Pest Management on the Small Farm
Like all good medicine, our pest management is built on prevention. At Good Heart Farmstead, we don’t use any pesticide sprays, and instead focus our efforts on creating a balanced system, which includes building healthy soil to grow strong, hearty plants.
Here’s a round-up (organic, that is!) of our pest prevention techniques:
Decrease Pest Habitat
Mowed borders around crops. Many pests, including cucumber beetles (our worst pest at Good Heart), overwinter and find early food in the tall grasses of the pasture. Maintaining a mowed border along your vegetable fields can help keep pests out in the first place, and slow their jump into your crops. At Good Heart, we seeded low-growing white clover in the border, which endures heavy foot and garden-cart traffic.
Physical barriers like Remay or fine insect netting. Row cover is our best friend when it comes to protecting early spring greens from flea beetles. For the purposes of keeping pests out, it’s important to fully bury the edges the entire length of the bed, which we do by shoveling soil from the pathways onto the edges. While this may not be feasible on large farms, row-cover is a great resource for smaller farms and gardens.
When we find ourselves short on row cover, we use Surround, a type of kaolin clay that mixes with water to coat the leaves of cucurbits. Surround leaves a white film on the leaves of cucumbers, melons, squash, and pumpkins, and serves to both irritate and repel cucumber beetles.
Crop rotation. Rotation is especially important in the spring, when overwintering pests may be hanging out in last year’s crop residue. On our farm, this has been particularly important in the brassica family, and rotation coupled with using row covers make it possible to get clean, marketable harvests of early mustard greens, pac choi, arugula and Asian greens.
Increase Habitat for Beneficials
Plant borders of pollinator plants. Many beneficial insects, including lady beetles and braconid wasps, are attracted to the same habitat as important pollinators. Providing beneficial insects with habitat that is always there will encourage their presence and help keep pests in check. Many herbs, such as dill, fennel, and parsley, also attract beneficial insects. The key is to have a wide variety of perennials and herbs in bloom throughout the season in order to provide constant shelter and food. In addition, plantings of native woody trees and shrubs provide excellent year-round habitat for beneficials, while discouraging pests (which feed almost entirely on soft-stemmed annuals).
Focus on growing healthy plants rather than fighting pests. We’ve all seen how stressed plants are the first to get hit by pests, while vigorous, healthy plants are able to withstand pest pressure. Though this could be an entire article in itself, here are a few quick tips on growing healthy plants:
- Have your soil tested and amend it accordingly so your crops receive all the nutrients they need.
- Plant out your strongest seedlings; a weak start can give you more problems and a lighter harvest.
- Attend to stressed crops quickly; determine if they need irrigation, a foliar feed, or top-dressing, and proceed accordingly.
- Use cover crops to feed the soil, increase organic matter, smother weeds and provide habitat for beneficial insects. This will give you a more fertile field to plant in, and reduce nutrient loss while you’re between crops.
- Select appropriate varieties for your region, and keep notes. We always grow a number of varieties per crop, trying out new ones each year to determine the most vigorous varieties for our farm. Bringing together the best varieties with a healthy environment is a sure way to get abundant harvests.