How to keep pests out of your garden...? DON'T!

“Remove the predators, and the whole ecosystem begins to crash like a house of cards. As the sharks disappear, the predator-prey balance dramatically shifts, and the health of our oceans declines.” – Brian Skerry, Sharks – A New Ethic 
Farmers, gardeners, homeowners, apartment building superintendents, we are all part of a mass conspiracy to just generally mess things up. We seek to control an environment instead of finding a niche in it, and as a result, we are finding ourselves facing increasingly complicated series of unintended consequences which were entirely predictable, if only we hadn’t so arrogantly assumed we were somehow above and separate from the natural world. 
But that is not really the important part of the story. 
Even “safe” pesticides (that is, safe to humans), whether “organic” or otherwise, represent an entire philosophy of how we relate to bug (and other) pests (whether of the agricultural or domestic variety) which has devastating consequences not only for entire ecosystems, but for ourselves as part of those ecosystems. 
Put humans in the "Omnivore" or "Herbivore" slots, and you get the idea.  We're part of this whole nutty
Circle of Life thing, whether we remember it all the time or not.
We started with Brian Skerry’s explanation of the importance of sharks in the ocean for a reason. Skerry is one of the world’s premier underwater photojournalists, and he is a founding fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. As such, he has spent several decades immersing himself literally and figuratively in parts of the world where disruption of natural food chains has had devastating long-term consequences, many of which have only just begun to be felt by humans but which, make no mistake, will dramatically alter everything from the price of cosmetics to the availability of nutritional supplements to the price of leather shoes. 
We’d explain, but frankly, we don’t have time to enumerate just exactly how interconnected the world is – if you haven’t figured that out by now, you may be too difficult to reach.  Sorry, it’s simply the truth. 
As for how sharks relate to pesticides… 
Our response to those parts of the natural world which do not “behave themselves” in such a way as to make life easy for humans has always been to simply engineer a solution to steamroll them out of our lives. 
- A mountain is in the way of your railroad?  Blast a tunnel through it.  Problem solved! 
- A locust swarm is eating your crops?  Spray them with chemicals that either kill or at least deter the bugs.  Problem solved! 
- Wolves killed sheep in your pasture?  Shoot them.  Problem solved! 
- Squash borer moths are laying eggs that kill your pumpkins?  Soak the plants in pyrethrins.  Problem solved! 
- Roaches are hiding in your kitchen.  Soak your cabinets with poisons.  Problem solved! 
Unfortunately, each one of those “solutions” involves consequences which do not end merely with our ability to go our merry way, pursuing whatever plunder of the natural world we thought we could get away with via brute force. 
These are the "good guys" in your garden.  But...
you won't have any of them if you either a) poison
the "bad guys" or b) don't provide the right kind of
environment for them... an environment which
just so happens to also include some of the
"bad guys".
Obviously, it is impossible to simply exist without exhibiting some kind of destructive force on the world around us:  the Chinese Yin-Yang construct is not a mere abstraction, it is a physical reality.  Destruction and construction are forces joined-at-the-hip.  Every act of creation involves the destruction of something that was, taking raw materials (a chunk of marble, say) and turning them into something else (Michelangelo’s “David”… and a pile of rubble).   
Destruction, likewise, involves the taking apart of something, and the making of something else.  Destroying pests in our agricultural fields, gardens, and houses is not just the removal of an annoyance.  It is also the creation of something new, and what strategy we use in that destructive process in great measure determines what it is we will be creating. 
We wrote recently about how to control cockroaches in households, and if you will recall, our suggested strategies relied more on altering the environment in which both we and they live than on finding the most effective means of killing them.  We are perfectly satisfied with cockroaches having a place in the world, so long as that place is the leaf litter surrounding our ponds or our chicken coop (or, for that matter, in the mulch around many of our garden plants, which for the most part they do not consider food, preferring the mulch itself as sustenance). 
In much the same way, our suggested strategy for controlling agricultural pests is not the same old steamroller strategy.  Rather than adding chemicals to our environment which are not only in and of themselves too complicated to accurately study in terms of health impacts on humans (and that includes genetically modifying crops, too, as declaring them “safe” without at least 100 years of data involves a preposterous degree of faith in a limited data set), we suggest modifying our relationship to the environment with which we are trying to interact.
We want fruits and vegetables, no?  Fruits and vegetables grow in the wild, all over the world, in natural environments where the plants have evolved against the backdrop of predation by a wide variety of both vertebrate and invertebrate life forms, and even predation by other vegetative species.
The most successful wild crops are in biodiverse environments, with layers, heights, interspersed species,
and all sorts of hidey-holes for all sorts of critters.  The most successful permaculture gardens are the
ones which most successfully replicate those higgledy-piggledy sprawling conditions.
In some of those environments, they thrive.  In others, they fail. 
Since a garden (and on a larger scale, a farm) really represents nothing more than a microcosm of the world at large, it is inevitable that the same dynamic will play out there.  Some kind of predation will be attempted when you plant certain species, whether in rows in a field, or in a pot on your patio. 
Much as with our suggestion for roach control that you remove the hidden spaces in your kitchens and bathrooms – the perfect environment for cockroaches – we suggest that you think about the perfect environment for the kinds of creatures who interact with each of the kinds of produce you are growing.   
- What keeps wild peaches from getting over-foraged by deer, birds, and bugs? 
- What keeps wild tomatoes from being devastated by hornworms, or birds, or nematodes? 
- How can you best mimic the behavior of the wild, sprawling squash beds in the wild which are least affected by squash borers? 
These questions are not anywhere near as difficult to answer as most beginning gardeners think.  And the vast majority of experienced gardeners have a hard time with these questions not because they are hard, but because they have incredibly bad habits to unlearn. 
In the wild, the most successful seed-bearing plants have a few things in common. 
1)  They produce a lot of seeds.  This evolutionary strategy is a response to the fact that once the parent plant dies, inevitably squirrels, birds, etc. will eat most of the seeds, and only a few will survive to grow again the next season.  “Seedless” watermelon are therefore probably a bad idea.  Can they be grown?  Sure.  Should they be grown?  Probably not. 
2)  They exist alongside other plants. The best defense for a vegetable bed from predation, whether by invasive stink bugs, potato bugs, hornworms, aphids, or what have you, is a very diverse set of plants around the bed, some of which are themselves toxic to a handful of predatory species, others of which put off smells that repel other species, and still others which attract insects and arachnids which themselves prey on the “pest” species.  And some plants are there specifically to be eaten instead of the veggies.  Sunflowers, nasturtiums, geraniums, marigolds, etc. are pretty, true, but they also keep the bugs attention on themselves and off of your tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, etc. 
3)  They are still attacked by animal predators, but they have healthy ways to adapt and heal.  A bite or two out of the most exposed strawberry in your berry patch is not the end of the world.  Nor is a squirrel managing to wend his way through your thorny blackberry bushes to get at the lowest hanging peaches on your trees.  If you’ve mulched them well, watered them regularly and deeply, and avoided excessive chemical amendments to their environment (whether herbicidal, pesticidal, or even in the form of chemical fertilizer), then when they get attacked, they will bounce back. 
The final thing to remember is, we ourselves are predators.  We are taking from our plants in an aggressive manner.  Ignoring the fact that we are consuming fruit we did not ourselves produce is a serious vertebrate prejudice.  Animal on animal violence is easy for us to conceptualize – we understand that when a coyote kills a rabbit, that is predation.  But predation exists for all life forms.  In a very real sense, kudzu is a predator of oak trees.  And gardeners are predators of tomatoes.
You can harvest bountiful, delicious produce from a garden that breaks all the homeowner's association
rules, and ignores the conventional wisdom regarding bugs, weeds, and cages.  Really.  Trust us.
If we want to live in a healthy relationship with our agricultural spaces, we would do well to remember that.  The solution is not to bend everything to our will, and make it all serve our purposes.  The solution is, rather, to find a way to make the system as balanced as possible.  Don’t eradicate pests; gently lead them to a less dominant position in the ecosystem – they will still be there, but for every aphid family, there is a ladybug in waiting.  For every beetle there is an assassin bug.  For every mite there is a green lacewing. 
A healthy garden is a biodiverse garden, which means that it is not going to look neat and tidy and ready for inspection by a homeowner’s association.  It is going to be sprawling, and a little on the wild side, and have plenty of creepy-crawlies in it. 
Feel free to add some benches, footstools, and garden gnomes, though.  I mean, let’s be reasonable, right? 
Happy farming! 


There's a sucker born every minute

A paranoid man is a man who knows a little about what's going on.  
-- William S. Burroughs 

A new disease is making the rounds, and much like swine flu, bird flu, ebola, AIDS, SARS, and pretty much every other "newly discovered" disease that has gone before it, the Zika virus is bringing with it not only real pathology, but also the imagined kind. 
As Zika does pose some actual (though relatively minor) dangers related to infectious disease, and those dangers can be mitigated by proper gardening hygiene, now seems like the perfect opportunity to revisit some thoughts on mosquito control vis-à-vis permaculture.
 First off, a little primer on this "Zika" business. The Zika Virus is a species in the Flavivirus genus, which includes the West Nile virus, dengue virus, tick-borne encephalitis virus, yellow fever virus, zika virus and several other viruses which may cause encephalitis. This makes it a relative of some of the nastier mosquito-borne tropical diseases, though as of October of 2015, the outbreak of Zika in the Americas had resulted in fewer than 200 cases, and zero deaths. Its potential for fatality is at present unknown, though it has been theoretically linked to a higher probability of encephalopathy and microcephaly (lack or malformation of brain tissue) in pregnancies where an expectant mother had the infection during the first trimester. Research on this question is still sketchy, owing to the newness of the disease, but it makes sense, even if both the causation and quantification are neither clear nor overwhelming. 
As with all mosquito borne illnesses, most folk have a relatively sketchy understanding of exactly when and where they danger really lay. For starters, Zika (much as with West Nile) is associated with only one particular species of mosquito, the daytime-active Aedes aegypti mosquito, which (as its name suggests) originated in Africa, but has migrated to every tropical and subtropical environment in the world. 
Unlike the vectors for West Nile (Culex pipiens in the Eastern and Northern United States, Culex tarsalis in the Midwest and West, and Culex quinquefasciatus in the South), Aedes aegypti is a year-round pest, though there are some limiting factors. They most commonly bite at dusk and dawn, indoors, in shady areas, or when the weather is cloudy, although the Centers for Disease Control warn "they can bite and spread infection all year long and at any time of day." West Nile mosquitoes, on the other hand, are typically nighttime active, and require heat and humidity in order to breed, meaning that they are most dangerous from late Spring to early Autumn. 
CDC recommends the use of repellents with DEET (N, N-diethylmetatoluamide, 20% to 30% concentration, but not more), and this advice has been the guiding principle for several decades now. Unfortunately, a 2013 study has suggested that, while mosquitoes do, in fact, hate the smell of DEET, they have learned to adapt. A non-genetic modification to mosquito behavior suggests that they are collectively capable of overcoming their revulsion to chemical aversion in much the same way that beer-goggles make barflies more attractive to each other at last call in pubs around the world. Quite simply, if everyone in your backyard is wearing DEET (or if you are there by yourself), the mosquito thinks "Oh, well. Sure, she stinks, but she's the best blood-on-the-hoof I'm gonna be able to exsanguinate." 
Myrtle, of course, never passes up a chance to say "I told you so" (what can we say, chickens are cantankerous, crotchity and opinionated).  DEET is seldom fatally toxic, but numerous studies have associated it with various rashes, irritations, and inflammations, in addition to insomnia, ill-effects on mood (especially for those who already suffer from mood disorders) and, as with most manufactured chemical additions to one's personal environment, passes across most membrane barriers and combines with numerous other chemical additives in increasingly unpredictable ways. 
As with practically everything else, fully studying DEET is virtually impossible. The fact that so few regulatory agencies throughout the world can agree on what concentrations to call "safe" -- coupled with the fact that it is becoming increasingly less effective over time -- suggests that a different method of mosquito control ought to be our response to the increase in mosquito-borne diseases. 
There are, as luck would have it, natural means of disrupting the interaction of all mosquitoes (whether one of the Culex species, or one of the Aedes blighters), and some simple prevention measures which make mosquito-to-human transmission of viruses less likely. We have discussed some of these strategies before, but they are well worth revisiting. 
Typical Bti "dunk"
First and foremost, an understanding of mosquito ecology is essential. Removing or properly treating standing water is near the top of practically every municipal mosquito control checklist; there is some validity to this, as mosquitoes lay their eggs in water, where the larval stage of the insects develop. However, there is significant misunderstanding of which bodies of water are most to blame for the spread of mosquitoes.  Ironically, the larger the body of water, the less likely it is to be your villain. The reason is fairly simple -- the natural predators of mosquito larvae are likely to live in ponds, ditches, slow-moving creeks, etc. They are not likely to live in spare tires, buckets left standing open-end-skyward, clogged drainage gutters, or any other containers or non-draining surfaces. For those of us who hate mosquitoes, there are few sounds as joyous as the incessant din of amphibian romance. A frog gone a' courtin' is a human's best friend. Dogs are a distant second. But tadpoles don't live in gutters, so make sure yours are clear. Search your property high and low for puddles and other forms of standing water. This is especially true from May to October regarding West Nile, but now with Zika, we must be more vigilant in Winter, as well (and, to be honest, we at Myrtle's place have historically been lax at the end of "West Nile Season"… well, no longer). 
For larger bodies of water (ponds, fountains, etc.), mosquito dunks ought to be used. These are floating donut-shaped formulations used to spread a bacteria known as Bacillus thuringiensis serotype israelensis (Bti). This bacteria has the happy habit of feeding on the larval stages of mosquitoes, fungus gnats, and blackflies, but ignoring other organisms. This is especially fortuitous, as other serotypes of Bacillus thuringiensis do, in fact, harm other creatures, most notably bees and butterflies. The use of dunks has two major advantages therefore -- first, it helps control mosquitoes, and second (and almost as importantly), the spread of Bti takes away an ecological niche which would otherwise be filled with harmful species. 
For controlled bodies of water (rainwater collection ponds, fountains, or aquaponic tanks), several predatory species can be grown which are great at mosquito control:  mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis), some cyprinids (carps and minnows), killifish, and tilapia all love to chow down on mosquito larvae. None of these predators ought to be introduced to the wild, of course, as they are invasive exospecies, but for contained environments, they work wonders. 
The next component of ecological mosquito control relates to the habitat of the full grown mosquito. No matter how careful we are about monitoring mosquito breeding habitats, some will grow to maturity. And adult mosquitoes don't live in the water, though few people stop to consider where they do live. So... "Okay, Myrtle, where do adult mosquitoes live?" Glad you asked. They live in tall grass, leaf piles, piles of rotting debris, under stacks of lumber, behind boxes in outdoor sheds... pretty much anywhere dark and moist. 
That includes in mulch in your garden, by the way. 
Where adult mosquitoes hang out
So, unless you are willing to poison anything and everything which comes into contact with any and all of those hidey-holes (and we strongly recommend that you not do so), some other mitigation strategy is necessary for dealing with adult mosquitoes. Happily (particularly vis-à-vis mulch in your garden), there is an extremely simple, low-maintenance method of dealing with the full grown mosquito, and it is hinted at by why the DEET-only strategy has become less effective. Essentially, relying on DEET means there is only one tier of deterrence for the mosquito to overcome. But we know (based on the studies explaining DEET's effectiveness at grossing them out with its particularly mosquito-unfriendly-rankness) that mosquitoes will avoid certain smells, if at all possible. 
The only thing left to do is to figure out which smells they naturally avoid, and then layer our outdoor habitation with as many of those smells as possible. 
And as luck would have it, you really ought to be growing a lot of these plants, anyway. They are all the "smelly herbs" and the more of them you have, growing in as random an array and in as many different places on your property as possible, the better. Catnip, mint, basil (all varieties), oregano, rosemary, lavender, fennel, oregano (all varieties), thyme, honeysuckle, trumpet vine, cilantro, parsley, anise, bay laurel, borage, fenugreek, chives, onions, leeks, garlic, ginger, horseradish, hyssop, marjoram... anything you have ever picked up at the farmer's market and thought "Oh, my, that's a strong smell" -- get some seeds or seedlings, and go wild. And, as many of these things are either perennials, or reseed as easily as any plants imaginable (the secret to growing them year round is chicken poop plus neglect), the amount of maintenance involved in a mosquito-repellent garden is as minimal as you care to make it. 
The big key, of course, is that the smells must be layered, and they must be random. An herb garden laid out in neat rows, plainly labelled and arranged to suit a cook... that may get you in Better Homes and Gardens, but it won't stop the mosquitoes. No, far better to plant willy-nilly, and mix it up. That keeps the mosquitoes from acclimating to the pungency of your microenvironment; they take a whiff or two of your garden, and keep right on trucking, and if your neighbors were not savvy enough to follow your haphazard example, well, they can just stay inside and hope all their windows and doors are properly sealed, while you sit on your porch, sipping your lemonade in mosquito-free comfort.  
As with our recent discussion of cockroaches, the simple reality is that there is no hope of ever eradicating mosquitoes, and therefore we will continue to hear of new epidemics like the Zika fever outbreak of 2015-16; viruses evolve more rapidly than any other living things, and they are borne by mosquitoes, so news like this is inevitable, and will continue for as long as there are people to report it.  
The best we can hope for is to learn and adapt ourselves, so that we may mitigate the harm that comes from our interactions with the rest of the natural world. We only run into real trouble as a species when we forget that Homo sapiens are part of a much larger system than our own immediate surroundings. 
Since it is just about time to be putting new plants out for Spring, and since we are entering the final stages of the latest El Niño event, it's a good time to think about implementing these strategies into our yards/gardens/patios/porches, not just to stave off Zika, but to keep ourselves healthy and protected from whatever the next Zika turns out to be. 
Happy farming!