Beating the Beetles – War & Peace in a Houston Garden
by Charles Capaldi
Dateline – May 1st, 2010
Today, Paul Bishop lives in Houston, Texas. But his farming roots reach far back into a childhood with time well-spent on his grandparents’ farm in Tennessee. Now that he’s a grown up, with a day job requiring a deft hand at tying a tie, Paul’s farming consists of a couple 18″-deep raised beds set right on the lawn. He trucked in a pile of black, fertile, organic soil and planted his crop right there. When he told me that, I knew that I had a kindred spirit on the other end of the phone. I also know from the indoctrination tapes on the interstate as you drive into the Lone Star state: Everything in Texas is bigger, better and above all, warmer than most of the nation. While a late season weather event left my Vermont garden blanketed in snow, Paul’s cukes are blooming in Houston. Blooming that is, unless the cucumber beetles arrive first.
And arrive they have …
“At first I thought they looked like big, yellow lady bugs.” Paul said, “Then I looked them up on the web and they turned out to be striped cucumber beetles.”
Paul did what most of us would do in our right mind. He ran out to a local garden supply store and asked what he could use. Sure enough, the clerk sold him a bottle of something he promised would work and that he reassured him, was indeed organic. Of course, the idea that we can just spray something on our crops to protect them from predators, or add something to our soil to make everything grow better, oversimplifies the relationship between the relative order of a kitchen garden and the chaos of nature. Where the raison d’être of a garden supply store is to sell you something, the raison d’être of an organic garden is to find that balance between order and chaos.
In a small garden, picking off any visible beetles only takes a few minutes each day. My youngest son regularly cashes in his haul of potato, asparagus, and Japanese beetles to the tune of a penny a piece – and then promptly feeds the contents of his container to the chickens who provide the service of turning them into eggs. We also use floating row covers to confound the wee beasties – Remay, for instance, is a woven horticultural fabric, permeable to light, air and water. At its simplest, it can be laid directly on top of the crop to confound the pests whose stomachs are way bigger than their brains.
Unfortunately, living in the great North, just about everything blows away in the wind, so we borrowed a page from Eliot Coleman’s books (The Four Season Harvest and now, The New Organic Grower). Portable tunnels may well be the cheapest way to cover a section of garden –tunnels made from flexible PVC pipe and appropriate cover material – greenhouse plastic, Remay, shade cloth – your choice depending on the desired effect.
In mid April, we cut 5 foot lengths of PVC and inserted them into the ground as deep as we could push them on either side of the bed. We planted our brassicas under the protection of this tunnel – weeks ahead of the traditional spring planting date in our area (Memorial Day). The floating row cover (for bug protection), greenhouse plastic (for heat-loving crops), or shade cloth (for mid summer cool weather crops), can be laid over top of the hoops and secured by rocks, bags of sand, or even lengths of wood. This works like a charm to protect the crops from invaders, or in our case, from the two feet of snow that blanketed our garden during a late season winter weather event. According to The New Organic Grower, temperatures under the floating row crop are typically 4 degrees warmer than the ambient air temperature. Our power went out for 24 hours, the ski resorts reopened their slopes and we, needless to say, rekindled the fire in our woodstove. The seedlings under a thin cover of Remay cloth were none the worse for wear. So whether your problem is cucumber beetles or temperature extremes, floating row covers may be the answer you are looking for.