Insectary Plants and Beneficial Insects by Curlydock

My recent surge of interest in insectary plants and beneficial insects found me in the garden with my camera. I spent about an hour taking pictures of any insect I saw and noting the plant each insect was seemingly associated with.

I did this on September 8, 2007, in my small experimental urban organic garden located in Jefferson County, Kentucky, USA. These are a few of the pictures.

I am not expert at insect identification. If you think my guesses or any other data I give are not correct, please feel free to leave a comment with your own opinion.

To avoid the use of chemical poisons, I hope to eventually have enough of the right kind of insectary plants. The theory is that the right plants will attract the kinds of good insects that predate on the bad insects. Bad insects do bad things like chewing big holes in my broccoli leaves, for example.

I understand that one should not attempt to wipe out the bad bugs altogether. Enough of the bad bugs should exist to feed the good bugs so the good bugs will stay in the garden and not have to leave in search of a meal. While this is not mechanically efficient, an argument could be made that mechanical efficiency is not a sustainable way to relate to the environment.

One should seek the productive balance innate in stabilized diversity and then not sully that balance with pollution, poisons, and the exhaustion that comes from expectations of competitively efficient exponential growth. The correct balance can be productive enough to sustain the lives of farmers and those who depend on farmers for meals, were the world not obsessed with greed.

Since the good bugs burn a lot of energy in their hunt, they need the nectar and pollen of flowers to help sustain that energy. To that end, some plants are better than others at attracting good bugs. The shape of the blossom might help or hinder the access of a particular insect to the pollen and nectar the plant offers. Also, some plants can attract aphids or insects that are specific to that plant and will not harm garden plants but will provide meals for the good bugs. Not all plants bloom at the same time, so in a diversity at least one plant will always be supplying the good bugs with what they need. It is also possible that the wrong plant would attract bugs bad for the garden or host diseases also bad for the garden.

So, it can get complicated. I need to study hard to find the right combination of insectary plants to grow in or near my garden. On the bright side, the complexity of the study is deep enough to keep one interested for a whole lifetime. One need not study rocket science to keep from getting bored. How nature grows diversity will suffice.

bumblebee

Image 417 is perhaps a bumblebee. Some think it is, instead, a carpenter bee. They look a lot alike but I understand the abdomen of the carpenter bee is slick instead of hairy. This insect is beneficial because it pollinates flowers. The bee rests on the flower head of Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum). The bee was so still I thought it might be dead or asleep. Or drunk? When I finally nudged it, it moved sluggishly but it never flew or even buzzed all the time I was there.

image 498

Image 498 shows what seems to be a different type and much smaller bee. This one is on a marigold blossom.

image 398

Image 398 shows what I believe is a soldier beetle called Pennsylvania Leatherwing (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus). Many say it is beneficial but at least one said this insect’s value may be exaggerated. Even if it does not eat bad insects, at least it seems to be a good pollinator of Garlic Chives, for there were a lot of these soldier beetles there.

image 490

Image 490 may be a Green Bottle Fly, I am not sure. Green Blow Flies are supposedly associated with decaying flesh, but there were a lot of these really interested in the Garlic Chives. Nothing smelled dead.

image 437

Image 437 may be what is called a “Question Mark” butterfly, but I am not sure. It rested close to corn and beans.

image 460

Image 460 shows a wasp that repeatedly returned for a drink of water from the little watering hole. Many wasps are beneficial because they predate on bad bugs.

The watering hole is made of an overturned garbage can lid. I keep it replenished with water from the rain barrel. I change the water at most after every couple of days to keep mosquitoes from breeding in it and to keep it from stagnating. I had hoped the watering hole and an adjacent shelter hole would attract a toad, but I have not seen a toad yet. I did see a blue-tailed lizard not too far from the water, but that was much earlier in the year.

image 378

Image 378 shows, I believe, the eggs of a Leaf Footed Bug or Stink Bug. The eggs were attached underneath a leaf of broccoli. I did not see any adults this day, but I have seen them before. They have hind legs that are flattened like a spatula or leaf. Some of them may be beneficial, sucking on caterpillars of bad bugs. But I suspect the ones around here are only interested in sucking juice from the broccoli.

image 379

Image 379 shows a moth caterpillar that might be an “Inch Worm”. It has been feasting on the broccoli and a bad type. I hope someday I see a beneficial insect feasting on it.

image 383

Image 383 is a young, I think, type of Harlequin Bug. They also eat the broccoli.

image 433

Image 433 is a Garden Spider, (perhaps Argiope aurantia). I understand that these spiders need a source of water. This one was about 4 feet from the watering hole and very near the corn and beans. I believe spiders are, on balance, beneficial.

In conclusion, many insects could be seen in one hour in my organic garden. Some were beneficial and some were not. Many pollinators were seen. Many destructive insects were seen. I would like to see a lot more beneficial predators. I recently transplanted some Golden Rod to my garden. I found it on a farm in an adjacent county. I have heard that Golden Rod is a good insectary plant. That it aggravates hay fever and allergies is a bad rap and is not true, from what I have read. I plan to introduce more selected flowers in the future. When I planted the Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum) I did it for food. I did not know it was an excellent insectary too, until I saw it in action.

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Winter Window Garden

by Curlydock

Some months back, in November / December of 2006, I wrote several installments dealing with seedling identification. I sprouted seedlings and tried to keep a webcam record of them for future reference. The seedlings became spindly and were growing slowly because, I believe, of short winter days and little light.

I did not want to burn energy in lights and timers, so I left the mini-garden in the southern window to fend for itself. I did keep it watered with rain-water that had been slow-sand filtered. I also warmed the water a bit by storing a gallon or so of it by a furnace duct.

As the days got longer I noticed the plants began to grow more rapidly. A few weeks ago I harvested and ate a head and some leaves from the rapini. It was delicious.

Today, before I harvested and ate the radish I took some webcam shots of the radish and the chard. Someone frequently visits this blog looking for pictures of the plants. So, here are a few more plant pictures.

day 110 white hailstone radish

Above is the white hailstone radish. It has been 110 days since the seed was planted. Below is the rhubarb chard. It was planted 82 days ago.

Day 82 rhubarb chard

The pots they grow in are about 3 inches cubed. The potting medium in each is half peat moss and half my vermicompost. Each pot also has about 2 tablespoons of crushed eggshell.

The plants are very delicate. They don’t get strong breezes so their stems have not grown stiff. When I moved the chard to photograph it, it fell over. I propped it up a with a ball of tissue.

When I removed the tissue I noticed the tissue was damp, and the odor I cannot describe except to say it was heavenly.

Drinking in that odor of healthy organic compost in communion with the chard roots reminded me powerfully of what we have lost in our culture. This is the odor of a small organic farm. It is the odor many more of us should be familiar with. It is the odor more of us must become familiar with if there is to be a future for us on this planet.

This odor energizes an intuition of what is right and what is wrong. It puts me out of reach of the propoganda of pundits, thinktanks, preachers, bad teachers, blustering talk show bloviators, and all apologists for greed who seek to influence and control us. It puts my mind and heart on a firm foundation. Let them spin and grin, with their fingers crossed. I know which side I’m on. They won’t fool me again.

Seedling Identification Revisited

by Curlydock

This is the start of my second attempt at seedling identification. This time I have a technique that should remove doubt about what sprouted.

Most of the unwanted volunteers from my previous effort turned out to be tomato seedlings. I fed a lot of tomatoes to the worms, so the seeds were still viable in the vermicompost.

I still want to keep the purported advantages of organic living soil so I still have not sterilized the potting medium. In fact, I am using the same pots I used before. This time, however, the seedling of interst is clearly flagged by a ring of newspaper around the seedling. Any sprout that is outside of that ring can be “weeded out”.

Day 6 Rapini

The ring of newspaper is the top rim of what I call a “tiny pot”. The tiny pots are made from 2-inch squares of newspaper wrapped around the end of a pencil. The small cylinder thus created stays intact when the end of it is crushed closed. The seeds are planted in the open end after the tiny pots are placed into the cells of an ice cube tray and moistened.

Sprouter Tray

To get one and only one seed in each tiny pot, I used a bamboo skewer moistened on the end. Small seeds adhere to the sharp end and larger seeds will adhere to the blunt end. Don’t stick the moist skewer into your packet of seeds. The moisture on the skewer is probably not good there. Sprinkle a few seeds from your main pack into another container and pick the seeds from the other container with the wet skewer. The smallest seeds may be repelled instead of attracted to the skewer at first, but they will soon give up their static charge and stick to it.

sprouter

The particular ice cube tray used was one with a five-by-twelve grid of cells. It makes very small round ice cubes. The tray is kept in a plastic shoe box with a lid to keep the tiny pots moist. I had to use a medicine dropper to remove excess moisture from the tiny pots. You want the tiny pots damp but not soggy. I would not have had to use the medicine dropper if I had drilled a small drainage hole in each of the ice cube tray cells.

Day 6 broccoli

The seeds are carfully selected and metered. Only one seed is planted per tiny pot. However, five seeds of the same type are plated in a row. That allows 12 different types of seed to be sprouted in one ice cube tray. Of the five seeds of one kind in any one row, only the largest or most vigorous sprout is selected to plant in the larger pots cotaining the medium of unsterilised vermicompost. The others are kept for a while in case the first one did not take.

Day 6 Chard

The sprout, tiny pot and all, is moved from the ice cube tray cell and planted into the larger containter of potting medium. Do this as soon as it is obvious the seed has sprouted. Leave enough of the tiny pot visible so it will serve as a flag saying “this is the one you planted”. Pull up anything else that comes along.

Tiny Pot

The tiny pots should decay and return to the soil eventually. The piece of paper they are made from is so small that the decaying paper should not significantly deplete the fertility of the potting medium.

Seedling Identification Concluded by Curlydock

Yes, I am already halting the project I started in the previous post.

It is a bit ironic, really.

I took pictures of seedlings growing in little pots kept on this winter’s windowsill. I wanted to refer to the images when I needed to identify what was sprouting in the garden. That way I could tell the difference between what I planted and any volunteers (also known as “weeds”).

Well, the volunteers are now vigorously raising their heads in my little pots. I cannot even be certain of the identification of what is growing on my windowsill.

Go ahead, laugh.

The mistake I made: I should have sterilized the germination medium. I did not.

I knew I should have sterilized it, but chose not to. I didn’t sterilize because I wanted to keep the reputed organic benefit of the microbes that are naturally in the vermicompost.

Also, long ago I observed seeds sprouting in the worm bin and in other compost piles I have kept. Since the vermicompost I used was about a year old I assumed anything that was going to sprout in it had already done so. Then, I reasoned, the sprouts died back because there was not enough light and the worms and microbes feasted off them as “green manure”. Apparently this was not true of the volunteers.

Perhaps some seeds are not fooled into germinating in what seems to be an ideal place to do so: the moist and nutritious old compost. Perhaps they wait for some clue to know the time is right, like a change in ambient oxygen or other chemical or momentary exposure to light. Perhaps they could sense the physical disturbance when I combined the vermicompost with peat moss and egg shells to make the potting medium. I really don’t know. If any reader has an idea or a clue, please post a comment.

The next time I attempt this project (and I probably will attempt it again) I plan to germinate the desired seeds in very small plugs of potting medium after baking the medium in an oven to sterilize it. That way the desired seedling will get a head start. Then, as soon as possible, I will plant the plugs in the very center of the small pot of unsterilized medium. It won’t matter what volunteers then because the desired seedlings are already identified. The volunteers can be uprooted as they appear.