Snow in Florida?! Nope, its Mealy Bugs!

In our hot and humid Florida climate we routinely deal with a host of pests that most people only know occasionally from green houses up north. One of which is called the mealy bug (a soft bodied version of scale), a fairly common pest around this time of year. They are sometimes described as looking like snow nestled among the new growth and crannies on your plant. They are common outdoors in hot humid weather, on indoor plants, and in greenhouses. They can be treated reasonably easy but should be addressed as quickly as possible before they become established on a plant.

Mealy bug1

Mealy bugs can wreak havoc on gardens if not taken care of quickly. The bug itself uses a long sucking mouth piece to suck the sap out of a plant which can cause new growth to die off and eventually can effect the entire plant. If left for too long and the population becomes well established the honey dew they form can lead to sooty molds and “ant farmers” which just compounds problems.

mealybugMealy bugNR

Luckily there are quite a few treatment methods out there to get rid of the little buggers. The first thing to do is to make the plants less desirable; slow down a bit on watering and fertilizer (which can be counter intuitive if your plant is under stress), mealy bugs like nutrient rich soft plants. Now to get down to business… If numbers are still fairly small you can take a q-tip and rub the effected areas with rubbing alcohol or just blast them with a hose (as long as there are no other plants in the immediate vicinity for them to get splashed on to). For more serious problems try spinosad, a pest spray found at most retail stores. Or if you want an organic home remedy route try making the scale pesticide recipe below. For both sprays you will have to make direct contact with the bug to do any damage, so make sure to do the undersides of leaves and the leaf nodes. Repeat spraying about once a week until infestation is gone. Keep in mind that using pesticides kills all bugs good and bad and should be done in moderation and targeted to only infected plants. To learn more about why we care about bugs at all check out my previous post Good Bugs vs Bad Bugs.

Scale Pesticide Recipe

In a one quart sprayer mix 1 tablespoon neem oil, 3-4 drops orange oil, 4-5 drops dish soap, 1/3 cup rubbing alcohol, then fill the rest with water.

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Plant More Flowers

According to the USDA “One mouthful in three in the diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination” but colony collapse disorder claims an alarming 1/3 of the honey bee population to date. It is a dangerous situation that could have impacts on food production, the natural environment, and ultimately people if bee populations continue to decline at this rate. Interestingly, we urbanites may be able to help rural honey bee populations and our gardens at the same time.  Rural bees are on a decline but city bees are thriving and produce almost 3 times as much honey (Food and the City, J. Cockrall-King). Consider some of the suggestions below to help support the urban honey bee population:

  • Minimize or eliminate excessive insecticide use on your lawn and garden, consider biological and organic controls instead. To learn more about biological controls read my earlier post on the 2/22.
  • Try planting herbs, flowers, and plants that provide lots of pollen and nectar for honey bees including Borage, Clover, Coriander, Golden Rod, Lemon Balm, Elderberry-a Fl native, Lavender, Mint, Sunflowers, and Thyme. Visit http://www.themelissagarden.com/TMG_Vetaley031608.htm for more ideas.
  • Look into creating your own colony – there are over 2,700 people registered as beekeepers in Florida right now. Not only will you be helping the faltering bee population but your home garden will thrive and you will get fresh local honey as a bonus! Visit http://floridabeekeepers.org/ for more information.

Good Bugs vs Bad Bugs

WHAT IS BIOLOGICAL CONTROL

A major weapon in the arsenal of integrated pest management is biological controls, which is defined as a reduction in pest populations by natural enemies (Cornell University).  You may have heard of putting lady bugs or praying mantis in your garden to help eradicate unwanted garden pests before. While those are certainly popular for a reason, there are a whole slew of other control agents including predators, parasitoids, and pathogens which can help control garden pests. These good bugs are often a fast solution to eradicate the bad bugs because it typically only takes a minimal initial purchase and very little time or management after that. I am going to briefly discuss each type of control and how it can be used to your advantage in your own home garden.

Lelitofeeding

TYPES OF BIOLOGICAL CONTROLS

Predators are the most common form of biological control. These include lady bugs, praying mantis, green lacewing, and aphid lions. These predators either eat the entire pests body OR will suck the fluids out of it thus killing it. They tend to be an immediate fix for a problem but in general are not preventative since they will need to leave the area to find more food once a source is depleted. In most cases predators will eat whatever they are able to – for example green lacewings will eat all small soft bodies creatures such as aphids, mites and thrips that they come across which means they can help control more than one type of pest.

lacewing larvae

Parasitoids, which include many species of wasps and some flies, provide a preventative aspect since the adults will lay their eggs inside the host which will eventually destroy the host from the inside out. This will create a scenario where the agent may be absent but its effects are still being felt.  Unfortunately parasitoids tend to be highly specialized to one species or type of insect so you wont have a blanket effect like with the predators. Still they are a highly effective means of biological control.

fly-killers

Pathogens are disease causing agents such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and nematodes that can be introduced into your soil and plants with a long lasting effect. They will kill or debilitate their host and readily transfer from host to host if it is brought back to a colony. These agents are great because they will remain in the soil until there is another resurgence in the pest population and are not harmful to humans or other biological controls since they are highly specialized to their hosts.  Thus they make an ideal compliment to predators and parasitoids.

entomophthora-muscae

HOW TO GET BIOLOGICAL CONTROLS

There are two approaches to bringing biological controls into your garden – conservation and augmentation. Conservation is where you manage your garden to allow natural occurrences of agents to flourish by creating habitat for all life stages of the insect and eliminating pesticide use. This is the more cost effective way but does take more time to get populations to thrive.  Augmentation creates an immediate effect because you purchase the biological control in larger quantities and release them directly into the garden.  You can purchase a plethora of biological controls online and have them shipped to your home with release instructions. Both are effective means of integrated pest management and can be a great addition to your sustainable garden.

Lady_bugs_are_a_beneficial_insect_commonly_sold_for_biological_control_of_aphids.

A few things to note:

  • If you do not provide food sources for ALL life stages of the biological control then you will not have a self sustaining population.
  • You can not use broad scale pesticides (organic or otherwise) while these insects are at work for you since pesticides kill indiscriminately.
  • Take care when killing pests by other means that you don’t accidentally misidentify and kill another life stage of your control agent since eggs, pupae, larvae, and adults can look completely different at each stage.
  • Some controls will kill your other agents (for example praying mantis will eat ladybugs if given the opportunity) so consider their predator prey interactions, strategically time your introductions, or simply accept that natural balance is in play here.

Integrated Pest Management

IPM Diagram

Integrated pest management (IPM) is a multifaceted approach to pest control which can be implemented on everything from small backyard gardens to large scale commercial agriculture. The basic idea is to use several different management strategies in cohesion to knock out the pests in every way possible.  It takes into consideration prevention, avoidance, monitoring, and suppression.

For example a gardener uses cedar to create raised bed gardens since its a natural bug deterrent, then plants the crops intermixed with chives, marigolds, and garlic all of which repel pests. Instead of putting all the same vegetables next to each other they are spread throughout the garden so that if one squash gets infested, all of the squash don’t get it. The plants are spaced far enough apart so that the pests cant easily move from one plant to another. Sunflowers are planted near enough to the garden but not in it to attract aphids (which love them) and other insects away from the vegetables that are to be harvest. The gardener takes care not to walk in the beds so that the natural pathogen community growing in the soil isn’t compacted and damaged and also takes the time to learn the different kinds of bugs so that they know whether the insect is good to have around or something that needs to be eliminated. While spending time in the garden plants are carefully checked for initial signs of problems so that it can be prevented before an infestation gets out of hand by diligently removing caterpillars and squishing aphids by hand (which repels other aphids from the area) when they are in small numbers. If the gardener notices ants on the plants, which protect aphids from predators, they will draw the ants away with a bit of honey near the plant and sticky tape around the stem so the ants get stuck trying to get up the plant. If there is an infestation they may purchase a batch of green lacewing larvae and release them into the garden to quickly take care of the problem. Since marigolds were planted in the garden, once the larvae mature, the adults have something to feed on and will thus stay in the area to lay their eggs creating a self sustaining population of lacewings for the future.

It may sound complex at first but all it takes is a little education by the grower initially and is then mostly self regulated after that. Although the overall concept of using multiple approaches is not difficult to understand, the various strategies are so numerous that I will cover each portion in greater detail as separate posts over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

February in Florida… Year round gardening!

Us Floridians are pretty lucky… While the rest of the country is buttoned up tight against freezing weather we rarely get cold enough to cover our tropical plants. While it may FEEL frigid to us, many plants are actually in their prime in these cool temperatures. I am going to cover a smorgasbord of plants that will thrive if started now, Yes in February!

Salad greens:This includes lettuces, spinach, endive, etc.                        Our summers are way to hot here for salad greens. Late fall through early spring is our small window of opportunity for planting outdoors so take advantage of it! Sow seeds in small rows and plant every two weeks to get a continuous crop of crisp tasty greens. I suggest trying out Tatsoi, an oriental green, that is similar to spinach but with a peppery taste. Delicious sauteed or mixed in salads!

Root Veggies: Including beets, carrots, radishes, and parsnip.
Radishes are the quickest and easiest to grow while carrots are very slow to mature. I like to plant a row of carrots with the radishes mixed in so that by the time you are harvesting the radishes, the carrots are just starting to germinate. It saves room in the garden bed and reduces watering. Beets are also one of my FAVORITE veggies! After my disastrous first attempt at cooking fresh beets following a magazine recipe, I swore them off. Then my aunt showed me how to cook them and it couldn’t be easier. Chop off the green tops and drop them in a pot of boiling water (don’t even bother rinsing them off). Cook from 30 minutes to an hour or more depending on size. When they poke easily with a fork (think potatoes) then they are done. Drain the water and rub the skin of with a paper towel. The skins will slip right off, slice, and garnish as you prefer!

Kale: A member of the cabbage family that has been bred over the years to produce large loose leaves that keep a nice crunchy texture even when cooked. They actually need a little cold spell to get the best flavor from them. Dinosaur kale is a popular Tuscan heirloom that is super flavorful. I love chopping up fresh kale and drizzling EVOO and lemon juice on it then letting it marinate. After an hour or two sprinkle seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, etc) on it and chow down. Its addictive!

Swiss Chard: A part of the beet family that is grown for its leaves instead of its roots. Although chard comes in several species of green I just cant help planting rainbow chard every time. Its bright stems that come in red, purple, orange, and yellow look absolutely gorgeous growing in the garden and on the plate! It is very mild in flavor, so you might even be able to  convince your kids its not really a veggie pack full of vitamins : )

Peas: All peas, from sugar snap peas to garden peas, are cool weather crops. You can usually start planting them in late fall (if were lucky) and plant 2 or 3 times over the winter to have a bountiful and continuous crop. Peas are very easy to grow from seed and have a fairly short time till harvest. Almost all of them need something to climb so plant next to supports. Make sure to pick the pods as soon as they are ready to encourage heavier production.

There are a plethora of veggies that do great in this weather. So grab your seeds, maybe a scarf for us natives, and get to planting!

rainbow_chard

When to harvest broccoli

The other day I was asked how long it takes for the flowers to turn into broccoli… Well the answer is never and forever.The head of broccoli that we like to eat is actually produced before it flowers, once it gets to that flowering stage its too late!

I decided to post pictures of the development of the broccoli head so that you know when its ready to be picked.

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Small broccoli head starting to form which sprouts from the center of the plant. The size of the head at maturity will vary depending on weather – if its cooler the head will be denser and larger, if its warmer it will be looser and smaller.
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Large broccoli head ready to be picked, notice the nice tight green tips. To harvest use a sharp knife or shears and cut it off at a slight angle about 4 inches below the branching portion.
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Large broccoli head just starting to flower, at this point the head is still edible but you need to harvest immediately. Notice the tips take on a yellowish hue and begin to bulge and loosen up.
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Broccoli head fully flowered, at this point it is not edible. Saving seeds from broccoli is rather difficult so it is typically best to just cut it off and compost it so that it will keep growing other heads.
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Broccoli plants only produce one large head but if the main head is cut off properly you should have small florets form around that main trunk. Each time a head/floret is harvested the following ones will be even smaller. Continue to harvest until the size is no longer worthwhile then pull the entire plant for compost.

Never buy celery again!

Celery is one of those veggies that always seems to get wasted in our house. You use the 2-4 stalks a recipe calls for and then it sits in the veggie bin for the next month until we finally compost it. Instead of tossing it, try planting it. That way you can harvest the stalks as needed without having to buy the whole plant every time.

Step one:

Using a sharp knife, cut the stalks off the plant leaving two to three inches above the base. Use the stalks for a tasty recipe.

Step two:

Place the base root/flat side down in a shallow dish of water and place near a sunny window.

Note: Outside stalks will wither and brown, this is normal!

Note the brown outer edge.
Note the brown outer edge and healthy new growth.

Step three:

Change the water every few days for one to two weeks. At this point you should have green leaves sprouting from the center of the base.

Celery base at 2 weeks.
Celery base at 2 weeks.

Step four:

Plant in a pot or garden bed burying the entire base and just leaving the new green leaves exposed above the soil.

Base should be just under the soil.
Base should be just under the soil.

Step five:

Water regularly and harvest from the outside, in as needed!

Sustainable Gardening and Living