One for the Mouse, One for the Crow…

Peruse a how-to book on gardening or visit some online discussions and a garden can sound more like a war zone. Words like enemies, combat, traps, chemical warfare and more can seem aimed at creating some sort of sterile Eden. I get it. I mean, who wants to go to all that work just to have your plants ravaged by insects, deer, disease or what have you?

On the other hand there is something very alluring (not to mention stress reducing) about just trying to get along. The birds and the bugs have to eat too.

There is an old farmer’s saying that goes “One for the mouse, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow.”

The take away message is that Nature can take back three out of four of the seeds you plant, leaving you with a quarter of your crop to keep. It’s not much different than wages and taxes when you think about it.

If you count on that formula, you will certainly never be disappointed. It could even change your whole outlook. No one likes to pay taxes, but we learn to accept it, however grudgingly. The same acceptance can go a long way in a garden. Maybe you might even start to feel like a philanthropist, out there doing your part and helping to feed Nature.

Personally I count on at least a fifty percent return on my crop and I aim for a complete reversal of the Farmer’s Formula by allowing one plant out of four to return to Nature, while hoping to have three for me. Which put like that, makes me sound rather greedy. I prefer to call it optimistic.

I try to keep on top of things, but my efforts are fairly benign. I am not capable of pouring hot water on ant hills or shooting rabbits. Have your nibble, build your hill. Nor do I see the point in putting in all that effort to grow your own food, only to resort to pesticides.

I inspect the leaves of brassicas frequently and if I find some cabbage worms, I pick them off and carry them far away from the garden. I plant nasturtiums to attract aphids and sacrifice them so the aphids can feast to their tiny hearts content…but if it gets out of hand and they spread to the vegetables I do take action.

In the past this has pretty much just meant removing any yellowing leaves covered with aphids. I also find planting onions, leeks or garlic among the vegetables helps confuse the insects bent on devouring crops. This year an aphid outbreak occurred on my Chinese Cabbage. I had planted way too many, way too close together in one of my stock troughs.

I took the time to carefully wipe down every single leaf with a damp cloth. Since I only had 24 plants (a dozen in the trough and another dozen in an alley bed) it didn’t take that long and it worked. It’s been two weeks and the aphid population is still next to nil. Never have I ever spent that kind of time doing something like that, but when you have a small garden, you have the time to spend.

This year I painted some rocks red and put them in the strawberry patch just as the plants have come into blossom. The theory is birds will notice the red rocks, peck them, discover they are inedible and then later they will ignore the red strawberries thinking they are rocks. Or something like that.

I also keep the bird feeders full, hoping they will choose the seed they are used to over the garden. But if not, I will simply have to share. I haven’t seen a single bird checking out the rocks, so I am starting to have my doubts as to whether or not the ruse will work. They are likely a lot smarter than we think.

I have tried netting on berries to keep out the birds and fabric covers over brassicas to keep the cabbage moths at bay. However, I find keeping the nets and cloth in place while getting at the plants to weed, water or harvest, exasperating and not worth the bother. Plus I get as much enjoyment out of watching my garden grow as I do eating it, so I can’t bear to cover it up. I’d rather share if I have to.

So mostly I simply grow and let go. I figure nature knows what she’s doing and if I plant enough, surely there will be something left for me at the end of the season.

I have, however, pulled out all the stops in a determined attempt to grow rutabaga. I have never managed to do so successfully. Some people set goals to run a marathon, climb a mountain or start a successful business. I just want to grow a rutabaga to harvest. Is that so much to ask?

I have tried direct sowing them at different times. I have even tried transplanting them from starts. It always ends the same. The transplants never quite recover from the shock, and fail to develop any sort of meaningful root. The direct sown seeds barely germinate before flea beetles pepper their leaves with tiny holes. The few that valiantly carry on are wiped out by cutworms or simply fail to thrive.

This year I have tried so many things that even if it works, I won’t know which method to repeat. I’ll have to repeat them all! I seeded some of the rutabagas in toilet paper tubes cut into thirds and then when they were still at the infant stage, I set them into their rows with the gentle precision of a surgeon. I wiped off their under leaves every couple days. I sprinkled crushed eggshells around each stem. Later, I tucked small squares of tinfoil around them and when the flea beetles still showed up, I quickly resorted to a mix of one quart water, one teaspoon olive oil and two drops of dish soap which I sprinkled lightly on the leaves. I also dripped some onto the tinfoil after making tiny depressions to hold the mix in place. I also snipped some fresh peppermint and got some dried lemon verbena and sprinkled both over the plants. Then I snipped some garlic tops and tucked them between the leaves as well, for good measure.

At that point I wasn’t even sure what I had read and what I was simply making up on the spot. So far (whisper) so good. Today I am going out to insert toothpicks on either side of each stem. According to research this will prevent cutworms from wrapping themselves around the base.

One of my rows of rutabagas planted in the beet bed. So far so good. Fingers crossed. And toes.

All of this extra care is feasible when you only have a couple dozen plants. On the farm I devoted entire 60 foot rows to rutabagas, often not even getting the “one to grow” that the Farmer’s Formula promised in return. Instead, more often than not, I would have a hundred percent loss. One for the mouse, one for the crow, one to rot and one God only knows.

What really rankles me is that I grew up listening to my parents and grandparents talk about living on “saskatoons, potatoes, turnips and moose meat”. The turnips they referred to were rutabagas. It all implied these were safe crops guaranteed a harvest in The Peace. I am sure they didn’t go to any of the lengths I am going to. Maybe the soil wasn’t infested with flea beetles or cutworms back then. Or maybe there is just something about the way I tend a garden that rutabagas hate. But not this year baby!

I hope.

If you have any tips to offer on growing rutabagas I would appreciate hearing them. Hope your garden is growing well.

10 Tips for Getting Rid of Cabbage Worms

Small White - Butterfly

Cabbage moths are kind of pretty…unfortunately they’re pretty destructive too! When you see them fluttering around your brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts) it can send you into a flap. I love wildlife–including insects–but I don’t like to eat them. Cabbage moths love to lay their larvae on the leaves of brassicas and when the larvae hatches into worms those worms love to eat their way through your brassica patch. All that love can leave a hole in your brassica leaves!

Cabbage leaf covered with caterpillas pest

Here are 10 tips for thwarting the moth and its wiggly green offspring…

Tip 1 – Get Shaking! Zip down your rows with salt shaker in hand and lightly dust your plants with salt. Don’t go too crazy or you could damage the plants. The larvae is super sensitive to salt and will expire in a day or two. Reapply once every two weeks or after a rain.

Glass Salt Shaker

Tip 2 – Spray it! If you are nervous about overdoing it with the salt shaker you can choose to spray it rather than sprinkle. Simply mix 2 tbsp. (30 ml) of salt with 1 gallon (4 litres) of water, pour into a clean spray bottle and mist your plants. Do this in the evening or on a cloudy day to avoid any leaf burn. Once again reapply every two weeks or after a rain.

Holding a green flower spray

Tip 3 – Handpick. While this method isn’t for the squeamish, it is very effective and as organic as you can get! Grab a coffee can or similar container, lift the leaves and pick off the worms. What you do next is up to you. Some people feed them to their chickens, others fill the coffee can with water and drown them and still others pack them off and set them free. Though if you choose the latter method just keep in mind that it could come back to bite you in the brassicas. Whatever you choose, please be humane about it. Don’t leave the worms to die a slow death in the can.

Person picking up fresg cabbage in the garden

Tip 4 – Go undercover. Thwart the cabbage moths right from the start by covering your rows with a floating row cover such as Reemay. One of the nicest setups I’ve ever seen was at the home of Joan and Larry Evans in Fort St John BC. They built wooden frames and lids and then stapled reemay to the frames. The result was protected brassicas that were easily accessible. Here’s some pictures of their setup below…

An immaculate vegetable garden with a gorgeous fence and gate

An immaculate vegetable garden with a gorgeous fence and gate

These frames are covered with frost cloth keeping out the cabbage moths as well as extending the growing season!

These frames are covered with frost cloth keeping out the cabbage moths as well as extending the growing season!

Tip 5 – Find some friends! Companion planting is another popular method. Intersperse your brassicas with onions, garlic, dill or rosemary (all repel cabbage moths) and geraniums (traps cabbage worms). A huge patch of brassicas provides an easy to find feast, while mixing your plants up confuses the moths.

Another glimpse of this healthy, healthy, garden that tastes as good as it looks!

Tip 6 – Cover your head! If you have your brassicas scattered here and there rather than all together you can use old nylons or small squares of reemay and elastic bands to individually cover the heads of broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage etc. Make sure you leave extra fabric so the vegetable can grow. Nylon works great since it naturally expands. Whatever material you choose make sure it is porous and allows light to get through.

Tip 7 – Transplant early…or late. Keep track of when cabbage moths congregate and you can start brassicas in advance so their harvest occurs before the moths arrive, or stagger your plantings so you harvest later when the moths have left for the season. I haven’t tried this but it sounds good in theory.

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Tip 8 – Hot and Cold. If it’s too late and your produce is plumbed with worms, all is not lost. The most popular solution is to soak the infested produce in salt water for an hour. The worms should succumb and float to the top. Others recommend putting the vegetables in your fridge for a couple hours and then taking them out. The worms will crawl from the cold towards the warmth leaving the vegetables behind. Of course, this means you now have worms crawling across your counter. You could set them outside on a picnic table for half an hour or so instead.

yellow caterpillar

Tip 9 – Chemicals…sort of. Bacillus Thuringiensis, commonly known as Bt is an organic method for getting rid of cabbage worms. It is safe to use right up until a couple days before harvest. Bt occurs naturally in the soil but has been isolated for use as insect control. It works by messing up the digestive system of immature larvae causing them to die from hunger or infection. Not much nicer than leaving them to die in a can, really. But it is safe to use around pets, birds and children.

Tip 10 – Don’t worry be happy. Welcome the addition of protein to your vegetables or simply pick out the worms. Westerners are extraordinarily fussy about what we eat. In a lot of countries worms, grasshoppers, ants and other insects are welcome additions to the dinner plate. So do I mind eating the odd worm with my broccoli? Yes, yes, I do. So I guess this is a case of do what I say, not as I do!