By Valerie Barr
Creatures of the Soil
I always think of Denman Island author Des Kennedy’s book Living Things We Love to Hate when I am dealing with the bugs and slugs that damage our garden crops. I also think of the sweet old ladies (I can now be regarded as such) who gleefully hunted slugs in their gardens nightly, and with scissors cut them in two, while I squeamishly stood by, trying not to show judgement. We all deal with these things differently. Attitudes have changed and we try to treat the environment in a gentler manner than previous generations did.
In our garden, we have an attitude of thankfulness. We receive bounty from the garden, but cannot predict what that bounty will be. As each garden year unfolds, we grow some strong and some poor crops. Weather (cold, warm, wet, drought) always changes the way the garden grows. This lack of control over the weather is also true for bugs and other creatures. Both beneficial insects, and what we consider pests, come and go, free to live in and out of balance with nature.
The different species of damage-causing pests tend to be specific to different types of vegetables. The local ecology of each garden will support different niches for different creatures. There is also a difference between pests that destroy plants and those that do superficial damage. A good attitude to have is that superficial damage to food plants confirms that what we are doing is organic.
For us, besides the neighbour’s cat, I think Wireworms, the larvae stage of the Click Beetle, do the most damage. I have watched large (3”) Click Beetles which, when turned onto their backs, jump and click off the ground until they flip themselves right side up again. We never notice the adult stage of our (1”) Click Beetles. To continue their life cycle, the adults must show up at some point, we just don’t see them.
The Wireworm larvae stage can last between 2 and 6 years in the soil – all of that time enjoying the roots of our plants. The thin, cylindrical worms are about an inch long and a creamy colour. In May, they are obvious in the garden, living close to the surface and hopefully they are what the Robins are currently feeding on.
I was upset with Wireworms this Spring when one of my pea plants was killed (how irrational) so I tried to squish one, which I found impossible without a rock. They have an exoskeleton which makes killing them difficult. Wireworms thrive in grassed areas and show up in new gardens which have been built by removing turf. I have in the past inoculated the soil with a specific nematode (Wireworm predator) for two successive years and it did not seem to help.
I wonder, as I remove the worm damage before cooking our home-grown potatoes, why we continue to grow them – but we do. Instead of adapting for Wireworms, we live with them.
The second worst pest in our garden, Carrot Rust Fly, is ubiquitous on the Coast, preferring a cool moist climate. Drier inland areas can grow beautiful carrots unprotected because the climate is too arid for this pest. On the Coast, the Carrot Fly surfaces in late May from the pupa, mates, and deposits its eggs around the crown of young carrots. They find the carrots by using smell as a guide, so planting strong scented companion plants close by helps. Each generation of Carrot Rust Fly lives for up to 6 weeks and can produce three generations per season. How can you avoid such a long-life cycle? Any of the umbelliferae family ie. Parsley, Celery, Coriander, and Dill are hosts for this pest.
The interesting part of the Carrot Rust adult-Fly stage is that they do not exceed more than 24” off the ground. If you have raised beds for carrots then 24” of uninterrupted wall may be the best choice. We have adapted by growing carrots under a tunnel covered with remay and we keep it sealed with soil along the bottom so the flies can not get inside to lay their eggs. There are often a few carrots with the fly maggot in them, but they do not ruin the whole crop. We also use a variety of carrot called Fly Away which is available through West Coast Seeds and has its advantages against this pest.
Cutworms are different colours, depending on which moth species has borne the larvae. The Cutworms in our garden are a grayish green, big, fat, and juicy looking. We especially see them early in the season before we have a lot of plants growing. This is probably why they are not a big pest for us. We don’t notice damage from them and don’t use collars – which are a paper device to protect the stems on transplants. Are we lucky, or is it because we tend to transplant seedlings later because of our wet soil? We may have damage which is caused by cutworms but we mistakenly blame on other pests.
After several months in the early Spring, the larvae pupate and a moth emerges in summer to lay its eggs. Ground beetles, which we have plenty of, and predatory wasps are two natural controls for Cutworms. Planting to attract beneficial insects and birds helps to control this type of larvae, but the world also needs moths.
We have Flea Beetles in the garden and they feed constantly on plant leaves. They do no harm – we just eat the leaves complete with the mini shotgun holes. Flea Beetles are tiny black hoppers and their ¾ inch long larvae are much bigger than the adult stage/hopper.
Weeding this Spring I was disturbing white flea-like hopping insects which I could barely see. Don’t know what they were but there seemed to be millions of them. Hopefully they are not a new pest.
Leaf Miners, which are particularly attracted to Chard and Beets, are tolerated by us and the affected parts of the leaf are removed when we wash the greens before cooking.
Although we see Sowbugs walking on our garden soil, we do not notice damage by them – the slugs always get the blame. For some gardeners, Sowbugs, as they chew up their new young plants, can be a big problem. They are particularly attracted to tight spaces on the edges of enclosed raised beds. Using diatomaceous earth might help reduce their numbers.
I think the pest most people have problems with are Slugs. A shell-less mollusk, they love dampness, are mostly nocturnal, and can live for two years. They do a lot of damage and can wipe out multiple young plants on a rainy day, or over one night.
I am not talking about our native Banana Slug who are forest creatures. If you find Banana Slugs in your garden, please pick them up and take them back to their habitat. The garden offenders are imported: the European Black Slug with quilted skin, and the European Brown Slug which is small and a pinkish grey or brown colour. Garter snakes feed on slugs, so encourage these harmless snakes with rock piles or other warm hiding places. Another slug predator is Ground Beetles which feed on baby slugs.
Earthworms are the friendliest of garden creatures and indicate the health of our soil. They have been mostly imported over the last two centuries. Interestingly, any ground that was glaciated (which is most of Canada) has no native population of earthworm. It seems there are native earthworms on the BC Coast but not where the glaciers travelled. We can assume most of our worms are originally from elsewhere. They were intentionally brought here by farmers moving to the New World. Earthworms feed on vegetation in the soil which they digest and then excrete Nitrogen and Potassium. They tunnel down into the subsoil and bring up minerals to mix with the topsoil. We have all probably seen the little round clumps of wet soil left behind by worms – these are called aggregates. Earthworms aerate the soil which allows water and air to perc down to deeper levels.
The old tale of cutting a worm in two which would create two worms is partly true. They can regrow missing parts when damaged, but not their heads: One head one worm. If the accidental cut is directly in the middle of their body this also will kill them. Worms don’t like UV rays, which quickly dries them out and they will die. I like to put a gentle layer of soil on any worms that I turn up on a sunny day.
Centipedes eat spiders, ants and other insects. They are reddish brown with many legs and have a flat body which allows them to crawl under protection easily. As carnivores, they help keep a balance of bugs in the garden.
Millipedes are vegetation eaters, especially decaying wood, and are found more often in the forest. The Millipede that I recognize is black, shiny, with a round back, and has yellow spots close to their legs at the bottom of their long bodies.
Earwigs are also an imported (or exotic) insect. They love to hang out in flowers which they nibble on. Who doesn’t bring in Dahlia flowers from the garden without finding Earwigs? They are omnivorous, eating both plant material and insects. They like warmth so you will find them more often in the later Summer. I have noticed they leave excreta behind as they travel, which can be a problem when they crawl inside kitchen utensils.
When I am working on the ground in the garden, Daddy Long Legs crawl all over me. They are an Arachnida but not a spider. They don’t bother humans and their biting apparatus is too small to grab onto anything as large as us. Also called Harvestmen, they prey on aphids, dead insects, worms, and eggs of many garden dwellers. Another benign creature that keeps the balance in our gardens.
Likewise, Spiders are always on the soil this time of year. I disturbed one a few days ago and watched as it anxiously moved its egg sac away from me. I skipped past that spot and let the poor thing protect its soon to be born babies. Spiders that I see in the garden have lots of variations in both in colour and body patterns. I don’t know one from the other. They are mostly small and colourful, including camouflaged white and yellow species found later in the season. Pretty interesting to observe.
Perhaps Ground Beetles fascinate me the most. I remember watching them as a child. They are black with an iridescent metallic sheen. They never seem to be afraid and have a regal air about them. They live and breed in the soil. Their diet is soft bodied insects, worms, and small slugs. I don’t think I have ever seen more than one at a time which makes them strong and solitary individuals.
The direct-seeded rows have been planted by Grant this week.
Carrot seed can be tricky to germinate if the weather is dry. Grant carefully seeds the rows, waters, and covers each row with 1 x 2” boards to keep the soil moist. Starting the Carrots this way requires checking for the slugs who would love to feast on the little seedlings. Once germinated, the remay tunnel will go over the rows for the growing season to protect from Carrot Rust Fly. The Carrot varieties Grant used were Flyaway and Yaya, both from West Coast Seeds.
Beets germinate better than Carrots so not as much care is required. Beet seed can be quite old and still successfully germinate. Planted recently in our garden was a cylindrical Beet variety and later Grant will plant Winterkeeper Lutz. We try to harvest all the Beets in the early part of winter, before the extreme cold freezes the parts of the root which are above ground. We always get a wonderful crop of Beets.
Each year we grow a different type of Dried Bean. This year’s choice is a black bean called Black Turtle – perhaps our favourite Dried Bean. They are all harvested and shucked at once as the pods dry out in early September.
Green Pole Beans (Kentucky Wonder Brown and Blue Lake Pole) have been planted along the linear trellis we have set up. Pole Beans are best when picked tender since they can get soup-pot-tough if left on the vines too long. The trellis will continue to produce beans into the fall. Later we will also put in a small row of bush beans (Masai – 55 day to harvest) which are tender and delicate and have one surge of production which we mostly process for the freezer.
Grant always loves his Corn. It is a heavy feeder and takes extra water, but is a fun, late summer harvest. Off the stalks and into the pot makes for the best flavour. This year’s variety choice is Sugar Buns: a Sugar Enhanced hybrid that takes 70 plus days to mature. Grant has the seeds soaking in water and will plant them today.
Update on Previous Posts
The garden is growing well and is looking pretty with all the different textures of greens and purples. Almost everything is hardened off, but who can foretell the weather.
May 24th is an auspicious day in the gardening world – regarded as the prime time to plant. Recently, we have experienced NW and N winds that can be brutal on new transplants. For this reason, I postponed some of the transplanting out, but yesterday with some sunshine I planted out the Pepper plants which we started early in the house. They looked beautifully healthy in their staggered rows. Only 2/3’s of the crop fit under our covered tunnel. The last row is cuddled up outside the tunnel to the lee of the wind. As large seedlings, and when the soil is warm enough, Peppers seem to be pretty tough plants.
The last week of May I planted the Eggplant seedlings – which definitely require warm temperatures. We moved Grant’s newly built glass tunnel off of the tomatoes and moved it over to the Eggplant to give them the extra heat they love.
We have had a lovely Spring but always there is the chance of strong wind and cooler temperatures. I think It is always good to wait on the protective side of caution in the later part of May. The Tomatillos seem especially delicate with their stems looking transparent and succulent. I will wait until the first week of June to plant them – at the same time that the basil is planted out.
I still have to transplant the pickling cucumbers, bush squash, and Kohlrabi. When everything else has its designated spot then the vining squash will go in last. It needs room so it does not overwhelm smaller plants, and it needs spacing so the flowers don’t cross pollinate with other varieties.
Next Post I will talk about Creatures of the Air.
Grant Hayden and Val Barr are happily retired to play in their garden as they like. Val worked in horticulture for almost 45 years and started her first food garden at 18. Grant grew up as a prairie farm-boy and his last occupation was in forestry. He has planted thousands of trees and cut quite a few down as well.