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The Case for Doing Nothing about Pests

12/2/2011 9:13:40 PM

Tags: pests, insects, gardening, organic, ladybug, aphids, lacewings, pesticide, Jason Akers

The highest form of generalship is to balk at the enemy’s plan.  The next best is to prevent junction of the enemy’s forces.  The next in order is to attack the enemy in the field and the worst policy is to besiege walled cities.  – Sun Tzu 

I see a problem with the way pests are handled in the garden.   

The question that is too frequently asked is:  What can I spray on my garden like magic juice that makes pests just – POOF - disappear?  Hardly ever does one ask if they should do anything at all.  I contend that in most cases you don’t need to do anything!  Sometimes it’s better to let nature take its course.   

We are too quick to use the nuclear option.  We spray everything in the garden with our favorite organic spray and hope it works.  I call that “spray and pray”.  The organic label allows us to retain an air of nobility and justice.  That’s a little like beating someone with a stick and telling them they got an organic beating – at least I didn’t use an aluminum bat.  That would be unnatural! 

There’s an irrefutable law in nature that most people seem to overlook when dealing with pests.  The things lower on the food chain are greater in number.  I call this the rabbit to wolf ratio.  There will never be more wolves than rabbits in a given area for a sustained time.  The population of prey must support the population of predator.  Thus, anytime you spray a pest you – by proxy – get rid of a few beneficial insects.  It doesn’t matter if they even come in contact with your “remedy”.   

This is the logic.  Some people will point to the fact that they used an organic spray that doesn’t harm beneficial insects.  But you are depriving them of a food source.  And if you remove their food from the equation you will either starve them out or give them the message that they aren’t welcome in your garden. 

Another general rule is that prey reproduce better than predators.  If they didn’t they would go extinct.  Ladybugs make it from egg to larval (predatory) stage in about 5 days from as few as 3 eggs per “nest”.  It takes a ladybug up to 6 weeks to reach adult (egg laying) stage.  Conversely, an aphid hatches from a nest of 50-100 eggs.  The aphids that hatch only take about a week to reach adulthood (and thus egg laying potential).  And that disregards the fact that if the aphid female cannot find a mate it can simply clone itself (in a process known as parthogenesis) and give birth to a live juvenile copy!  So I ask you, if you nuke both insect groups, which will come back quicker? 

 

And that’s me assuming that the sprays are effective.  Over time the target insect will likely develop immunity to the spray or just learn to hop away when it detects your movement.  As my friend Jack Spirko from The Survival Podcast likes to say:  Aphids don’t develop immunity to ladybugs.  They just get eaten.   

It might be easy to disregard my barely coherent ramblings as pure theory and one might be smart to do so.  However, I have seen these principles in action.   

Just last year in my garden I had my first major aphid infestation.  I watched in early spring before my grapevines had set a single leaf as ants packed little packages of aphidness up my bare grapevines.  One single egg might have done the job but the ants took no chances, packing up egg after egg after egg.  

My wife:  “Aren’t you going to do something?” 

The leaves were on the grapevine for about two weeks before I noticed they had large black blotches.  The black blotches were in fact thousands of aphids, setting up shop.  I had a lot of interesting afternoons sitting on the deck that I used for a trellis and watching the ants harvest the dew from the aphids.   

 

My wife:  “Would you do something?” 

Eventually the leaves were so covered that some of them were no longer green at all just due to the covering of the aphids.   

My wife:  “I give up!” 

Then a few days later the cavalry came.  As usual when the ladybugs show up I say, “Welcome to the party.  What took you so long?” 

At first it was just a few; hidden on the back of a leaf or clinging to the stem.  A week later all of the ants had abandoned their crop and went to ground.  Before long I was watching full-scale attacks.  The ladybugs were defiant – mating in full view of their aphid adversaries.  I think they were sending a message! 

 

 

 

Then came the lacewings.  They made home base in my corn patch.  But they were happy to fly over and place some eggs on the grapevine as well.  A few weeks later and my grapevine was just a little worse for wear.  Some of the leaves had holes in them.  But my grapevine had grapes.  The ladybugs had moved on to other plants and other prey.  The lacewings stayed in the corn patch and propagated like mad.  Not a single plant in my garden that season succumbed to pests.   

 

So maybe doing nothing is the wrong way to look at it.  I didn’t do “nothing” I just provided the habitat in the form of the big bright flowers on calendula and large hiding places in the corn and lots of nectar from sunflowers. I was going to plant those things anyway. 

I might be extra lazy but I say this spring, when the pests come – do nothing!   

You can follow me at my blog and podcast - The Self-Sufficient Gardener (www.theselfsufficientgardener.com) or on Facebook (www.facebook.com/selfsufficientgardener)  



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Post a comment below.

 

Jason Akers
12/8/2011 1:14:57 AM
Todd - I spent a few years worrying that companion planting wasn't working. It took a few years. I'm glad you replied. Some people think I'm a pesticide prude. When the june bugs are eating my grapes where I haven't started companion planting I will use something organic on them.

TODD REECE
12/7/2011 4:40:19 PM
The only thing we ever use is Sevin. We do not sprinkle it on our crops other than the grapes. We don't use any herbicide or pesticides in any type of amount. We've always had a hands off approach, thiknking that some crop is better than none. We try to companion plant as much as we can.

Jason Akers
12/6/2011 4:15:58 AM
:)

JOHN SEALANDER
12/4/2011 5:55:37 PM
Excellent practices Jason! Cigar smoke is an outstanding fumigant in the grape arbor, just don't get up wind of the Tomato patch (tobacco mosaic, or so I hear). It's also an excellent repellant for pesterferous children and meddling women! Actually, I have no idea if it would hurt the vines, but heck, with a sip or two of Jack occasionally it certainly is good for the soul. Bask in the beauty, brother.

Jason Akers
12/3/2011 5:16:05 PM
T Brandt - Thanks! Totally agree. I forgot what this stuff was even called - I'll have to research it deeper bookwise now that I've observed. By the way - no mint juleps but plenty of plain ole bourbon, rum and a few cigars!

T BRANDT
12/3/2011 4:25:51 PM
Great article, Jason. You described well the science of population dynamics without even resorting to calculus. It's one thing for the professional farmer to spend an extra buck per acre on chemicals to increase his yield of corn by 3% (an extra 5 bu/ac), gaining him almost $19,000 profit for a 640ac field, but for us hobbyists, who cares about maximizing yield? BTW- how many mint juleps did you go thru sitting placidly collecting data for this article? ;-)

Jason Akers
12/3/2011 3:01:16 PM
John - well said! Unfortunately I just learned my lesson about 5 years ago. But I was the same, my garden was white with Sevin once I was done. I never could figure out why as soon as it rained everything dined!

JOHN SEALANDER
12/3/2011 6:00:09 AM
Jason, Sun Tzu would be proud of you! I learned this lesson decades ago when, in frustration over insect damage, I dusted my little vegetable garden liberally with Sevin. Yes, I had some damaged veggies and greens, but I forgot about the Lady Bugs, Lace Wings and Praying Mantises. For two weeks my little Eden was insect free and picture perfect and then the 'munchers' came back with a vengence...but the predators were all gone....and eventually my garden was completely destroyed. I had a friend years ago that always planted three times as much as he could use personally and when I asked him about it he said, "one third for the deer, one third for the birds and bugs and one third for me. And seed is cheaper than fences, chemicals and ammo. My yield per sq foot sucks, but everybody eats at my house...including me." Welcome to the lazy man's garden of peace.










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