The Farmer Diaries

Texas farmer celebrates pesticide-free harvest with little friends

Texas farmer celebrates pesticide-free harvest with little friends

Praying mantis on a zinnia.
A praying mantis takes cover under a zinnia. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Toad in water.
A toad takes a dip in a water trough during the daytime heat. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Green lynx spider in a zinnia.
A green lynx spider resting in her usual spot. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
chickadee roosting in tree
A chickadee alights on a branch after noshing on caterpillars. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Praying mantis on a zinnia.
Toad in water.
Green lynx spider in a zinnia.
chickadee roosting in tree

Leaves on my sycamore tree are yellow and brown. After I finish all my daily farming tasks by sunset, I now sit down to eat dinner by 8 pm, not 10. Although my tomato plants are hanging on through the unrelenting heat, waiting for a cool weather encore, fall is effectively here; it's the final chapter for my summer garden of 2013.

All in all, I am very pleased with the results of my latest attempt to opt out of industrialized agriculture and declare food independence. Crops this year brought in a part-time job's worth of income. I've spent less than $100 total on produce at the grocery store since spring. Visitors to my garden have praised the vigor of the squash and the sweetness of the cantaloupes. Beds of sunflowers, zinnias and hollyhocks are still a sight to see.

 The farmer is merely a custodian; the real work is done by the bugs and animals that the farmer entices into his garden.

Despite the success, though, I can't fold my arms and smugly smile. The farmer is merely a custodian; the real work is done by the bugs and animals that the farmer entices into his garden. It's no coincidence that my successful season has also been a time that I've seen more of these wild coworkers than ever before.

The insects
Chief among the workers in the garden are the butterflies and bees that tirelessly gather nectar from every blossom throughout the growing season. Knocking a few pollen grains around from flower to flower, they complete the plants' reproductive cycle and enable them to push out the fruit. Without the pollinators, I'd have enjoyed no Israeli melons, cucumbers or squash.

No less important are the ladybugs, praying mantises and spiders (though I know that spiders are arachnids, not insects). These guys have done more for me in pest control than any pesticide ever could. They patrol plants like police officers. They catch leaf-eaters like a cheetah catches a gazelle. They nosh a clump of sap-sucking aphids like a trucker feeds on a chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes. And who can behold a garden spider's web filled with grasshoppers all bound up for eating later, and not gasp with horror and awe?

Paper wasps are everywhere in my garden and on my house, building nests of paper from wood that they chew off of trees. They feed caterpillars to their young, and I'm certain that such a fate has met no small number of caterpillars that were claiming my greens for themselves. A lot of people are frightened of wasps, fearing their sting as if it's a near-death experience. But I can't bring myself to knock down their nests; they work so hard on them. Besides, they do far more to help us than hurt us.

The birds
Mockingbirds have taken up residence in my garden. I've seen their flag semaphore-like wings, flapping as they run along the ground scaring up bugs, so I rarely take notice of it anymore.

Talkative chickadees flitter around my collard greens and Swiss chard, eradicating caterpillars. If robots were invented that could do their work, we humans would pay through the nose to buy them. These are free of charge and never need batteries.

 If birds take down garden enemies in air strikes, then skunks and toads are the boots on the ground.

Additionally, I notice that a road runner had taken up residence for a while among the crops. They can run down a grasshopper like no other animal, and their spear-like bills are perfect for the catch.

The Beasts
If birds take down garden enemies in air strikes, then skunks and toads are the boots on the ground. When my Israeli melons were growing and setting fruit, I watered them daily and often found that I was watering toads along with the plants. Their lightning-fast tongues lapped up beetles and leaf eaters, never changing their stoic expression. They had a duty. They executed it.

I am also grateful to the dozens of skunks that showed up each day before sunset, like night janitors arriving at the office to do their clean-up right as the workers leave. In the garden beds and among the crops growing more traditionally in the field, skunks have been vacuuming up squash bugs and grasshoppers daily. Even at a time of year when I normally must still combat grasshoppers, I am hard pressed to find one.

Truly, there may not be a more misunderstood garden helper than the skunk. Skunks bring out hysteria in people, but they are no more dangerous than stray cats and dogs. I've welcomed them in my garden and left them to their work; they have made themselves an asset in pest control.

The pesticide
Sure, I've improved soil fertility with soil amendments, and I've watered the garden religiously. Without these natural coworkers, though, I'd have had no luck with my garden.

I never use chemical pesticides. They kill everything: good bugs, bad bugs, pollinators, toads, birds. In past seasons, I tried safer, organic pest control formulations on occasion. But this year, because I started spotting ladybug larva as early as February — long before pest control measures would have been needed — I was reluctant to use anything for fear of killing the beneficial insects. Even when aphids took down a couple of kale plants before the ladybugs noticed them, I refrained.

It almost seems counterintuitive that the year I've used no pest control measures would be the year I've seen the best harvest from the healthiest plants. It's as if to have success in growing food, farmers have to be willing to lose a few plants here and there and put up with a few chewed spots. By leaving the bad bugs alone, we attract the bad bugs' enemies and let them do our gardening work for us.

So, if I can take any credit at all for the success that I've had this year, I'd say that what I've done is to release my grip on my expectations of how things should be and let them be as they would be. I've not tried to lord over plants and animals with demands; I've tried to let them do whatever they do.

As it turns out, what they do can be exactly what I need.