The Farmer Diaries

Texas farmer makes peace, not war, with the bugs

Texas farmer makes peace, not war, with the bugs

Marshall Hinsley, garden, bee
A bee at Marshall Hinsley's North Texas farm. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Marshall Hinsley, garden, beds
Marshall Hinsley's farm includes nicely built raised beds. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Marshall Hinsley, garden, ladybug
Ladybug larvae, phase 1. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Marshall Hinsley, garden, ladybug larva
Ladybug larvae, phase 2. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Marshall Hinsley, garden, bee
Marshall Hinsley, garden, beds
Marshall Hinsley, garden, ladybug
Marshall Hinsley, garden, ladybug larva

Throughout Texas, there are people with beautiful gardens who grow all kinds of produce. Among those who landscape or grow their own fruits and vegetables, I am likely the least competent.

However, my goal is not to become the next gardening personality with an AM radio talk show or to write the definitive book on Texas farming. My mission is simply to opt out of the faltering national food supply system and produce my own food sustainably. I am making progress.

Does size matter?
I'm still ambivalent about whether to call what I do "gardening" or "farming." It's a matter of size. There are gardeners with much larger plots, yet there are farmers with less land. Also, farmers raise pigs, cows, goats; I don't even use animal manure in the beds.

 The bees and the ladybugs and the butterflies that have already made their home in my garden are no less than extra workers helping me out.

My growing area is larger than the average backyard garden. It's a neat grid of 39 raised beds; each bed is four-feet by eight-feet. Together, they amount to more than 1,200 square feet of space for growing tomatoes, peppers, herbs, squash, carrots, okra, greens, lettuce and other compact plants.

To the west of the beds is a separate tilled area, about 30 feet by 50 feet, where I grow sprawling plants such as melons, gourds and rows of soybeans. The whole garden comes in just under 3,000 square feet. I don't know if I would call it a farm, but it definitely requires a part-time job's worth of labor to tend. So I accept either gardener or farmer as my description.

The flora
Now that the mid-March freeze has passed, my snow peas, beets and wheat have bounced back, and my potatoes have shot up new leaves. Carrots, Swiss chard and kale all endured the cold weather well. Even though spring has just arrived, I eat daily from what's growing.

Last week, I planted cucumbers, squash, basil, purslane, zucchini, sweet peppers, cantaloupes, soy beans and okra. You might say I jumped the gun, as some of those are heat-loving crops. But I'm impatient.

I like to see what I can get started as soon as I can. If the seed rots for lack of warmth to trigger germination, I’ll replant later. Seed is cheap, so long as it's not the patented kind that comes from Monsanto with a contract to sign.

With almost two inches of rain having fallen in the last few days, any more planting is on hold until the soil dries.

The fauna
I am ashamed to confess that in years past, I have had aphids, and despite all my attempts to control them organically, they keep killing off my kale. I want my garden to be a testimony to the viability of organic agriculture, but the persistence of such a destructive pest undermines my claim. But as quickly and easily as chemical pesticides might eradicate them, I can't resort to chemicals. I'm simply not going to be the chilly man who burns down his house for a little warmth.

If I use chemicals to kill the aphids, I would also kill the ladybugs who eat the aphids. The aphids would recover in time, but the ladybugs would not repopulate as quickly. To start the road down chemical dependence is a one-way trip; it's better to avoid the need for rehab altogether.

Part of my aphid problem was too few ladybugs, but I found a promising sight while planting cucumbers last week: little alligator-shaped, orange-and-black ladybug larvae on the walls of the raised beds. And yet still more larvae, but older ones that had progressed further into their metamorphosis – little balls of orange and black stuck to the wood. There will not be too few ladybugs this year.

In nature, the number of predators always seems to catch up with the population of their food source. If we want to work with natural elements in our garden rather than against them, we have to be patient and allow time for everything to balance. This is why I don't use chemicals.

What's more, I spotted bees gathering nectar from some flowering turnip greens that were growing in my pathways from seed dropped the year before. The bees and the ladybugs and the butterflies that have already made their home in my garden are no less than extra workers helping me out. To kill them as collateral damage from even just one dose of chemical pesticides would make my work even harder.

But even if the bees, the ladybugs, and the swallowtail and monarch butterflies were of no benefit to me or my garden, I can't accept the notion of killing them off. They are beautiful, and my mood is lifted when I see them. They inhabited the land before I ever showed up, and I have no right to displace them or to rob future generations of the tangible and spiritual benefits of these creatures.