldn't eat the catfish or crawdads that they took from the canals, because they were apt to glow in the dark.
I didn't like any of it, and it was hard to live with the reek of malathion inside the house, but the talks did give me a different viewpoint on what was being used where. Not a particularly good view, but a different one; a little better understanding of the various chemicals. Three separate times over the years I've managed to be in a place where I either got 'Cropdusted' or sprayed with a commercial application of pesticide from a pumper truck that was fogging an area that they thought to be free of people. I wonder if they're trying to tell me something???? However, it has caused permanent damage to my lungs. Not a very pretty picture. Pesticides are to be approached and used with caution. (Well, duh!! Sorry about that.)


    Bookmark   July 28, 2011 at 1:24PM
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Just a quick note about two advances I've seen this year. Now, though I've gardened since I was four, and I'm now 52, I still have those "head slapping moments" when I think "DUH! That's so simple. Why didn't I think of it sooner!" Anyway, since moving to Tahlequah I've developed a strong back by constant work with a mattock and fork. But occasionally I'd experience something akin to a "Zen" moment in regards to cultivation. Suddenly weeding and digging would seem almost effortless and I could make really fast progress. I'd think, "Hey, I'm seeing some real soil improvement here!" And then... everything would seemingly go back to the old struggle and sweaty bone jarring work. Well, here's the latest "Duh! Moment:" If I water well, the day before I work an area, my soil becomes really easy to work! (I told you I'm not so fast on the uptake.) Anyway, I've been doing that for a couple weeks and have had great hope that I could actually get the garden in good shape. But almost two weeks ago I hurt my back at work, and now, I've been a week without being able to do anything at all in the garden. So, we'll see. If I behave another week, perhaps I can get back out there and see some real progress.

The second major advance is in regard to the spined soldier bug. Dawn mentioned this one some months ago. I looked it up and thought "Son of a gun! I've been squishing those, thinking they were just a variation of stink bug!) So I stopped doing that. My potatoes got hit by potato beetles, and I kept resisting the idea of dusting or spraying. I hand picked some and kept hoping for beneficials to show up. Finally, after about three weeks, they did. I believe it was the spined soldier bug which did the job.


Here is a link that might be useful: Spined Soldier Bug

    Bookmark   July 30, 2011 at 7:59AM
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A few eons ago, I read some of Jerry Baker's tips and tricks for natural remedies in the garden. We tried a few of them, such as using cheap beer to de-thatch a poor lawn, but then I moved on to other things and didn't pay much attention. Now that I'm in OK and dealing with whole new varieties of problems, I've checked some of his books out of the library and began reading again. He's helped me identify some of the good bugs vs the baddies, and how to encourage the good ones while controlling the bad guys. He says that the soldier bugs prey on cuke beetles, asparagus beetles, aphids, and a lot more. He also says to plant catnip, coriander, or tansy among the taters to act as repellents for the bugs. I think I'm going to do a lot more exploring into the idea of companion planting to deter certain pests next year, since certain plants act as attractants to the natural predators, while others can post a big 'keep out' sign in the garden for the nasty guys.


    Bookmark   July 30, 2011 at 11:37AM
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Jerry Baker - Oh really! I bought a couple of his books and they seemed like mostly nonsense to me.

Catnip - I don't need anymore cat problems.
Coriander - Would keep ME out of the garden.
Tansy - I thought that was an agressive plant.

Am I missing something here?

    Bookmark   July 30, 2011 at 12:34PM
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George, I do the same thing with the soil, mainly to keep the dust down. I now use a tiller because my back tells me I am not to use shovels, mattocks or anything of that nature.

I can use post hole diggers, so I made a tool from 1/2" metal pipe with a tee handle on top that I can hold much like post hole diggers. The bottom of the pipe is mashed flat and cut to "V" point. I attach a water hose to one side of the tee handle and bounce and twist the pipe to bore a hole into the soil. I let the soil dry a day or two then rake or till amended soil into the holes. I am slowly increasing the depth of my topsoil by doing this.

I am temped to try the same thing with larger plastic pipe.


    Bookmark   July 30, 2011 at 2:37PM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7

George, I love the spined soldier beetles. They are the most wonderful garden helpers I've ever had.

I'm sorry to hear your hurt your back and hope you're feeling better soon.

Pat, I wouldn't plant any of those too close to the potatoes because they'll compete for the same space.

Carol, I plant catnip in the garden for our cats, but it doesn't get aggressive and get out of control although it reseeds vigorously because the cats 'love to death' every plant they discover by rolling on them and squashing them down flat to the ground. We've wondered if the catnip might be one reason the bobcats love to lurk in our garden, although so far this year the taller fence is keeping them out. I also think the bobcats just might like to hang out there to hunt for birds or for my cats.

Coriander is great at attracting beneficial insects if you let it flower, but if you cannot abide the smell of it, then I wouldn't plant it either. You want (and rightfully so) for your garden to be a place you enjoy.

Tansy is horribly invasive. I had it for 5 or 6 years and then spent 3 or 4 years digging out every new sprout and composting them because they crowd out everything else. In our veggie garden border, the tansy tended to get about 4' tall and 3' wide after it was established and it drove me crazy. It shaded out or crowded out every single herb or flower growing near it and when it got tall enough, it started shading determinate tomatoes nearby. I cut it back relentlessly and all that did was make it grow more and more. I love tansy, but don't have one single plant now and I am glad. You can't have 1 single plant except when you first plant it. After that you have dozens of them, if not hundreds.

I'm not a big fan of Jerry Baker's concoctions either.


    Bookmark   July 30, 2011 at 4:35PM
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owiebrain(5 MO)

Carol, I save a bunch of cilantro seed for you this year. ;-) We LOVE cilantro and can never get enough of it!

The crop dusters seem to have moved on at last. I thought they'd never leave. If I ever get to talk to any of the farmers around here, I'll ask them directly what they use but, for now, I have to rely on second-hand info from others around me. All I've been able to corner so far are the hired hands who run the tractors.

George, my entire life is a continuing forehead-slapping experience. LOL


    Bookmark   July 30, 2011 at 5:48PM
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Funny Diane! I think I sent you one or two packs last year. I know I had four packs and sent them all out in the seed swap. Seedmama said hers did well.

Everytime I order a grab bag of any sort, I am blessed with cilantro. I already have two packs this year so I guess you and seedmama can grow it for me. (grin) Just promise not to send it to me, OK.

I ordered TM grab bags again this year, but only the vegetables and the sprouting seeds, so I didn't get more of that same kind. I think these two packs are from the Seeds of Change free offer. Actually I have a daughter who likes it also and will stand in the garden and eat it. I have a friend who makes the best Mexican food, but she leaves out the cilantro because one of her sons and I just can't stand it. She puts it on the table like a little bouquet and people add their own. I avoid carrying it between the dining table and the kitchen.

On the other hand, I just brought in basil a few minutes ago, and I can still smell it on my hands, and I love that.

    Bookmark   July 30, 2011 at 8:23PM
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I'm not entirely a fan of Jerry Baker's either, even though I brought up his name. I agree that a lot of his concoctions are either impractical or pretty repulsive, but there are gems in among the rest that make some of his stuff worth a read. It just has to be all sorted out, is all. I do like the way he describes the good bugs as opposed to the bad ones, and that he lists things to plant to attract the first or repel the second. Whether I follow all of his advice is another story entirely.
I haven't had tansy turn invasive, but I've never grown it in OK either, so that's good to know. I don't have any problem with cilantro, and I do love basil. Has anyone tried planting it in pretty close under the tomato plants? It's supposed to be a good companion, and tomatoes provide shade for the basil.

Mostly, I put his information together with what I already know I like or do not like, and what some of the specific problems might be, and go from there. I'd hate to use any of his books . . . or anyone else's either, as a gardening bible without any independent thought.

Twice I've tried planting nepeta because I like the loose look of it in bloom, and had no luck with it either time. I don't know if it's as good as real catnip, but we have enough trouble with stray cats around here that the last thing I want to do is attract any more of them. I'll cross all catnip-like things off.

George, on working your compacted soil, just remember that if it's clay, the more you work it, the more compacted it will become. Unless you are working in large amounts of compost or amendment, that is. You can't water and turn clay without it becoming more and more dense. That's why I'm going to cover mine up with a whole stack of mulch and let it sit there until next spring, when we'll try to turn it in, and then mulch it some more.


    Bookmark   July 30, 2011 at 9:02PM
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Thanks Pat. Yes, I add tons of mulch and compost (probably literally tons). Once I get an area pretty well cleared I try to stick with hand and surface weeding. But Johnson grass, and a couple other invasives do require a mattock at times.


    Bookmark   July 31, 2011 at 7:36AM
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Okiedawn OK Zone 7


For many years I have planted lots of basil with my tomatoes but it gets huge and is so aggressive that now I grow it in its own row across from the tomatoes with a pathway between them. I just don't like the way it gets huge and crowds the lower portions of the tomato plants. It interferes with good air flow which contributes to disease. In my garden (clay soil is hugely fertile, so clay soil that is well-amended with compost will grow monster-sized plants), I have found basil gets too large to be grown very close to anything else. I feel the same way about borage. For years I had planted borage, basil and a few other herbs and flowers mixed right into my tomato beds, but they all get so big that I finally moved them out of the same bed and into an adjacent one. Tansy was one of those. I do still let chamomile come up wherever it chooses and once it gets too big to stay near the tomato plants I just hack it back down pretty low to the ground.

George, Don't you have a lot of rocks in your clay? I'm thinking that you'll always have to use a mattock at times because of those rocks.


    Bookmark   July 31, 2011 at 9:51AM
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owiebrain(5 MO)

I'm going to dedicate an entire row to cilantro next year. Yum.

Now basil is another story. We don't like it. Yet I always end up with some. I started a few seeds of it this year for my mother and she has yet to take any of it. So there it sits. Then my gardening neighbor heard we cooked real meals at home so he brought me some lettuce leaf basil seedlings this spring so I planted them because I didn't want to be rude. And there it sits. LOL


    Bookmark   July 31, 2011 at 10:51AM
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