Pest Control

Excited about Hornworms?

Manduca sexta is a moth whose larvae (caterpillar) is known as the Tomato Hornworm. This is one of the more destructive and dreaded pests for those who grow tomatoes, as the caterpillars can defoliate a plant seemingly overnight.

So why would I be excited to see this guy on our tomatoes this morning?

This pest has parasites!

This pest has parasites!

Take a closer look at the back of the caterpillar.

This Tomato Hornworm has been parasitized!

Just think of the movie Aliens as I explain the life cycle of the Braconid Wasps, a Tomato Hornworm parasite.

Braconid Wasps are a family of parasitic wasps, and Cotesia congregata is one species in this family that prefers Tomato Hornworms. It has a sharp ovipositor… a long, tube-like, egg-laying appendage. The adult wasp uses its ovipositor to pierce the skin of a caterpillar and deposits eggs inside the caterpillar’s body. The eggs hatch and the wasp larvae slowly eat the caterpillar from the inside. Initially, the caterpillar will act as if nothing is wrong, but as the parasitic larvae grow, and continue to eat, the caterpillar becomes progressively less active. The wasp larvae save the vital organs for last, so the infected caterpillar will stay alive for as long as possible. Eventually the wasp larvae break through the caterpillar’s skin and spin a cocoon. The larvae pupate into adult wasps, and the cycle repeats itself.

I was disappointed to see the Tomato Hornworm on our tomatoes, but then I saw the cocoons adorning the caterpillar like some macabre decoration. My disappointment quickly shifted into excitement. I went from almost grabbing the Hornworm from the plant and feeding it to the chickens, to gladly leaving the Hornworm right where I found it on the tomato plant.

The parasitized Hornworm in my garden is the exact reason we do not spray insecticides on our farm. We may have to put up with a little loss for a short time, but then Nature turns the tables on the pests. This poor Tomato Hornworm is now a barely living but very viable nursery for some highly beneficial parasitic wasps. I left things alone, and in a few days I’ll have a couple dozen more allies patrolling my garden for pest caterpillars.

And I don’t mind letting others do the dirty work for me.

 

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We Have Dung Beetles!

Yes, I am excited to see Dung Beetles in our pastures.

Yes, I know that many people may think this is an odd thing to get excited about… but it’s because they don’t understand what it means.

To me, this says our pastures are turning a corner from dying to living. From degenerating to regenerating. It means we are moving in the right direction!

Let me briefly explain. Many farms across the world are dead or dying. Farmers, with good intention but poor knowledge, spray synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. This kills the creatures that live in and off the soil. This ultimately kills the soil, and this ultimately kills the farm. Yes, it is that simple, and it is that vital! As we stop killing the biodiversity on our farms, our soils can come back to life. The pastures become more healthy and more resilient… and the farm follows.

 

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I love seeing Dung Beetles on the farm!

The Dung Beetle life cycle is relatively straightforward. They lay eggs into dung (i.e. manure). The eggs hatch, and the larvae consume the nutrients found in the manure. The larvae pupate into adult beetles, and the cycle repeats itself. Some Dung Beetles directly bury the manure; this means the adult beetles dig a hole straight through the manure pile into the soil. They take the manure with them into either shallow holes or deep holes depending on the species. We can identify the presence of direct burrowers by seeing manure piles with a bunch of holes in it. Other Dung Beetles are rollers. They make a dung ball and roll it to another location. Once at their desired location, they dig a hole and bury the ball.

Dung Beetles perform multiple beneficial functions on a farm. They bury massive amounts of nutrient rich manure into the soil. This alone make them hugely beneficial. Also, since Dung Beetles can make a manure pile disappear within a few hours to a few days (depending on numbers and size of the pile), this reduces the ability of other insects, like annoying and disease spreading flies, to use the manure for their reproduction cycle. Dispersing the manure also helps break animal pest and parasite cycles. From an aesthetic viewpoint, when manure piles are quickly dispersed, smells are also quickly dispersed. And walking through pastures with large numbers of Dung Beetles, means guests and kids are less likely to get manure all over their shoes.

 

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Specifically, I think these beetles are Canthon pilularius, known as the “Common Tumblebug”. This is a dung-rolling Dung Beetle in the Scarabaeidae (or Scarab) Family.

Dung Beetles are a fantastic marker of pasture health, and therefore, soil health. They are very sensitive to chemicals sprayed into pastures and used on animals (cattle, sheep, etc.). These chemicals directly kill the adults or indirectly reduce Dung Beetle numbers by destroying eggs and beetle larvae. All the benefits listed above are lost. I can’t tell you how many conventional farms I have been on where there are dried piles of cow manure that have been sitting on the surface of the soil for years. These big, concrete-like frisbees are glaring markers of poor soil health. This is what covered our pastures when we moved to our farm just over a year ago.

Maybe now you can see why I am so excited to see Dung Beetles on our farm!

 

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Questions from Readers: Growing a young grape vine

Question from Elizabeth in South Carolina (Zone 8).
Humid Cool Temperate Climate (hot Summers, cool to light cold Winters).

I rescued a Muscadine (not really my favorite, but it was an experiment) and I bought a black table grape suited for this area last winter. I put both in pots as I wasn’t sure where or what I was going to do with them. The black grape has taken off. It’s center is still woody with no vertical growth, but there are two lateral shoots: one about five feet the other maybe nine feet. I’ve finally figured out a spot to put them in, and now I’m stuck. A few issues:

  • pruning – I’ve read you shouldn’t prune the first year. So far so good. Do I wait until after next year to do this or after this winter?
  • height – As I planted in pots, once I place them in the ground the lateral shoots will be quite near the ground….not ideal from what I’ve read up on. Not sure what to do….
  • vertical growth – Does one of the lateral shoots become the vertical growth? What encourages it to grow vertically up the support to then allow lateral shoots to grow out? Does this make sense?

 

My Answer:
Pruning grapes: You are mostly right. The vast majority of growers do not prune the first year, but some growers with a lot of experience will prune their first year. I wouldn’t prune the first year. If you (or I) had that much experience, than you wouldn’t be reading this!

Height and vertical growth: Don’t worry. It’s all about training the vine as I explain in the next section.

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Click on the image for a brief, illustration guide to yearly pruning of grape vines.

Training Grape Vines (a terribly brief intro in just a few sentences): You will not get any vertical growth from the stump. That woody core will stay short and lumpy forever. All the vertical growth will come from the cane you select to be your main trunk. Over time, this cane will become thick and woody itself. Side shoots (cordons) will eventually grow from it and give you the lateral growth. This training will take a few years to get into full growth and production. Here is a nice page that explains it a bit more with photos, but I will repost one image: http://grapegrowingguide.com/grape-pruning.html

 

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Grape vines growing over a pergola on a rooftop in Gaziantep, Turkey (about 100 miles from where I used to live!)

Permaculture Twist: You didn’t think I would skip this? You can plant the grape vine in a traditional Vertical Positioning System, or you can use the grape vine’s innate characteristics for you to perform additional functions than food production:

  • Grape vines are, in fact, vines. They are good climbers.
  • They grow fast and far each season.
  • They are deciduous. Leaf growth/drop can give you seasonal shade and privacy.
  • They attract good and bad insects.
  • They produce tasty fruit that people and birds enjoy. Netting may be needed.
  • They have edible leaves.
  • They have vines that should be pruned each year to maximize quality production the next year, and these vines get a bit woody.
  • Grape vines have a high need for nutrients to sustain production.
  • These are just a few characteristics off the top of my head. I am sure there are a ton more.
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A rooftop in the Turkish town where I used to live. You can just see the main grape vine trunk growing up the side of the house at the closest corner to the roof.

So instead of the traditional row of vines, what about:

  • Growing grape vines along a fence to provide privacy for an outdoor living space. You will only be out there when the vine is growing anyway (seasonal… Spring through Autumn).
  • Growing grape vines over a pergola or trellis system to cover an outdoor living space. This provides seasonal shade and cooling for that space and easy harvesting of grapes. I saw this numerous times in living in Turkey. Many people had blocky, flat roofed homes. The entire roof had a trellis system. The grape vine ran from the ground, up two stories, and then spread over the entire roof for the growing season. This cooled the house, provided a comfortable and private living area on the roof, and provided food in the form of grapes and leaves, while also providing stick fuel for cooking at the end of the growing season. The trunk was two stories high and probably took a few years to develop, but so worth it! Other homes had the grape vines growing in large tubs on the roof itself.
  • My favorite technique for a few grapes vines is for people who have chickens and seasonal Japanese Beetles… pretty common in South Carolina from what I recall. Grow the grape vine over the chicken coop! The vine provides seasonal shade to cool the birds in the hot summers. This reduces heat stress which also increases health and disease/pest resistance in the birds. This reduces watering requirements for the birds. Chickens like to eat any grapes that may fall. They also enjoy the occasional grape leaf. Japanese Beetles seem to enjoy grape leaves as well. They have a “tuck and roll” technique of evading predators when they get frightened… very difficult to control in a classic row crop. But, when growing over a chicken run… just shake the vines once or twice a day, and the chickens will be singing, “It’s raining food!” This reduces (not a lot) the feed bill for the birds. It manages a grape pest with no chemicals and requires only a few seconds per day. It is also entertaining! Finally, the grape vine roots will be growing under the chicken run soil, high in nitrogen. This reduces, and possibly eliminates, the need for fertilizing the grape vines. This is an ideal Permaculture system!

Good luck! Send photos if you can!

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Grape vines growing up a wall in the city of Göreme in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. I was fortunate to visit this area many times while I lived in Turkey.

 

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Photo References:

  • http://dustygedge.co.uk/roadblog/wp-content/gallery/gazantiep-city-vegetation/shade_grape_vines_2-3.jpg
  • http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-FAO86LJ6Xn4/Tn71JD2pWlI/AAAAAAAAAYg/BCUmmWsP19g/s1600/P1000735.JPG
  • http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-vsaULu4rvPU/Thsl1QyO5KI/AAAAAAAAAD8/jZYxTDSoZ-w/s400/P1000197.JPG
  • http://globeattractions.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/grape-vine-bunch-brush-leaves-berries-nature.jpg