Friday, August 18, 2006

Garden Insects: The Good The Bad and The Ugly

When it comes to insects in the garden, some are good, some are bad, and they're all ugly! Even still, I find them fascinating. My research last week about the tomato hornworm and braconid wasps got me very interested in how some insects are beneficial to the garden. Finding the Hornworm made me want to explore the garden to find out what other creatures I could find, so my daughter and I set out on a Bug Photo Safari! I knew we would find a lot of insects since we use no insecticides on the garden. Even still, I was surprised at how many different ones we discovered in just one day. We carefully photographed each one and then went inside to research what they are. Here are the ones we found only in tomatoes!


The Western Yellowstriped Army Worm. Look how much of that leaf he already ate.


Blister Beetle. These guys are doing more damage to my tomatoes than any other bug. They eat a lot of leaves, and deposit nasty droppings all over the place. I plan to post later about them only.


Field Cricket and Grasshopper. Both have chewing mouthparts but the Grasshopper is much worse.


Aphids! I think. They are very small and are found on the underside of the tomato leaves like aphids but they seem to have longer legs than aphids. I really don't know. I only found a few of them.

Bad and Good!

Tomato Hornworm and Braconid Wasps. The Hornworm can eat ALL of the leaves off of a tomato branch. It would probably be the worst garden pest of all if it weren't for the parasitic Braconid Wasps that kill them. See my recent post Tomato Hornworm or Space Alien? for more details.


Spined Soldier Bug. The Soldier is beneficial because it eats armyworms, beetles and cabbage loopers (which were in my garden too). The Soldier Beetle is said to be so beneficial that there was a big article in Organic Gardening Magazine about how to trap them in the wild in order to release them in your garden. Read the article HERE. Notice there is another little bug on his back. I don't know his story.


A small spider. Spiders eat many insects.


I know what you're thinking, a toad is not an insect. You are right, but we found him on our safari and he is very beneficial to the garden since he also eats insects.

There is one more insect to show you, and I can not figure out what it is. I don't know if it is good or bad. I have seen these bugs sitting on tomatoes all season long. They don't seem to do anything or hurt anything. It is shaped like a very small stink bug, but is the wrong color. Look at the bright red color on part of its back. Also notice how small they are compared to my daughter's thumb. There are usually several together and they move pretty fast when disturbed - very difficult to photograph.

If you know what this is, please comment or email me.

Well there you have it. All of these were found in one evening in the tomato portion of the garden. It took a bit of searching to find them, but they were all there hiding amongst the many leaves, happily living their lives to the fullest. Some are bad but some are good. Overall things are balanced out and I still get much production from the garden. That’s why I believe in complete organic gardening. I say we should leave things as natural as possible.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Brandywine and Brandyboy Tomatoes

We are enjoying a wonderful tomato harvest!

I planted 20 different varieties of tomatoes this year, but my family's favorites are Brandywine and Brandyboy. Do any of you grow Brandywines? Brandywine is an Amish heirloom non-hybrid tomato. Because of that, you can save the seeds and get the same quality of plant next year. If you save the seeds of a hybrid plant, you are not guaranteed the same plant the following year. Yes, the plant will likely grow, but you might get poor fruit or different flavor from the parent. One problem with growing an heirloom, non-hybrid variety is that the look has not been altered, meaning the fruits are not uniform and sometimes downright ugly. They are also more susceptible to disease and pests.

See how funny some of them look. The ones in the back are not all the way ripe yet because we've found that if we wait until they are completely red to pick them, the critters beat us to them. We have had turtles and raccoons eat them. They have also been attacked by the tomato hornworm and blister beetles much more than the other varieties. The animals seem to be able to tell that they are non-hybrid. I guess they like them because they are more natural than the others.

Brandyboy is a newer variety that is a hybrid derived from Brandywine. As far as I can tell, it is very similar to Brandywine. Its flavor is not quite as good, but the tomatoes are more uniform and round. Both varieties are pretty big and compare with the beefsteaks in size. See my quarter reference.

I'll leave you with this picture of the beginning of my BLT from the other day. This is a Brandyboy. Notice the seed pattern is a bit different and there is much more "meat" in the center. It is so good I could almost eat a BLT without the B and L. Turkey bacon isn't quite as bad for me as regular bacon though, so why not enjoy the great american summer sandwich?

Trust me, it was delicious!

Monday, August 14, 2006

Tomato Hornworm or Space Alien?

Doesn't this look like a creature from a science fiction movie? I found two of these in the garden munching on tomato leaves. As it turns out, there are over 50 creatures in this picture.

This is a Tomato Hornworm with Braconid Wasp cocoons attached to it. I think the Tomato Hornworm is the absolute coolest garden pest there is. Most people hate seeing them in the garden because they can eat all of the leaves off of a tomato plant. Call me weird, but I have been hoping to find one of these in the garden this year. Actually I didn't find them. My wife found one, and my daughter found another one the next day. I knew they were Tomato Hornworms but I didn't know why they had white cocoons on their backs. We did some research on the internet and found out that they were Braconid Wasp cocoons. There were many good resources on the net but our favorite was The Bug Lady. The Braconid Wasps are parasitic. They live in the Hornworm (which is actually a caterpillar) as larvae, and then make cocoons on the outside to pupate. The adult wasps emerge, kills the caterpillar and flies off to find more caterpillars.

The Braconid Wasps are good guys! They are beneficial insects that control the caterpillar population. You see, there is no need for chemical insecticides, but I can get into that in a future post.

My daughters thought the hornworms were pretty cool too, so we put them in a big jar and brought them in for a couple of days. We put pantyhose over the mouth and waited and watched the tiny wasps hatch. We then emptied the whole jar back in the garden. This picture montage tells the story a bit better:

Notice how many wasp cocoons are on the hornworm in the above pictures. I counted over 300! If only half of them find a new caterpillar to invade, I won't have any caterpillar problems next year. God is amazing! He even thought of making tiny little parasitic wasps to keep our food source protected. Wow!

There are even smaller parasitic wasps out there. GardensAlive! is a store that sells organic and natural fertilizers and pesticides. I used to work there part-time in fact. They sell Trichogramma wasps for you to introduce into your garden to do a similar thing that my Braconids are doing. The Trichogramma wasps are almost microscopic!

Benificial insects are really cool. I even like the Tomato Hornworm. He doesn't eat that much, and I like having space aliens around in the garden. Here's one last close up look!

Yikes, beam me up Scotty!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Diggin' For Gold!

Digging potatoes for the first time feels like you are uncovering buried treasure, especially for kids. Even more so when you plant "Yukon Gold" potatoes. This is the first year we've planted potatoes and it was very successful. In our garden as a kid, digging potatoes was hard work because they were planted in our hard Kentucky clay soil. I read on some other blogs in May about growing potatoes in barrels or in a stack of tires to make harvesting easier. I didn't do either, but I used the spirit of the idea.

I started with only 10 seed potatoes, cut them in half and planted the 20 pieces in a 4 foot by 5 foot section of one of my beds. The compost pile was in that spot the previous year, so the soil was great. As the plants grew, I kept adding good dirt and added a 2nd and 3rd landscape timber layer making the bed even more raised. I had planned to keep getting higher and higher like you would growing them in tires, but I ran out of good soil. The plants make potato tubers all along what once was the stem of the plant if you keep burying the stem. When it came time to harvest, it was easy to get a shovel in and under the potatoes. A few times we harvested them small to add to a roast or something. When we did this we could just reach our hand down in the dirt and find a potato without disturbing the plant. Good loose soil is key! For the rest of the plants, we waited until the tops died back and the potatoes were pretty good size. We got several big bowls full of potatoes in just a small amount of space. Look at the potato in the picture below next to the quarter as reference:

I definitely recommend the barrel or tire method. If any of you have written about this or know someone who has, please let me know and I will link to it.

Next year I will grow a lot more potatoes so we can dig for more gold! The flavor of Yukon Gold is excellent too. They are a yellow color even after they are cooked. I bought mine from PineTree Garden Seeds, which is my favorite seed company. They also have "Red Gold" potatoes if you want to stay in the pirate theme!

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Rain dances don't help, but Murphy can!

We are all familiar with Murphy's law. According to Wikipedia, Murphy's law states "whatever can go wrong, will go wrong." Many times that is true, but when I think of Murphy's Law I think of it more as "whatever you expect to happen, the opposite is what will actually happen." Case in point is the fact that it hasn't rained here for a couple of weeks even though the weather forecast has been "slight chance of showers or thunderstorms" every single day. For the past week I have been counting on that rain to rescue my wilting garden

Finally, I decided that it wasn't really going to rain. Last night I watered the garden as best I could with my hose, AND put blacktop patch down on my driveway. So, since the instructions say that you don't want it to rain for 24 hours after you apply the blacktop patch and since I ran the water hose for almost 2 hours, Murphy paid me a visit! You guessed it, it stormed all night.

Not only did Murphy catch me by surprise, he messed up my plans for today's post. I had planned on complaining about the lack of rain and voicing my worry that I might lose some of the plants since I can't water them all adequately. These were the pictures from last night that I planned to show you:

Pretty awful isn't it? Well, even though I'm kidding about Murphy's law, I'm very glad it rained. It stormed almost all night long. It rained way more on the garden than I could ever water with the hose. Thank you God! I didn't go up to the garden this morning, but I took this picture on my back deck that shows the rain evidence.

Doesn't it look wonderful! Oh, and the blacktop patch still looks okay too.

The moral of the story is that Murphy's Law always prevails, but sometimes you can fool him into doing something good!

Saturday, August 5, 2006

Beginner Pickle Maker Breaks Jars!

The above title reads like a newspaper headline doesn't it? My family had so much fun making pickles that even when we had a jar break, we had a good laugh about it. I was quite surprised the first time it happened but now I know why all canning directions say that you need to have "hot" jars and you must put "hot" liquid into the packed jars. They never say why you need to do each step on the directions! Obviously if the jars are not hot, the extreme temperature change that occurs when putting the jars into the boiling water can (and will) break the jars.

The first time it happened, as pictured above, we were making dill pickles. I noticed it right away because I was putting the jars in one at a time. The 2nd time it happened, we were making Bread & Butter pickles and this time I had discovered that you can lower all of the jars in at once (remember, I am a beginner). This time we didn't know the jar was broken until after the processing time was complete. What a mess! We don't have a range hood so the whole kitchen was sticky because the steam carried the sugar!

Even with our beginner mistakes, we had fun making the pickles. We have eaten several jars of the dills already but are supposed to wait a few weeks before opening the bread and butter pickles.

The whole family took part in making the pickles and my daughters had a great time!

Friday, August 4, 2006

What a Great Harvest!

Wow have we been blessed with a great harvest so far! The garden is exploding with tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers, onions, zucchini and green beans.

We have been busy picking everything, making pickles and salsa, and freezing green beans. My daughters have been great about picking and snapping the beans.

We have been having a lot of fun with the harvest. We are still waiting on the corn and melons, but everything else has been doing well. The only thing not doing well are the carrots. We allowed the cantaloupe to take over the carrot and radish beds because I never put up the trellis that I was planning to build.

I hope your gardens are doing well. Sorry that I haven't posted in over a month. I have much to tell you and lots of pictures. I will try to get back to posting often. I want to tell you about what happened with the baby robins, and how the tomato supports have done. I have some interesting bugs to show you, some funny canning stories and much more. Check back frequently! Until then, blessings to you all.

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